Growing up, my parents didn’t talk to me about money — not really anyway. I didn’t know how much money they made, what their expenses looked like, or what their struggles were. It wasn’t until I was an adult myself that I understood why. Money is undoubtedly a taboo topic. We’re often taught from a young age that talking about finances is impolite, uncomfortable, or even shameful. As a result, we grow up and keep our money difficulties and anxieties hush-hush, leading to even more stress.
“Money itself is a taboo topic, and money touches every area of our lives,” says Derek Hagen, a financial therapist at Meaningful Money. “Unlike other taboo topics, like religion and politics, we’re always signaling about money whether we like it or not. Because money is a taboo topic, nobody talks about money even though it’s the number one source of stress for Americans. So we have a situation where many people are stressed out about money, but nobody talks about it so everyone thinks they are the only ones who struggle.”
Thinking that you’re the only one who’s dealing with money stress can actually compound the fear of talking about it, creating a particularly vicious cycle.
Cara Macksoud, Certified Financial Behavior Specialist and CEO of financial assessment provider Money Habitudes, tells Credello that “mental health and financial health are so connected.” In fact, Macsoud says that “we think about our finances almost 75% of our day because everything touches money.” This deep connection between finances and mental health can create hurricane-force pressure and stress within a person — all with nowhere to go.
“When you start to live in financial fear, you then start to compound the problem, because you can’t think through opportunities,” Macsoud explains. “You stay in jobs, you stay in relationships, and you stay in situations that may otherwise be unhealthy because you cannot imagine being without money.”
Talking about money can be difficult — especially when stress and fear abound. But breaking the taboo can also be one of the most empowering things we can do for ourselves and for those around us who might be encouraged to follow our lead.
1. The Taboo: Debt
“People often think that debt means that they don’t make enough money. There’s this piece where we start to attribute our self-worth and our net worth as being one and the same,” Macsoud explains. “When we carry debt, that often decreases our net worth by a considerable amount, leaving us oftentimes upside down in our net worth. And by telling people that, they think we look irresponsible, or we look like we don’t care about their financial life.”
The same is true of low credit scores, which are often a direct result of your debt. However, the more you open up about the debt you’re dealing with, the more help you might be able to glean from others around you.
For example, if you’re dealing with credit card debt, you may not know yet about Credello’s handy debt consolidation tool. But, your friend who started their journey to debt freedom a few months ago might be able to tell you all about how helpful it was for them as a way to consolidate their own credit card debt. However, if they don’t know that you’re in debt because you’re too afraid to talk about it, they may not share that knowledge.
2. The Taboo: Losing your job
Job loss is one of the hardest experiences to go through, and the inherent shame that comes with losing your income can make this taboo money topic one of the most stressful to discuss with others.
Anyone who has been there can tell you that it can feel embarrassing to admit you’ve lost your job — it’s as if you’ve somehow failed. Society sometimes equates job loss with personal failure, which can make it especially difficult to reach out for help at the exact time when doing so could turn the entire situation around. Who knows what connection you’re missing out on by not talking openly about what you’re going through?
Talking openly about job loss and financial struggles can help remove the stigma and create a sense of community and support when someone loses their income. Breaking this money taboo can create a more empathetic and understanding society where people feel comfortable seeking help when they need it most.
3. The Taboo: Your salary
Discussing your salary is another common money taboo that can be incredibly stressful. People who feel uncomfortable talking about how much they earn may see it as a private matter. So private, in fact, that one survey showed that 40% of people in serious, long-term relationships have no idea how much money their own partner makes. Of course, talking about finances with your partner can help you build a solid foundation together, but because this money taboo is so pervasive, it still feels hard for some couples. (That could be why money dates are suddenly a popular solution!)
This particular money taboo can also perpetuate pay inequality and make it difficult for others to negotiate fair compensation. But, breaking the taboo around salary discussion can actually help promote transparency and fairness in the workplace. It can also help reduce feelings of shame and inadequacy by showing other people that they are not alone in their struggles and that many others face similar challenges when it comes to negotiating fair pay.
4. The Taboo: Being behind on bills
Being behind on bills in and of itself is stressful, but when you feel like you can’t talk about this particular money taboo with others, that stress is (once again) compounded. Many people view their ability to pay their bills on time as a measure of their financial stability. To them, being behind means they’ve failed, and they want to hide that failure from everyone else.
But, if you find yourself behind on bill payments, breaking the taboo can actually help you access the resources and support you need to get back on track. By talking about your money struggles openly, you may be able to work out payment plans or negotiate lower interest rates with creditors, or find resources and programs that can help you manage your finances more effectively.
