Talking about Personal Finances -- the Final Taboo?

One of the most radical things I've ever seen was posted on construction paper and hung on a wall at a San Francisco housewarming. Two friends of mine had purchased their first home and invited the community to a housewarming with invites entitled: "Two Black Folks Bought A House In Frisco!" (With the increasing rates of Black households moving out of San Francisco, this is in fact news.)

These two black folks both happened to also be community organizers, and their housewarming was on a warm October afternoon, filled with a mixed crowd spanning generations and all of life's diversities. In between the potluck spread of a brunch and the running children, there was a wall covered in construction paper squares, taped together and written on in marker. Upon closer examination, this wall was covered in incredibly detailed financial information, explaining how these two women came to buy that house. The exhibit highlighted their incomes, educational debt, monthly expenses, financial plans for an upcoming child and how much they had saved, as well as how much they had to put down for the house, and how much money they had to borrow, and from whom, to make the purchase. I had never seen anything like it before.

In 2009, America is still learning how to talk openly and honestly about race. We've moved forward a lot in talking about sex, religion, gender and sexual orientation, although there is still a lot of work to be done on all fronts. On the whole, however, over the last forty years, we have turned a lot that was once taboo into less taboo conversation topics. And yet, it is still rare to hear open conversations about financial details.

I remember being sixteen and being the first person I knew to go off to college. I had no money, but somehow figured out how to fill out a FAFSA and take out loans in my own name, and then secure on campus housing, although I had no idea what that meant as far as how those loans would possibly translate into paying for that housing or that education. Luckily, a mentor's wife sat me down at her kitchen table one night and explained the process, as well as the fact that I would need to (and then did) apply for a job even before the first day of classes started.

Years later I was accepted into Harvard for graduate school, and was newly trying to figure out how one moved across country, into an apartment, and started classes -- all before any financial aid was released. I had gained a bit of financial knowledge by that point, but had not equally gained in wealth, and my brain was wrapping around the reality of being a student at the most privileged university in the world. . .but being unable to afford snow boots or a warm coat that first Boston winter.

People in class cutting predicaments seem, at times, to speak in code and find each other in a crowd. My best friend at Harvard was also from a working class background, and we were lucky enough to support each other through the experience. It often does seem easier for people within the same class to speak openly about their financial situations to one another. I also found it easier to engage in such conversations once my own financial situation grew more secure, and I no longer had to bundle up in four layers of light coats to head out into a blizzard after talking to someone about finances shortly before they were to jet off to a warmer part of the world. Nonetheless, such discussions often still felt like a social risk and more than a bit frightening.

Since then, I've spent the last few years talking to all of my friends about this topic -- from billionaires to former foster care kids -- and asking everyone questions about their income, savings, expenses, retirement planning, wealth and charity giving. I've also been lucky to hear a wide range of honest and informative answers.

For the last seven years, I've had a particular friend repeatedly ask me about my retirement planning. I'm 28. These regular inquiries have had their desired effect, and I now give considerably increased thought to my retirement planning, which has led to a series of new conversations with other friends, who wonder why I talk about the topic so much these days. But those conservations have led to knowing how a friend, who recently finished the Peace Corps and then worked for two years, was able to buy her new five-bedroom house. Or knowing the income ranges, savings plans and rent or mortgage payments of dozens of my friends.

The recession might have made our country more open to having honest discussions about personal finances, at least in relation to the political conversation about the economy, but the recent economic crisis also highlights how important it is that these discussions become more regular and widespread. At the same time, all these conversations I've had have highlighted how rare it still is for people to feel safe to regularly engage in such discussions.

The recent Supreme Court case of Lilly Ledbetter highlights the importance of such honesty and openness. Ms. Ledbetter worked for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company for twenty years before receiving an anonymous note informing her that she had long been paid less than her male co-workers.

On average, women in the American workforce still make less than their male co-workers. (On average, women earn 78¢ for every dollar earned by men, but African-American women earn only 62¢ and Latinas earn 53¢ for every dollar earned by White men.) As Lani Guinier has long documented, on average, Black and Latino families and individuals still have less wealth to support them in comparison to their White counterparts -- even when comparing those in similar income brackets.

There absolutely are many systemic injustices that need to be addressed to right this inequality, but the first step seems to be honest conversation and access to information about how those in a variety of classes and wealth predicaments financially exist and structure their lives.

I believe we're all assisting this necessary revolution in every conversation we have over a dinner table or water cooler, when we can talk honestly about how we live. The information I've gained has led me to make smarter personal decisions, which I can only hope will allow me both more personal security and a greater ability to give back to those around me who are not as well off as I am.

The doors and ladders between class levels still need to be made more accessible and equal, but, while doing that work, we also owe it to ourselves and our communities to illuminate the roads to greater financial stability. Alongside who I vote for and any political work I do, I fully believe this more personal work is equally powerful. We may not all literally post our financial details on the walls of our housewarmings. But I, for one, hope that I will have the commitment and courage to do the same someday.