Monday, March 18, 2013

The Taboo of Talking Money

Recently, I read two articles from wildly different websites. One is a pretty old article from a few years back in the New York Times about people who are obsessed about their net worth. The other is an article about the dynamics of power in social interaction in an internet humor website. Both are pretty good reads. And both of them touch on the same theme: our society has trained us not to talk about power dynamics between friends and coworkers.

I have two social circles. One circle is full of friends who are vastly less successful (as measured by traditional socioeconomic measures) than I am. And the other, all of my friends are upper middle class (college educated + career-track job). I don't mix them. The primary reason is because I don't want my friends in the latter group to think less of me for having unsuccessful friends. It sounds pretty shitty, but there you go.

When I hang out with my less successful friends, there is always a certain tension that hangs in the air. I never bring up my job. And I catch myself censoring what I'd like to talk about when the conversation moves towards money. When my friends ask me (probing delicately around what they really want to ask) about my financial situation, I answer truthfully without any accompanying context. They never flat out ask me the things they really want to know (how much money I make or how much I'm worth).

I hate it. It drives me crazy. I don't know anything else that is unspoken yet carries such a palpable feeling of dread and taboo. Collectively, we have all bought into the idea that America is free of class. So you're always going to rock the boat when you talk about the things that divide America in its shadow class system. So that means you can't talk about money and education (half of which is really a way to signal status) except when you're just dancing on the edges.

 Which is frustrating. Because these issues shouldn't be confined to somber discussions at the dinner table (after the kids have gone to bed) and at the desk of your financial adviser (if you're rich/aware enough to have one) or reading about finance articles when you're alone. Because society has tied "success" completely to your job and your income (it's not enough to be a rich plumber), it's almost impossible to talk about what really matters: the importance of financial security.

What's worse, we're hardwired not to care about it until we need it the most. You're never as plugged into your finances until you've been laid off. And by the time that happens, for most people it's too late. This is something that even the upper middle class is mostly unaware about. Retirement is so far off into the future and we make plenty of money to satisfy our current needs and wants. Why bother doing a real audit of our situation?

I don't mean for this post to come off as a ridiculously self satisfied humblebrag. This issue means a lot to me. My parents never addressed money and financial security when I was a kid. But I remember the screaming matches late at night. That's something I wouldn't wish on anybody. And it's why I'm constantly evangelizing the importance of saving and investing.

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