On Talking About Money

I mentioned in one of my posts yesterday that I sometimes teach financial literacy classes. I love, love, love teaching these classes, largely due to the fact that I enjoy talking about money. I am fascinated by how people think about money and the intersection of money and identity (all of those things we think our financial situation or other people’s financial situations say about us or them) and the incredibly powerful role that shame, emotions and willful ignorance play in our financial lives.

I can talk about shame and ignorance (willful and unintentional) because I am a recovered financial screw up who is quite familiar with those feelings. Credit card debt to the tune of $25,000 combined with student loan debt of $30,000 on a first job out of college salary of $25,5000 will afford one a nice long period of time to feel shame and panic about their financial selves.

I grew up poor and spent myself poor in college and early adulthood. The pervasive feeling of “never enough” that comes with being well and truly broke is something that takes a long time to shake off.  Mr. Monkey and I are more frugal than not and we have a healthy income and a solid savings account and yet every month I feel a distinct sense of relief when all the bills have been paid and the wolf has been kept from the door for another month, though there really wasn’t any danger that we wouldn’t be okay this month or next or next.

Sometimes I look at the lives of others and wonder what their finances look like. The magnificent houses in the fancy neighborhood near us– how do you get to live there? What do those people do and how much do they make and what is their net worth? The friends who, like us, are figuring out how to save for retirement and pay off student loans while paying the shockingly high costs of childcare– how are we all doing it? The person at work who is in the same pay grade I am and who takes fabulous vacations that I can’t imagine being able to afford (though I wish I could)– where does that money come from?

I wish it was easier to talk to people about personal finances. Sometimes I think it is interesting that I know exactly how many sexual partners some of my friends have had but I don’t know what their salary is and bringing up sex would be more comfortable than bringing up money.

Why do you think money is such a taboo subject for so many? I keep circling back to the idea of shame, since that is what I felt about my money life for so long, but maybe I’m projecting. I believe that most of us have a natural curiosity about the financial lives of others. We secretly want to know what people make and how they spend their money. I see this all the time on some of the financially related message boards I visit. The posts where people post their budgets consistently get the most views. My posts yesterday got the most traffic I’ve had in almost two years and yet I suspect most of us never talk to our friends and loved ones about our financial strategies or goals.

What do you think? How comfortable are you with talking about money? Do you secretly wish you could see into the bank accounts of those you know, or is that just me?




8 thoughts on “On Talking About Money

  1. Gretchen says:

    I am comfortable enough talking about my money, but not very comfortable asking others. It’s been very interesting hearing you talk about your experience with the house & credit. I have found that if some people know about your money situation, they will use it as something to hold against you – you make too much, wow, you’ve got it easy, I can’t believe you work for that little… More or less money, it doesn’t matter. Which is funny for me, because I am so, so average.

    I am also very curious about how people afford big homes, posh vacations, and a new car every few years. I guess some people are just a lot more comfortable with debt!

    • Wendy says:

      I can see that concern. There are some folks that I would probably not talk specifically about my salary with because, frankly, I don’t want to deal with what their reaction might be and how it might come up again in the future.

      I suspect you are right about how the comfort level with debt plays into the choices people make. I know I have members of my family who believe that “you’ll always have credit card debt” which I think is a destructive idea but probably leads to some fun family vacations.

  2. terrell says:

    I agree with Gretchen. I will talk about money and my own finances, but I usually don’t try and have those conversations because I feel like I’m being rude by asking. I’ve worked in the financial services industry for over 8 years and I believe that a majority of people don’t have a fundamental understanding of how things work, related to their money. So, good on you for teaching fin lit — so important. Anyway, I think that’s another reason ppl don’t talk about it. They don’t want to appear stupid.

    I don’t have a lot of friends who live in big houses, drive fancy cars or take extravagant vacations, so I’m curious about those folks too. Most of my friends who own modest homes have had a lot of help from family, whether it’s in the form of a down payment, or montly checks.

    I have no desire to see anyone else’s bank account. I feel pretty good about my current financial situation and where I am in life. Comparing myself to others will probably make me feel bad in some way.

    • Wendy says:

      I think the not wanting to appear stupid is part of the shame thing with money sometimes and I think money is something that people feel overwhelmed learning about. It can be complicated, of course, but doesn’t have to be.

      I always tell my students to learn and follow three financial rules to start with and they’ll be on the right track:
      1. Don’t take financial advice from broke people (a line stolen from Dave Ramsey, I believe)
      2. Don’t do any banking at a place that used to be a Taco Bell (pay day lenders are a problem with the population I talk to)
      3. Spend less than you make and save the rest.

  3. Chelsea says:

    Most of my friends are work friends, and our work has an environment of being very secretive about pay & stock grants. So while I would feel okay talking about money, it’s a very big no – no in this set of friends.

    I think what I would like to see is something like that website where people upload pics of a person who is x tall and weighs y, so you can see people who have similar body types as you. Except X would be pay and Y would be house and Z would be children.

    Does that make sense? Heh.

  4. Tracy D. says:

    I grew up watching my parents go deeper and deeper into debt in order to give us everything we “needed” to fit in with peers whose families earned more than we did and lived in bigger houses. My mother gave herself an ulcer from worry and would have panic attacks writing the checks for groceries because she wasn’t sure if she would be able to pay the bills. My grandparents helped get them out of debt, only to have my father (who spent any money that he had and then some) to get them in the hole again. It wasn’t until they divorced that my mother actually became financially solvent. I never had good, strong financial model to follow and so I repeated the same errors (on a much smaller scale). It wasn’t until I met J that I started to really make progress on being financially stable and could really stick to the budget that we set. I don’t know how people can even pretend to afford living in the houses that some of them do, or take the vacations that they do. Heck, we are trying to build up our savings again after paying the hospital bills for baby number 2 while living on 1 income. Not easy at all, but at least we are living within our means.

    BTW, I love your candor in these posts. I watched you struggle with the decision about the house in Arizona. I have learned so much from you and truly admire your honesty and approachability on these issues. Your students are very lucky to have you! Let’s hope that they learn the lessons without having to make the same mistakes that many of us have made.

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