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Home » Personal Asides

Why Personal Finance is so Taboo (& how we can Change that)

Last updated by on 13 Comments

When you stop to think about it – there are very few things in this country that are more taboo to talk about than personal finance.

We rarely talk about our income (especially at our places of employment).

We rarely talk about our debts.

We rarely talk about our expenses.

We rarely talk about our desires to be financially independent and leave our cubicles in the dust (again, especially at our places of employment).

We rarely talk about our net worth, investments, mortgage/lack of, taxes, donations, goals, and retirement. The list goes on. Having an anonymous exchange online doesn’t really count, by the way.

We NEVER talk about estate planning (personal finance AND death in one package? Egads!!!!)

We don’t even teach personal finance in schools – despite it probably being the most real world applicable topic students could ever be taught and benefit from.

The irony of this is that we spend more hours working than any other developed country? Why? To make money! Most of our waking hours are spent trying to make money so that we can improve our personal finances (or at least limit our losses).

personal finance is tabooSo why are personal finance matters so off limits? Here’s my take:

  1. Those who are doing well in the game of personal finance do not want to come across as a braggart OR they actually have a fear of becoming a target if word got around to the wrong people.
  2. Those who are not doing well in the game of personal finance do not want to be thought of as a failure. After all money = status. And nothing is more highly valued in this country than status.

Those might be legitimate reasons to not bring it up. So… nobody brings it up.

The unfortunate downside of this is that we all hold it in when we really want to talk about it. And then we miss out on phenomenal opportunities to learn from one another.

Instead of being so taboo, what if…

…personal finance was taught in school so that all children could have an example of the right things to do versus modeling the wrong from their parents?

…someone struggling with spending and debt could easily get free advice from someone who had previously overcome those problems?

…a rich prick with zero empathy for others could sit and talk with someone who had worked hard their entire life, but ran into bad luck and harsh realities?

…hundreds of millions of present and future Americans could more easily discuss and learn how to consume less and save more so that they could live richer, fuller lives?

Wouldn’t we all benefit? Wouldn’t our wasteful consumption habits plummet, helping to reduce our burden on the environment and boost our personal savings rate go far beyond the measly 4.6% average? Wouldn’t our debts plummet? Wouldn’t our retirement prospects become much more realistic? Wouldn’t our youth be more likely to make the right financial moves instead of the wrong ones?

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? So how can we embrace and encourage more personal finance discussion? Here are some ideas, for starters:

  1. Petition those who set school curriculum to include more personal finance (at the national and local level).
  2. If you have children – teach them at every opportunity. You should have plenty of learning experiences to share.
  3. Express your interest in discussing personal finance with others, with the hope that they will want to reciprocate. Maybe this is as simple as sending out a Facebook message or tweet every now and then.
  4. Start up a club at work or in your neighborhood to discuss financial matters and invite those who you think might be interested.

Just don’t be a braggart…

Personal Finance Discussion:

  • Why do you think topics around personal finance are so off limits?
  • Does the off-limits nature of personal finance frustrate you? What topics do you wish you could more easily discuss with others?
  • How can we change it?
  • I am curious to know if the same cultural hesitations exist in other parts of the world. If you have lived elsewhere, is personal finance more/less taboo than the U.S. And why?

About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 7,500+ others by getting FREE email updates. You'll also find every post by category & every post in order.


13 Comments »
  • Dear Debt says:

    Americans would rather talk about sex than finances! It bugs me so much. People are usually so shocked how flippant I am with talking about my debt. I also get weirded out by people who are so secretive about their income– but then again, I make very little so I am not afraid to share. I might think differently if I made a lot, mostly for the reasons you mentioned- not being a target, not feeling “better” than anyone, etc. I think it should be taught in schools and most of all their should be systemic change in our government, so that income didn’t equate to being a loser on food stamps (not saying they are– I was on food stamps. Talking about impressions)! The class/income divide is too real and it’s not just a matter of effort.

  • moneystepper says:

    Great post.

    In my opinion, there are two reasons people are bad with money.

