We Hate Talking About Money

"Money is a loaded topic in our culture. So loaded, in fact, that it is the world's most impolite subject."

-Sarah Newcomb

I'm sitting on a couch watching square dancing on TV - not by choice. I'm at a lake place and since it's cool outside, it's really warm inside. Unfortunately, it's too cold to go sit outside and escape the heat. The lake place belongs to a couple, who I'll call "Roger" and "Patricia." Roger has asked three people today how much their property cost.


One neighbor bought a new jetski and Roger asks point-blank, "how much did you pay for the new toy?" A family member came up to the cabin for the first time in a new car and is immediately asked how much the car was and what the interest rate is on the loan. He follows up with how much was put down on the loan and how much he got on the trade-in. My wife and I had just recently purchased a camping trailer and, as predicted, Roger proceeds to ask us how much the trailer cost, how we paid for it, and why we thought that much money is a good deal for a camper.


One common thread here is that nobody, not the owner of the jetski, not the owner of the new car, and not me, is comfortable with this interrogation. All of us come up with a quick answer to get us out of the situation as quickly as possible.

The weird thing is, nobody has any trouble talking about politics or any other taboo topic this weekend, but money is a conversation stopper.




Money Taboo


In our culture, it's not polite to talk about money. That's why you can shut a conversation down quickly by simply asking someone how much they make, how much something costs, or why they spent "so much money" on something. It's uncomfortable for most people to talk about.


These days, you're more likely to find people talking about politics, religion, their sex lives, and even major embarrassing health issues than you will talking about money.


If asked about purchases, some people will say, "it's only money." That not really true, though. Besides the fact that he or she was simply trying to end the conversation, "it's only money" ignores the fact that money is usually a proxy for other things, like our emotions and our feelings. And there's no way we can talk about our feelings! (note the sarcasm, which doesn't always come through in text)


Why the Money Taboo?


A common reason people don't like to talk about money, particularly if they are talking to someone who they view to be less successful than they are, is they don't like to sound like they are bragging. It can be quite awkward for people who have more to talk to people who have less because they is a looming fear that you can come across as a jerk.


So, to avoid the perception that someone else may think we're a jerk, we change the subject.


The flipside, of course, is when we hear other people talking about money we can jump to conclusions about their point. Instead of feeling like we are bragging when speaking about money, we can easily think others are bragging when we are listening to them talk about money.


A lot of this comes from the perception that more knowledge about money is the answer to financial well-being.


If someone seems to be more financially successful than we are, we assume they must know more than we do.


This perceived gap between what we think everyone else knows and what we know creates embarrassment, envy, and other negative emotions. So we avoid talking about money in order to avoid these negative emotions that we conjured up for ourselves.



Social Signaling


Society doesn't allow us to talk about money, but we sure can communicate about it. This is done by signaling with social cues. We still want people to know how cool we are - sometimes because we're insecure, so we send messages - messages that represent the stories we tell ourselves. We send these messages through where we choose to live, what we choose to drive, how big our house is, what school we send our kids to, where we shop, what we wear, and many other ways. Sometimes we can't signal directly, so we use other means. Have you ever seen someone with an Apple sticker on their Prius? Or a person whose fancy car has their profession on their license plate? They're telling a story about themselves and signaling to you.



Some people signal who can afford to signal. They send messages about how cool they are because they want you to know that they can afford to spend their money on expensive things. There are others, probably the majority of the people who signal, who either can't actually afford these items (leased cars, second mortgages, credit card debt, etc.) or don't actually value them but think they have to buy them. Some people signal so that they can feel part of the group; so that they can belong.


This is what makes comparisons impossible. You have no way of knowing if people who have expensive things are buying them because they value them and can afford to, if they are trying to show off, or if they are in debt because they are trying to fit in.



Getting Comfortable Talking About Money


The first step toward getting more comfortable talking about money is understanding that those who seem better off don't necessarily have more or better information than you do. As a matter of fact, you usually don't know anything about these people. Are they signaling because they're trying to show people how cool they are? Are they using money they don't have to impress people they don't know? Or, is this well within their means? It doesn't matter.


Once you recognize that you don't know anything about the finances of other people, you can start to take steps toward having better money conversations with those close to you. If you think about how it feels when you talk to someone about money and they judge you (you've heard these before, "it must be nice to be able to afford that," "I don't understand why people spend their money on that stuff," or "I would never do that.), then you can take steps to not do that to other people. Just like you don't like talking about money when you think you're being judged, others don't like it either. The tough part is that it's really hard to; we usually don't know that we're being judgemental, and judgments can be both positive and negative.


Try the best you can to understand someone else's point of view. Make listening and understanding your major goal. If someone says they are happy about a promotion, "That's awesome!" is a judgment. So is, "You shouldn't have taken that, it's going to be stressful." Instead try, "I would be excited if that happened to me. Tell me how you feel about it."


Don't use should, shouldn't, or ought. Just fully understand.



The fear of talking about money - and even just thinking about money in general - has basically two elements. One is the fear of being judged by others and the other is judging and feeling resentful toward others.


Once you lay off the judgments toward others, you set an example of how to properly communicate. However, that's sometimes not enough. By getting clear about your personal and family values and what's important to you you will gain confidence in your finances. With that confidence comes less fear about being judged because you won't care what other people think. Their opinion of how you use money is none of your business.



The second step is to fight the feelings of resentment toward others who use their money differently from how you do. You might feel the urge to make fun of people, but remember to fight the judgments. You might feel envy because you don't have what someone else does. But that need not matter, either. You don't know if someone else - no matter how they use their money - is better or worse than you. They may look like they're "poor," but they may live a simple lifestyle by choice. They may look "rich," but they could be in debt. Someone else may be more successful than you with their income, but maybe they have no personal life, or their marriage is falling apart. The point is, you don't know - and it's none of your business anyway.



Being comfortable talking about money will give you a sense of peace. You'll be less judgmental, you'll care less about what others think, and you'll care less about how others use their money. You'll start to feel less stress and anxiety, and you'll live a better life that aligned with what's important to you.


You only have one life. Live intentionally.



Read Next:

Money Conversations

Couples and Money

We're All Going to Die

What Do You Want?

Values Foundation



References:

Derek Hagen: Aligning Your Money and Your Values

Derek Hagen: Healthy Money Conversations

Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money

William Miller: Listening Well

Sarah Newcomb: Loaded

Carl Richards: The Behavior Gap

Marshall Rosenberg: Nonviolent Communication


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