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Why Talking About Money Is Taboo

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It may very well be uncomfortable to discuss money with friends, loved ones, or your boss. But, what if talking about money could help you live a more emotionally rich life, and be less lonely?

What if it helped you better understanding your personal views on the core purpose of your personal finances? Or, would it be worth it just to understand why you avoid the taboo topic (and why it is taboo, anyway)?

Read on for ways to fight back against the discomfort, learn more about yourself, and get fired up about asking for a healthy raise.  

1. Stress is Uncomfortable  

Financial Stress in America

Pressure. Tension. Strain. Worry. Anxiety. Difficulty.  These are all words Merriam-Webster suggests as synonyms for stress. By definition, stress is uncomfortable.  (Duh.)

This discomfort, the result of financial stress, isn’t inconsequential. In fact, in a survey done by PriceWaterhouse Cooper in 2017, Americans reported it as a top life stressor.  Money is such a huge source of stress it’s measurably impacting workplace productivity and contributes to burgeoning health problems across generational cohorts.

Money in Family Relationships

Talking about money with family can be a stressful proposition, too. If lending, borrowing, or inheritance is involved, things get dicey quickly. There’s a reason advise against lending money to family.

→ Pro Tip:  If you are considering a private personal loan, look into private promissory notes for documenting the terms of the loan and repayment schedule. NOLO specializes in these delicate agreements.

Another reason money might introduce extra awkwardness at holiday gatherings is that more young adults are living at home than ever before. Between an economy that kneecapped millennial graduates after the market crisis in 2008 and gushing leaks in social mobility pipeline —  student loan debt, wage stagnation, persistent pay gaps, ballooning housing prices — adult children are struggling to achieve financial independence.

Parent are understandably stressed and annoyed by the protracted obligation to help launch their kids. This money-finance interplay is generationally unique. In the past, adult kids might have borrowed money from their parents — but from the comfort of their own home, not their childhood bedroom.

By contrast, today it’s common to read articles in the Financial Independence and Retirement Early (FIRE) community about exercising the option to live with parents, even once married, to aggressively pay off debt or save a nest egg.

Try This

If you have financial responsibilities or debts to your family, ask about their expectations.

  • Do they expect you to forfeit disposable income in order to repay them as fast as possible?
  • Are they prepared to get installment payments in odd intervals, or do they need it regularly in the same increment?
  • What if you cannot repay the loan due to an unforeseen circumstance?

Ideally, have this conversation before accepting a check or moving back home. It’s never too late to reiterate how highly you value your relationship or acknowledge you understand their financial needs as it relates to repaying their generous favor.

2. Money is a Taboo Topic

In polite conversation, four topics are perennially out-of-bounds:

  • Sex
  • Money
  • Religion
  • Politics

At least, that’s what most Americans are taught. Although you may have never been expressly taught this is the case, talking about money is seen as crass, tasteless, rude, or inappropriate.

Setting aside the root cause, origins, and social cogs which perpetuate its taboo status for a moment, money is just one of those things we don’t talk about. But, when we do, boy do we get twitchy.  

Salary Self-Disclosure

I have noticed personal reactions vary when the topic comes up that I write about personal finances. By my analysis, the most common reaction is to vaguely acknowledge other people terrible with money and prompt the conversation along to safer waters.

On the occasions in which I have disclosed personal details to close friends, even they have been demure or elusive in responding in kind with self-disclosure.

Sometimes those conversations are like this:

  • Me:  “The new contract I got this week pays $X. I’m so relieved because I am broke.
  • Friend:  “I’m happy you got a new contract. Have you tried this potato salad?”

Or, sometimes it’s like this:

  • Me:  “Market research says the job I’m interviewing for would pay about $X.”
  • Friend:  Gracefully changes subject back to the culture fit of the company.

To be sure, there are material and emotional costs associated with this avoidance, particularly as the embittered battle drags on for pay equity in the workplace. To close the sex-based pay gap, we have no choice but to prioritize salary transparency and democratization of salary information using tools like glassdoor.com over being polite.

Try This

Remember how we set aside the root cause, origins, and social cogs which perpetuate the taboo status of money? Let’s revisit that with a food-for-thought writing exercise. A few prompts to consider:

  • Who benefits from money being a taboo? Does this have a purpose?
  • Do you agree it should be the way it is?  How did it become that way?
  • Have you looked at your salary as compared to peers in your field lately?
  • Are you being compensated fairly?
  • What are discussions like with people in your life regarding money?
  • Do you intentionally avoid talking about money to be polite, or had you never noticed?
  • How might salary secrecy be impacting your income potential, or is it?  

3. Our Pride  

Talking about money can also agitate shame that’s otherwise normally dormant. In other words, it brings up feelings that tend to make us supremely uncomfortable.

Let’s take a quick detour to unpack shame:  

  • Shame is an ultra intense emotion
  • Humiliation or embarrassment are often used in its place
  • It can come from internal (self-judgement) or external (others; social norms) cues
  • Acknowledging and experiencing shame can present interpersonal emotional risk

Secret Shame

Shame is an emotion we tend to stuff it in the back of our mental filing cabinets. Even in cases where no one else knows we’re feeling ashamed, our emotional self-preservation tendencies predispose us to slamming that file door shut quickly when, on rare occasion, we have no choice but to access it.  

