I don’t think I’m saying anything too controversial when I say that our society in America has a taboo against talking about money. We all run into situations where talking about how much we make, how much we spend, or how much debt we are in is just not talked about. I’m no expert on sociology, but I think these taboos are instilled very early in our lives, and they are sometimes buried very deeply, so deeply that when we pause and ask ourselves “Why?” the answer is often “Because it’s rude” or “Because that is what is always done”.
I remember once when I had gotten my first job out of college. I was at a party with some close friends. I excitedly said how much I was making for my starting salary ($43,000 in 2003! I will always remember that number.) and one of the older women grumpily said, “It must be nice.” I was crushed. I certainly wasn’t trying to make anyone else feel bad. But I had broken the code: you don’t talk about how much you make.
So what are the problems with this taboo against talking about money?
It reinforces feelings of guilt and shame
When we can’t talk about money, it becomes something we feel ashamed about. We assume that things we can’t talk about are bad in some way, so we can start assigning guilt to ourselves and our feelings about money. In my situation at the party, it was clear to me that I was supposed to be ashamed for making so much money out of the gate. And I absorbed that lesson well. I felt so bad for being proud of doing well, and getting that salary. This is a terrible lesson to learn. For one thing, talking about your salary with coworkers can help expose imbalances in how people are getting paid, and that is a good thing. Companies need to pay their workers fairly, and they aren’t going to do it if we aren’t talking to each other. And for another, money should not be something to feel guilty about! Money is just a tool - the flow of money from one person to another is an inherently neutral event. It is what we do with that flow that is important.
It reinforces lack of understanding
When we can’t talk to each other about money, then we can’t learn from others. If someone else makes a mistake and learns a better way, if they can’t talk about it, then I can’t learn from their mistake. And if I can’t learn the vast options that are out there, I might assume that the way I saw my family work with money is the only way, even if they had a dysfunctional relationship with money. The more we talk to each other, the more we can all learn and get better together.
It reinforces isolation
Not talking about money doesn’t just isolate us from useful knowledge, it can also isolate us from others in different ways. If we can’t talk to each other about a subject, then how can we display empathy? When someone is in trouble, talking to others can be an important part of healing, but if they can’t do that then they will become isolated. And that is a scary place to be.
How do we break through this taboo?
It can be hard to change an entire culture, but I do think that this one thing is changing over time. The best thing you can do is individually try to make a difference by starting to talk about money in your own life. Try talking about your salary with coworkers. Ask your friends for advice when you have a financial decision to make. And offer a kind, open listening ear when someone else is having trouble with money.
I also recommend making a money accountability buddy. Find someone that has a similar philosophy, and ask them if you could both talk about your money goals, and use each other for accountability. Get together for coffee once a month with them, and talk about what is working and what isn’t working in your money lives. Practicing with just one person you trust can help you both so much!