Why You Need to Talk About Money

Our culture is obsessed with money and yet it’s gauche to really talk about it.

I remember the first time I learned that lesson. I was taking skating lessons with one of my favourite instructors (I was probably 9-ish) and asked her how much she made as a skating instructor because I was curious and thought it was a really cool job. She was flabbergasted that I asked and told me that you never ask someone what they make because it is incredibly rude.

Fast forward into my early teen years and I learned that my cousins were living in a different reality, when one casually mentioned that her dad always likes to give her at least $60 to have on hand for whatever comes up (eating out, whatever). That was astronomical to me. I grew up going between tight-but-okay to we-have-no-electricity-broke.

Fast forward again to my first “real” post-university job. We weren’t unionized, we all made different amounts for the same job, and we were “strongly discouraged” from talking about it. Why? It was made explicit to me: when people know what others are making it strengthens their bargaining position.

Now, in my first “real” job post-grad school I did one of the scariest things I’ve done: negotiate my salary. When I mentioned to my mother that I was going to try to negotiate she was shocked. I said “Mom, you always negotiate” and she said, “I’ve never been told to negotiate.”

See, the reason I knew to negotiate is because I had been reading about how women don’t negotiate. Statistically, only tiny numbers of women negotiate, while huge numbers of men negotiate. Which is part of why there is an ongoing wage gap. But it extends beyond wages, it can be working hours, staffing levels, vacation days, working from home, benefits, any number of things.

But women are taught not to negotiate. And when women do negotiate there are all these fucked up unstated rules to follow. While men can be aggressive, women are expected to be collaborative, since they’re already bucking social norms by asking for something. And, of course, women (and other folks) who are multiply marginalized likely face larger barriers (and consequences) when it comes to negotiating. And so it wasn’t even for the money that I was negotiating (though that will surely help), it was because I felt politically compelled to.

So in the business world, not talking about money allows us to be exploited. We accept less than others are making for the same job, we accept less than (often) what our employer is actually willing to pay, and we start behind the eight ball.

But more than that, when we allow talking about money to be taboo we allow income inequality to thrive. When we start to question why the CEO of Target is getting a larger severance package than all 17,600 Canadian employees combined, we can identify it as unjust and we can build awareness and momentum. When we wonder why transit police, whose main job seems to be hassling poor people, make 2.5 to three times as much as victim support workers (I’m not showing you my old T-4 but trust me) who are increasingly tasked with making up for the shortfall in mental health funding, we challenge a system that punishes and excludes poor people at every turn.

Coming out of the business world and into the home, financial abuse is a really common part of intimate partner violence and it can be devastating. Part of that is accomplished by leveraging people’s (especially women’s) reticence to talk honestly about money, allowing abusers to hide money, withhold money, control money, and do everything in their power to make their partner completely financially dependent on them even if both parties work full time.

So let’s remove the taboo from money-talk and take back some of our power–whether that’s on the personal level, the professional level, or the broader systemic level.

——

If you’re experiencing financial abuse (or other abuse) there is help out there! In Canada you can find a victim services/women’s centre to connect with here. In the US you can find a state-by-state list of resources here.

If you want more information on how (and why) to negotiate, check out Women Don’t Ask  (with the caveat that I haven’t read it but hear good things and it’s on my bookstack).

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3 thoughts on “Why You Need to Talk About Money

  1. I’m wondering how much this custom varies region-to-region and income-level-to-income-level. In my family, we talked about money. A lot. Mainly in the vein of how much we didn’t have. My mom discussed with us how much her paychecks were, how much she made per hour- not usually enough to feel comfortable or cover all the bills. When I started really working to support myself in college, I discussed money with my coworkers- we compared tip hauls at the end of the night. My hometown was very definitely working and lower middle class, and I went to a lower-end state school.

    But college (the first attempt) was where I found out many people *don’t* talk about money. That university had a very definite split- non-suburban “downstaters” like me- kids from towns and areas other than Chicago and its suburbs; and suburbanite kids, many of whom were relatively affluent (to my mind, anyway, I’m sure there were a variety of incomes there, too). I dated a boy from said suburbs, and was pretty open about money at first, but it made him uncomfortable. And so I stopped being vocal about being poor & worrying about money. Then when I moved to my current town, I took that with me, because even fewer people here discuss money, much less not having enough of it.

    My fiance’s family doesn’t really discuss money, either, even though they’re very working class. So, I’m genuinely interested in how the difference in region (rural northeastern Wisconsin for him, and rural north central Illinois for me) factors into that.

    1. That’s a great question, and something I’ve wondered about too. My immediate family was also fairly open about money, which is why it was such a shock to be told that you don’t talk about money.

  2. I love all your points! I am convinced that rich people are the only ones who can’t afford to talk about money. I used to do it in college because I felt like I was educating people about class (I went to a school that prided itself on being liberal), “No, I can’t go with you guys to that restaurant because I can’t afford it.” “I don’t by bras from Victoria’s Secret because they are too expensive and no one sees them anyway.” “My family couldn’t afford trips to Europe, and I’ve never been abroad.”

    Talking about money, how much we have and how much we don’t, is a step toward dismantling the system of inequality, so please, let’s all do it more! We can change society, we don’t have to comply with the social mores.

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