Imagine the scenario. A group of friends having an enjoyable dinner, there’s been lots of chat and laughter. Then the bill arrives. It sits on a little silver tray. Waiting to be picked up. The atmosphere around the table shifts from one of joviality to something a little nervous. Some friends ordered more than others, some drank alcohol, some didn’t, some ordered desserts, others just a coffee. The subject of money and who owes what has crudely crashed the evening’s proceedings, but will anyone call it and dispel the growing tension?
In our society, to talk about money is taboo. A recent survey found that 52% of us find it hard to talk openly about our financial situation and 48% worry about money on a weekly basis. Research by the Money and Pensions Service showed that four in ten of us are keeping money secrets from our nearest and dearest and half of those surveyed said they didn’t know their partner’s annual income. Friction around money is the leading cause of divorce.
So why do we find “the M word” so difficult to talk about?
It all comes down to the way we feel about money and that can be pretty complex. Some of the most important emotions in relation to money are fear, guilt, shame and envy. That’s a pretty heavy emotional load. All of these emotions thrive in secrecy and encourage us to keep silent around the topic.
Money is such an integral part of all of our lives, whether we like it or not. If you think about the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (this includes food, water, shelter, clothing), money is a pretty important solution for getting these basic needs met.
The way our families handled money is a major factor as to how we as adults approach the subject. How many of us (me being one) didn’t know how much money our parents made? How was money discussed? As a scarcity or not at all? Was there talk of debt? How were financial legacies managed?
The taboo has an impact on inequalities in our society. For example, the lack of transparency around wages, allows pay gaps to emerge based on gender, race etc. However, some commentors also observe that the taboo helps keep society stable by blurring the lines between the haves and the have-nots. I’m not sure about this theory. Money might not be explicitly talked about, but through the homes we live in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, we demonstrate strong signifiers of our wealth anyway.
When we talk about money, complex feelings float to the surface and can feel overwhelming and deeply uncomfortable. The natural tendency is to avoid facing into our discomfort and so we avoid the conversation. This avoidance can have many negative consequences such as remaining financially ignorant, leaving us exposed to possible money mishaps, such as being victims of fraud.
Interestingly it’s believed that the pandemic has help break the money taboo a little. Writer, Alex Holder comments that by all of us being in the same Covid boat (so to speak), something which was beyond any of our control, it’s removed some of the shame around talking about money and financial difficulties.
It’s pretty obvious that the most effective way of breaking a taboo is to talk. There is lots of advice online about broaching the subject of money with different people (I’ve included a few links at the end of this article).
I suggest the very first conversation needs to be with ourselves. Get honest with yourself before talking to others. If the emotional side of money is a little tricky to first access, then getting practical can be a good start, for example keeping a money diary or getting to grips with your current levels of debt. Seeing the numbers written down can be sobering.
Another way to break the money taboo is by getting involved in the conversation. Thankfully there is a growing public discourse about money and personal finances including the impact on our mental health. For example, Martin Lewis’ money website is a good source of wise advice and tips, also real-life money diaries published by Refinery29 and Vice provide transparency about what we earn and how we spend. Plus, finance apps such as Monzo and Plum allow us to have greater control and understanding as to our financial affairs.
Money is an integral part of all of our lives. None of us can avoid it. Our relationship with money can be complex. Not talking about it only makes matters worse. So, let’s start the dialogue and break the taboo.
Photo by Ryan Quintal on Unsplash