My Peace Corps buddy Liz sat on my couch in Seattle, celebrating my new job with me.
“Can I be Paraguayan and ask how much you’re making?” she said, asking permission, really to cross back into the culture that had rooted its way into us. In Paraguay, a tiny country in the heart of South America, people openly ask how much you make, how much your phone costs, and even, one time when I handed someone a present, how much I paid for it. When I told the birthday girl how much her gift was, she chided me that I’d overpaid, and told me I should have gone to another store for a better price.
How rude, you might be thinking. I definitely felt that at the time. But what I’d like to submit to you is that, really, there is no such thing as rude. Etiquette is a set of rules that evolved along with our culture.
Being a slave to etiquette and not talking about money has come at a huge cost to Americans. In one of the richest countries in the world, more than half of us can’t afford a $400 emergency. We owe $1.5 trillion in student loans. And we paid $34.3 billion in overdraft fees in 2017 alone because we didn’t have enough money in our checking accounts to cover our bills. (Trust me, I’m paying my share.)
“The way we’re taking this on is leaving us poorer, less connected, and more vulnerable to people taking advantage of us,” says financial therapist Amanda Clayman. “We’re not able to be as savvy because we’re not collaborating.”
In short, it’s time to stop being polite and start talking about money. Knowing everything from how you’re being overcharged for a gift to a friend to the smartest ways to lower your student loan bills is a good thing. But if you think it’s tacky to talk about, you’re basically flying blind—and are likely to rack up even more overdraft fees as you struggle to get ahead financially.
How talking about money become taboo
In 1928’s Manners: American Etiquette, Helen Hathaway wrote about conversation that “as to the choice of a subject—we can discuss anything under the sun except money, disease, and personal affairs.”
Where did this decision come from, that we, collectively, would not disclose the quantity of our resources, or how much of them we traded for a certain purchase? According to etiquette consultant Jodi RR Smith, our culturally specific (but not culturally unique) taboo around money came from land-owning class in England.
“It’s a very small country, there’s only so much land. It was very strict as to who had the land, how it was inherited, and how the land was passed down,” she said, adding that there’s an etiquette guide in England to this day listing who has the land and the titles that go with it. Smith says that as a rule of thumb with money, as with land, “People who have it don’t need to talk about it.”
But there’s been a culture war over that rule, as new money from tech rushes people like WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum—who grew up on food stamps—up the financial ranks, and marginalized communities fight for pay equality.
“If I’m a woman doing the same job as a man, how am I going to know if I’m getting paid exactly the same amount as him unless we’re friends and he tells me?” Smith says. “For people who were at the lower end of a very tilted playing field, the ability to talk about money is the ability to then advocate for yourself. You cannot advocate for yourself if you don’t know that you’re getting cheated.”
What we gain by talking about money
While traditions around money talk have kept the status quo in place, many people are working toward breaking those patterns.
“When folks of color get together and talk about money, we’re all like, ‘Damn, we’re so broke,” says Ramona Ortega, who runs My Money My Future, a fintech company that focuses on personal finance for multicultural millennials. “We need to figure out how to reverse some of these conversations. What we don’t do—even though we’re willing to talk about money and how broke we are—we don’t talk about how to build wealth in our home.”
When she started working in finance, she got to see the open books of people in all kinds of financial situations and realized all she didn’t know. “It’s about access,” she says. “Who gets access to information? When it’s not shared you don’t learn it, and you learn by mistakes.”
What not talking about money says about your social class
Rich people actually talk about money a lot—often with financial advisors or money managers they pay to help them amass more of it.
Not talking about money socially is actually strongest in the middle class, financial therapist Amanda Clayman says, because they have the most anxiety about where they fall in the social spectrum. “Even talking about money is a signal, so when people are deliberately not doing it, they’re saying, ‘I identify with the behaviors and norms of this particular class,’” says Clayman.
"A lot of us are pretending that we belong in that one, and we really don’t,” she added. If you avoid talking about the cost of a sandwich or a cocktail, you may be thinking that makes it seem like it doesn’t matter to you, but it actually pegs you squarely in the middle class.
How to break the money talk taboo
A big part of the reason why we don’t talk about money is that it might reveal something we’re embarrassed about—whether it’s how much we spend on our pets or how much credit card debt we’ve got.
“Often when we’re not talking about money, we feel a lot of shame and discomfort around our relationship with money,” says Clayman.
But when we open up about it, “we find out we’re not the only ones that are struggling or are the only ones who are not sure what to do,” says Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, author of Breaking Money Silence. “What you find when you start talking with your friends is that everyone struggles around money at some point and time in their life.”
To get started, ask friends if they want to meet up and start talking about it. You don’t have to show them your bank account or say how much you make. Just talk about how or if you’re saving, a good deal you got lately that they can get too or even what rewards credit card you’re using. The shift toward a more secure financial future, for you, your friends, your family, and your community, might just be a few conversations away.