What is it that makes us sheepish to talk about things that involve money? Why is it more socially acceptable to ask about a newlywed couple's plans for having children than to ask them what they are paying for rent? Should income be a taboo topic?

Originally published May 11, 2016

Talk of money, especially as it relates to us personally, can really be a taboo topic.  Whether it’s asking how much your friend’s new purse cost or telling your neighbor how much you bought your house for, we’re afraid to ask and we’re afraid to tell.

Are we worried about what others will think?  Depending on who you’re talking to, the same sale or purchase could be too much or not enough.

Here’s a simple example:

Just the other day on social media, a friend posted a before and after of her house’s new paint job.  Another friend who was looking to get his house painted, asked what company did the work and how much it cost if she didn’t mind sharing.

It’s that last part that caught my attention.

While it’s a completely normal and polite to be extra sensitive when asking such “personal” information as how much it costs to get your house painted, I wonder why it’s so personal?

Income: the taboo topic

There’s something about income that’s super personal, too.  People are afraid to ask.  People are afraid to tell.

The big question is why?  Why are we so sensitive about people knowing our income?

Are we worried that it will make them feel bad for us because we don’t make “enough?”

Are we worried that others will feel bad about themselves because they don’t make “enough?”

Are we worried that if someone knows our income they will judge the way we budget our money?

Most people don’t make their personal finances public each month.  We have put ourselves in a unique situation. I’m definitely not advocating that everyone go public with all of their numbers.

Honestly, I’m not necessarily advocating that you be completely open about your money, but I’m just curious about why it’s all overly hush-hushed.

Why is money-talk so personal?

What is it that makes us sheepish to talk about things that involve money?

Why is it more socially acceptable to ask about a newlywed couple’s plans for having children than to ask them what they are paying for rent?

These are real questions.  I would love to hear your opinion.  Feel free to share you feelings about disclosing income in the comments at the end.

In the meantime, I’m going to take a stab at it.

I would say that it’s because our income is so (wrongly) tied to our worth and value as a individuals.

Here’s a non-finance example to illustrate my point:

When my younger brother was taking college entrance exams back in high school, he was naturally really curious what others’ scores were on the test.  Knowing that my husband is super smart, he was particularly interested in knowing what my husband’s scores were.  His curiosity came through often in conversation, but he never came out and asked.

My husband, who is never one to brag, was not going to flash his nearly perfect score.  However, had my brother come right out and asked, my husband would have had no problem revealing his score.

The same goes with income.  If you were to ask about my husband’s income, he would tell you, even when it was quite low.

In my husband’s case, I think the reason why he doesn’t feel like income or test scores are taboo is that he doesn’t tie his self-worth to those numbers.  On top of that, he is not worried about what others may think of him.  By the same token, he is non-judgmental about others’ numbers too.

Perhaps we keep money, especially income, a taboo topic out of insecurity?

 Is keeping quiet about finances a bad thing?

Our social media feeds are overflowing with overshares.  We’re so inundated with TMI, that sometimes you wonder if people do keep anything private these days.  Maybe keeping money as a taboo topic isn’t a bad thing.  Perhaps keeping everyone’s income hush-hush helps us to see others as equals.

In some ways though, I think it’s unfortunate that money-talk is taboo.  I think we can really learn a lot from one another about personal finance.

I think we do ourselves a disservice when we keep our debt a secret.  We won’t get the support we need from family and friends if no one knows the struggle we’re going through.

Between student loans, car loans, and credit card debt, debt affects a huge group of people.  Yet we all hide behind our smiles and pretend that finances are hunky dory, which isn’t helping anyone.

What do I propose?

If you thought I was building up to an initiative of social reform or of how I plan to change things from my little corner of the globe, don’t be disappointed.  I’m not advocating that you write your salary on your forehead or start asking nosy financial questions.

Instead, I just want you to ask yourself why income and money-talk are or are not taboo for you.  Then ask yourself if you like those reasons.  If you do, then keep it up.  If not, decide what you’ll change.

Just for the record, I do (usually) conform to these social norms and don’t ask or volunteer salary details right off the bat in real life (obviously this blog is a different story).  I am, however, more open about finances in person than most people.  By not being shy or apologetic about talking about money, others often open up too.  And I daresay they find it refreshing to talk about money, even if society thinks it’s taboo.

How about you?

  • Should talk of income or other money issues be taboo?  Why or why not?
  • What are the pros and cons of not shying away from money-talk?


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