Why Is Talking about Money Taboo?

October 6th, 2021 post featured image

“Money is not a math problem. It is a proxy for our moral foundations, our most cherished dreams and our deepest fears.”[1]

In the North American context, there seem to be certain topics we just agree not to talk about, and money is at the top of that unwritten list. The reasons why we may stay silent on the topic are varied and depend on the context of the discussions we’re having. We tend to have no problem talking about things we buy but have a harder time talking about how much we make.

We may choose to “spare” others – like children or elderly parents who depend on us – discussions about how much (or little) we have to go around. We may be embarrassed to discuss finances with others if we feel we have an amount deemed socially unacceptable in the circles we frequent.

At the heart of our relationship with money, there’s emotion: guilt, comfort, shame, elation, desperation… the list goes on. Some experts believe these emotions – which are ultimately related to our concepts of self-worth – can be tied to (North) Americans’ internalization of the theory on marginal productivity introduced by John Bates Clarke: “everyone earns what they produce.”[2]

This theory suggests that wages/salaries are reflections of our labour (however accurate or inaccurate that may be, in reality). In effect, “asking someone what they earn is considered taboo because you are indirectly questioning their personal worth.”[3] This explains why we’re perfectly content to talk about the stock market or the economy; everything is fine as long as we aren’t discussing our money.

If money is the proxy for our moral foundations, cherished dreams and greatest fears, then avoiding talking about it because it makes us feel icky, means were avoiding sharing a huge part of ourselves with others. This can be especially problematic in relationships.

 A recent survey from TD Bank found that while Canadian couples seem to be quite good at discussing money with their partners – about 85% of married and committed couples discuss finances on a monthly basis, the top financial mistake noted among respondents was “not talking about money with my partner on a regular basis.”[4]

Keeping money secrets in relationships should be avoided, not just because keeping secrets is (financially) detrimental, but because being transparent about our finances also means being transparent about what we value, what we want out of life and what we’re afraid of. Talking about money is just another way to get closer to the people we care about and make sure we’re on track to achieving our (shared) dreams.

Money conversations are often anxiety inducing when we feel we don’t know if we’re handling it, spending it, investing it, or earning it correctly. But guess what? The more we talk to each other and to professional advisors about money, the more these anxieties are replaced with feelings of confidence and control.

It’s important to remember that no one is born financially literate. Money is a tool after all, and we all need to be taught how to wield it effectively. A 2020 publication from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that across OECD countries/economies, 94% of students say they get information about money matters from their parents.[5]

One of the best ways to foster financial literacy for the kids in your life is to talk about money… even your money. Be transparent about how you pay for things, how your budget works and why you buy the things you do. This knowledge will help children understand how money functions in the everyday and turn a somewhat ephemeral concept into a concrete one. If you’re asking yourself, “when should I start talking to my child about money?”, the answer is very likely, now.

While not talking about money may seem easier in the short term, especially if it saves us or others discomfort, we aren’t really fostering our own healthy relationships with money or setting the next generation up for success. Silence also perpetuates social inequities that could otherwise be addressed with collective action.

Start small by sharing or asking others for budgeting tips or where they tend to shop for the best deals. These are safe conversations that can easily lead into more in-depth ones about budgeting, short, medium, and long-term financial goals and ultimately, how much we make and how we feel about it. In short, just start talking.

If you have questions about what your money can do for you, connect with us.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-talk-about-money

[2],3 https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/03/americans-dont-talk-about-money-taboo/607273/

[4] http://td.mediaroom.com/2021-02-02-No-such-thing-as-easy-money-1-in-2-Canadians-surveyed-say-its-easier-to-find-true-love-than-financial-success

[5] https://www.oecd.org/media/oecdorg/satellitesites/pisa/PISA-2018-financial-literacy.pdf