It’s Not Nice to Talk About Money

When I was a kid I asked my grandmother how much money she had. “Jenny, you can’t ask people that.” So of course I also asked my parents how much money we had, that didn’t go over very well either. I imagine had I changed the pronoun to give nod to the fact that I did not contribute to the family coffers, the outcome would have remained the same.

Not to say these were scarring bad experiences, a variation of the same conversation is repeated generation after generation to pass down cultural norms. Absent that norm, I would have experienced far greater embarrassment as I made my way out into the world asking inappropriate questions. The norm supports the belief that we are not a reflection of our net worth and should not be judged as such. (How much we are actually judged by net worth or salary outside the scope of this post.)

To the point, how much money they had was none of my business. Kids always want to know, and quickly learn money questions are almost universally taboo.  Some families handle the question differently, but then have to take extra care to guide their charges through the playground of “my dad makes more than your dad, so there.”

Although the “none of your business” model does strengthen the separation of human value from net worth, it doesn’t lend itself to open conversations about how to handle money. It is yet another money script we walk around with, and like all scripts, should probably be examined if it happens to underlie a behavior that you are beginning to notice is, like credit card interest, working against you.

I knew a man who used to tell outrageously tall tales about money to his young nephews (he also won World War II, invented metal, was a spy, etc.) I also knew a man who believed that to tear down a social construct was healthy and would declare his income and then pressure people in mixed company to lay out their financial life as a way of paving the foundation of the conversation with “honesty.” The man was very funny, the second annoying and offensive.

The first took care to learn about money, the second took care to urge people who made more than him feel like assholes so he could feel morally superior. The first talked about money management, (absent tales) not his net worth.The second talked about money as an evil side effect of late-stage capitalism. The first figured out how to use a retirement account. The second didn’t.

We all like to talk about what we would do if we had more, or complain about not being able to do something because we lack money, but we rarely talk about how to set up buckets, which pours into what and what exactly goes in them. If you haven’t figured out how to put all the pieces of your financial life together, ask a trusted friend or family member if they have figured it out and can guide you. If they don’t have a clue, get a set of tools and figure it out yourself (and then tell your clueless sister). If you aren’t the DIY type, find a fee-only advisor, make an appointment.