Since money plays such a big role in everyone’s lives, rich or poor, it seems we should have no problem talking about it. After all, public discussions about gay marriage and legalizing marijuana are commonplace. Money isn’t nearly as controversial as those topics, right?
According to a survey conducted by Wells Fargo, 44 percent of Americans feel that personal finance is the most difficult topic to discuss, trumping death, politics and religion.
Not only is it the hardest to talk about, money was also deemed the biggest life stressor; one-third of respondents reported regularly losing sleep due to financial worries.
And these findings aren’t news.
A 2013 poll conducted by CreditCards.com also found credit card debt to be the most-taboo conversation topic, with other finance related matters ranking in the top five. An identical survey was conducted five years earlier and found the same thing.
So what’s behind this extensive and ongoing hesitance to talk about money?
After talking to numerous financial professionals, I learned that it boils down to a few underlying emotions that can exist regardless of one’s financial well-being. Talking about money, whether it’s with a spouse, friend or even a financial adviser, can elicit emotions many people don’t want to face, such as:
No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. That’s a phrase many of us have heard since our childhood. As true as it may be, it’s very hard for people to admit they’ve made financial mistakes to themselves, let alone other people.
Whether it’s a bad stock investment or deviation from the weekly budget, individuals tend to scrutinize their financial behavior, according to certified financial planner Tana Gildea of Compass Financial Consulting. “Feelings include, ‘I am not supposed to spend this way,’ ‘I am supposed to save,’ ‘I am not supposed to hoard money,’ ‘I am supposed to give more,’ ‘I don’t deserve this money,’ ” she said.
Talking about financial decisions, bad or otherwise, also makes them more real. It’s not uncommon for people to hide ongoing financial struggles, even major ones, according to Mechel Glass, director of education for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions.
“A lot of people feel shame about the situation that they are in and then the time they reach out for help it’s at the end of the line,” she said. “They don’t tell anyone and suffer in silence.”
Additionally, many people equate self-worth with how much money and material objects they have compared to others. When they feel they can’t meet those standards, that becomes one more reason to avoid talking about money.
Fear goes hand-in-hand with shame. Talking about a financial hardship or admitting to a costly mistake opens the door for negative reactions from others, particularly close family members or a spouse. Putting it all out on the table creates an opportunity for negative input from people.
“People have money values and beliefs that have developed since they were children, so it’s difficult to bring up the topic without personal baggage,” said Rachele Bouchand, director of financial planning for accounting firm Clark Nuber. “People also may have strong opinions about money and don’t want to be judged for their past choices.”
No one wants to fight about money, especially since money conflicts are the leading cause of divorce, according to Aaron Kipnis, clinical psychologist and author of “The Midas Complex: How Money Drives Us Crazy and What We Can Do About It.”
Even if someone is in good financial shape, he or she may avoid talking about their situation for fear of being targeted and taken advantage of.
“The concern is often, ‘If my friends and family knew how much I was really worth they might start asking me for things,'” Kipnis said. “People fear jealously and envy and how that could put a strain on their relationships.”
3. Lack of confidence
What may be even more silencing than feelings of fear and shame is a lack of financial confidence.
In many cases, people don’t understand financial topics or they misunderstand them, making it harder to be assertive about money, according Frank Festi, a certified financial planner and principal of Rea & Associates.
“Our education system is geared at teaching us to make money and very little time is spent telling us what to do once we make it,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people know why they are doing what they are doing and that makes it harder for them to talk about it.”
The survey conducted by Wells Fargo found that women are even more hesitant to talk money. Fifty percent of female respondents said they find it difficult to discuss money, while 38 percent of men expressed feeling that way. That same percentage of women graded their financial literacy as a “C” or below, while 65 percent of men gave themselves a “B” or higher. Other studies have also found women lack financial self-confidence.
So how do we fix this?
When looking at the Wells Fargo survey results and national debt statistics, it seems as though it may be time to start talking about money.
The best way to break a social norm is to defy it, so start talking.
Experts suggest that approaching the matter in a relaxed, nonconfrontational way will help rid our fears of being judged. Focus on sharing viewpoints instead of comparing and ranking them.
“Make it a ‘cool’ conversation instead of focusing on the struggles,” Glass said. “If you know your family needs to save money, share ideas about recycling or go thrifting together. If you have a situation when you don’t know what to do, bring it up casually during dinner. Having people behind one another, reminding each other to stay on track, is exciting.”
Help children get comfortable with the topic while they are young by including them in everyday activities like comparing prices at grocery stores. “Just doing those little things will teach your children the value of money and how to communicate about it.”
For those in a relationship or marriage, focus on what you can do together to make money more approachable instead of the differences between each other’s views or behaviors.
“When you talk about what’s important to you, don’t talk about how you spend,” Glass said. “Look at giving yourself an allowance, that way you can’t judge what people are spending their money on. That will only lead to resentment.”
By keeping conversations lighthearted without too much emphasis on the negative, money can become a much less stressful topic.