A few years ago, I met up with some friends for drinks at our favorite bar. One of my friends brought along her new roommate and the conversation quickly took a weird turn when my friend was airing some grievances about her job.
She specifically said she wasn’t getting paid nearly enough for the work she was putting in, to which her roommate asked point-blank “How much money are you making?”
The group went silent, my friend turned bright red as she hesitated to spit out the answer, while we all cringed in response as she aired it—not because of the amount but because she was telling us something so private.
The subject was quickly changed, but I still remember that exchange to this day.
Why was this such an uncomfortable question?
If she had asked me, would I have replied with an exact number?
Why were we instantly so put off by her bluntness?
Why the Taboo?
Making money is the way humans survive; it revolves around everything we do, yet we timidly hover over it in most of our conversations: we talk about where we went to school, what we do for a living, where we plan to vacation this summer—all this to signal what social class we belong to (or hope to belong to) and figure out where others rank.
But we never get down to talking about it honestly and openly, without shame or apprehension.
In his 2020 article for The Atlantic, Joe Pinkser explores our culture’s money taboo and found that “the money taboo is not one taboo but several, each tailored to a different social context.”
Basically, we all hesitate to talk about money for different reasons that are dictated by our social class.
The richer you are, the more shame you feel talking about how much money you have (and how you got it) in a society of rampant wealth inequality.
Flaunting your wealth via an expensive handbag is much more polite than telling your friends how much money you have in your trust fund—especially when those friends may be struggling to pay rent each month.
The shame is different for middle and lower-class families who choose to never disclose specifics about their money in order to maintain an image of security and independence, even though they may struggle to make ends meet from time to time.
When we put an amount to exactly how much money we make, how much we pay each month for food, how much we have in our savings, how much debt we owe, we feel much too vulnerable because we know that we’ll be judged (negatively or positively) by what our answers look like.
Although it may seem harmless for this stigma to keep running through the veins of our society, it’s actually gatekeeping wealth from the lower classes.
Knowledge is power, and when a stigma deems a subject untouchable, life-changing knowledge is kept from those who need it the most.
We Need to Start Talking
The vast majority of us never discussed money with our parents or teachers, so it’s no surprise that the topic of money still generates a lot of anxiety and confusion for us.
When I moved out of my parents’ house and started to live off my first paychecks, I was clueless about what to do with my money because I had no clue what other people did with their money.
I had no idea if I was overpaying for my apartment because I was embarrassed to ask what my friends paid for theirs; I didn’t know if my credit score was alarmingly low for someone my age. I internalized so much anxiety about money because I had no one to talk with about it.
Dr. Richard Trachtman details these negative effects of the money taboo for the Clinical Social Work Journal: “This taboo keeps people from finding money’s proper place in their lives. It keeps them from balancing their financial needs with other needs, such as love, family, self-expression, self-esteem, meaningful work, and physical or emotional health.”
It’s no wonder the gender and racial pay gap were an undisclosed anomaly for decades because of this money taboo—how were women and people of color supposed to know they were making so much less than their counterparts if nobody was openly talking about their salary?
Personally, while I’m afraid to know how much debt my parents have because I don’t want to worry about them, I know I need to talk to my parents about their finances.
And, I would like to know exactly how much a potential partner makes so that we could split expenses more fairly, or my best friend’s spending habits so that we could potentially confide in each other when we have financial problems.
The trick to openly talking about money with friends and relatives is not to pry or judge, but to come from a place of honest interest to create a better understanding of your money and make better financial decisions.
Begin by offering information that explains where you’re coming from: “I’m about to start paying off my student loans, and I’m very stressed because I owe $34,000, and I’m not sure what a normal monthly payment looks like. Has it been stressful for you?”
This leaves it open for your friend to take it in the direction with which they’re comfortable.
A good rule of thumb is to do so in private because you never know how the other person will take your openness on the subject. But more often than not, they’ll be just as curious as you are and will reciprocate your vulnerability and transparency.
Take it little by little; you may find yourself feeling embarrassed when broaching the subject, and that’s ok—no one taught us or modeled how to engage in these conversations. Yet, it’s a subject worth approaching with people you feel comfortable with and in spaces that are free of judgment.
When you begin talking about money without shame and embarrassment, it can become a valuable tool that can enhance your life in many ways rather than cage you in.