The Money Taboo Culture – Reasons and Implications

The Western culture in which we live withholds very few secrets. Former taboo subjects such as sexual preferences or family conflicts are exposed easily over a coffee or even through a Facebook post. In this scenario, it becomes peculiar that money managed to still remain a taboo subject. A study performed in USA by Wells Fargo[1] shows money to be the most difficult subject to talk about, 44% of the people pointing towards it as the most challenging chat anyone can possibly have. Death occupies the second place and only after that, politics and religion follow. In UK the situation is equally worrying, a study made by ICM Research showing that only 19% of the people have someone that can confide about their money situation. The same study shows that only 53% of the people seek advice if they are at risk financially. The situation worsens if they experience an increase in income, as less than a third seek advice when they receive a payment raise. Of course, people are more than happy to discuss the country’s financial situation, to gossip about and guess how much other people are making and even to issue elaborated opinions on financial planning. However, when it comes to their personal finances, the conversation enters a dangerous territory. People do not want to discuss how they earn, spend, save and invest, if they have debt, a mortgage or how much their salary is.

If you think about it, this cultural habit is rather silly, seeing that physical money does not have inherent value per-se, only the value that it’s assigned to it. A piece of paper with someone’s face on it is not valuable unless given that value, much less should it reflect on a human’s personal worth.

Nevertheless, from a psychological point of view, there are a lot of emotional complexities surrounding money. They are often tied to self-worth and thus the exposure of the financial situation can lead to feelings of shame or loneliness.[2] In a society where we seize people based on the size and location of their home[3], the type of car that they drive (and if they have one) or the brand of clothing they wear, it is only natural that the judgment would extend to their financial situation (seeing that sometimes having expensive belongings does not necessarily mean that the person is in a good financial state).  Money is also a subject many prefer to not discuss, as they can also disclose personality traits such as irrationality, impulsiveness or vanity and pride.

Moreover, psychologists believe that not only the habit of not speaking about money is inherited in our childhood from our parents, but also the way we spend or save money. Children begin to associate material possessions with a parent’s love and respect but the same thing can occur with spouses who try to compensate for their absence, who convert their partner’s reliability from the amount of money they succeed in bringing in the house. Often, the pressure is so big, that spouses who lose their job hide it from their partner or keep debts hidden until it is too late. The person starts to feel lonely, burdened and isolated because of their secret.

According to psychologist Richard Trachtman[4], the problem with this taboo is that it is on everyone’s mind. As the Wells Fargo study shows, two in five (39%) Americans report that money is the biggest stress in their life and a third of Americans (33%) report losing sleep worrying about money.”[5] This being the situation, the fact that they do not talk about it, keeps them from finding a place for money in their lives.

From a financial point of view, being extremely shy to speak about money can cause difficulties as most often these people are reluctant to consult a financial specialist about their situation. They want to save or to invest but they are too ashamed to approach the subject with anyone, much less with a complete stranger. This is also linked not directly to happiness, but to people’s state of mind. “Wealth, it seems is like physical health. Although its complete absence can bring misery, possessing it is no guarantee of happiness.” ( Meyers and Diener, 1997)[6]

This social taboo can be further analyzed from a sociological point of view, as women who seek to find partners who are well-off are labeled “gold-diggers” even if their situation is also good. Men who are unable to provide as much as expected or whose families are having difficulties are seen as “not able to provide”, emasculated and weak. In general, people who do not do so well financially are labeled as lazy or unambitious. In this context, it is clear that talking about money stops being a strictly financial matter and becomes a more complex one, that reflects on the way we are perceived as people and on how we perform our roles in the society.

A study named “Examining the Relationship Between Financial Issues and Divorce,” also showed that the main reason for divorce[7] in America is arguments about money. Financial matters are aggravated by the fact that couples do not start talking about money until they are having problems that are impossible to hide. Other times, one of the spouses feels they have less power and bring up the money issue in order to discuss about power and decision making. Nevertheless, being such a taboo, the money subject becomes a potential weapon.

What can be done? It is very important to think and discover the origin of not wanting to speak about money. Whether it was something your family taught you or not, you need to decide whether you agree with the principle behind the habit. You need to be aware of the consequences of this topic avoidance and work on solving it if there are negative outcomes. Another one of the simplest solutions is starting talking about money in our families and with our partners, by using non-confrontational questions and with a relaxed attitude. Sometimes, talking about money can help people evaluate whether or not they are paid fairy at their workplace, it can encourage them to negotiate a raise and even provide more clarity around equal pay for women and minorities. A study has been conducted among different countries and it showed that in countries such as China[8], Taiwan[9] and India salaries or rent money are not taboo subjects. People are happy to talk about them and give this sort of access into their lives.

Another possible solution is programs such as Money Advice Service which is a free, unbiased money advice program, aimed at enhancing the understanding of people of how finance works. It has a phone line but it also offers the possibility of face to face meetings on matters from everyday financial habits to long term plans.

Another successful idea is that of the Buffer Salary Formula[10] where a San Francisco based start-up announced a new company policy called “Open Salaries” – a simple formula to calculate salaries which is shared with the whole team. This way, everybody knows how much their colleagues are earning and it seems to be going well thus far.

To conclude, the money taboo originates in several factors in our psychic and our society, however, it also has multiple serious implications that can harm people and their families. Slowly, we need to move towards conquering our fear and decide whether we want this to be our society value or not. Inheriting customs does not spare us of rationalizing them.

Georgiana Bigea JEN III

Bibliography:

[1] https://www.wellsfargo.com/about/press/2014/20140220_financial-health/

[2] http://www.today.com/id/43543561/ns/today-money/t/why-it-so-hard-talk-about-money/#.VSPeFfmUdfA

[3] Deborah Nixon, Why Is Talking About Money So Taboo? September 2013 http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/deborah-nixon/talking-about-money_b_3980775.html

[4] Richard Trachtman, Ph.D., THE MONEY TABOO: ITS EFFECTS IN EVERYDAY LIFE AND IN THE PRACTICE OF PSYCHOTHERAPYClinical, Social Work Journal Vol. 27 No 3 (Fall, 1999) pp.275-288 http://www.richardtrachtman.com/pdf/moneytaboo.pdf

[5] https://www.wellsfargo.com/about/press/2014/20140220_financial-health/

[6] Richard Trachtman, Ph.D., THE MONEY TABOO: ITS EFFECTS IN EVERYDAY LIFE AND IN THE PRACTICE OF PSYCHOTHERAPYClinical, Social Work Journal Vol. 27 No 3 (Fall, 1999) pp.275-288 http://www.richardtrachtman.com/pdf/moneytaboo.pdf

[7] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00715.x/abstract

[8] http://www.wisebread.com/chinese-money-habits-how-my-culture-influences-my-attitudes-toward-money Xin Lu (2008)

[9] https://transferwise.com/blog/2014-03/we-asked-people-from-different-countries-what-they-earned-youll-never-guess-what-happened/

[10] https://open.bufferapp.com/introducing-open-salaries-at-buffer-including-our-transparent-formula-and-all-individual-salaries/

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