by Laura Gisbourne
Talking about money and finances with peers, employers and even family is often considered taboo. I'm much more likely to participate in conversations about sex or political opinions than personal financial situations. Sometimes I wonder whether the taboo nature we’ve allowed money to occupy will always remain. When paying for a meal out yesterday, the bill was brought to the table with the price folded down, invisible to all but the person picking up the bill to pay. Apparently, knowing the cost of eating out with friends is a private matter, only for the bill-payer and the restaurant to know. But what is this deliberate secrecy really for?
'Accepting money, when gifted rather than given in exchange for something, seems to be considered a shameful thing to do in our society.'
Whenever the conversation arises at the end of a meal about who is paying, I’ve usually found people, including myself, become slightly tensely polite - a big contrast to how they were during the meal. There is a very real fear of being judged based on income. If you earn too much you might find yourself being the subject of serious jealousy. A ‘you think you’re better than me’ attitude from peers could develop if they discovered you earned a higher rate of pay than they did. But what if you earn too little? Does that mean that you’re not adept enough for a pay rise? Or you’re in a worse job field, or just lazy? Recently I found out that three of my closest friends are signed up for Universal Credit. When having an open and safe discussion with me, they all showed some form of shame, embarrassment, or a strong desire to find a job as soon as possible to come off benefits. Each one has a different but very valid reason for applying for benefits, but none of them feel comfortable having been granted government money (put aside to aid those in dire need) even though they all qualify for help. Accepting money, when gifted rather than given in exchange for something, seems to be considered a shameful thing to do in our society.
2020 has certainly been an odd year. Unemployment and underpaid work are on the rise as a direct result from COVID-fueled economy dips, which makes it even harder for millennials to make it onto the property ladder. I know personally only two 19-35 year olds, both married, who are successfully paying a mortgage, and one young mother whose adopted mum bought a flat out-right for her and her daughters. Any young person who can afford a mortgage, has a stable job and also manages to jet off on holidays may find themselves becoming a source of tension, jealousy and outright bitterness from their peers and friends. ‘How did they do it?’ you might ask yourself when buying a housewarming gift for your younger cousin. But if we felt more able to speak openly about financial help, saving and how indeed those few millennials are able to afford a property of their own, we might be able to somewhat lessen the sense of inadequacy that friends experience when faced with the ‘welcome to my crib’ scenario.
'I was worried that bringing up the topic of my pay would become a source of tension and argument between myself, my boss, and peers who have yet to receive a pay rise.'
I am aware that for the similar reason of facing the feeling of inadequacy when a fellow millennial buys a house, people also shy away from talking about finances as it could lead to an argument. In a previous place of work I found out I was eligible for a pay rise which I had not been given. I immediately turned to those I knew who could advise me best on how to broach the topic of a pay rise without sounding ungrateful or aggressive. It was very amicably agreed that I would get the pay rise, but only after I had sent an email which had been drafted about 5 times by 3 different people.
Finances is such a delicate topic, even within the place of work. I was worried that bringing up the topic of my pay would become a source of tension and argument between myself, my boss, and peers who have yet to receive a pay rise. I’ve also discovered a very common fear of looking stupid when we openly discuss personal finances. When, a few years ago, I made a car insurance claim after a collision in which the other driver was at fault, my subsequent insurance prices were raised significantly. If I had let the other driver’s insurance company deal with the insurance I would be in a much better position now, both with my insurance and finances, if I didn’t have a claim on my insurance. Admitting that I made a large financial blunder is indeed embarrassing. I was not very likely to go around spreading the news that I made a mistake that will now punish me financially for a few more years. But money mistakes are normal, if embarrassing, hence me telling you all. It’s ok to admit mistakes - right?
The thing is, this attitude towards our openness to discuss finances does no one any good. I do believe there is a movement to change our negative, secretive attitude towards money. There are a number of radio podcasts, TV shows and regular newspaper articles specifically designed to discuss personal money issues. Martin Lewis is a fantastic example. Lewis discusses, in a really accessible way, topics such as ISAs, debt, student loans, mortgages, how to save, and useful money saving tips. He goes on the radio to shed light on very common but often secretive money problems many people face without a clear understanding of how to solve them. He writes helpful articles that highlight the importance of knowing your financial situation without judgement and gives monetary guidance. A much younger podcaster, Bea Duncan, created a fabulous series called Money 101 specifically targeting young adults. Duncan left university, and after discovering that she knew nothing about how the economy works, didn’t understand phrases like ‘stock market’, or the difference between ‘mortgage’ and ‘renting’, she created Money 101 to address the confusion many face.
'By falling into the consumerism trap, and trying to prove our worth by purchasing... all we are doing is feeding the big companies who are telling us we need endless new products.'
There is plenty of accessible information out there, but it still seems like people are reluctant to search for it. I know I shied away from learning more about money - I’m no maths geek - but actually the knowledge is necessary and the maths seems much more logical than SOHCAHTOA, long division or Pythagoras’ theorem. School, especially when I was there, seemed rather lacking in the education of personal and business finances - actually, unless it was a math’s problem about how much change John has after buying 5 penny sweets with £1, I don’t recall learning anything about money.
The way I see it, the secrecy surrounding money only leads to stress when we try to show our wealth by buying things we can’t afford, or feeling like we must keep money struggles hidden from our peers who, from the outside at least, seem to have things under financial control. By falling into the consumerism trap, and trying to prove our worth by purchasing branded clothes we don’t need, or home gym equipment, or home-making items so anyone who enters our house thinks ‘what a lovely place’, all we are doing is feeding the big companies who are telling us we need endless new products. These companies are the ones benefiting from our embarrassment to say ‘I simply can’t afford this’. We eat into our bank accounts to prove that we’re not too poor to be generous when out with our friends at the pub, yet, the only real winners are the owners of said pub.
I am not an accountant, financial guru or anything else. I do believe that we could make a difference when we open up to each other about our finances - blunders and joys alike. If we try to breach this taboo conversation with those we trust most, we might be able to break the chain of allowing capitalism and companies to overpower our own financial freedom.
Laura aims to follow a mindful lifestyle. Although she has a philosophy degree, baking is her passion and she is actively working towards using only sustainable ingredients in all she makes at home and at work. One day she hopes to travel the world finding happiness by carrying only the bare necessities on her back. Read her previous articles on the expense of sustainability, and how lockdown fixed her burnout.