Money Talk is the Last Taboo

Discussing money—the nitty, gritty details—with our friends and families is a real taboo subject. You may be thinking, really? There are thousands of personal finance blogs around and libraries full of books about personal finances, money, budgeting, retirement planning, and I could go on and on here. But the truth is that we just don’t have any informal, detailed conversations with each other about these topics. Money talk is the last taboo.

There are so many subjects to discuss these days, but money talk is the last taboo. Here are some thoughts on why it's so difficult to talk about money and what we can do to get started.

Taboo Talking Points?

People will talk about their sex lives before they discuss their finances. Money talk and personal finances may be the most challenging topic to discuss with other people that there is. It begs this question: if no one is talking to each other about it, how do we ever find out what the beliefs and behaviors are of those who get rich and manage to stay rich as opposed to those who do not and never will?

Talking about your money and your financials is difficult and can even be embarrassing. We tread lightly around any topics that have the potential to make us feel uncomfortable and money is certainly one of those topics. In some instances we feel like silence is and should be golden. But when it comes to sharing your expertise (or lack of it) about money management with your friends and family, a little straight talk can go a long way.

A conversation about money—how to manage it, save it, and invest it—can increase your confidence about your financial decisions. It can bring some different financial management techniques and tips to light and provide affirmation that you’re not the only one who has ever needed any help with money in their life.

How’d We Ever Get This Way?

Most of us grew up knowing there are certain things we shouldn’t talk about in mixed company. They are politics, religion, sex, and our money. We were told it’s not polite to mention these topics and that you need to be respectful of other people’s differing viewpoints and beliefs. Perhaps your parents told you that it’s better to chat happily about the weather or the baseball game (especially in my case!) than to dig into controversial matters or ask someone something like “do you believe in God?”.

But things are different now. For starters, we don’t spend most of our time communicating around a formal dinner table with hyper-sensitive people like was the case in the old days. And we live in a time of unprecedented oversharing: endless photos of dogs, food, and babies, angry tirades about a bad restaurant experience. We love to post thoughts about any subject imaginable and publish them on Twitter or Facebook (or some other social media!).

We’re not afraid to provoke with our beliefs anymore, and even talking about sex in public has become commonplace these days. Maybe a tad too commonplace like when we hear about our politicians engaging in behaviors that make the average person’s skin crawl!

And yet, despite these changes, we still get squeamish when money is mentioned. Wanting separate checks at a group dinner is embarrassing, maybe even juvenile. Negotiating a salary offer feels uncomfortable. Asking a friend how much she makes is completely off limits. And why is that? Why is it that the thing we all rely on for most of our basic needs seems so utterly unspeakable? There are a few possibilities.

We don’t want to look like jerks

Remember Occupy Wall Street? Whether or not you camped out in your city, chances are you understood the motivation behind this movement’s expression of being fed up with fat cats getting fatter, while the middle class slowly gets squeezed out. We might fear that talking about money makes us seem like greedy, money-hungry misers.

Do we truly believe that life is more than money?

Somewhere along the way, money became an all-or-nothing pursuit. Either you’re working hard to make money because you love money, or you intentionally live a meager lifestyle to show that you’re more interested in a meaningful life and are a minimalist. Are you a monk living on a mountainside in Tibet? (Not that there is anything wrong with that as Seinfeld might have said.)

In reality though, most of us actually live someplace in the middle of that scenario. We’d like to know we can retire comfortably someday. We need money to pay off our student loans and buy groceries. We want to travel and enjoy our free time.

We also want to be generous to charities we care about and help out the people we love if and when they need it. We want to have the freedom to live life on our own terms. But we’re afraid that if we admit we need (or, heaven forbid, like) money, we’re automatically forfeiting that adventurous, meaningful life. We’re afraid we’re selling out.

We know how much we don’t know and that scares us

Not knowing a lot of stuff about money makes us feel stupid. We can be smart, curious, and good learners, and then ask someone how our investment accounts actually work! We don’t know all the specifics as to what goes into our credit score, or how much interest we’re really paying on our loans, or even what tax bracket we’re in. These topics seem so above our heads and so complicated that rather than risk looking like an idiot, we avoid talking about them at all.

There are people who actually get paid to do this stuff

Even if we think that we’re all getting screwed by the financial services industry, we may still prefer to let them figure it all out. Why ruin a perfectly good Saturday night out with friends discussing our 401(k) plans when there’s someone in a suit still at work who gets paid a lot of money to think about it for us? But the scary part may be this: we’re afraid to find out that we’re richer or poorer than what we thought.

We’re anxious about having more or less than our family and friends

What if we finally have an open conversation with our friends, partner, roommate, or even our parents, and discover that our salary and savings account is much, much higher—or much, much lower—than theirs is? We’ve never been taught how to have a healthy conversation about money, so any disparity feels instantly polarizing and embarrassing. We care about the people in our lives too much to feel awkward about how far apart we may be on the rich-poor scale.

So What Do We Do Now?

Do we keep coasting along by talking about the weather, baseball, and yes, even sex, without ever broaching the topic of money? Can we maintain healthy relationships and live our lives without discussing our personal finances with anyone? You don’t have to talk about exactly how much you earn if you don’t want to, but you can still discuss money matters with friends.