    1) It is not taught in school. If you never studied maths at school, is it likely you would be able to understand the principles of calculus etc. Unlikely.

    2) We don’t talk about it. I know a lot about football in the UK for instance. This is because I spend about 10% of my conversations with others talking about it. Other than readers of my website, I spend almost no time with people talking about personal finance. It just isn’t done!

  • Timbo says:

    GREAT TOPIC.

    I hate the fact that there is so much taboo about PF. I am a young 30 something guy who quite frankly has done quite well for myself. I have been very fortunate to get to where I am.. but I also am quite modest and frugal in my lifestyle compared to the average person.

    By living that lifestyle it has granted me the ability to donate, give, and help others where there is a true need due to unforeseen circumstances.

    I am VERY open about my finances and choices with the right people. I certainly hate to come off as a “braggart” so I have to know who I can and can’t share that with.. I have a limited small group of friends and colleagues I can share that info with and I hope I can share some of my secrets and idea with them to help make them more successful in life as I know the knowledge I have taken in from all of them has been priceless beyond belief.

    I think people are just too ashamed of their poor choices in life because here in America all anyone wants in instant gratification and that simple minded thinking often gets us to where we are stuck between a rock and a hard place and people don’t want to admit they have a problem and just keep digging deeper into the hole.

    The off limits nature frustrates me sometimes…as there are so many people I believe I could offer guidance to and possibly help position themselves and their family to have a better and brighter future.. but I skirt those issues with them to not complicate a friendship. But then again a true friend should be there to help you out when someone has a problem even with they are not bold enough to admit to the problem. Sometimes we need to be slapped in the face to get on a better track and moving forward thru life in a positive direction.

    For things to change you have to change and for things to get better you have to get better.

    There have been times in my past where I was not anywhere near as well off as I am today… but in those previous year I used to looked up to seek out advice from those folks that many perceived as having “a higher status” i.e. more financially successful. The reality is they were not they just appeared that way.. It is amazing how much of a life you can live on credit and being financed your whole life. But those conversations helped me learn some things and it identified for me better choices to make and not make and I was working my way up though life.

    Seeks advice and guidance from others for life!!

  • Kellen says:

    PwC agrees with the lack of teaching of personal finance in school. They have a great program called Earn Your Future with a good curriculum:
    http://www.pwc.com/us/en/about-us/corporate-responsibility/commitment-to-youth-education/financial-literacy-curriculum.jhtml

    Khan Academy and Bank of America have also partnered to create some good materials:
    http://www.bettermoneyhabits.com/en/videos/khan-partnership.html#fbid=IcfYmWQapPa

  • My parents definitely taught me that it was rude to talk about money. They never told me why, other than it was personal and it wasn’t something that you discussed with everyone because it wasn’t “polite” conversation. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with why we don’t talk about it – if we’re doing good, we don’t want to sound like we’re bragging or draw the negative attention that jealousy sometimes brings. If we’re not doing so great, we’re embarrassed and don’t want anyone else to know we’re not as well off. I wish it was a little less taboo so that people who need help wouldn’t feel so hesitant about coming out and asking for information and utilizing the knowledge that’s out there. I’m not sure if it ever will be, though, because that would mean there’s no longer any judgment being passed about someone’s paycheck or earnings.. and I can’t see that really ever happening (at least not in this country, where material wealth seems to mean so much to so many).

  • Christy says:

    I am curious to know people’s thoughts on this topic. I agree personal finance is “taboo”; people – or, rather, women in my case – don’t ever talk about money matters in group settings. I don’t think it’s because they don’t know the financial situation of their households – I could be wrong – but more because personal finance is, well, so seemingly personal. There’s probably some of the status aspect – not wanting to come across as a braggart or as a failure – but perhaps also because money isn’t a “fun” or top-of-mind topic as opposed to something like kid-rearing, which dominates most of the conversations of the women I’m with and which everyone can sympathize with.

    I received funny looks when I asked a car-full of women what credit card they used and what benefits it got them.

