It’s a story as old as time. A bunch of friends go out for a meal. The bill arrives and there’s a pause: how should we split this? Should it be done equally, but what about those who didn’t drink? What follows is awkward conversation and often, an inequitable splitting of the bill. All because people are uncomfortable talking about money and coming across as stingy or too ‘money-minded’.
Money is a big part of our lives — it determines how we live, puts food on the table, helps us plan the future, influences how we feel and often determines our worth. Interestingly, as a subject, money is much talked about, from how to make it and invest it, to discussing other people’s wealth (hat tip to billionaires Bezos, Musk and their space race). Personal finances, however, are firmly beyond bounds.
It begets the question: why don’t we talk about something that is so important in our lives?
A big part of the answer lies in our conditioning. We grow up learning that money talk is taboo. Children are shooed away when elders discuss finances. A 2018 research article, titled Economics is learnt in the family: Revaluing family influence on financial behaviour in India, found that only 34% of parents were talking about financial planning to their children. We’ve learnt that it’s impolite to ask how much someone earns. Financial education isn’t a priority in schools. People aren’t comfortable asking for a raise or bringing up a family member’s spending habits.
This isn’t just an Indian occurrence. A survey by financial services company Wells Fargo found that 44% of Americans find personal finance the most challenging topic to discuss with others, even more than religion, and death. New research from payments service Klarna UK shows that over a fifth of adults have never discussed money with a friend or family member because of reasons that include awkwardness, feelings of invasion of privacy, making the other person feel uncomfortable, judgment from others, and peer comparison.
In societies with skewered gender norms, this taboo adversely affects women. A Pew Research Center survey found that 43% of Indians believe that it’s the man’s obligation to earn money in the family, and an even bigger majority think that men should have greater rights to employment than women when jobs are in short supply. In such a scenario, with women already bearing the brunt of financial disparity, the secrecy around money puts them at a greater disadvantage.
Bollywood tells us that the dream is ‘paisa, gaadi, bungla’. It’s not a bed of roses though — and the shame that comes with not having enough, or having too much, alongside comparisons with peers, can be striking. Many equate their self-worth with their financial worth, so there are often feelings of shame and fear associated with money. Conversations around money are often hesitant — can I ask for help? Should I offer assistance? It’s why we don’t highlight the income disparity among friends and clam up when it comes to splitting a bill.
Why talk about money? Because it can only be beneficial. In her book Let’s Talk About Hard Things, Anna Sales writes, “Talking to colleagues about salary ranges and negotiations helps ensure you’re not underpaid. Asking for help when you’re in a crisis helps harness financial resources, and emotional resources.”
It can help us save and plan our finances better, especially in today’s post-pandemic, inflation-hit world. A post–2020 lockdown research report by Bengaluru-based Refyne, which works in the space of earned wage access, prepared in collaboration with Ernst & Young, throws up staggering figures: nearly 81% of employees in India faced a financial shortfall leading to mental distress and health problems; and about 70% of respondents experienced financial stress despite having no unexpected expenses. In such situations, an open and honest conversation about money could help people realise they aren’t alone, and can seek the help they require.
In addition, talking about money helps us gain valuable insight from other people’s personal finance strategies and experiences — particularly those whose advice we trust. Often, joint financial decisions can help a relationship function better. It could also keep us more accountable.
These days, things are looking up. More people are discussing finances in the workplace. Many open up on social media about their earnings, and discuss money woes, rising inflation and other on-goings. In the freelance world, too, people — via newsletters, writing communities and groups — share information about rates, incomes and financial goals. On the journey towards financial well-being — where you attain peace of mind with your finances — talking about money would be the first crucial step.
Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer from Goa who specialises in writing about travel, food, culture, lifestyle, and all things Goan.