Walking Away From Wealth

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In late 2006, the much younger and more naïve 21-year-old version of me graduated from the University of Melbourne. I was full of optimism, elated by the hope that the career I was about to embark upon would bring me a deep personal satisfaction in life. Between 24 and 29 years of age, I took home on average $250,000 per year. In 2016, at 31, I took home exactly zero dollars.

For many people, seeing an annual payment summary like this with their own name on it would probably trigger a rush of adrenaline equivalent to skydiving from ten thousand feet. They’d probably think, “I’ve done well for myself!”

I remember seeing this and feeling nothing. Not because I thought it wasn’t enough, or because I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I certainly worked tirelessly and endlessly week after week. Fifteen-hour days were the norm, almost every day of the week. I felt nothing because I had sold out my own personal beliefs. To understand this sentiment, I need to tell you a bit more about me, where I come from, and what I believe in.

Education was everything

My family moved to Melbourne from Kerala, India in 1991 on the promise of a better life, a better education, and a better everything. My parents are both electronics engineers by trade. We didn’t have much, but whatever we had, my parents willingly committed to bringing my sister and me to Australia. As with most Indian families, education was a huge part of our upbringing. We were taught to respect our education and be thankful for it. We were taught that there is nothing as important as helping others learn and grow. My mother became a teacher at Swinburne TAFE, teaching Electronics Engineering. When I was 10, I remember spending my school holidays in her classroom, making little electronic gadgets and toys and designing my own circuit boards and soldering it all together. I remember the most was the look on her face — the happiness and satisfaction she got from seeing her students succeed. I would proudly tell her students, her co-workers, her teaching assistants and anyone else who would entertain me, “Hey, that’s MY mom.”

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The lessons stayed with me. The sheer excitement and joy that it brought my mother to see her students succeed motivated me to my core. During my time at University, I ran the Information Systems Students’ Society (ISSS) and the Melbourne University Indian Club (MUIC). I got an inside view of the corporate world, negotiating sponsorship deals with anyone who would give us money — from global tech and accounting companies to small independently owned restaurants. I organized career days, mock competitions and helped students where I could. I helped to vet their CVs, give interview training and help people learn about the real corporate world that’s waiting for them.

Winning at any cost

Let’s skip a few years. I moved to Sydney, Australia’s financial capital. I had completed my CFA Charter, one of the most recognized certifications globally for any investment and finance professional. I had completed a stint at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch in their Global Equities team covering the resources sector. I was now at UBS, arguably Australia’s number one investment bank where I covered small cap technology stocks, and later the transport and infrastructure sector as an Equities Research Analyst. Beneath the covers, I was ashamed. I had almost expunged my past, my upbringing, and my values. I had lost touch with that 10-year-old boy. I was trying to win in life, at any cost. I had forgotten the joys I had in seeing people succeed, and the pride it brought me to see my mother selflessly educate people every day.

What I learned in my banking days

One thing became very clear to me over and over again. It was so easy for people who didn’t have a handle on their personal finances, their investments, their mortgages, to be easily taken advantage of. And most of the time, you have no idea it’s happening to you. The industry likely knows this. They know you probably don’t understand the rates and fees associated with your financial products or how they’re calculated and passed onto you, but you’re forced to have a superannuation (similar to a 401(k) or IRA) account anyway. The Product Disclosure Statements (PDS) read like a 1940s court filing written over some 60 pages in complicated and convoluted language. It’s really a brilliant system.

Don’t get me wrong, I think banks and financial institutions serve an important function in society. It’s a heavily regulated industry in almost every jurisdiction in the world. Without the banking world, the educational, medical and infrastructure systems we take for granted in our everyday lives would not exist. They aren’t out to get you. In fact, they employ hundreds of thousands of people around the world. It’s all just intertwined in a complex web that intricately ties together your wages, the cost of your groceries, the interest you pay on your home loan, and so on. What helps the industry is that they rely heavily on the old “buyer beware” adage, and to be fair, it’s probably all in that 60-page PDF you never read. It’s on you to make sense of it all. And this is why financial education is so damn important.

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