Talking About Money

See also: Communicating in Difficult Situations

In many societies around the world, there is a huge taboo about talking about money. From an early age, we learn, for example, that it is not polite to boast about your salary—and that means never telling anyone what you earn, in case you earn more than them—or ask what something cost, because that implies that someone might not be able to afford it.

Unfortunately, this taboo means that it is also very difficult to have important conversations. This page suggests some ways that you can overcome the taboo and start to have honest conversations with those around you about money, both at work and at home.

Why Talk About Money?

If I had a little money… It’s a rich man’s world!

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, in the song Money, Money, Money

Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round…

Sally Bowles, in the musical Cabaret (lyrics by Fred Ebb)

There is unarguably more to life than money, but it is nonetheless very important for most of us—especially when we do not have enough.

According to Relate, the relationship support service, financial issues are one of the main causes of arguments between couples. Perhaps this is unsurprising when an astonishing 43% of Americans say that they do not know what their spouse earns. After all, if you do not even know your monthly household income, it is hard to budget successfully (and for more about this, see our page on Budgeting).

There is also considerable evidence that fairness is relative.

That is, what we consider ‘fair’ is all about what we have compared with other people. In other words, the cause of financial problems in relationships is likely to be one partner feeling that the other does not ‘pull their weight’. Being able to talk calmly and rationally about money can avoid this type of problem.

For more about these ideas, see our page on fairness.

There is another reason to be open with your partner about money: you need to be sure that you are ‘on the same page’ financially. If one of you is scrimping and saving for a deposit on a house, or to build an emergency fund, and the other goes out and spends all their money on a new gaming system, this is going to lead to conflict. These differences in approach can even lead to the end of the relationship.

Start talking about money to your partner at an early stage to ensure that your different attitudes and approaches are not a deal-breaker for either of you.

It is helpful to agree your shared financial goals and budget on a regular basis, and get into the habit of discussing any ‘big ticket’ purchases in advance, even if you are planning to spend your ‘own’ money. This will ensure that you are both happy about your spending and financial planning.

Beyond couples, wider family relationships can also suffer from not talking about money. Many people report struggling when they have to take on responsibility for elderly parents, or sort out wills, because they simply do not know what their parents wanted. Sibling relationships can also break down over the division of estates when wills seem unfair to one or more party.

However, finding it hard to talk about money affects more than just your personal relationships. For example, if you feel embarrassed discussing money, it can be extremely hard to ask your boss for a pay rise. If you can’t ask your co-workers what they earn—and this is a major taboo—you are unlikely to find out if you are paid substantially less or more than them, or be able to take action to address it.

Case study: Crisis at the BBC

In January 2018, the BBC’s China editor, Carrie Gracie, resigned from her post citing pay inequality with her male colleagues. The problem?

For the first time ever, in July 2017, the BBC had published information about which of its staff were paid over £150,000. Ms Gracie was not on the list, and neither was her female colleague, Europe editor Katya Adler. However, the BBC’s two male international editors, Jeremy Bowen and Jon Sopel, were both on the list.

Carrie Gracie’s open letter of resignation stated: “…last July I learned that in the previous financial year, the two men [international editors] earned at least 50% more than the two women.

'Despite the BBC's public insistence that my appointment demonstrated its commitment to gender equality, and despite my own insistence that equality was a condition of taking up the post, my managers had yet again judged that women's work was worth much less than men's.

This was the first time that this kind of data had been exposed to public view, and it caused both widespread public outrage, and discrimination claims from many of the women employed by the corporation.

It is likely that had information been widely available about pay levels, or if people felt able to discuss pay more openly, this would not have happened.

Another reason to talk about money is to get good advice about your financial situation.

Professionals in finance, including investment advisers, pensions advisers, and debt advisers, are used to discussing money. They are not embarrassed by it. However, to give you good advice, they need accurate information from you.

It is impossible to get advice that fully reflects your situation if you are not honest about that situation.

You will be able to get generic advice about how to save money—but not specific information about your house, your debt, or your financial affairs. It is worth being clear about your financial situation to get good, tailored advice from professionals.

As an added advantage, good advice will help you to improve your financial situation. If you were worried about money, that is likely to make you feel much less stressed.

Why Don’t We Talk About Money?

There are therefore many good reasons for talking about money.

However, many people still don’t feel happy about doing it.

Research from the UK’s Money and Pensions Service in 2020 found that 48% of people had worried about money at least once a week in the preceding month, and 16% said it was a daily worry. However, more than half of those surveyed (52%) reported feeling uncomfortable talking about money even when they were concerned about it. In practice, just 11% said that they had talked to family and friends when worried about their finances in the past.

There were several reasons given for not talking about money, all cited by around 15% of people. They included shame or embarrassment, not wanting to burden others, having been brought up not to talk about money, feeling stressed about talking about it, and worry that they should be more successful.

The situation is worse for young people and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Those groups were more concerned about money, and also less likely to talk to anyone else about it.