Do’s and Don’ts when you talk money with friends and family:

Do keep it general. Talking about the euro crisis, the federal budget, your underpaid employment situation, or whether you prefer renting or paying a mortgage..there are dozens of great money topics to talk about. Keep them general. No one needs to know your exact bank balance if you don’t want to share it.

Don’t gossip. There are very few things that annoy more than listening to someone gossip about someone else’s financial situation. Sure, one of your friends may be hard up, or your sister-in-law might be a crazy shopaholic, but it’s not up to you to broadcast that to the world. Keep your talk relative to yourself, not anyone else.

Do be mindful of who you’re talking to. Almost all of us would like more money, that’s kind of in our nature. But if you’re in the mood to whine about how much happier you’d be with more in your bank account, make sure that you’re talking to someone who actually does have more than you. Let’s not make anyone feel really bad about themselves.

Don’t brag about yourself. Real friends don’t care how much you have or don’t have, so you have nothing to prove to them. Bragging really turns people off. Here’s a great saying: “It’s better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Here are some conversation-starting ideas:

  • Bring up a relevant news article or a blog post you recently read and ask others about their take on the topics.
  • Talk about what motivates you and talk about saving for retirement, college, or other goals you may have. Also talk about what may be holding you back from starting and/or reaching your goals.
  • Share a recent newspaper or internet article with your friends and/or family which will open up a discussion and interaction about ideas to improve your finances. Talking about it provides great feedback.
  • Discuss hypotheticals, for example: why do so many of those who have won a large lottery prize go broke? If you received a windfall, what would you do? You may be surprised at how lively a discussion over a “what if” scenario can be.

Final Thoughts

In order to get what we want out of life has to involve talking and listening about money. We need to see money as the tool to help us reach the goals that matter the most to us. And when we realize that, we create a safe space to talk about money because money is a very big and important part of life.

Do you feel comfortable discussing money with your family? Your friends? Do you make all of your own decisions about money or do you seek out a professional? Are you on the road to financial success or are you stuck in a cone of silence, afraid to talk and listen?

Financially Savvy Saturdays

About Gary Weiner @ Super Saving Tips

Over the last 45 years I've worked in retail (department stores and supermarkets) and financial planning. In addition, I am a shopper, born and bred, who enjoys the challenges of finding the best items for the best prices. When I'm not busy saving money or writing here at Super Saving Tips, I enjoy baseball, music, and classic movies. I am retired and live in New Jersey with my wife.
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10 Comments

  1. Nice subject, Gary 🙂

    Recently, I’ve found that it truly depends on who you are talking to. Some of my friends are very open to talk about money while some others are very close-minded about it. Same with my family. I’ve discovered that some of them actually enjoy sharing about money, even in details.

    I do agree that it’s important not to brag and that details such as balances are not important, but tips and advice are often welcome.

    • It’s very important to discuss personal finances with people that you know well and trust. It’s a surefire way to find out what’s working for others, or even to share what’s working for you and help others. For some reason, we have a fear of that, but as you said, you don’t have to go into vivid detail to learn something. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Great topic! It’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading blogs and blogging about money, it a great way to sharing and increase knowledge on the topic.

    When I find myself in a money conversation I try and lead with failures I’ve had with money, that often takes down the guard of the person I’m talking with. They realize that we might have something in common. Often is just about reading the conversation and getting a sense for if the person might be open to talking about their money details.

  3. I try to talk about it as much as possible on my personal social media and dedicated my website to it. It makes people uncomfortable and people rarely engage; however, when people are ready to talk about it they come to me. I push as much information as possible so when people are ready to pull, they can come to me versus finding some horrible fake information on the internet.

    • Unfortunately, FGP, there is a lot of bad information out there, but in spite of that, we can keep on encouraging people to dig a little beneath the surface and find new ways to make their finances better. Most financial bloggers are doing that and if you can apply it in a personal way to encourage others, it’s even better. Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. This is an excellent post Gary,

    Money is something people are afraid to be open about, and in the PF blogger world it’s also something they don’t post enough about.

    Like you said, people will discuss their sex lives but not their personal finances (usually anyway).

    And you nailed it on the head with:

    “Wanting separate checks at a group dinner is embarrassing, maybe even juvenile. Negotiating a salary offer feels uncomfortable. Asking a friend how much she makes is completely off limits. And why is that? Why is it that the thing we all rely on for most of our basic needs seems so utterly unspeakable?”

    I’ll for sure Tweet this one in my buffer account 😉

    • Thanks, Chris, for your kind words. At this time in my life, I am so willing to share my failures and my successes with others. And I think it is important to try and help whenever I can. The only problem is that not everybody is willing to listen or share.

  5. This is all so true! And also, I find myself apologizing a lot because I just brazenly ask people about how much they paidfor this or that our how they’re handling savings etc. It comes from a place of either wanting to learn or help, but I often forget that outside our community, these conversations are seen as rude or freak people out.

    • I can bet in most cases that people would be freaked out if you asked them directly about what they spend or how they save. If they brag about what they’ve spent or saved, it’s a lot easier to start a real conversation about money. But I understand your curiosity and who knows, you might be able to help or learn.

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