Secret Nest Eggs

Dnyaneshwari Burghate explores women’s habits of saving secretly in kitchens, cupboards, and tin jars.

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

“Why do you carry this extra wallet with you every time you shift to a new city?” Aai asks me. “It’s a secret,” I tell her although it is hardly that. For it is a secret that I have learned from Aai, from her; my mother probably learned it from her mother.

After class 12, I left my home in Amravati and moved to Sonipat for my undergraduate studies. Since then I have been in the habit of withdrawing a fixed amount at the beginning of every month for my expenses. It is my way of keeping tab of the expenses, and as the money depletes, I am reminded that I must check before I buy, check whether I need it or just want it. I save a five hundred rupee note from that stipulated monthly amount in my little wallet which becomes my secret savings. How did I get into this habit of saving money when my parents send me enough for my expenses? 

One day, I saw Aai taking out money from a small purse of jewellery between her sarees towards the back of her cupboard. I asked her once, “Where does that money come from?”, because, to my knowledge, there was one small steel container in the cupboard with cash for our expenses. Why have this extra purse, I wondered. “Once your father hands over the salary to me, I take a small amount out of it and keep it in this purse. It comes in handy in times of emergency or when there is a delay in your father’s salary. No one knows about this but me, and now, you,” Aai told me. This idea caught my fancy but I did not pay attention to it until I stepped out of the house and realized that I needed to work out a budget of my own. As I remembered this incident one fine day, I started keeping an extra little wallet to save up secretly, just like my mother does! 

Photograph by Dnyaneshwari Burghate

I thought this was a Burghate woman thing but then I found that women have been having their secret nest eggs for quite some years, although the amount differs according to their financial situations. I asked my mother if she remembers her mother having a secret nest egg. “Yes,” she said. “My father never handed over the money to my mother. We had a dairy business; so she used to save a small amount in a tin jar at the back of her cupboard”. “What was the money used for?” I asked. 


This intrigued me to know more about the secret savings of older women like my Aaji (grandmother) who had even less control over money than my mother. My Aaji, Pushpa Burghate, 75 describing her secret nest eggs said, “There was very little scope to save something secretly because your Aajoba (referring to my grandfather) had a sharp eye when it came to managing the money, as he worked in a bank. He managed the finances as well as the needs of the family. I just had to give him the list of what I needed to run the house and he would buy it the next day. But sometimes, I saved secretly, irrespective of how little the amount was”. Aaji remembers my Aajoba’s habit of emptying his pockets after coming back home from work. She would quietly grab a couple of these coins in his absence and hide them either in her sewing kit or in the kothi (a big iron container to store wheat). “I used to buy blouse pieces for my younger sisters with this money,” she said.

“Nothing specific. She used it to buy herself bangles or give us some of it whenever there was a fair in the village,” she added wistfully. “We still live in a patriarchal society where most women do not have the right to manage finances. Major economic decisions of the family are taken by the males. In such a scenario, a woman tends to save secretly as an asset, as a security deposit in the form of emergencies, or for her family if she is married. So, this secret nest egg is a very integral part of the economy or the household economy, which sadly does not have a place in standard economics”, says Dr. Samapti Guha, a Development Economist who has also worked closely with women in microfinance and is a professor at the School of Management and Labour Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.


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Photograph by Maahi Shah

These anecdotes of both my grandmothers made me realize that although they did not save for some specific purpose or had some big plans with these savings, it still helped them fulfil their secret wishes, desires, and needs. This was in stark contrast when I talked to my mother about her secret nest egg; she seemed to have a nicely thought-out plan. “The things that matter a lot when women save are the freedom, the exposure, and the needs they have”, says Guha. “Women of my mother’s or your grandmother’s generation were more subdued than women of my or your mother’s generation. So naturally, they will have more investment-related savings as opposed to the older women who saved to fulfil their secret desires like buying a piece of jewelry for them”, explained Guha. 


