Why We Need To Break The Taboo of Having The Money Talk

It started with a please call me, it’s how you know a friend needs financial help – the please call me, or the Whatsapp message from a strange cell number. One Saturday night at 9 pm John’s voice weasels over the background noise, street noise, maybe a party in the background, “Brah,” he says, “I’m so embarrassed,” he says, “I should have come clean with you weeks ago, but I’m in deep shit – I’ve been locked out of my place, me and Christy need a place to stay.”


Thing is, weeks ago, when the restaurant John worked at shut down for a few weeks for renovations, so he said, and he was looking for other work in case they took long with these renovations. Back then even I said to him, how can a spot, in a high density area like Melville shut down for a whole month for renovations? Something wasn’t right. And what that something was, was ego, John’s ego. When he and Christy slump through the door at 10:30 pm, and they’ve dissolved onto the couch, he looks up at me like he’s committed some kind of crime. “My father taught me to never tell people when you’re in financial trouble,” he shrugs, “I was suspended, then fired, and I was too embarrassed to tell you.” He didn’t even tell his girlfriend. His income was so tied to his self-worth that he was unable to talk to his actual supposed life partner about the fact that they were about to be, and then were, evicted.


Friends will get together and discuss in excruciating detail our latest sexual encounters, family issues, emotional darkness, but talking about money is just a no go, it’s embarrassing to let on how much you earn, how stretched you are, how little your work is valued – and therein I think is the rub, how tightly tied to self worth your bank balance is.


We’re taught not to talk about money, or rather money is a secret, we don’t know how it works, we grow up not knowing what our parents earn, we don’t know how the household budget functions, or where the money comes from for our school uniform. And then when we step out into the world and we can’t make ends meet, we don’t know how to put a budget together, we’re too proud to ask for help or talk to our closest because the prevailing thinking out there in the world is that it’s rude to talk about money. Well, let me tell you something, you know who isn’t embarrassed to talk about money – the rich.


Why Don’t We Talk About Money


Back in 1922, in the ultimate etiquette guide Emily Post said, “A very well-bred man intensely dislikes the mention of money, and never speaks of it (out of business hours) if he can avoid it.” And people hung on Emily’s every word, now Emily didn’t just decide this was the way things were, she was summing up the prevailing attitude of the time, but her guide was followed to the letter, still is in some circles, especially the middle and lower class, the aspirational classes, but not talking about money only serves to keep us unaware of how to save money, to spend it differently to the ways we’ve only learnt by fumbling along. And forget financial advisors, who can afford them?


What Not Talking About Money Says About your Social Class


I could spin you a very broad conspiracy theory about who it benefits for us to not talk about money, who it benefits that we tie money to self worth, but that’s for Sunday 3 am when we’re all back to mine because we can’t afford to get into the late night dance clubs. For now just know this, the rich people I’ve met, they never listened to Emily.


The other type of person who doesn’t mind talking about money, is the person with none – they will tell you of the bank charges, the cell phone charges, the fact that you can get a free balance enquiry if you use USSD banking, that SMS notifications cost 80c, and that immediate clearance is R30 more than an eWallet. The poor speak about money because they know their small change intimately, because that extra R5.55 balance enquiry means no bread tonight. And everyone who lives on the financial edge has at some point wondered why ATMs don’t dispense coins. But it’s that very trap, the way banks and cell phone companies, and the Edgars of the world take those precious cents from you, that’s what keeps us struggling. I know a woman who can feed four people, well, on R30, but it takes her three hours of comparison shopping in downtown Joburg, somewhere where the middle class would see as beneath them, they would never shop there and that’s why they can’t make ends meet – self-worth, not talking about money.


Why Talk About Money?


When we talk about what we earn, how we spend it, the mistakes we’ve made, we arm each other with the information we’ve hard won, we arm them against paying that little bit extra, and we also break down the idea that bank balance equals self worth. If someone has respect for you, is your actual friend, and they discover that you earn less than them, struggle harder to save your cents, then that slowly unlinks the idea in their head that their own self-worth is tied to how much money they are seen to be spending. And besides, how will your friend learn that she is being underpaid if she doesn’t know what her male counterpart is earning?


How To Break the Money Talk Taboo


In a recent survey by American bank Ally, seven out of ten people across all age groups think that it’s rude to talk about their income. However, in the millenial age group it flips: seven in ten people in that age grouping openly talk about money matters within their friend groups. So it’s not all doom and gloom, there are indications that the prevailing attitudes are not prevailing so much.


Basically it comes down to this, if John had just come to me when he lost his job, and started destroying his savings because he felt like he couldn’t talk about money, he might not be sleeping on my couch right now, instead he would be renting my spare room from me, with a hefty friends discount – from working in restaurant kitchens, John knows all the spots to buy cheap produce, and those savings would help bring my household costs down, enabling me to rent him the room cheaply. Basically peeps, we gotta drop the money equals self worth, bling-bling look at me spending cash, or Emily Post and her society folks will be laughing at us from their well appointed graves.



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