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Why Talking About Money Shouldn't Be Taboo

Finding community can hold you accountable and ease feelings of shame.

by Gretchen Brown
December 23, 2019 | Money

Sydney Walsh would get paid on Friday, and the money would be gone on Saturday.

“I was terrified that if something happened in the two weeks before getting paid, I wouldn’t have money to pay for it,” Walsh said. “I had $2,000 in credit card debt. My student loans were in collections.”

She had a good job, but money was still a huge stressor. And she didn’t really feel like she could talk to her friends about it.

“I think it just feels really private to people,” she said. “Especially our financial struggles. People are quick to say ‘I’m broke!’ but not as quick to talk about the scary stuff.”

Walsh is in good company. Seven in 10 Americans say they’ve become emotional over money, according to a survey from comparecards.com.

But folks in their 20s and 30s are under unique financial stress.

According to the survey, nearly 48 percent of millennials between the ages of 23 and 38 said they’ve cried over money at least once in the past month.

That’s compared to just 20 percent of Baby Boomers ages 55 to 73, and 38 percent of Gen Xers aged 39 to 54.

“We graduated during the financial crisis. So a lot of older millennials are still playing catch up from either being underpaid, or not working in their field and still having to figure out how to pay for student loan debt,” certified financial planner Rianka Dorsainvil said.

“So when it comes to money, I’m finding that there’s a lot of shame.”

So it’s not rare to cry about money. But it’s still taboo to admit you did.

Feels like a 'character flaw'

Sure, there are tons of tweets and memes about being broke. But they’re surface level, for jokes. They don’t go past that.


“Admitting to a friend that you're in credit card debt or screwed up your credit or have items in collections or missed a payment can feel more like you're admitting some sort of character flaw,” said Erin Lowry, author of “Broke Millennial Takes On Investing.”

“Partly, that's likely tied to the morality issue we've created around debt in the United States.”

Lowry says there are a whole bunch of reasons people end up in debt. A lot of them have to do with circumstances and unexpected expenses, not just “living beyond your means.”

Walsh took advice from her mom to save $1,000 and go from there. She started watching episodes of The Financial Diet on YouTube.

In just 18 months, she saved 3 months of income, and raised her credit score almost 300 points.

She posted about it on her Instagram story, and was overwhelmed with DMs from her friends. So she made a second Instagram account to share personal finance advice.

Clearly it was information her friends craved, even if they couldn’t say it out loud.

“I realized only the rich benefit from us not talking about it,” Walsh said.

“There are systems in place to keep people in a loop of debt. And if you know how to get out, then those systems can’t profit off of you.”

Feel better by facing the numbers

Sometimes people don’t talk about their debt, or their difficulties with money, because they’re avoiding it completely.

If you’ve ever been afraid to check your bank account because you didn’t know what the balance would read, you know this feeling. Looking at it is just gonna bum you out.

But Dorsainvil and Lowry said it’s ultimately not healthy to tune out.

“Putting our head in the sand when it comes to finances, although it may be comforting, it’s a short-term solution for a long-term issue,” Dorsainvil said.

To really feel better about your finances long-term, you need to start by actually facing the numbers head-on. That means actually checking your bank account.

“It’s going to be extremely hard. Maybe you need to pump yourself up about it, and give yourself grace,” Dorsainvil said.

If you have debt, Lowry recommends creating a grid, listing out all the lenders, principal balance owed, minimum monthly payment and interest rates on each debt.

That way, you can see the whole picture and decide how you’d like to start paying it all off. Some options: refinancing the debt, debt snowball, debt avalanche or a hybrid.

If you have credit card debt, you can call the companies and explain your situation, and ask for a reduced interest rate. Some may say yes.

Dorsainvil said the worst thing you can do with student loan debt is to not pay. Work with your servicer to figure out a payment plan you can handle if you’re in a tough financial situation.

Having an action plan on your finances, and feeling like you have control over them can help you feel less helpless and sad, whatever your financial situation.

[ICYMI: When You Have Student Loan Debt — and Your Friends Don't]

Be kind to yourself

Also important: set tangible goals that you can actually hit. Maybe you can’t pay off your entire credit card in a year. That’s OK — you’re working toward it.

Ultimately, give yourself grace. You are not your debt, and you are not your money problems. They’re not tied to any sort of morality.

“Even the ‘experts’ screw up,” Lowry said. “No one is constantly flawless with their finances because we're all emotional creatures and ultimately will make a decision or two that aligns more with our psychology than the pure, mathematical ‘right’ way to handle our money.”

There is a benefit to talking about money with your friends. Lowry said they can be an accountability buddy for you as you become more comfortable with your finances. They can be a source of support and a community when you’re struggling.

Working in a tip-based service industry position, Jordan Mathewson, 24, started out casually talking with her coworkers about tips.

As the conversations naturally progressed into money and finances, Mathewson found helpful insight from her friends.

“Just casually talking about the goods and bads, it makes talking about money less taboo for me,” she said.

If you can’t find community where you live, you can find it on the internet — whether it’s in Facebook groups, on blogs, Instagram, podcasts or Reddit.

Everyone is different. So as you become more financially transparent, let your friends be a support for you. Don’t let their successes derail your own progress.

“The one thing that you should not do is compare your financial situation to your friends or even another family member,” Dorsainvil said. “You don’t know if they have received financial help or if they are in debt.”

There’s a lot of emotion when it comes to talking and thinking about money. Be kind to yourself in the process.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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