Why It's so Hard to Talk About Money With Friends—And Why You Should Do It

The stigma surrounding money talk, especially among women, could be robbing us of the very conversations we need to improve our finances.

We're totally comfortable talking with close friends about almost every topic—sex, parenting, even politics—but what about money? In many cases, finances are the final conversational frontier among friends. While many old-school cultural taboos have been broken or at least softened, the stigma surrounding money talk remains, and this cultural norm could be robbing women of the very conversations we need to improve our finances.

"You can be embarrassed if you have too little, or embarrassed if you have too much," says Diana Machado, cofounder and CEO of the Canada-based company, Lady Loans. "There's no easy outlet to reach out and say, 'I need to talk about finances.'"

Conversations about how to earn money and manage it are important in a world that still undervalues women's labor and financial education. Yet among friends, many women are uncomfortable bringing up topics like salary or earnings (not to mention financial hardships or discrimination), especially if they were taught never to ask someone how much they make.

Growing Up Overseas

For Machado, these taboos were part of the culture shock she experienced moving to North America from the Azores, a cluster of islands off the coast of Portugal. During her childhood there, she experienced the opposite. "When I was growing up, everyone in our community knew our financial circumstances," she says. "My mom would always have women around her who were all in the same boat and understood what we were going through."

At that time, men were typically the family breadwinners, Machado explains, which made financial stability—while feeding the family on one income—difficult. This was especially true as her father spent an increasing share of the family budget on alcohol. To make ends meet, Machado's mother turned to friends—the women in her community—for support.

"My mom would clean houses... They would pay her with food," says Machado of her mother's friends and neighbors. "I loved seeing women supporting each other. I always knew we would never be alone."

Financial Group Therapy

It's typical for women in many parts of the world to form communities around money, whether informally (as in Machado's case) or in formalized rotational savings groups. In Africa, for instance, there are traditional, female-driven, peer-to-peer savings co-ops called "tontines"—groups of women friends who help each other afford emergency expenses or larger risks, such as starting a business.

Another type of informal group, ROSCA, is most commonly found in developing economies (such as in South America, Africa, and Asia). "In Rotational Credit and Saving Associations, everyone knows who everyone is," says Linda Thompson, Ph.D. and professor at Molloy College who has studied ROSCAs. "Everyone has a high level of trust in the banker who has brought this group together. Trust is going to fulfill their savings obligation."

Without formal opportunities to talk about money, the subject becomes even more shrouded in secrecy. 

When women share finances like this, "everyone knows how much you're saving in the ROSCA," Thompson explains. "That's a known factor." She adds that while it's possible a ROSCA member could be experiencing financial distress and never let on, it's more typical that members are proud of their finances and experience less money shame.

Impersonal Banking

In the U.S., ROSCAs are superseded by traditional banking services, which grow increasingly impersonal as more banking shifts online. "When I was growing up, I would go to the bank with my father, and we would always go to the same teller," remembers Thompson. "She would say to him, 'Are you saving the usual?' She'd fill out his slip. He didn't even have to tell her, she knew."

With the popularity of online banking these days, many of us never step foot in our bank, let alone develop a personal relationship with a teller. In the absence of formal opportunities to talk about money, the subject becomes even more shrouded in secrecy. Thompson adds, the "structure of the banking system...basically makes it impersonal."

Diana Machado

As women, we talk about almost everything else. It's time to break the stigma and start talking about money.

—Diana Machado

Let's Start Talking

What can we do to combat financial secrecy and unease, as well as the shame that comes with it? Start by talking openly with friends about saving, which is how Machado helps women in North America who are experiencing money shame. "Women need to take the step forward and find someone they trust to talk about finances with," she says. "Go to someone you know isn't going to judge you."

Machado took her own advice when getting divorced in her late 20s. Her husband managed their finances and left her with significant debt, so she decided to break through the stigma and talk to her friends. "I was so embarrassed. I thought they would look at me like I was dumb," she said, "But, I opened up to a coworker who helped me formulate a plan to become debt-free."

Now Machado focuses much of her energy on paying it forward by mentoring women in similar circumstances. She recommends finding a money mentor among your friends—someone with whom you can talk openly about your finances, including how much you're spending, saving, and earning. "As women, we talk about almost everything else," she says. "It's time to break the stigma and start talking about money."

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