The Money Taboo

What Happens if We Actually Talk Specifics About Money?

Photo by Ramiro Mendes on Unsplash

Do your friends know how much money you make? How much — or how little — you have to live on?

Do you know how much they make? Beyond just a general, ballpark guess based on lifestyle clues?

When you get together to grab drinks and dinner, are there unspoken negotiations around what to order, about “splitting something for the table”? What happens when the bill comes? When you chose where to go, was there any discussion about who could — and couldn’t — afford certain places?

There’s such a taboo about talking about money. And this hurts us all — not just women and not just in the workplace, about which we were recently reminded on Equal Pay Day — but anyone who feels they cannot speak up about their everyday realities, the challenges we face when we’re already juggling the bills, triaging their due dates, finally thinking we can make it all work out…and then the dishwasher breaks.

Maybe we can’t talk about it, but we’re surely always thinking about it. Paying intense attention to it. Watching how everyone else is doing. Wondering if we’re falling short.

Money is definitely a lot on my mind these days. Tax time has something to do with it, of course, but it’s bigger than just a whopping tax bill, still here on my desk, waiting till we get as close to April 15 as possible to start that 120-day clock ticking on the IRS’s payment plan. (Speaking of triage.) Money is the great scorekeeper in our society — certainly U.S. society, though I imagine it goes far beyond these shores. It’s how we measure success, and failure.

A huge serving of shame comes with not having enough money. If it’s the benchmark of success, and we’re falling short…what does that say about our worth? Our capabilities, our intelligence, our maturity?

But “money can’t buy happiness,” they say, and that’s true, as far as it goes. Unless you’re a completely selfish jerk, on the other side comes guilt. Guilt about having so much more money than those around us.

I have lived on both sides of that divide, at different times of my life. I’ve been so poor there wasn’t enough to eat for days on end and we had to just hope the car repairs could be held off for another month and that there really were a few gallons of gas still in the tank though who knew because the gauge was broken and oh crap that last check bounced why why why?; I’ve been so rich that I once bought white-sapphire stud earrings to travel with so that I didn’t risk taking my diamond studs to scary dangerous places (like Paris or Rome) and I put the maximum allowable amount into my 401K every year without batting an eye.

(Though it’s all relative, of course; the divide isn’t by any means clean or clear-cut. When I was the wealthiest I’ve ever been in my life, my then-husband did not feel rich at all. He worked for members of a family so wealthy and so prominent, you have absolutely heard of them; you probably interact with their name several times a day. Yeah, we were middle class compared with them, just getting by.)

I am in neither of those places now. My now-husband and I are somewhere in the great in-between. I mean, I think we are. But I don’t really know.

Because nobody talks about money.

My husband and I live in a gorgeous house on five acres of land (with a freakin’ pond) on an exquisitely beautiful island in the Pacific Northwest. We moved here from Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, where we owned a paid-for hundred-year-old “Portland foursquare” house in the inner Southeast. I’d bought that house seven years earlier, with divorce money from my trophy wife years; it sold for not quite double what I’d paid for it. I’m a multi-published writer; my husband is an artist and illustrator of some note, in addition to having written a novel which sold well.

So we’re sitting pretty, right?

The view from our dining room French doors. (photo by me)

Well…yes and no.

Yes: we have a (lovely) roof over our heads; we have enough to eat, and two paid-off cars plus a hand-me-down beater pickup truck; if I want to buy a book or my husband wants some more plants for the garden, we can afford that. We like to have friends over and cook for them. Our house is filled with nice furniture that matches, and Oriental carpets, and good art on the walls, and high-thread-count percale sheets on our bed.

We have health insurance (THANKS OBAMA) — massively subsidized by tax credits.

We have parents who can bail us out if we get into unexpected trouble. Parents who have already surprised us with generous gifts. VERY helpful gifts.

We are so much better off than so many people. We know this.

