Why Talking Openly About Money Is Crucial, Not Crass

Most of us talk about our sex lives with at least one person we're not having sex with. Yet many of us do not talk about money with anyone at all.
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Do you think it's rude to talk about money?

Ask any etiquette expert, or your grandmother, and certainly you, will discover that the answer is "yes."

And yet, these same purported authorities also tell you that it is rude to talk about your sex life. Do you follow that advice? Most of us don't. Most of us talk about our sex lives with at least one person we're not having sex with. Yet many of us do not talk about money with anyone at all.

We're shortchanging ourselves when we do this. What would most help you improve your life: knowing how many people all your friends have slept with, or knowing how much money they make and being able to discuss it?

Here are some reasons for a little more financial disclosure.

Quantify everything. Numbers provide goals, motivation, and rational thinking about your career.

It's pretty normal to tell people "I lost 30 pounds!", "I ran a marathon in four hours and 23 minutes!", "Only three more credits until I graduate!", or "I ate 32 hot dogs in 10 minutes and came in third!" That is, a great many accomplishments are based on numbers.

Because of a cultural phobia in talking about money, it's pretty hard even to proffer a vague announcement: "Hey, I got a raise! I'm pretty happy! I worked hard for it!"

Using real numbers allows us to share our accomplishments, as well as to see what other people are up to and set reasonable (or ambitious) goals. Similarly, I think the Internet did a great service to adolescent men who type "average penis size" into Google millions of times per year. Sharing actual numbers allows the majority of men to realize that they are perfectly normal. Numbers give context.

I have a friend I've known since we both made $25,000 a year. When she hit six figures, I congratulated her! Making $100,000 a year as a freelancer is a tremendous accomplishment! I don't know if anyone else congratulated her, though, because I doubt there are that many people she was able to share that fact with. But why? There's very little else you could work on every day for years and years, and then not be able to tell people about when you're done.

At the women's conference I organized this past November, we completed an exercise in which we listed our 2013 accomplishments as an entrée into planning 2014. One woman shared that she increased her income by 30 percent. She got a round of applause, as she well deserved. What's not appropriate at a dinner party needs to be appropriate somewhere.

You need a money friend. And, ideally, a money ally (or several) at work.

Salary transparency is a social justice issue. It is especially important for people of color, LGBT workers, women, disabled workers, and many others to have enough information to know when something is just not right. Sometimes there's a pattern of discrimination. Sometimes it's just that the next guy asked for more at his initial interview, and it's time to for you to ask for a raise.

How do you make "money friends"? I'd try to start conversations in this way: "I'm asking for a raise/pitching a project/going over my records for the year, and I'm not sure if this seems normal. I know it's weird, but can I ask what you think about my money question?" Then spill some kind of detail: "I made this website for a company, and they paid me $500," or "I discovered that the person one level above me at the company you used to work for makes $20,000 more than I do."

See if you get a real answer or if the person squirms. Who knows -- maybe your friend has also been dying for someone to talk about money with. You could even try, "Isn't it weird we know everything about each other's personal lives, but you don't know how much money I make? It would really help me if you gave me some feedback." (You might have to try a few friends.)

Finding a money ally is much harder at work. You have to be pretty ballsy to initiate any kind of salary transparency in an office situation, but think of it this way: The company knows what it pays each of the employees, but the employees don't know what the other employees are getting paid. This allows the company to cheat and manipulate people, or it simply allows inconsistencies to exist in the system because the people who would most benefit from rectifying those inconsistencies don't know about them. That is, the person in the position to notice that two people in the same job receive drastically different salaries is generally someone with no incentive at all to fix that situation.

If you got pretty friendly with someone at work -- friendly enough to suggest that you share salary information -- what's the worst that could happen? You find out that you make less, in which case you say, "Wow, thanks for telling me. This really motivates me to ask for a raise. If you don't mind me asking, you must be a good negotiator -- any tips?" Or, you find out that you make more, and you say, "Wow, thanks for telling me. I think you are really doing great work here, and I'm surprised to hear what they're paying you." And then listen to the person vent, and then offer tips if asked.

This second scenario is certainly awkward, but if it leads to that person negotiating for thousands more dollars per year, it seems likely that that person would be thanking you basically forever. The worst-case scenario is still kind of a win-win, no?

Oh, and if someone delivers an envelope to your desk, open it without reading what's on the front. That way if you accidentally open someone else's paycheck, it's the messenger's fault, not yours. I'm joking. Sort of.

Money Assumptions Help No One.

If your friends regularly drag you places that serve $14 cocktails, it's totally possible that they make twice as much as you do and neither you nor they are aware of it. While you might think that they are recklessly fun and devil-may-care with their money, they might actually just make enough cash that they don't think about the price of drinks, and they'd be horrified to find out that, when you do the math, you are sitting in a cubicle for 50 minutes to pay for each bourbon-based concoction you sling back. Maybe they'd actually be happy to go someplace cheaper if they actually thought about it.

Even Telling People You're Broke Can Help (Especially If You're Skilled)

Many people move up in their careers by in small but frequent jumps -- from a low-paying temp job to a slightly better-paying receptionist job to convincing whoever you're the receptionist for to let you update the website to then designing websites for a few dollars more than you were paid to be a receptionist, etc. You don't have to become a millionaire all at once, or get hired out of obscurity for your dream job. You just have to be hypervigilant in looking for the next step.

So if your friends knew that you were a hard worker and currently making $25/hour, or $32,000/year, or whatever, then they would know to send you something that might pay a little more. If others don't know your situation, it's fairly likely that they wouldn't pass on some of those opportunities out of fear of offending. (This advice especially applies to you if your job title is way more impressive than your paycheck. If you're the Director or Editor of anything, people assume you're doing well, possibly by tens of thousands of dollars above what you actually make.)

When I get an email from a friend or colleague looking to hire for a position that pays less than $40,000 a year, I basically just delete it, because sending it to friends who make $60,000 might look like an insult. But if I were aware that someone were really good at her job and persevered despite making only $32,000, then I'd forward the email, secure in the knowledge that she wouldn't take it the wrong way.

In Conclusion

Peter Post of the Emily Post Institute (seriously, is Peter Post not an excellent porn star name?) says that, if someone asks you your salary, the only appropriate response is, "I make enough to get by."

I agree that that's a nice response to a nosy stranger who's poking into your business, but that's not the conversation you want to be having with people who could help you. Sure, it can sometimes be hard to be friends across a large income gap (once the truth comes out). But I'm sure you have friends who are more or less attractive than you, and more or less educated than you. Work through it. It's worth it.

Adapted from material originally published on The Gloss.

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