5. The Taboo: How much you pay in rent
If you’ve ever hesitated when someone asked you about your rent or mortgage payments, you’re not alone. People sometimes tie the dollar amount of their rent to their overall financial status or even their personal worth, which then makes sharing this information feel uncomfortable or embarrassing. Perhaps you’re worried about being judged, revealing something that could make you vulnerable somehow, or even that you might be unfairly judged.
Breaking the taboo around talking about rent can actually help you learn about what others pay for similar living situations and determine if you’re getting a fair deal — in fact, it’s probably why people are asking the question to begin with. It can also help you find resources or advice on how to lower your rent costs if you’re struggling to make ends meet.
6. The Taboo: Splitting the check
You know that awkward moment when the check comes at the end of a date, or when your friend asks you to meet up at a swanky new restaurant you know is out of your budget? These moments wouldn’t be nearly as uncomfortable or stressful if you talk about how to split the bill beforehand.
Even though you may feel pressure to split the check evenly, it’s OK to speak up and set expectations based on what you can afford. More often than not, you’ll find that others don’t actually mind having the conversation — they’ll probably even appreciate it. Breaking this money taboo can actually help reduce the stress you feel, avoiding misunderstandings so you can actually enjoy your meal together.
7. The Taboo: Inheritance
Discussing inheritance can be an extremely stressful money taboo, especially within families as they mourn the loss of a loved one. Even when planning a will in advance, it can be difficult to talk about who is getting what, especially if there are complicated family dynamics or past conflicts. Talking about death in general is taboo, so when you add money into the conversation, the stress tends to escalate.
You’ll want to approach this money taboo with a sense of openness and understanding. Ultimately, while it may be a sensitive topic, discussing inheritance can help to ensure that everyone is on the same page and reduce the potential for conflicts or misunderstandings down the line. It can also be an opportunity to discuss your wishes and plans for your own inheritance or to learn more about how you can plan for the future.
8. The Taboo: Spending habits
Have you ever felt judged when a parent, spouse, or someone else close to you comments on what you buy or how you manage your money? Maybe it’s an off-hand comment about how you could cut your morning coffee run to save money, or even a question about how much you spent on a new vehicle. Conversations around spending habits can feel stressful, but breaking the taboo around personal spending habits can actually be beneficial.
Being open about what you spend can help you learn about different ways to save money or find more cost-effective solutions for your needs. It can also help you identify areas where you may be overspending and make changes to improve your financial situation. Especially when you talk about spending habits with a partner, you can also help to create a more open and honest dialogue around money, which can lead to better communication and fewer misunderstandings.
of Americans say that the pandemic really changed their spending habits.
9. The Taboo: Credit card use
Another area where a surprising amount of judgment from others happens is how you use your credit cards. Sometimes, even using a credit card at all can be a point of contention. Discussing credit card usage can lead to uncomfortable comparisons, causing tension or feelings of inadequacy. Maybe you feel embarrassed if you have a lot of credit card debt, or you may feel like you’re not doing as well as others if you don’t use credit cards as much.
Ultimately, someone shouldn’t make you feel bad for not using rewards points in the way they would, or for using a credit card to pay for something they think is frivolous. It’s up to you to make the best financial decisions you can and do what’s right for your own situation. Knowledge is power, so the more informed you are when making decisions about how you use your credit cards, the more prepared you can be to have an honest conversation when this touchy topic comes up.
10. The Taboo: Retirement
Just thinking about retirement can be extremely stressful and overwhelming, so it’s no wonder that this money topic is inherently taboo. This is one money taboo where women might actually be under more stress than men. On average, women contribute 30% less to their retirement than men, and the inherent disadvantage of the gender pay gap and a longer life expectancy compounds the issue.
When talking about retirement with others, you might worry about being criticized if you haven’t saved as much as others, making comparisons that can leave you feeling inadequate. But, breaking the taboo around talking about saving for retirement can actually help you and those around you learn about different saving strategies. If you approach the conversation without judgement, you might just find that it’s helpful for identifying ways you can save for your future.
Whether you’re working to tighten up your budget or paying off debt, taking steps to improve your financial health is a positive thing. But just because something is positive, doesn’t mean it can’t be stressful to talk about with others. Again, the fear of judgement and criticism is pervasive here.
“If an individual feels like they are the only ones struggling, then it’s easy to observe others — who don’t seem to be stressed — and copy what they are doing,” Hagen explains. “People will try to keep up with the proverbial Joneses. This leads to social comparison and a world where people do what they think they’re supposed to do but can never get off the hedonic treadmill.”
Of course, the “who” matters. The money matters you discuss with your partner may look different from the details you share with your extended family, your friends, or your coworkers. Every situation is different, but the bottom line is that no matter what your overarching money goals are, being open about them and sharing that financial wellness is important to you can help inspire those around you. Removing the shame and stigma around common money taboos can create confidence that’s catching.