Starting Conversations About Money

How, then, can you start conversations about money? It depends a bit on the circumstances and situation.

Talking Money at Home

In many ways, it is—and should be—easier to talk about money with your partner or family. You are, after all, much closer to them than to your colleagues or boss. As with any other subject, the key is to use the rules of feedback. Be open and honest about the effect of your partner’s behaviour, on you.

In other words, don’t wait too long to have the conversation, but do pick your moment carefully, so that they are receptive, and give them time to respond. Also remember to listen to what they are saying, and don’t just think about what you are going to say next.

For more about this, see our page on Giving Feedback to Your Partner.

One way to initiate a conversation is to share one of your own financial goals. You might, for example, tell your partner that you are going to try to save a bit more money each month, or pay off your credit card bill in full each month. This may prompt them to share their own financial goals, and start a more honest conversation—but if it doesn’t, you can always ask, having opened the subject.

You could also suggest having some joint financial goals. For example, you might be thinking about saving for a deposit on a house. If so, you will need to agree how much each of you is going to save each month.

When you are living with a partner, their financial actions can also affect your credit score. You therefore do have a right to be concerned if you think they are going into debt.

On the flip side, if you are having problems with money, your partner has a right to know because of the possible effect on them. However, it is not helpful to get into any kind of ‘blame game’. Very few of us intend or wish to go into debt. It is therefore important to keep the conversation positive and focused on what you are (jointly and separately) going to do to sort out the situation.

It is fine to explain how worried you are, and be upset about the possible consequences of your situation—but ultimately, you need action, not emotion.

Finally, it is much easier to sort problems if you talk about them openly and honestly.

Talking about money and solving problems together can therefore help to make your relationship stronger, as well as helping you to resolve your problems.

Talking about money is not a one-off conversation

It is important to remember that you can’t just have a single conversation about money and then heave a sigh of relief and move on. Instead, talking about money needs to become a habit in a relationship—just like talking about how you care for your pets, or how you are bringing up your kids, or when you are going to visit relatives.

Keep talking openly and honestly, and you will find that future conversations get easier and easier—even when the situation is difficult.

Talking Money at Work

It is important to remember and recognise that you are not going to break down the taboo about talking about money overnight, or single-handedly—not even in yourself.

However, you should not EVER feel embarrassed about asking your boss for a raise if you feel that you deserve one. It is his or her job to manage their team, and that includes pay issues. They are unlikely to be embarrassed about discussing your pay with you, so why should you feel embarrassed either?

The key is to have evidence for why you feel that you deserve more money. For example, you may have brought in a lot of business to the team or company, or delivered a particularly big project, or taken on extra responsibilities. If possible, show comparisons with others—but if you can’t get this data, don’t worry.

How can you get comparative data about your colleagues? It may be worth asking them!

You can use phrasing that helps to make your request to talk about money more acceptable. For example:

“I know it’s not conventional to ask this, but it would really help me in my discussions with the boss if I knew roughly how much you were paid. Would you mind telling me the broad (say £10k) slot that your salary falls into?”

Making clear why you need the information, and making sure that you are not intrusive about how much detail you need, can make it easier for colleagues to share sensitive information.

For more about how to use the right language at the right time, you may like to look at our page on Communication in Difficult Situations.

Alternatively, if you are in a large organisation, you could try going to your HR or Finance departments and asking them for anonymised data about those at your pay level or in your team. Again, you will need to explain why you need the information—and be prepared for a refusal—but if you don’t ask, you definitely won’t get.

Case study: A tale of two colleagues

Janey and Michael were two colleagues in a big organisation. They had been promoted within a month of each other, to the same level, to head up the same team, working jointly.

Over the two years after their promotion, Janey changed team twice, still working for the same manager. Each time, she negotiated a pay rise with her boss, on the grounds that she was taking on more responsibility.

Two years after their promotion, the organisation held a pay review, and announced that it was giving a pay rise to all the lowest-paid staff in Janey and Michael’s pay bracket. When Janey dropped into Michael’s office one day for a chat, he said to her,

It will be nice to have that pay rise, won’t it?

What pay rise?” she asked.

That pay rise for the lowest paid staff. They’ve sent me an email telling me that I’ll get it. Surely you will too? We were promoted at the same time.

No,” Janey said, cheerfully. “No email. I guess I’m not in the lowest-paid staff any more. I’ve negotiated myself two pay rises since then.

Both found it astonishing how quickly Janey had moved herself through the pay bracket. Michael had known that Janey had negotiated pay rises, because she had mentioned it, but neither had realised just how much more than him she was now earning. Gaps can open up very fast.

And Finally…

A discomfort about talking about money is common around the world, especially in English-speaking countries. However, sometimes it is better to go through a little discomfort, and talk about things, than put them off and store up trouble for later.

Time and effort spent communicating now are likely to build stronger relationships and help you in future.