Never discuss politics or religion, many of us have been told. But what about money? To some, money shapes their politics, and it can easily become religion if we allow it to.
Most people I know refrain from discussing money in crude, numerical terms. In American culture, finance is considered personal and private. It is rude to ask people about their salaries, the price of their homes, or even the cost of their child’s tuition. We hate to divulge, so we also hate to ask.
And yet, we somehow love to talk about money– just in indirect ways. We can rarely discuss commerce without commenting on price; we’re constantly referencing what we can or can’t afford; we are, after all, living in the legacy of the leisure class and conspicuous consumption. We put rich people on television, and we somehow find their squandering of wealth entertaining.
So what’s the big deal? Why does money occupy such a strangely powerful position in our personal lives?
Everyone has a story.
Perhaps we like to discuss this topic– no matter how uncomfortable or inappropriate– because money is deeply woven into our personal story. We all tell ourselves stories about work, value, possession and image; these stories inform our sense of wealth.
In other words, talking about money in honest, humble terms can put us in a vulnerable position. Our opinions say a lot about us: our childhood, our deepest longings, our level of greed, and our sense of security. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what income bracket you find yourself in, if your inner story is set in stone. Just as a person can feel lonely in a roomful of people, that person can also feel poor in an affluent lifestyle.
We constantly tell ourselves stories about money, its value, and subsequently our own value.
What honest discussion can bring
Sometimes the hardest conversations are the ones that most urgently need to happen. Ironically, it’s those most reticent to discuss money that probably need to do it.
When we’re willing to be transparent about our finances, several things happen: we grow closer relationally; we are more likely to achieve our financial goals; and we are able to heal any unhealthiness and tell ourselves a new story.
I’m a strong believer in discussing money: openly, humbly, and wisely. Here are several contexts in which money should be appropriately discussed.
In marriage: enriching your partnership
One of the most important topics to discuss when two people build a life together is the role that money will play. What constitutes a lot? What constitutes a little? Where and how will we invest?
When my husband and I first started dating, we didn’t set budgets for our dates, gifts or other expenditures together. It soon became clear that we needed to talk about our spending habits: why we saw value in one thing or another, and what we expected the other to spend.
Now in marriage, it’s more important than ever that we discuss money– the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have to be transparent when I’m worried about our spending. He has to be clear on his position on our monthly costs. And we both have to update each other when we change our minds about how we spend.
If your spouse grew up in a very different culture, then you likely have differing perspectives on money and its purposes. Understanding each other’s perspectives becomes essential to a long-term partnership. Here are some ways to begin the conversation:
- Start with your stories. What were your earliest memories of money? How did your family handle money?
- Discuss your notions of wealth. What images does that concept conjure for you? Do you want to change your understanding of wealth?
- How much money do you think you need in order to have “enough”? What does it enough look like in concrete terms?
In friendship: increasing accountability
Do you talk about money with your friends– in honest, soul-baring terms? If there is someone in your life you consider a confidant and fellow sojourner, then I encourage you to be brave and try this. Share your financial challenges and victories. Share your goals. Create goals together, and check in with each other. It will deepen your friendship and keep you disciplined. Here are a few ideas:
- Explore each other’s perspectives on wealth, poverty, and value. What experiences have informed your opinions?
- Take account of your regular spending habits. What would you like to change? Set a real goal– a grocery budget, a shopping ban– and ask your friend to help you.
- Share your annual salary and any other assets you may have. Are you committed to saving? Investing? Tell your friend about it and hear their thoughts as well.
- Discuss your long-term dreams and goals. Do you have travel goals? Education goals? Generosity goals? Start-up goals? Speaking those aloud will help you keep track of progress. We get from one place to another, no matter how far, one step at a time.
The challenge: know your story, tell your story.
If you’re ready to be intentional with your money, then it’s probably time to start actually talking about it. Abandon the temptation to simply comment on what a good deal you got at the mall, or how expensive gas is these days. Choose a few people in your life with whom to be 100% transparent about where you stand.
Why? Because intention must come with integrity. If your goal is to save money, it’s important to explore what you’re saving it for. If your goal is to purchase a luxury item, you must know what value that item holds for you. And if your goal is to simply move up or down the social ladder, there’s likely a story there that you need to share.
Financial freedom comes from being transparent. It’s a bit scary and requires a lot of trust, but here’s what I’ve discovered: true friendships and partnerships can withstand that kind of honesty. And ultimately, if you struggle with financial insecurity, or greed, or envy, or unstoppable spending, you probably won’t conquer it alone. Invite people in, and find yourself liberated.