Personal Finance, Relationships

Talking About Money Is Inappropriate

money talkNot that long ago it was taboo to speak about money in public. But now, as with so many other things, talking about money has become more acceptable. I hear it all the time. Friends have asked me what kind of debt we have, wanting me to break it down into car payments, credit cards, and mortgages. (When I said, “None,” one friend got huffy and said, “Well, if you don’t want to tell us that’s fine, but don’t lie.”)

At a party a few weeks ago, someone that I didn’t know asked me, upon hearing that we owned a motor home said, “That must have set you back a pretty penny.” “How much?” Extended family members routinely ask us how much we spend on travel and how we can afford to travel so often. A neighbor, upon hearing that we were going on vacation yet again, outright asked how much we make to be able to travel so often. Sometimes this is friendly conversation, but at the root of it is a need to evaluate and compare your worth against others.

It’s this evaluation and competition that makes talking about money problematic. I’ve always felt that money is one of those topics that, no matter what you say or how you say it, there’s bound to be a problem. If someone is asking you about your debt, chances are they’re looking to feel better about their own debt level. So if you say you have none, they feel bad if they have a lot. If you say you have a lot of debt and the other person has very little, they feel superior, but now you feel crummy.

If someone asks you how much you spent on something there’s a chance they may just be genuinely curious about how much something costs, but your answer may brand you as either cheap or an overspender. When people ask you how much you make, your answer may make the other person feel superior to you or much worse off than you.

It’s always seemed to me that there’s no way to talk about money without putting someone in a “down” position. It’s for that reason that I adhere to the old-fashioned belief that talking about money is inappropriate. Even among family and close friends you should watch what you say. But that view is apparently the minority these days.

With more and more people feeling free to ask about and discuss money issues publicly, what can you do if, like me, you don’t want to talk about it? You could always be rude and ignore the other person or come up with a smart aleck answer (“How much did you pay for that TV? Not as much as you paid for that hideous car.” Or, “Well, you know things don’t seem to cost as much since we started selling our kidneys.). Or you could simply lie and tell the other person what you think they want to hear or something that will freak them out. (“Yes, it was expensive, but only a fraction of the twenty-million dollars I made last year, thank you.) But if you want to be better mannered, here are some approaches you can take.

Simply say you aren’t comfortable discussing your finances and then change the subject

Saying something like, “Thanks for asking, but I’d rather not say. By the way, how did you like that Batman movie?” There’s nothing wrong with simply saying you don’t want to talk about it, and by changing the subject you discourage the person from asking again.

Be evasive

If you don’t want to come right out and say you don’t want to talk about it, you can try evasive action. If someone asks, “How much did you spend on that plasma TV?” you can reply with something along the lines of, “More than I wanted to, but it had all the features we needed,” or, “Less than I thought I would. I got a great deal.” You’re not disclosing anything about how much (or little) you actually paid, but you are answering the question in an indirect way. If the person on the other end is at all astute, they’ll realize this is the only answer they’re likely to get and move on.

Try to teach them manners

If someone asks, “How much debt do you have?” you can reply, “You know, I’ve always felt that money is like religion and politics. It’s better left out of polite conversation,” and then change the subject. If you’re lucky, they’ll pick up on the notion that this isn’t something that some people want to freely discuss and refrain from asking in the future.

Answer a question with a question

If someone asks, “How much do you make?” you can always reply, “Why do you ask?” This puts the focus on the other person to come up with a good reason for asking, beyond voyeuristic curiosity. Maybe they want to know because they’re looking for a job in your field. If that’s the case you can always say, “Well, people starting out in my field make $X and the most advanced make $Y. You haven’t divulged your exact salary, but you’ve answered the other person’s question. If they can’t give you a good reason for wanting to know, then you can simply resort to tactic number one.

Try humor

If someone asks how much you make, you can say, “Well, not enough to be rich, but too much to be poor,” or, “Enough to impress my mother who never thought I’d amount to anything.” You’re letting the other person know you’ve heard them, but you’re deflecting the question with a little humor rather than rudeness.

Refer them to the public record

If someone asks how much you paid for your house, or how much your tax burden is, you can say, “If you want to know, the records are publicly available in the tax office.” Things like home prices and taxes are all public records, available to anyone who wants to look. Chances are, your questioner won’t want to know badly enough to look it up so the subject will drop without you having to say anything more.

Stand your ground

Don’t let someone guilt or bully you into talking about things you don’t want to talk about. If you find yourself stuck in this conversation: “I told you how much we make so now you have to tell me how much you make,” you can reply, “I didn’t ask you how much you make, you volunteered that information and I’d rather not talk about it.”

If you’re the one doing the asking, here’s some advice. Understand that it’s fine to talk about money in a general sense. If you want to talk about how the cost of gas is rising or interest rates are declining, those are fair topics because you’re discussing current events rather than someone’s personal business. But when the talk turns to personal matters — individual salaries, purchase prices, debt levels, etc. — it’s time to think about how the questions sound and are being received by the other person. You don’t want to come across as pushy, voyeuristic, or as if you’re competing with the other person or looking to judge them. If you’re the one asking questions, stop if the other person seems uncomfortable or unwilling to pursue it. Remember that it really isn’t your business and think about how you would feel if someone were probing into your private business.

When it comes to talking about money, the best rule is to stick to generalities. If both parties are willing to take the discussion into personal territory, proceed with caution. It’s perfectly fine to refuse to discuss it and you shouldn’t talk about things you’re uncomfortable with in the name of “friendship.” There are mannerly ways to deal with unwanted conversation, but if someone is oblivious to your attempts to end the conversation, you may have to get rude and simply say, “It’s none of your business.”

