Money can be an uncomfortable topic, especially among friends. But as tax day approaches, we have some tips for talking about it with your peers without rocking the boat.
Steer clear of numbers.
Talking about money is probably the last big taboo. I think most people are more likely to be able talk about sex with their friends — especially women — than they are money. Part of that comes from a feeling of either "I have too much" or "maybe I don't have enough." You don't quite know what situation your friends are in, and so it's difficult to gauge where you fit and you don't want to expose yourself too much or embarrass yourself. So a way you could start out if you really want to have some in-depth discussions about money, is start out talking about goals. What are your plans? If they have young kids, you can say, "what have you thought about for saving for your kids' education? Here's what we're doing."
I witnessed two recently married friends of mine putting this approach into practice a few months ago in a conversation about merging finances with their partners — you can share ideas about financial planning for the future without getting into awkward comparisons of salary or account balances. Trent Hamm, founder of The Simple Dollar and author of The Simple Dollar: How One Man Wiped Out His Debts and Achieved the Life of His Dreams shared another technique with me:
With my own friends, we generally just avoid the topic of specific numbers of salary and things like that. If we talk about specific numbers, we usually talk about percentages. That's a good way to do it — like, "I contribute 10% of my income to my 401(k)."
In general, save your gross annual income for TurboTax — you can talk about a lot of different financial issues without even mentioning it.
Suggest frugal options.
Say you're trying to save money, but your friends love eating at expensive restaurants. It can sometimes be uncomfortable to bow out of social engagements for money reasons, but Hamm offers this approach:
I usually try to not avoid it. Unless the activity is really, really crazy-expensive like, "let's go to Vegas for the weekend," my usual tactic with my friends is I'll say, "I'll participate in this thing, and then what I'll do next is, I'll invite some people over to my house to do something that doesn't cost much of anything. And overall the two balance out.
However, he adds, "If it's something where I simply don't have the money in the bank to do it, I usually say, 'sorry, I can't make it,' and then if someone follows up I usually just say, 'I can't make it for a personal reason.'"
Marcia Brixey, author of The Money Therapist: A Woman's Guide to Creating A Healthy Financial Life, offers a more direct approach:
If you want to come clean about it, [...] say, "I'd love to go with you, but it's just not in my finances this month. I haven't allocated for that." That's a way to start a conversation, actually, and to say "I'm really working on getting out of credit card debt, or I'm trying to live within a spending plan, I have other things that are more important to me, I'd love to spend time with you but find something that doesn't cost money." [...] My personal thing is, I'd come clean, and I'd say it, because you may find out your friends are going, "you know, I can't afford that either, let's get together and have a game night, or let's do something that doesn't cost money."
Whether or not you end up being open about your financial concerns, suggesting cheap or free alternatives won't just help your bank account — it's also a good way to include a friend who may have more financial constraints than others in the group.
Direct friends to resources.
Do you have a friend who's always complaining about being broke? First, make sure they actually want solutions — sometimes people just need an ear. But if they're really looking for help, Hamm suggests directing them to online resources:
I think sending links is a really good idea because it's not coming from your voice, you're not telling them what to do. You're saying, "good luck with your problem, here's some stuff I found, and I'm concerned about you. And then you're not being bossy or telling them what to do, but you're sharing something of use to them.
Brixey has another idea: if you're comfortable with it, offer to work with your friend to get both your financial lives in order. She suggests "saying to them, 'You know what, let's learn about this together. Let's be money partners. Let's hold each other accountable.'" She also adds this important caveat: "I highly recommend you do not loan them money. That's not a good thing for a friendship."
Be sensitive to others' situations.
Hamm points out that while you can avoid numbers in conversations with your friends, large disparities in income will probably still be apparent. And if you do happen to make way more than your friends, you may want to avoid complaining about your financial situation. He says,
I think you can make someone really uncomfortable if you're making much more than the person you're talking to and you talk about money problems, you can make them feel like, "he's making way more than I am, but he's having money problems? This isn't right." [...] If you're in a friendship where there's a big income inequality, you probably should avoid the money topic largely.
Or at least don't talk about how expensive private jets are getting when you know your friend's trying to make ends meet. That said, people's standard of living can be deceptive — Brixey recalls a time when she and her husband were "financial frauds," with a nice house and great jobs, but also lots of debt. Just because someone has expensive things doesn't necessarily mean they're better off than you — but if you're the one with the Ferrari, be prepared for people to assume you're rich. And if your financial struggles aren't apparent in your lifestyle, you'll need to discuss these struggles in a sensitive and honest way if you discuss them at all.
Don't wait for a crisis.
Says Bahr of the money issue: "often it's brought up when you're in financial crisis and you're trying to borrow money, and that's not such a good way to start out talking about money." Brixey adds,
It's really unfortunate but it's still true today that a lot of people really don't want to deal with the money issue, even in the terrible times that we're in, unless they get into crisis. And once we're in crisis, then we're willing to talk about it, because then we're willing to say, "I don't know what to do, I may have to file bankruptcy." We need to talk about it long before that.
This doesn't mean you have to talk about coupons and 401(k)s with everyone you meet. It does mean that with your close friends, it might be a good idea to get comfortable talking about financial issues — in a sensitive and possibly numbers-free way. If you're okay with sharing things like, say, your strategy for cutting back on food costs, or your questions about index funds, then you're more likely to get social support for good money habits (and maybe even find the kind of "money partner" that Brixey mentions). And if you do find yourself in dire straits, it'll be easier to share your problems with your friends if you're already accustomed to discussing financial matters with them. So tread lightly, but don't be afraid — as Brixey says, your friends might have a lot of the same questions you do.
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