This is the story of Sheetal Gurung, a woman from Mokokchung, Nagaland, who overcame her financial challenges and now dreams of creating a Debt-free North-east
By Manjulaa Shirodkar
The fast-paced world of glitzy malls and big brands; the temptations they offer- with or without sales and discounts round the year; the designer showrooms that beckon; that exotic destination which is just waiting to be visited and the availability and accessibility of credit cards to swipe everything off the shop shelves is so much a part of our lives now.
We don’t even think once (forget twice) before ‘maxing out’ our credit cards, taking a new one, finishing off its limit while still paying off the first. And then we take a third, fourth and so on and the saga of mounting debt continues… After all, spending cash is so passé and living off credit (card) so ‘in’.
It’s a trap which we walk into without a backward glance, with the swagger of Mohammad Ali and James Bond combined. Before we realize it, the catch of compounding interest camouflaged by minimum payment per month has our credit spiraling out of control. Soon we’re neck deep, don’t know what to do, who to ask or how to stop this ballooning mountain of debt month on month. Most of what we earn is earmarked to pay back the credit card debt. Faced with endless reminders, calls and knocks of creditors on the door, all one can think of is flight or fight.
Meet Sheetal Gurung, 37, who chose to fight and regain her financial freedom! Like any other youngster fresh out of college (back in 2003) and just into the job market, Sheetal who hails from Mokokchung, Nagaland, had also made the mistake of living beyond her pocket for nearly three years, as she maxed out her credit cards limits of Rs. Two Lakhs and then some. “The first card, which had a limit of around 70,000 I managed to settle somehow but then I ran up the limit to One Lakh more on my next one,” she shares. “I continued to pay some small amounts but the debt just didn’t go away and there was always something left over to be paid next month. I was 30 and had no assets to show despite a job and regular income.”
But Sheetal’s story, though very familiar, doesn’t start here. It starts when after paying her debt, she decided to help other women do the same. In fact, she now has a vision of creating a ‘Debt-free North-east’ by educating other women on how to cast off their financial burdens and build a stress-free life. To understand this turnaround, we need to walk back a little.
Sheetal began her career in the call centre industry in Mumbai. “After my graduation in B.Sc. from Mokochung, my first assignment was the airline process and I had to deal with international customers and their queries. For someone who had never even been on an aeroplane, it was tough resolving queries on tickets, travel, destinations and airports. It was so different and difficult but getting through the process was also a learning.
“Back then,” she reminisces, “my financials weren’t good. Once, I remember my friend (also from the North-east) and I were so broke, soo broke around the middle of the month that she sold her gold earrings for just 2000 rupees so that we could manage the rest of the month somehow! But I learned nothing from that experience. Another time, I did not have enough money to take an auto rickshaw to get back home from my office in Powai to Andheri East and decided to walk home. I had already walked about 3 kms when funnily enough in that big, big city, I was spotted by my sister and her friend as they were passing by in an auto! But I still didn’t learn. Wasn’t ready to learn.” Plus, Sheetal hadn’t yet discovered the Credit Card.
“After 10 months in Mumbai I moved to Delhi in 2004. It’s a big thing in Nagaland to be coming to Delhi. My siblings were already here and so I decided to move too and joined Convergys. I also got my first credit card, and over the next few years maxed it out on clothes, shoes, travel, airline tickets for the family and more shopping.” She soon got her second credit card with an increased limit.
And therein lies a tale, until in 2014, Sheetal came in contact with Women on Wealth (WOW) – a wealth-creators community co-founded by Priyanka Bhatia and Praveer Shukla where it finally dawned on her that a little help in financial education could go a long way in living a life free of credit.
“I was introduced to Women on Wealth by a family member and I remember attending a free workshop along with my sisters. We went through the process but I didn’t join immediately as I didn’t have the money to take it up. What I do remember is that in the very first session, we went through this exercise of how much money had entered our lives. And I remember arriving at a figure of 28 Lakhs in 10 years! Even today, I am sure that the amount is less than the actual figure because I certainly could not remember every penny that had come into my life. And then came the question: ‘what have you to show for it? Any savings? Any investments?’ That is when it hit me that I didn’t have anything to show for all that money….
“I also remember not signing up for Money Gym (WOW’s flagship programme which teaches women how to take charge of their personal finances) because I had quit my fully paying job. My sister had gotten married and there was this whole pressure of returning to Nagaland and taking care of my aging parents. Somehow it always boiled down to, ‘Who will take care of them? You need to be with them.’ But I just couldn’t see myself in Nagaland beyond a week or so because what would I do once there? There were no opportunities and I never wanted to return, mostly because I also didn’t want to go back feeling like a failure. Going back would be so mundane, and my personal growth was at stake. I chose my growth.”
She continues: “Back in those days, meetings at WOW used to be one on one – it wasn’t just about financial knowledge and learning, it was a life-coaching session with Priyanka and Praveer. They both make you think and I hate thinking. I mean how do you even begin to think? But they persist. They make you think till the end of your past and the future.
“I didn’t have a full-time job. I used to freelance and was okay with a few projects in hand, no timely payments and thinking its okay to be like this. That lifestyle also tempts you but then Priyanka intervened again and insisted that I look for a full-time job.” Ironically enough, Sheetal currently works with AMEX.