Image courtesy of darkmatter

17 thoughts on “Talking About Money Is Inappropriate

  1. Good post. I agree that manners seem to have eroded in this department (among others). Though at the same time, I think all the secrecy about money and spending can be harmful. We often talk about keeping up with the Joneses. Maybe fewer people would struggle to keep up if they discovered that the Joneses earned twice as much as them. I think there would be less competition if you knew who was on your income level and who wasn’t.

  2. I am afraid I lie and actually tell people I owe money

    if one more person told me I was lucky I did not have debt I am afraid I would smack them .

  3. I have no problem talking about what I paid for the house, my mortgage, or taxes on my house. Basically, these are public records, so why hide them?

    As for how much something cost, I really don’t have a problem in general with that either. Usually, someone is thinking of taking a trip or buying something and just want a sanity check. I usually just talk about the price in generalities also.

    Things I think that are taboo are net worth, income, and debt level. But as you said in the article, it depends why these people are asking the question.

  4. I find a lot of times when someone asks me what we paid for something or what we spent somewhere it is because they know we are frugal spenders and careful shoppers and if we did something, we must have found a reasonable way to do it. They usually want the details so they can do the same thing.

  5. Well, I don’t generally mind if people ask but people don’t usually ask. If they do, usually it seems that they’re trying to figure out if their own bill was reasonable. “How much was your electricity last month?” or something like that. I don’t generally get offended but I’m kind of vague about money as well.

  6. Hardly anyone has talked to me about exact numbers with money. It’s uncomfortable because it’s sort of taboo, but I feel if people were more open they might feel that their finances and their social life were more in sync. I had to be somewhat open about my finances when my family abruptly stopped spending tons on going out with friends; we’d be counting out one-dollar bills for our single beer of the night while friends ordered food and multiple drinks. I felt it was better to be upfront because it showed we still wanted to hang out with them but we were going to be a lot thriftier about it.

  7. When I first saw your list of ways to deal with these questions, I thought to myself, “You should just say that that you feel like answers to questions like that are bound to make someone feel bad, so you make it a policy never to answer those kinds of questions.” But then your religion/politics comparison answer was quite similar.

    And your “more than I wanted to/less than I expected” strategy might actually tell them what they want to know without having to give them numbers. And your “why do you ask?” strategy could also allow for the same thing.

    I actually usually like answering these questions because they can show what’s possible. However, if you can see that someone is being belligerent, I’d agree that there’s no good way to answer their questions except to use one of these strategies.

  8. People have actually asked how much debt you have? Wow…that just seems so completely out of bounds to me that I am astounded that someone would even consider asking that. Same with how much you make. The questions about how much something I bought cost don’t really bother me as long as I don’t sense something else behind the question (one-up-manship, for example).

  9. I don’t ask people about debt, income, or net worth,
    but I do ask people about how much certain things cost just to have an idea of how much they cost!

    For example, Last year when I was trying to prepare for my wedding, I really had no clue how much certain things cost and if I was charged at fair price. So I would ask my married friends about these things.

    Or if someone just took a trip to a country that I am thinking about visiting, I may also ask them how much the trip cost just to get an idea.

  10. I have to admit that my husband and I sometimes look at the lifestyles of our acquaintances and are envious of all the “toys” and fancy furniture and huge houses they own. And we start to wonder where did we go wrong that we can’t afford all those things too.

    It’s possible that these people, who have similar jobs to my husband’s, really are earning way more than he does. But more likely, they have a lot of consumer debt while we have none other than our reasonable mortgage.

    We also squirrel away something like 23 percent of our income to savings, mostly retirement, while I know that at least some of these folks have almost nothing in retirement accounts. (Not that I asked, but sometimes that stuff is volunteered while talking generally about trying to prepare for the unforeseeable future, like whether or not to count on Social Security being around when we hit retirement in 25 years.

    In general, even though there are lots of consumer things we’d love to own, I’m happy we live more modestly and within our budgets.

  11. Try doing without a car and see the reaction THAT gets from other people, ha-ha. The reaction I’ve gotten from everybody, family and friends, hands down, is the assumption I must be in terrible debt. I find myself hastening to explain that in fact I have no debt other than my mortgage and DO in fact have plenty of cash in my emergency fund but have chosen to pay cash for things I actually want and need from here on out, if at all possible. I hate that pitiful look I get from everybody, not one “good for you,” which I find disheartening, frankly. Right now, it’s wanting to put more in my home, so I just paid cash for new spouting and windows, which makes me feel terrific. Another car is so far down on my list and so not interesting to me right now. I catch the bus when I can’t walk to get what I need, and it’s working fine with planning ahead and being close to everything. And no, I have not bothered anybody for a ride anywhere and never intended to. I’m socking cash away and will eventually buy another car, mostly to make everybody feel better, I guess. We’ll see.

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  13. absolutly true.. i have this grandpa.. all he does is talk about his buisness.. how much money hes made.. its really annoying.. but he has threats he makes if anyone talks to him about it or changes the subject.. what should i do about that?

  14. These are great examples of being assertive. You divulge only what you want to. You do not take away the right to privacy from any one nor would you allow anyone to do that to you.

  15. Great subject. And equally interesting different peoples take on discussing money with others. Personally, I feel discussing money is often harmful as it can make people feel uncomfortable. If one is making head over heals more money, then it can make another person feel less than. Or, encourage someone to ask for a loan. This is another can of worms. On the other hand, knowing someone is making more money can leave someone feeling less than. Our culture is already so materialistic that it’s best to just enjoy others’ company without making people feel uncomfortable. Yes, there are exceptions and especially with a close family member or friend but most of the time, it makes things complicated.

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