Is money the last taboo? Not anymore! Dianna Sawyer explains why talking about money should not feel uncomfortable.

We grew up knowing there are certain things we shouldn’t talk about in mixed company. Politics. Religion. Sex (depending on the company). And money. We were told it’s not polite to mention these topics, that you need to be respectful of people’s differing viewpoints and beliefs, and that it’s better to chat happily about the weather or the baseball game than to dig into controversial legislation or ask someone why they believe in an afterlife.

But things are different now. For starters, we don’t spend most of our time communicating around a formal dinner table with hyper-sensitive people (maybe you do … we’re not here to judge). And we’ve entered a time of unprecedented oversharing: endless photos of dogs and babies, angry tirades about a bad restaurant experience, and our deepest thoughts about any subject imaginable. We’re not afraid to provoke with our beliefs anymore, and talking about sex in public has become commonplace and casual (say almost anything and wait for someone to respond with “That’s what she said.”).

And yet, we still get squeamish when money is mentioned. Turning down a weekend away with friends because the cost feels shameful. Wanting separate checks at a group dinner is embarrassing, maybe even juvenile. Negotiating a salary offer feels uncomfortable. Asking a friend how much she makes is completely off limits.

Why? Why is it that the thing we all rely on for most of our basic needs seems so utterly unspeakable? There are a few possibilities:

We don’t want to look like jerks.

Remember Occupy Wall Street? Whether or not you camped out in your city, chances are you understood the motivation behind this movement’s expression of being fed up with fat cats getting fatter, while the middle classes slowly gets squeezed out. We might fear that talking about money makes us seem like greedy, money-hungry misers. You know, a regular Scrooge McDuck.

We truly believe that life is more than money.

Somewhere along the way, money became an all-or-nothing pursuit: Either you’re working hard to make money because you love money, or you intentionally live a meager lifestyle to show that you’re more interested in a meaningful life. In reality, though, most of us actually live in the middle. We’d like to know we can retire comfortably. We need money to pay off our student loans and buy groceries and keep up with movies, museums, and travel. We also want to be generous to charities we care about and help out the people we love if they need it. We want to have the freedom to live life on our own terms. But we’re afraid that if we admit we need (or, heaven forbid, like) money, we’re automatically forfeiting that adventurous, meaningful life. We’re afraid we’re selling out.

We know how much we don’t know.

And that makes us feel stupid, and maybe a little overwhelmed. We can be smart, curious, and good learners, but ask us how our investment accounts actually work, and we shut down. Let alone what goes into a credit score, or how much interest we’re paying on our loans, or what tax bracket we’re in. These topics seem so esoteric, so above our heads, and so complicated, that rather than risk looking like an idiot, we avoid talking about them at all.

There are people who get paid to think about this stuff.

Even if we think that we’re getting screwed by the financial services industry, we may still prefer to let them figure it all out. Why ruin a perfectly good night out with friends discussing our 401k plans when there’s someone in a suit still at work who gets paid a lot of money to think about it for us?

We’re afraid to find out that we’re richer or poorer than we thought.

What if we finally have an open conversation with our partner, our roommate, or even our parents, and discover that our salary or savings account is much, much higher — or much, much lower —than theirs is? We’ve never been taught how to have healthy conversations about money, so any disparity feels instantly polarizing … and embarrassing. We care about the people in our lives too much to feel awkward about how far apart we are on the rich-poor spectrum.

So what now?

Can we keep coasting by talking about weather, baseball, and even sex, without broaching the topic of money? Can we maintain healthy relationships and live the lives we want without discussing finances with anyone?

While we can’t answer that definitely for any one person, we believe that it’s time to start talking about money. To be honest about what we earn and what we don’t. What we understand and what we don’t. What we want and what we don’t. By talking about money in a new way, we discover that most of us don’t see money as the end goal — it’s simply a tool to help us reach the goals that matter the most to us. And when we realize that, we create a safe space to talk about money — because we realize that what we’re really talking about is life.

While working on the curriculum for Society of Grownups,
Dianna can usually be found listening to Motown
and taking up all the white board space.

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