Learning to tolerate these difficult emotions (rather than slam the metaphorical cabinet shut) can be a powerful way to reclaim the way we engage with the underlying issue, whatever that may be.

For example, if I’m embarrassed that I pay way too much in interest fees, I can more directly confront how I tackle the fee problem itself if I acknowledge I’m embarrassed about it. As a therapist, I can appreciate it can be acutely painful for many of us to do this.

→ Pro Tip:  Research shows that “experiential avoidance” (avoiding our emotional experiences) actually makes the negative emotions we’re trying to avoid even stronger. The more we avoid our shame, the more power we give it. Get into your life! AFFILIATE LINK FOR AMAZON NEEDED HERE

Much of the work that is done in therapy for treating anxiety disorders is learning to look at how we feel and think about our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, and then change how we interact with those self-judgements. It’s also about learning to tolerate the negative emotion itself as a part of life.

If you’ve heard of exposure therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), you may not be surprised by this idea.

In a nutshell, exposure is the opposite of experiential avoidance using a series of baby steps to help clients habituate or acclimate to experiencing their anxiety instead of avoiding it somehow. There’s an old cartoon  strip with a man being subjected to this and, while it looks like a form of torture, the science behind the concept of engagement with our emotions, including negative, it trustworthy.

Sharing Our Shame

It’s definitely understandable that we aren’t quick to bring up the scoop on our finances with friends, strangers, colleagues, or anyone else if it means the possibility of ridicule. Going back to the point of money being a taboo topic, consider how polite conversation adds to the potential for rejection or judgement.

→ Pro Tip:  However, sharing these feelings in a vulnerable way can actually bring you closer with another person because it signals trust that other person will not hurt you while emotionally vulnerable. It isn’t a coincidence that people who can engage their own emotions are also less lonely.


Here’s an example of how that could look:

  • Partner 1:  Hon, I’m embarrassed I don’t understand money better. It’s scary to admit that.
  • Partner 2:  I’m glad you shared that with me. I feel the same way sometimes, actually. It took guts to share that you feel embarrassed. You can share things like this with me; we’re in this together.    

Try This

Confront the shame in your money game by sharing something that feels a little scary with someone you have a strong, trusting relationship.

This might be a romantic partner, a family member, a close friend, or maybe even a trusted mentor. It could surprise you how supportively they’ll react. It’s likely you’ll learn something you never knew about this person before; that’s an opportunity to get closer to another human who also experiences feelings of shame (we all experience it!).  

4. Ugly Emotions

Money is just a tool, some say, but that is an oddly non-anthropomorphic viewpoint. We think our pets understand our jokes, yet we view there being no connection between money and the way it impacts our lives? Of course not.  

Money is a symbol, above all else. (Just ask the folks who want to reinstate the gold standard.) Because money isn’t just about the numbers you see on a screen or the paper in your wallet, sometimes talking about money is uncomfortable because it’s like navigating someone else’s minefield.

Fear, Anger, and Jealousy

As a financial therapist, fear is the most common stumbling block I see clients struggle over, around, even under, even when they do not realize it. One reason clients don’t see it there?  We use “stress” as a catch-all  in everyday conversation to describe an entire range of emotional and neuro responses we experience because of money. It’s worth noting that what we call stress is often better described as fear:

  • “I am stressed about making rent this month” might actually be more accurately phrased as “I am afraid of being evicted and becoming homeless if I am late on rent again.”
  • “I am stressed about paying for my son’s elaborate wedding” maybe a more socially acceptable way of saying “I am afraid of disappointing my son and new daughter-in-law.”

A close relative of fear, anger is also a common emotion tied to money.  Maybe you’re being underpaid, and you’re cheesed about it. What if you can’t afford the things you need, and you’re about to flip out at someone? That’s anger. If you feel trapped or out of control, but you make so many sacrifices and save money every way you can can’t fathom how you’re in this position, you’re probably angry.

Let’s assume jealousy is altogether self-evident. Your neighbor has a boat? You pine for one, too. Or, you bitterly complain to whoever will listen that they can’t afford it or don’t deserve it. That’s not pretty.  

Just as sharing shame with others has understandably not been the top priority on your list, taking a long hard look in the mirror when it comes to coveting your neighbors’ cool new water toy probably isn’t your idea of a picnic, either. Understood. With that said, the question worth pondering is this.

Why are you jealous?

Really why? Are you saving for a boat? Or is this about something else, like feeling as though you never get to relax, and wish you could have more weekend leisure time?

Try This

Consider what the meaning of money is to you. For some, this is power. For others, it can be control, freedom, comfort, power, or impact. How does the meaning you ascribe to money show up in the ways you emotionally respond to it?

Final Thoughts

All of this may very well be uncomfortable to discuss with friends, loved ones, and certainly your bosses. But, consider the potential benefits:

  • Engaging your emotions (instead of avoiding!)  
  • Better understanding your view on the core purpose of money (power, control, impact, etc.)  
  • Evaluating your confidence in talking about money, breaking the taboo  
  • And you might just get closer to a few people in the process
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