A Lasting New Year’s Resolution: Talk About Money
The beginning of a calendar year is filled with possibility and intrigue about what we can do to make this fresh, new year better than, or at least different from, the one that just ended. That’s why many of us work toward improvements in our health and lifestyle in January. However, we’ve all heard the stories about how diets and gym memberships trail off by March.
Rather than get caught up in efforts that may be fleeting, I have a suggestion for a self-improvement mission that, once started, is easy to build on and has lasting benefits over the rest of your life. Seriously. Even better, the improvement is one that you can extend to your most intimate relationships, family and broader community. My idea is to spend more time talking about money.
In American society, money is a taboo topic, and we’re taught at young ages that it’s improper to talk about how much we earn or how much we spend. At the same time, we’re bombarded in all forms of media that money is connected to power, importance, desirability, control and strength, among other things. So we learn to compare ourselves to others to see how we size up. On top of that, we do very little as a society to provide adequate personal financial education. Unless we’re motivated to teach ourselves what we need to know, many of us lack the skills to thrive financially. These mixed messages cause many of us to experience feelings of inadequacy, fear and, yes, even self-loathing when it comes to money.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a road to clarity, and it all begins with gaining more practice and experience talking about money. Once we begin talking about money, we learn the necessary words and approaches that allow us to have natural, non-judgmental and productive personal financial discussions. This increases our confidence and allows us to find our money mojo.
There are two sides of money
Before beginning to talk about money more productively, it’s important to acknowledge that there are two sides of money: the intellectual, “how to” side and the emotional side.
In my nearly 20 years of experience as a wealth manager I’ve observed that the emotional parts of money tend to get us the most muddled in our financial conversations. Identifying and understanding our money perspectives and preferences provides excellent context for allowing us to later determine what technical money knowledge we need to gather and apply. So, let’s talk about the emotional aspects of money.
Three steps to money talk
Like most challenges, getting started is the hardest part. Here are three steps I recommend to help you feel more comfortable talking about money:
1. Identify your core values. What principles guide your view of life and the universe? What traits do you most admire in yourself and others? What mores make you sick to your stomach when you or someone else violates them? The answers to these questions are likely your core values. And identifying and understanding your core values provides a lens by which you can evaluate your relationship with and feelings toward money.
As a quick example, a few years back my husband and I engaged our two children in a dinnertime conversation about our family values. Some of our top values are transparency, community and sharing experiences. We apply our values to our decision-making about all things money. When one of our children comes home with a request for a high-priced item because “all my friends have one,” we discuss with them how that item fits into our desire to share experiences and not accumulate things. And we’ll transparently discuss how it fits into the family budget to evaluate if the purchase is a good one for the family or not.
Similarly, we use our core values to help inform family decisions about what charities we support, where and how we vacation, and how we participate in our community. We find that when we make decisions about money and time that align with our values, we feel good and confident. On the other hand, when we make decisions that aren’t consistent with our values, we tend to feel anxious and guilty.
Chances are your core values are different than mine, and that’s great. The point is to honestly identify your core values, even if one or two are aspirational at this time. Then, use the list to help you get in touch with how you make money-related decisions and how you feel about past and future decisions. This awareness is a great topic for exploratory conversation with your loved ones and friends.
2. Examine the past. Another way to ease into money conversations is to talk with your friends and family about what you learned about money while growing up. Here are some questions to consider discussing:
- What messages about money did your parents or trusted adults teach you? Do those messages serve you well or get in your way?
- How was money used in your family life — to incent, punish, impress, benefit, show affection, etc.? How has this impacted your attitude about money? What role do you want money to have in your life going forward?
- What was your first major purchase in your life? How did you make that purchase decision? How did the purchase make you feel?
The past holds many “ah-ha” moments and insights for most of us. Discussing past experiences with those we trust can help us tap into situations, examine them, and extract money wisdom that can serve us well as we move forward in life.
In some cases, revisiting the past surfaces painful money memories that we realize are hindering our ability to face and make important decisions today. When this happens, one of the best steps forward is to talk to a professional therapist or money coach to better work out feelings.
3. Be curious … out loud. Even if you spend a great deal of time thinking about money, talking about money is entirely different. Speaking out loud forces you to order your thoughts, concerns and hopes differently. Approach money conversations with an open mind, and it will help you find and hear your own voice.
Be curious about what you have to say: What’s important to you about these thoughts? What would life be like if you felt the opposite way? What’s driving your preconceptions and feelings? Is that serving you well?
Also, be curious about what others have to say: What experiences, thoughts or feelings do you have in common with the person you’re talking to? What’s different? What can you learn from their experience?
A married couple I work with recently had a challenging time connecting on what education path was appropriate for their child: public or independent schools. They got into huge door-slamming arguments every time they discussed this on their own, so when we all met, we practiced listening with curiosity. It worked. Each spouse was able to complete their own thoughts without being cut off by the other and had the opportunity to respond to the other spouse’s questions.
This process uncovered that one spouse felt strongly deep down inside that the family participate and be fully integrated in their neighborhood by participating in the local schools. She hadn’t previously realized that was driving her emotional arguments. Curious conversation allowed the couple to unblock their communication, fully dig into and understand their own and each other’s points of view, and harmoniously reach a decision about which education direction to follow.
Give it a try
I encourage you to engage in a money conversation soon. Do it today. Find someone you know and trust. Bring up the conversation in a way that’s comfortable to you: “I was thinking this morning about money …”, “I just read an article about money that got me thinking about …”, “I wonder if you have some of the same money thoughts that I do …” and dive in. Go as far as you’re comfortable with the person you’re talking to. Then, maybe pick up the conversation with them again later. And for sure, engage others in your social circle in money discussions.
The more you talk about money, the more at ease you’ll be, and the more insights and clarity you’ll gain into who you are and how you want money to serve you in your life. This will position you to make better financial decisions and plan for a more satisfying life.