Dear Debra, How Should I Answer Inappropriate Money Questions?

Dear Debra:

What do you say when someone asks you how much something costs or how much you make? The question makes me uncomfortable, but I find myself answering because I don't know what else to do!


Money Is Buying Me Unhappiness

Dear Unhappiness:

Why do so many people want others to show them the money? Why don't others understand that money doesn't grow on trees? Why are there so many tempting money-themed clichés out there (that I clearly can't help but use in this post)?

A recent issue of Money Magazine tackled this topic in their "Readers to the Rescue" column. The question posed: A colleague at my level told me her salary and is now asking about mine. (I make a lot more than my colleague.) What do I do?

Good question. I, for one, was surprised that some responses suggested telling the truth. Now, I am a big fan of telling the truth, but I am also a big believer in deflecting when the topic moves past your comfort zone. Personally, I feel money should not be discussed in detail. It tends to lead to problems, and I just don't love problems. Do you?

Apparently Money Magazine's expert Jacqueline Whitmore, author of Poised for Success, agrees with yours truly. How I love an expert to agree with moi - makes me feel so much smarter than I did at the beginning of the day! Here's what Whitmore has to say on the topic:

"If you're not comfortable saying what your salary is, be honest and say that...And don't open up if you don't completely trust her to keep [the number] to herself - if, for example, she might cite your compensation as a negotiating point when asking for a raise."

I asked the question to Liz Congdon, an executive coach based in Denver, and she shared her insight:

"Money is personal and asking co-workers about their salary can be awkward and construed as unprofessional. Additionally, management typically doesn't like it which can put you in a tough spot. Ideally, salary concerns should be addressed directly with your manager, who knows the why behind your salary being what it is and can address any concerns you may have. Your manager can also leverage human resources or the compensation specialist for market data if needed. Before approaching your manager, it can be helpful to do some online research with sites such as or to explore if your compensation is in line with how others are being paid in your field and geographic area. As an executive coach, I also encourage my clients to determine the reason behind their interest in knowing how they compare with others - is it simply curiosity or are they feeling undervalued and, thus, underpaid? If it's the latter, then a thoughtful discussion with the manager is warranted. Whatever the reason, talking to your cohorts is generally a bad idea. If you need to talk it out, it's best to seek out a friend or respected professional outside of the office."

So, Unhappiness, if someone is asking about your salary, it's perfectly ok to say; "Salary is something I just don't discuss." In terms of the other fan favorite; "So, how much did THAT cost?" try to gently but gracefully redirect. Here are some replies:

"Less than you would expect and more than I hoped for."
"It came in under budget."
"I don't remember."
"It was a gift."
"You'd be surprised if I told you, but I am sworn to secrecy."
"Excuse me?"
"I'm so glad you like it!"
"What a funny question."
"One dollar."
"Look, a squirrel!"

Don't be too hard on the offending party. Many times people are trying to make conversation, and may not have the tools to do so. If this is a first-time issue, change the subject. If this person is a repeat offender, it may be time to shut it down once and for all with something like; "You know by now that I don't discuss money; thanks for understanding." And that, my friends, is advice you can take to the bank (that was my last pun - swear).