Rochelle Barrish: How my granny’s secret “mad money” fund empowered the women in our family

It’s money you hope you’ll never need, and never have to spend. But if things go wrong in a relationship, it could be the key to survival in the toughest of times. And today, it’s the inspiration for a whole new approach to saving for the later years.

By Rochelle Barrish

I will always remember my first flight. I was 7, and it was the most magical experience I’d ever had. No amount of park playgrounds or fun fairground rides could compare to the big airport and its bright lights.

I was mesmerised by the hundreds of travellers with their baggage trolleys going in different directions. The announcement lady had the smoothest voice, and the pretty air hostesses looked exactly like the ones on TV.

My mom was not as mesmerised as I was. You see, a year ago she had left her hometown to follow her migrant husband to a town on the other side of the country.

On the morning of her departure, with me and my 1-year-old sister in tow, just as the train conductor warned those on the platform to step back as the train was about to leave, my granny stuffed some money, wrapped in one of her favourite white embroidered hankies, into my mom’s hand.

I didn’t see her do it, but years later I found out what she had said to my mom. “You don’t use this money unless things go wrong and you need to come back home to me.”

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From that day on, the women in our family opened this come-back-home fund. The Americans call it “Mad Money” – money you use when you need to leave your partner.

Turns out all my mom’s sisters contributed to this fund for my mom, and this tradition carried on. There was a kitty created, a sort of stokvel, for any woman in the family who needed to leave her house or relationship in a hurry.

When I started working, I was inducted and gladly contributed. I unfortunately had to see a lot of women in my family being forced to make withdrawals from this fund, sometimes in the middle of the night.

So whenever people talk about financial freedom, this is the first thing that comes to mind. How I have been contributing to and helping my aunts and cousins get out of situations where they no longer felt safe.

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I was so used to my sisterhood being forced to rely on this fund, that when I got married, my contributions increased. I knew there was a great need and I also wanted to ensure that there would be enough money for me in the kitty when I needed it.

I’m relieved to report that 15 years later, I have not had to make any withdrawals from this fund. But that has not stopped me from starting my own come-back-home fund. To be honest, it’s more of a retire-in-style fund.

I’ve seen a lot of my aunts walk out of marriages, in the middle of the night, with just the come-back-home money. Nothing else, and no retirement money, as the only retirement plan they would have was the one attached to their spouse’s place of employment.

I’ve seen the devastation, I’ve dealt with the fallout, I’ve helped them get legal advice, but a man with a bruised ego is vindictive and determined.

So besides my come-back-home fund, I also have a retirement fund. As clear as that memory of my first flight is, I also remember reading an article about pensioners being forced to eat dog food because their retirement fund was depleted.

When the going gets tough, I’m often very tempted to cash in one of my financial products. I feel like I deserve to have more cash flow. But then I see the pensioners eating dog food and I’m jolted back into austerity.

This point was rudely brought home at the start of this year, when I did a check in with my financial guy and he shared a whole lot of uncomfortable truths with me. The most shocking one was that at the rate I’m saving now, I will most likely be eating dog food in my retirement. Maybe not in the first six months when the lump sum is being enjoyed and life is great, but definitely once I live off the monthly allowance alone.

We identified the dud products, cancelled them, and put the moolah where it matters. I’m sending much more money towards my retirement. As much as I love my husband, and would love to think we will still be together later in life, I don’t want to have to stay with a man I no longer love just because he has better retirement prospects. I’ve seen how that destroys a woman.

So in the interest of financial freedom and keeping it real, I’ve had to revise my retirement plans. I was so cocky and self-assured of my pension. I was going to go on an international cruise every two years and an overseas holiday every other year.

But for now I will just be happy with being with someone I still love, and being able to afford the odd trip to Langebaan or Knysna. This is the financial freedom I dream of.