Once upon a time, I was broke.
The first time I had to manage money was when I went away to college—September 1966. I was barely 15. Until then, Daddy would give me pocket money every month—I don’t recall how much—and I would save it to buy a birthday gift for my sister or brother. I had no other use for money. We had a minimalist lifestyle, and my parents took care of whatever we needed. Oh, and I should mention: this was in Pakistan.
There was no way my parents could have afforded to send me to what was one of the premier all-girls college in the whole of long and narrow Pakistan. (The country is not so wide—its actually the shape of a hockey stick). Getting back to the business of money, I had secured a scholarship and it paid for tuition, room and board. Daddy and I took the train from Sialkot to Lahore, and after I was settled in the hostel (Pakistani for dorm), he handed me some cash and a bankbook. He had opened a bank account—a first for me—and had deposited my first monthly allowance. “I will send you a money order on the first of each month. Deposit it in the bank, and withdraw only what you need,” he said. After he left, I worried. My family was not rich. I had noticed how careful mummy was with money, and I often heard the phrase ‘we cannot afford it.’ Will they be able to afford to send me money every month? Like a good girl that I was, I promised myself that I would make sure I live with less than my allowance.
Within 2 weeks, I got my failing grade. All my money was gone. Now, I am not a big spender—not by a long shot—but somehow, I had spent it all. On what? There weren’t even many spending opportunities on campus—just a tuck-shop (Pakistani for cafeteria). We girls would hang out there in the evenings, snacking over Slice-Kebab and a bottle of Coca-Cola (the glass bottles. Remember!) Perhaps it was the taxi fare to the movie theater at the Alfalah on Mall Road…and yes, movie tickets; and then there was a contribution for a party or two…. Anyway, I was out of money, and I panicked. It would be another two weeks before my money order arrived. I mean I didn’t need the money—the meals were paid for, I had my books, I could do without in-between-meal snacks in the tuck-shop. But it was that feeling, that I had no money on me.
I wasn’t the only one feeling poor. We first-year’s (Pakistani for Freshman) were on our own for the first time in our lives and handling money for the very, very first time. One of my friends was often seen linking her arm through her friend’s and pretending to drag her to the door, ‘Treat me to the tuck shop. Come on, I want a treat!’ Then all other ‘brokers’ would chime in, ‘We want a treat; We want a treat.’ That dear friend of mine is now a prominent political activist and a writer - in Pakistan.
Getting back to being broke. The next day Jedi Mamoon—my maternal uncle—came to visit. The hostel had strict rules about male visitors—no visits unless their name and photo was on the visitor list, submitted by the parent, and they had to wait at the gate. No entry on campus. Visits took place literally at the gate—you stood and visited. Anyhow, as soon as the chawkidar (Pakistani for guard) handed me the visitor slip, and I saw my uncle’s name on it, I ran to the gate.
“Jedi Mamoon, I am broke,” I said.
No hellos, no how are you, none of the polite preambles. My dear uncle reached for his wallet and pulled out a Ten Rupee bill (Pakistani currency). Five visits to the tuck-shop worth of cash.
There are some feelings I cannot describe. Holding that Rupee note (Pakistani for bill) gave me a shot of relief, confidence, relaxation, gratefulness, love for my savior, but all I could muster was a huffed and puffed Thank You. My poor uncle wasn’t a rich man, and like me, a student. Thank You. All my parents upbringing ‘You shouldn’t ask people for things’ went poof—but then, Jedi Mamoon wasn’t ‘people’, as in strangers, he was my dearest, friendliest uncle. Still: 'Thank you.’ I went rushing back to the hostel—after my uncle left, of course—squealing, ‘Jedi Mamoon gave me money,’ waving my 10 Rupee note. "
”Treat us to the tuck shop,” my friends shrieked. My friend slid her arm inside mine, tugging me, ‘treat’ ‘treat’ ‘treat’, she chanted.
”This is for emergencies only; no tuck-shoping,” I said as I tucked away the note in my black handbag (Pakistani for pocket-book), and stowed it away in my cupboard (Pakistani for closet).
I never went broke again. The fear of being penniless was enough to infuse prudence. That month, I started keeping a log of my expenses, and watched the numbers go down as the month progressed. The following month—now that I knew where the money was going, I did a budget, and actually had a line item for ‘emergencies.’ By the way, there was only one revenue source: Daddy’s allowance. The culture of students making money did not exist in Pakistan. You studied, studied only, and only studied; and when a young man graduated, he got himself a full-time job; and when a young lady graduated, she got married. So, with the revenue side of the ledger being fixed and predictable—InshAllah, all I had to manage was my expenses. I watched to my budget like a nerd, and never went broke again.
Want a treat?