Back then, “I realised that my debt repayment needed serious attention because there had never been any plan in place to repay. I would pay as much as was available after all my other expenses were done. When I did Money Gym there was no other priority other than to focus on my debt and just pay it off.
There was also the apprehension that if I used all my money to pay off the loan then I won’t have any left over to manage rest of the month. That I might struggle if I pay off every bit. Whatever money I had coming in, I was honestly trying to pay the debt off but it wasn’t coming to an end somehow. I was insecure but I paid it off while still in the programme. Priyanka was there to mentor and I followed the plan rigorously.
“I remember this conversation with Priyanka on the last day of the 12-week programme. She asked me, ‘So what is your takeaway from this?’ And I said, “I don’t have to pay anyone anymore. All the money that I earn from here on is mine.” The biggest thing is I paid and survived. Today, after six years of becoming financially secure Sheetal is a member of the Core Team at WOW, helping other women to learn, grow and be financially secure.
Soon after Money Gym though, Sheetal was yet to discover her calling. She was missing a life purpose, a vision. “It made me sad that I didn’t have one and I wanted to do something for the community back home. I was debt-free but there were so many women I knew who weren’t. After several brainstorming sessions – and out of endless discussions emerged this thought of a debt-free Nagaland. What if it was really possible.
“I remember meeting a friend from Sikkim who also grew up living in the moment. She also wasn’t into saving. It was all about wearing expensive clothes, spending all you have, same lifestyle of living on credit cards and being deep in debt. Here I was thinking that things were different in Sikkim but no, the stories that started in coming in were very similar to those in Nagaland. And I thought, what if we come up with a debt-free North East?
But I didn’t know how to go about it. A menteeship with the Cherie Blaire Foundation for Women Entrepreneurs gave me wings. We began by making a questionnaire and asking family and friends; running advertising on local groups, talking about it, conducted a session or two…. And created a tiny batch.
As a WOW initiative, Debt-Free North-east “is a social enterprise. We’re into social change but we’re also a business model. Conversations have gone on for long. Its been a slow start but now its beginning to fructify. And now especially during and after COVID, we have started using Zoom, video conference calls, FB and live videos… all this is making a change.
“We also have about 70 women who have joined our WhatsApp group where we have conversations about money, share stories and help build each other. Right now its more curiosity and trying to understand what this is all about. But they are open to the idea of financial literacy. Women are sharing their stories more openly now. Opening up more in one on one sessions. About 7-8 have actually joined our programme and we have directly impacted about 10 women as of now.
One of the women we directly impacted is my own younger sister Bonita. Her husband was under severe debt and on top of that he was an alcoholic. Though he had a job, he never gave any money at home. Sometimes, if at all, he would give a mere 2000 rupees which was obviously not enough – she has kids to look after, home, other responsibilities. But every penny he earned went towards clearing of debt and it was never cleared. He passed on last year leaving Bonita with a debt of INR 6-7 lakhs.
It was then that we reached out to help her understand how she could become debt-free. It took her one year to clear off the entire debt using his pension and her own income, using just enough for survival. Prema (my elder sister) and I guided her, did follow-ups continuously, ensured she stayed on course, helped her understand how she could negotiate with banks, manage her money and finally take charge of her finances. But Bonita’s story is just one of the many from my state. It is a very common story.
The debt situation in North East is really scary. Another most common problem that we encounter is that women take loans to start small businesses there. For example, even if it is something as small as, say Rs. 10,000 they will go from a smaller town to a bigger city, buy some regular stuff to come back and sell it at a profit. Usually this should fetch some returns but what happens is that people engage in a credit system when ‘buying’ goods off these women. So the money doesn’t come back to the seller.”
However, what’s heartening is that there are stories of learning coming in as well now. “I know this girl who has just begun to enquire about how our programme works. She wanted to buy a laptop but has chosen not to get into debt, saying ‘No’ to ‘Baaki system’ as debt is referred to at home. (Baaki in Hindi means left over… so debt too is referred to as baaki – as in money that is still left to be paid to creditors). Instead, she is now saving the money to buy a laptop.
For Sheetal personally, taking charge of her finances has been an eye-opener. It has empowered her and given her confidence. “I have become more expressive. We are all suppressed people; we don’t give our opinions; we keep quiet; all of which stops us from even asking for support. That is the biggest barrier I have broken in the last six years. I ask for support from the community when I need it, I have become more open about my feelings and my experiences. It helps to know that I am in a safe space, a non-judgmental space.”
And what is that one singular tip she gives to women she is reaching out to, to encourage them to start their journey to financial literacy? “I give them ‘hope’. I was in debt, I gave it a shot, became debt free. Its possible. I understand the pain someone is experiencing. We acknowledge there is a problem. And the biggest thing is letting them know that someone is listening, that they can open up about it. Everyone knows someone who is going through this problem but no one is talking about it – everyone thinks ‘its embarrassing’ or ‘what will people say’ or ‘how can I admit that I have this issue’?
“But it is a problem and it is so rampant that even 50-60 year olds; even my own father is still in debt. People have forgotten to see it as a problem yet it is costing them so dear. It is sucking out their very life – to remain in debt endlessly but they don’t know the way out. But girls, women they are now opening out one on one, and that gives me hope.”
That’s true success – to give hope and get it back too. More power to you Sheetal
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Manjulaa Shirodkar (nee Negi) is an established film critic and author, having worked in leading national publications. She is also a Film Selection Committee member for various film festivals.