But also: No. We’re both self-employed, as I’ve mentioned. Not only does that mean our taxes are handled differently (i.e. we pay a lot more), but it also means that the work is uneven — while the bills march on, inexorably. It means that any time we’re not working, we aren’t getting paid. No vacation or sick leave. So if I have to have surgery to repair this disc in my neck…which has already taken me to the emergency room twice and eaten up a lot of my productive time over the last month…well, I just can’t really think about that. Because of course we don’t have disability insurance — that was prohibitively expensive, when we looked into it. We’re already paying for home insurance and auto insurance and life insurance and an umbrella policy (you know, in case someone falls into that pond and sues us), plus our share of that health insurance.

We keep it all together by being as frugal as we can. We go off-island once a month or so to the big box stores for most of our staples. We don’t eat out a lot, or buy new clothes (well, my husband recently bought some pants, but only because his other pair fell apart). My ancient computer limps along. I borrow most of the books I read from friends, and from the library. I drink cheap wine. All that furniture and those carpets and percale sheets I told you about — well, I’m a master bargain hunter. And I haven’t put any money into my 401K in at least a decade.

Who benefits from making it rude, or awkward, or downright forbidden, to talk about money?

Well, those who have the most of it, I think. Those who control it. Those who are the most invested in keeping the system as it is.

My first job out of college was executive secretary to the president of a medium-sized engineering and manufacturing company. It was only when human resources called to offer me the job that I learned what the salary would be. I was a little disappointed, but it was enough, so I said yes.

After I’d worked there three or four months, the head of the sales department hired a new secretary for himself; at the same time, I got a little raise. (Fifty more dollars a month.) I was pleased: they liked my work. It’s nice to be appreciated.

It wasn’t until almost a year after that that I learned that the incoming secretary — a woman even younger than me, without a college degree — had had the presence of mind, and the guts, to demand more than she’d been offered. The sales manager agreed to it. Then he and the president realized that if she and I ever compared salaries, I’d know she made more than me. So they matched mine to hers.

I only found this out by accident; if management had had its way, I never would have learned it.

It seems to me that we would all be better served by more openness about money. I’m doing what I can, in writing articles like this. I also post my editorial rates on my website (though I will confess that a few longtime clients pay less than that).

But I think the problem is actually bigger than transparency-or-not about money. It has to do with how we think about money itself: that guilt and shame I talked about above; how money takes on this outsized importance. How it comes to mean more than it should. How it maps onto our identity.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that money isn’t important — not at all. It’s the way we live, in the system we’ve created. Having enough money doesn’t just mean being able to have nice shiny things or fun vacations; it means security, and safety, and the ability to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Not having enough money is unhealthy; it’s frightening and anxiety-inducing.

Money is a tool, a mechanism. A flawed one, sure, but it’s the one we’ve got. It’s the way we put value on goods and services, and organize the exchange of those things. It is not a benison or an indictment of who we are as human beings. And I think, all too often, we treat it as such.

Though the outer details have certainly changed, and though I think I have perhaps matured a bit over the years, I am, at the core, exactly the same person I was when I was very poor, as well as when I was very rich. It’s all still me in here.

I am not my bank account. (And neither are you — or that Hollywood star, or that guy living under a bridge who has no bank account.)

Do I dare tell the world how much is in that account?

Do I dare even tell my friends?

What would happen if we all did? What would happen if we decided to defy the taboo and talk about this stuff?

Could we all be a little freer?

Could we start to crack open this system of secrecy that’s keeping us all in its stifling grip?

I feel like we can. I feel like so many things are breaking open these days…it’s a scary time, but I also feel a lot of hope in the air.

Let’s change things. Let’s talk about the taboo stuff. (And why does talking about money feel even scarier than talking about, oh, say, polyamory?)

Here’s me, starting, just a little. Fingers crossed.

Writer, editor, thinker of things, living on Orcas Island, Washington state.

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