Taboo Topic: 4 Reasons It's Hard to Talk About Money

Do you see money and finances as a “taboo topic”? Here’s why you should strive for financial honesty. cards close: Why family financial honesty is important
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Money talk. Sure, you might talk in generalities about the stock market rally, taxes, or the spiraling costs of college and health care but, when it comes to your own personal financial situation, talking about your salary or net worth is usually off-limits. Some folks are more willing to talk about their sex lives than their money.

Sarah Newcomb, behavioral economist at Morningstar, points to four reasons why we avoid money talk.

1. Judgment. Although money is something we can measure, the number that emerges from measuring means different things to different people, Newcomb says. "We know that as soon as a specific number is spoken, judgment follows."

2. Shame. There is no area of society where money and shame are not linked, Newcomb says. "We shame the poor, we shame the rich, we shame the hoarders and the wasters alike. We shame ourselves for having comfort when others are in need, and we shame ourselves for being in need while others have comfort."

3. Social norms. Newcomb says part of the blame may be on the shoulders of etiquette queen Emily Post, who said money was a “third-tier topic” of conversation, making it a full class worse than sex and religion for discussing in mixed company.

4. Insecurity. Many of us don’t have a very healthy relationship with our own money, Newcomb says.  "Because our own financial lives are filled with anxiety, confusion, apathy, or frustration, we think we don’t have the right to teach our children how to lead theirs. We fear that we will teach them the wrong thing, and so we teach them nothing," Newcomb says.

Why Money Talk Matters

Parents may be more willing to talk to their teenage children about drugs and alcohol than teaching them good money management skills. Silence about money within a family prevents the opportunity for children and teenagers to develop important financial knowledge and skills.

We often want to protect our loved ones from the burden of stress and responsibility that comes with managing money, Newcomb says. "The problem is that by not discussing the realities of family and personal economics, we may be leading them to financial ruin. 

Financial Openness for Couples and Families

Spouses have been known to hide spending, a bank account, or even a credit card from their partners. A recent poll by online credit card resource found that 6% of respondents reported hiding a bank account from their spouse.

While this may reveal an underlying conflict in priorities, it also marks an opportunity to bring a couple closer if both partners are willing to dig deep. "Every expense is a strategy to meet a deeper, human need. Designer clothes may fulfill your need for self-expression, but your spouse sees the expense as a threat to their need for security," Newcomb says.

It may not be easy, but getting to the underlying needs and talking about them can bring you into sync, and help you become more supportive partners by finding strategies to meet both of your needs without sacrificing integrity in your relationship, Newcomb says.

Money represents our available resources that we need to reach our goals. How we direct those resources is a matter of priorities, values, skill, and plain old habit, Newcomb says. "If we don’t discuss our finances with our loved ones, it becomes incredibly difficult to work as a team toward common and individual life goals."

Getting Started

Make it a goal to start some conversations. "Getting on the same page financially is more about discussing how you want to live as a family," Newcomb says. She highlights questions to help get the conversation started:

  • What are our shared and individual dreams?
  • How do we want our lives to reflect our deep values and sense of purpose?
  • Suppose a child wants to study engineering at a high-priced university. Great! How can we secure that education without sabotaging mom and dad’s retirement?
  • What are our collective resources, and how do we use them to meet our collective needs?

Family money management is about helping everyone to live their dreams. Managing money as a family can be an exercise in teamwork, responsibility, discipline, and integrity for everyone. 

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