On Wednesday, I visited a fifth-grade class in McMinnville, Oregon to talk with the kids about money. I had a great time, and I'll share more about the experience on Monday. Today, though, I want to start by sharing a question I received from one of the students.
“How much money do you have?” Hannah asked when I called on her.
“I'm not going to answer that?” I said.
“Nobody answers that,” said a boy named Max.
“Why do you think that is?” I asked.
I was curious about the fifth-grade perspective on this subject, so we talked about it for a little while. Some of the kids thought adults just don't like to share things about themselves. Others said that if you talked about how much money you had, then other people would be more likely to steal it. I offered my own thoughts.
“I think people don't talk about how much money they have because nobody wants to feel bad,” I said. “For example, if I have a lot of money and you don't, then talking about money might make you feel bad. Or if you have a lot of money and I'm poor, then talking about money would probably make me feel bad.”
I believe that, ultimately, people don't talk about money with strangers out of fear of being judged.
I explained that most people do talk about money, but only with people they know well, such as family and friends. (Not everyone talks about money, I know, but I believe most people are willing to share with those they're close to.)
The kids didn't seem to find my argument terribly convincing. In fact, after school was over, Hannah came up pose the same question again. “How much money do you have really?” she asked.
“I'm not going to answer that,” I said.
“Are you a millionaire?” she asked.
“I'm not going to answer that either,” I said.
She gave an exasperated sigh and left to catch the bus.
Yesterday, I told this story to my Spanish teacher, who is from Peru. She and I have discussed cultural attitudes toward money before. She thinks Americans talk about finances far too freely. And apparently she's not the only one. In one of my favorite Spanish-language podcasts, the hosts have talked about the notion of social class in Spain. Apparently, folks there even avoid talking about what they do for work because that has the potential to make others feel uncomfortable.
On the long drive home from McMinnville, I spent a lot of time thinking about Hannah's question. Is discomfort the actual reason we don't talk about money in our society? Do we keep these facts private out of fear of judgment? I'm not sure. I don't have any hard facts to back up my beliefs. Maybe there are other reasons.
What do you think? Why don't people talk about money? Is it just to avoid discomfort? Or are there more practical reasons to avoid these sorts of discussions? And, more to the point, in your own life, with whom do you have money discussions? What sorts of things do you talk about? What sorts of implicit (or explicit) boundaries do you set?