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Money Questions We Don’t Ask and Don’t Tell

australiaTalking about money is as much a societal taboo in Australia as it is in the U.S. I learned this from a story by Anneli Knight that ran in the Sydney Morning Herald on August 12, 2009. It quoted Patsy Rowe, author of The Little Book of Etiquette, whose financial advice included “What NOT to ask” someone about money.

Until now, I’ve gathered the societal dos and don’ts around money mostly from the unspoken protocol I’ve observed. I haven’t seen them in writing. Here is Rowe’s list of what not to ask:
• How much do you earn?
• How much was your pay raise?
• How much did you pay for your house?
• How much did you lose in the economic downturn?
• How much is your rent/house payment?
• Is your boyfriend/girlfriend sharing in the rent/house payment?
• How much child support do you receive/pay?
• How much did your vacation cost?
• Did you buy that new car?
• What did that outfit cost?

Rowe suggests you should stay away from talking about money with friends, envyespecially in exact dollar terms, because it reveals a person’s lifestyle. When you discover someone’s lifestyle is above yours, “envy strikes” and begins creating self-doubt.

I must confess, this financial advisor viewed this list of inappropriate questions with some amusement. I’ve asked some of those questions myself with little or no hesitation.

For example, I have no problem asking most folks what they paid for their house. Maybe this comes from my 30 years in real estate, but I figure (at least in South Dakota) what you paid for your house is a matter of public record that anyone can look up.

The same is true when asking someone if they lease or own their car and how much it cost. Several online sites can give you the new/used value of someone’s car within minutes.

As a die-hard bargain hunter, I also can easily ask someone how much they paid for a plane ticket, a cruise, a hotel room, or a meal.

In fairness, I have no problems answering the same questions. In fact, I often volunteer such information. For our recent vacation to Australia, I will gleefully tell you I spent $800 for the plane ticket and $120 a night for a five-star luxury hotel in Sydney. That’s less than what some people pay to come to the Sturgis bike rally.

While I don’t often discuss the cost of my clothes, ask me what I paid for my Wrangler jeans and I’ll happily tell you $12.50 a pair. I’ll also volunteer where I got them—the J. C. Penney Outlet Store at Grapevine Mills in Dallas, Texas.

What I am less comfortable with is telling you exactly what I earn and how much I am worth. Interestingly, I don’t have a problem disclosing my income to my financial planning peers. I am more reluctant to tell them my net worth, wanting to avoid a perception of having wealth and the possibility of being judged negatively. As someone who works with the ways people think, feel, and behave around money, I find the reason for my reluctance interesting, if not telling.

This is especially interesting because of what I see as a growing disdain for “the rich.” With the recent financial crisis, revealing a net worth of over $500,000 or so is becoming more a matter of shame than celebration.

money discussionOne goal of the financial coaching and financial planning work I do is to help reduce the stigma around discussing money. I’m concerned that money may become more of a taboo subject than ever.

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4 Responses to Money Questions We Don’t Ask and Don’t Tell

  1. Jerry September 15, 2009 at 6:29 am #

    Your article spurs me to ask How Much you paid for your vacation to Australia. Does it cost more to use a Travel Agent, or did you book on your own and if so, was there a savings. Curious minds want to know since we plan a self-guided wine tour of southern France and northern Italy next year IF currency is friendly.

  2. Richard Miller September 15, 2009 at 7:09 am #

    I also found that it is not polite to ask a rancher / farmer how much land they own. “that is like asking how much money I have in savings”.

  3. Bobbie Munroe September 17, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    I have and do ask all these questions to non-clients as well as clients in an effort to enhance the internal database I carry around in this head (no wonder it’s so crowded in here…that and all the old song lyrics:-). Actually I think that if more people know about such things they would see that people who pay more are often very extended and financially stressed. May we all start to brag about how LITTLE we paid.

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