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Why don't people talk about money?

Even fifth-graders realize that adults are uncomfortable discussing how much they make and how much they're worth.

By MSN Money Partner Jul 30, 2012 3:21PM

This post comes from J.D. Roth at partner blog Get Rich Slowly.


Get Rich Slowly on MSN MoneyI recently visited a fifth-grade class in McMinnville, Ore., to talk with the kids about money. I had a great time, and I shared more about the experience in another post. Today, though, I want to start by sharing a question I received from one of the students.


"How much money do you have?" Hannah asked when I called on her.


"I'm not going to answer that," I said.


"Nobody answers that," said a boy named Max.


"Why do you think that is?" I asked.


Image: Surprised woman (© Photodisc Green/Getty Images)I was curious about the fifth-grade perspective on this subject, so we talked about it for a little while. Some of the kids thought adults just don't like to share things about themselves. Others said that if you talked about how much money you had, then other people would be more likely to steal it. I offered my own thoughts.


"I think people don't talk about how much money they have because nobody wants to feel bad," I said. "For example, if I have a lot of money and you don't, then talking about money might make you feel bad. Or if you have a lot of money and I'm poor, then talking about money would probably make me feel bad."


I believe that, ultimately, people don't talk about money with strangers out of fear of being judged. (Post continues below.)

I explained that most people do talk about money, but only with people they know well, such as family and friends. (Not everyone talks about money, I know, but I believe most people are willing to share with those they're close to.)


The kids didn't seem to find my argument terribly convincing. In fact, after school was over, Hannah came up to pose the same question again. "How much money do you have really?" she asked.


"I'm not going to answer that," I said.


"Are you a millionaire?" she asked.


"I'm not going to answer that either," I said.


She gave an exasperated sigh and left to catch the bus.


I told this story to my Spanish teacher, who is from Peru. She and I have discussed cultural attitudes toward money before. She thinks Americans talk about finances far too freely. And apparently she's not the only one. In one of my favorite Spanish-language podcasts, the hosts have talked about the notion of social class in Spain. Apparently, folks there even avoid talking about what they do for work because that has the potential to make others feel uncomfortable.

On the long drive home from McMinnville, I spent a lot of time thinking about Hannah's question. Is discomfort the actual reason we don't talk about money in our society? Do we keep these facts private out of fear of judgment? I'm not sure. I don't have any hard facts to back up my beliefs. Maybe there are other reasons.


What do you think? Why don't people talk about money? Is it just to avoid discomfort? Or are there more practical reasons to avoid these sorts of discussions? And, more to the point, in your own life, with whom do you have money discussions? What sorts of things do you talk about? What sorts of implicit (or explicit) boundaries do you set?


More on Get Rich Slowly and MSN Money:

Jul 30, 2012 5:33PM
Our money allows us to make very different choices about the way spend our time on this Earth. Think about all of the ways we enjoy our time with families, support our community or religious groups, feed ourselves and market our own self image through clothing, our home and all of our discretionary spending. Everyone will value different aspects of their lives with higher or lower budgets for eating out, donating to charitable causes, buying the latest gadgets or donating to a political party. All of these are very personal decisions attached to our core beliefs.

I spend what some would consider a large amount of money on golf every year. For me this has a high level of value. Others may see it as a waste of time and money. Personally, I do not discuss my finances with anyone other than my wife because I do not want to have a discussion of values or personal priorities.  I have had too many uncomfortable conversations with family or friends who wanted to know why I spend money on this or don't want to spend money on that. Honestly, my decisions are no one's business but my own. If you don't know how much I make or how I spend my money, I can avoid the uncomfortable conversations about how my priorities are different than yours.
Jul 31, 2012 1:14AM

There is no reason for casual acquaintances to know such personal information. Children need to be taught the value of money and hardwork. But more importantly children should learn the concept of boundaries and MYOB.

Money is a very personal thing and should only be shared with those who do not have financial problems and are financially responsible. Through experience I have learned that if you help someone who is in financial trouble they will remember you when they are in financial trouble again.
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