While there is always a purse between her sarees in the cupboard, mentioning her secret savings during the initial years of her marriage, Aai said, “I opened a secret account in the Indian Post, which had gone out of fashion then, but I opted for it to keep my savings off record. The money saved from salary, cash received by you and your brother as your birthday gifts, all used to be saved in that account,” she remembers. I asked her if she still has some secret savings. She agreed but refused to disclose the details. “I have invested in gold biscuits, chit funds, fixed deposits, and recurring deposits (RDs), which you can know about but not the rest...


My mother’s and grandmother’s stories pushed me to probe further into these secret nest eggs. I decided to talk to Indu Tanodkar, 53, who helps my mother with the domestic chores. Indu Tai’s husband works as a security guard at a restaurant. On being asked about her savings, Indu Tai said, “I handle the finances and expenses of the house, but a woman must know how to save secretly. There are three layers of dabbas (containers) at my home. Both of us keep our salaries in the topmost dabba, the extra money is kept in the second dabba and there is this third one, which I keep in my closet and only I am aware of it. If you show extra money to men, they immediately start spending, so it is always better for a woman to save secretly. It comes in handy during medical emergencies or other such emergencies”. She had to expose her savings to her husband when demonetization happened. “There wasn’t a lot of it (savings) but I had to tell my husband about it, in order to get the notes exchanged. He kept some of it with him and returned the rest. It was a loss but better than them lying useless in the cupboard”.

Indu Tai does not have a bank account. She wishes to transfer the third and her secret dabba to a bank account but the lack of documents proves to be a hindrance in opening one. She said she cannot go to the bank daily to complete the formalities owing to her work hours and chores at home. These hindrances make her think of dropping the idea of opening a bank account and stashing away her money secretly as she has been doing for years. But she is also hesitant and insecure to do so post demonetization: “You never know when he (Prime Minister Modi) might ban notes again”. 



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Photograph by Dnyaneshwari Burghate

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Photograph by Maahi Shah

Guha says that the banking system is perceived as a very elite sector by the underprivileged. The need to have so many papers and documents pulls them away from the banking systems and makes them less reliable. She also says, “When women save secretly they are not visible nor are they accountable to anyone. Once you enter the banking system, your savings are no longer secret. So some women might not think of these savings as financial assets but an emergency asset or a source to fulfil their wishes, which make them stash away money secretly than saving it in a bank”. 


Women’s secret nest eggs act as an alternative economy that has been operational for years in societies and economies that ignore women’s interests. They become a haven for women to save money when official banking systems seem like an elite or unreachable source to reach out to. The anecdotes also imply that the secret nest eggs prove as gateways for women to inculcate investment habits and give them the scope to use the amount to fulfil their wishes away from the radar of their family and maybe buy themselves some bangles, a blouse piece, or a piece of land?


Nanda Patankar, 56, on the other hand, says “having a bank account helps one save a bigger amount and for a larger period”. Nanda Tai is Indu Tai's friend and cooks in the homes in my locality for a living. “If you keep it in a cupboard or a container, you won’t even realize when you spend it. I think it is always better to transfer the savings to your account,” says Nanda Tai. Nanda Tai also has a secret dabba in her cupboard, which only she knows about but she still believes that savings in the banks are more secure, reliable and the best secret nest egg! While having a bank can offer security to savings, the number of women holding bank accounts was merely 80% in 2015, as per UNDP reports. The National Family Health Survey, however, conducted a survey in 14 states and reported a jump in women using bank accounts by themselves. Does this impose women’s involvement in financial decisions and the economy? “While the increase in the number of more women using banks is impressive, it is equally important to understand what purpose these bank accounts are used for. There has been a policy change in Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) for the past few years and a lot of women or their family members have opened bank accounts to avail of the subsidies. So while it is a good thing that more women have entered the banking system, we also need to watch out for their purposes and who actually used those accounts. The numbers are important but we need to probe further if this increase can actually be read as more women being financially independent”. 

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Photograph by Maahi Shah