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8 questions NOT to ask in this economy

You never know who might be struggling financially.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 30, 2009 3:10AM

An old friend recently got a job after being first underemployed and then unemployed. One day at noon her new boss noticed she hadn't left her desk. "Aren't you going to have any lunch?" he asked. 

Well, no, she wasn't. There'd been barely enough in the house to make brown-bag lunches for her kids. My friend lied brightly about wanting to work through her lunch hour so she could finish on time for once. 

It's bad enough to be on the financial edge. It really stinks to be put on the spot, too. 

Some of us don't realize that anybody could be in financial trouble. That well-dressed middle manager might be about to lose her home. That seemingly carefree young co-worker could have two jobs and three roommates and still be sinking under the burden of student loan  debt.

The next-door neighbors might be in line at the food bank, and praying that no one they know sees them. Your cousin's job search might be going exactly nowhere and the unemployment benefits aren't enough to keep a guppy in fish flakes.

Simplicity isn't always voluntary
Others aren't in trouble -- yet. But they're concerned about the possibility of layoffs and view the financial turmoil as a wake-up call. That means some belt-tightening while they get their personal finances in order: paying down credit card debt, creating an emergency fund, etc. 

Even those making voluntary changes might be in for some ribbing about their new austerity. Here's the thing, though: It's still voluntary. They still have the option of going out for the occasional drink after work.

And those who are deep in the hole and trying desperately to hide it? Here's a scenario: Suppose you know to the penny how much is in your wallet and how far it isn't going to go -- and then a co-worker loudly announces that everyone needs to contribute $10 for a baby shower gift.

That sawbuck could be all you've got for groceries until payday. But who wants to say that out loud?

Watch your mouth
In this economy, here are a few suggestions about what not to ask:

  • How's the job search going? (In circles, but I'm making good time.)
  • I finished my Christmas shopping and I came in under a thousand! What are you buying your kids? (Some groceries. And I was thinking of having the electricity turned back on -- after all, Christmas comes but once a year!)
  • When are you going to buy a new car? (After the repo man snags this one.)
  • Are you going anywhere this winter? (The payday loan place.)
  • When are you going to propose to that girlfriend of yours? (After I win the lottery. Could I borrow a dollar?)
  • The housing market's going down -- why don't you look for a place of your own? (Because my parents' basement is just too homey ever to leave! Besides, the bill collectors will find me wherever I go.)
  • What are you doing this weekend? (Delivering pizzas.)
  • We go to Club Expensivo every Saturday night -- want to join us? (Only if you're ordering a pizza to be delivered to the club.)

Religion, politics -- or money
Perhaps we could start to think before we speak. 

Tempted to make snide comments about irresponsible people who walk away from their mortgages? The person next to you might be teetering on the brink of disaster due to, say, a spouse's or child's serious illness. Thanks for making things worse!

Teasing a longtime pal about being too cheap to go out to lunch lately? Gee, wonder why ol' buddy stopped returning your calls.

Dissing "those people" who get food stamps or free school lunches? Several other co-workers agree, loudly. One of them says nothing at all.

You know, you could always talk about the weather.

Published Dec. 3, 2008


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