Often times we don't realize how our finances can directly affect our health and peace of mind. This is especially true in a society like ours where it's so taboo to talk about money. I've spent the last 19 years working in a career in finance, and almost 10 of those years having intimate conversations with families about their wishes for their lives and their financial future. One surprising realization that I've had through all of this is how many families don't talk, and how not talking about money (or anything else for that matter!) can damage relationships and leave us woefully unprepared during life's transitions and emergencies. In this blog, I'll discuss something Kathleen Kingsbury, author and financial psychology expert so eloquently calls "Money Silence". I'll lay out some examples, show how this silence can affect us, and how outcomes can be improved by open conversation. Finally, I'll give some ideas on how we can begin to break that negative stigma about discussing money with our loved ones. Having those open discussions, so we can all find a little more peace of mind knowing that we've made well informed financial decisions, and that someone would have our back (and know where to go to find the items they need) if, or when that day comes that we can no longer financially take care of ourselves.
In 2014 Wells Fargo reported that 44% of American's thought the most challenging topic to discuss was that of personal finances. The numbers were even higher for women. Fifty percent of women found it difficult talking with others about personal finances (versus 38% of men). So, if you've struggled in the past to confide in someone or ask for guidance, you're in good company. That same Wells Fargo report also mentioned that 2 out of every 5 Americans report that money is the biggest stress in their life. In fact, every year, the American Psychological Association publishes an Annual Stress in America Survey, and each year money seems to find its way near the top of that list. So, when it comes to money stress, that saying of "Getting it off my chest" doesn't seem to apply to most of our financial woes.
So how does this silence actually impact our families?
I've seen examples too many to count about how money silence has affected families differently. Most of us hear about how often money is a contributor to divorce but that's just one example of the effect of money silence, there are a multitude of other ways this lack of conversation can affect those around us. From our older adults not admitting that they've lost money (sometimes LOTS of money) to a scam, to adult children not being comfortable inquiring about mom's estate planning wishes before she passes on, or parents not being forthright about financial limitations to children (only to end up relying on those children financially years later). There are examples all around us, but we don't talk about it so most of us would never know. (And to be honest, one could argue that it's natural to keep what we may think to be bad money decisions to ourselves.)
We've gotten along this far, why should we talk about it?
As someone that works around money on a day to day basis, I see many benefits to banishing the taboo of talking about money and opening up to conversations with our loved ones. We all learn. When we talk, we learn. In a blog in Scientific American last year it was pointed out that "our friends and family are the most available resources and can help jumpstart positive money decisions." I couldn't agree more. They will also likely be the first to stand up and suggest you consider professional guidance if needed too, or the first to notice that you may be falling prey to financial fraud or exploitation. There is no reason to live in financial silence, talking about our finances to friends and/or family members can be crucial to making changes, realizing goals and feeling a stronger sense of financial wellbeing and security. I've also found shame to play a significant role in our openness (or lack of) with others about our money. Dr. Brene Brown couldn't have said it better: "If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.". We can break the cycle of financial shame by talking to and getting guidance from others. We can also help our loved ones make more informed decisions, we can learn were important documents are before a crisis hits and we can take much of the guess work out of handling the finances of a loved one when that time comes too.
But it's complicated, and intimidating. How do we do it?
It's true, especially if this is your first rodeo, it can be hard to take that first step. Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Start with "who". Who would be someone you could talk to openly? Someone who's opinion you trust. (I recommend identifying 2 or more people.)
- Pick a low stress time to talk and get rid of all distractions. Some prefer to schedule a time, this may be the best way to tackle it if you have a more critical conversation to have. Most important, don't wait for a crisis!
- When turning down an invitation to an event because of the cost, be honest, don't make excuses. You may be surprised at how that message is received. Most of us live in a world of financial limitations, your inviter may be pleasantly relieved at your honesty.
- Go into it a money conversation with a few scripted questions. My favorite is "I read an article the other day... it got me thinking, how do you do..?"
- If talking to an older adult about their finances, remember (if applicable), your goal is to understand, not take control of things. Approach it delicately and I've found when coming from a place of love, it can greatly reduce defensiveness.
- And finally, remember most of this will be a marathon not a sprint. You don't need to tackle every financial question you've ever had in that first conversation. Once you open the door, it's easier to come back. And keep this money relationship going, whether it be looking to a confidante for questions or an accountability partner for reaching goals. We tend to do better and have a more joyous ride when we have a partner in any journey!
(For more ideas, you can also refer to the Scientific American article mentioned above for a list of 10 questions to start the conversation.)
In closing, several topics in recent years have gained attention because we've uncovered a need to discuss them in order to educate and protect our loved ones. Bullying, depression and drug use are just a few. To reduce stress, keep our loved ones, and most importantly our older adults safe today and protect our wealth for tomorrow, it's necessary that we begin having conversations with others that we trust. They may know things we don't, know someone we can trust to get additional help, or save us from making costly and/or emotional mistakes... and if nothing else, help provide something else to consider as we are making financial decisions. We ask for our loved one's opinions on other, much less important things, its time that we open the door for conversation and break that cycle of money silence in our lives. Our finances and peace of mind could be significantly better off for it!
- Kathleen Kingsbury, breakingmoneysilence.com/author
- Conversations About Personal Finance More Difficult Than Religion and Politics, According to New Wells Fargo Survey
- American Psychological Association: Annual Stress In America Survey
- Scientific American, March 2018 Title: Why Is It So Hard to Talk about Money? - 10 financial questions for the one you love