    Having personal finance classes in school would certainly be one way of breaking the taboo nature of the topic.

    I find it ironic that there haven’t been any comments to this post. :)

  • Mike F says:

    The best and most educational 3 weeks of my life was about 20 years ago when my 4th grade class dedicated 1.5 hour per day to “city.” For the first 30 minutes we learned lessons on how things would work and the next hour the teacher sat back and let the economy run. We created an entire economy based on a combined government and private enterprise model complete with a currency (Fuzz). You could either apply for a corporate job where your role was supervised by the teacher (Business/Health Insurance Salesperson, Banker, Real Estate Agent) or you could go into business on your own where the student would sell their wares or a food at a desk that they had to rent from the real estate agent.

    There was tourism from parents and other classes who were given a stipend for visiting (there was a pretty big loose money policy and heavy inflation from the first week to the last week but that wasn’t part of the educational aspects).

    We learned to balance a checkbook, make a budget, visit the bank and inquire on our balance, take out a business loan with an interest rate, and buy insurance. Each day, the teacher would pull a name out of a hat to have an injury or a fire/flood at their business that would have to pay some money if they were uninsured so we learned to have a safety cushion and not spend all of our money from the cute girl at the end of the aisle who sold lemons with peppermint sticks.

    I learned a lot and so did my classmates. It could be updated now to include credit cards as well.

  • Matt says:

    The taboo is rampant for various reasons in my opinion ranging from status presumption to safety. But we are missing quite an opportunity to help each other learn,budget and share resources. For the most part I do not discuss income but I will always discuss saving a little coin and the benefits of being a penny pincher.

  • Anne says:

    You got a great topic here. I believe that personal finance must be taught in school so that all children could have an example of the right things to do versus modeling the wrong from their parents.

  • Amanda Brooke Edwards says:

    Your point about children modeling the wrong financial choices of their parents is absolutely spot on!

    My parents, as smart and amazing as they are, did not teach me smart ways of spending money and there was no one else in my life to learn from. Mom always told me I should have a library card, but never stressed the importance of borrowing entertainment as opposed to spending money on it. My dad always told me I should save money, but never told me anything about Roth IRAs or Money Market savings accounts. These are all things I had to learn on my own, and unfortunately I did not learn them soon enough.

    The travesty here is that, like me, there are millions of young people in this world that learning these valuable money lessons AFTER they’ve amassed piles of student loan and credit card debt. They’re learning these things in order to dig themselves OUT of a horrible situation instead of finding out learning how to keep themselves from getting there in the first place.

    I’m with you, we need to open the lines of communication about personal finance! We need to allow ourselves and our children to learn. That doesn’t have to mean we mention every little thing about our financial life to our friends, but asking questions, gaining insight, and being honest should be the new normal.

  • Slinky says:

    “they actually have a fear of becoming a target if word got around to the wrong people.”

    This is me with my family, excepting my mum and brother. I offer advice and knowledge and general information, but I never talk numbers…ever. Formerly, there was “The Bank of Grandma and Grandpa”. People took “withdrawals” regularly. They remortgaged their house after it was paid off to finance these “withdrawals” in the name of helping out. They can’t afford to do so anymore, so I’m afraid of either becoming the new “Bank” (not gonna happen) or having to say no and causing a family rift.

    I do talk more specifics with my mum and brother and they are the only ones to ever ask me for a loan. My mum was just once for a car and after talking alternatives, she worked out a payment plan instead (win!). My brother habitually asked to borrow money all growing up. In our teens he rang up quite a balance until I stopped lending anything except for college textbooks (paid for in person, at the time of purchase). Smart cookie that I was, I kept track of it all and was eventually paid in full, mostly by him buying me stuff when he had the money or negotiated amounts off for things like fixing my car. I highly recommend this as a method for family loan repayment with someone who “never has the money”.

    With friends, I’m more open about money specifics. I’ll share how much I paid for my house or property taxes or bought my car for. I don’t generally share income, but just about anything else depending on closeness.

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