As a society, we have made great strides to be more inclusive with our language and to speak about subjects which previously would have been deemed improper or uncomfortable. Our education system is changing the way we approach sexual education, consent, and financial literacy. We ennoble those who open avenues of conversation about these topics, yet we take an antithetical approach to speaking about our own money. I was always told growing up that we don’t ask these 3 questions:
How old are you?
How much do you weigh?
How much money do you make?
Similar to that of politics, religion, or sex, money has been banished to taboo purgatory. Have you ever asked why we don’t speak about money? Nowadays, it is likely because of cultural norms. We are taught that it’s rude to speak about money, but where does this stem from? Initially, the history behind the silence delineates from people with power attempting to keep their subordinates quiet about gaps in their compensation. This way, they were able to pay some employees less than others, with them being none the wiser. It became a tool for oppression. In the case of women's rights, it was used as a shield to pay women less for the doing the same work as men. If they weren’t aware of the existing wage gap, how could they protest it?
This marked silence has continued on and transitioned into an argument of politeness, when in reality, it has nothing to do with politeness at all. We need to get over ourselves. The argument of politeness insinuates that our intrinsic value and worth derives from our financial success. This is the underlying assumption that coats the walls of silence. We fall on one of the two sides of a coin; either we don’t make enough to feel comfortable sharing our wage because there are inherent judgments about what we have to offer, or we make more than enough and don’t want others to feel bad in contrast. But where does this idea that our value, all that we have to offer the world, is tied to our salary? As people, we are quick to correlate wealth and intelligence, and even quicker to avoid being seen as stupid. The resulting environment created is one of fear and pity, the perfect concoction for staying quiet. As participants in our economy, every individual competes in the labor marketplace, and intelligence only plays a limited role. The marketplace is nothing more than the exchange of people's accumulated wants and desires and much of what consumers collectively consider of great value has very little to do with intelligence. We all bring various skills and assets, with different ideas behind how to use them. It is extremely subjective and not everyone is afforded the same opportunity to succeed. Contrary to acceptance speeches everywhere, just working hard won’t cut it. The American Dream i.e. a meritocracy, is a fallacy in and of itself. You need some luck and circumstance. Sure, being able to apply skills and knowledge can lead towards wealth acquisition, but only if that’s something you want. The factors that tie into your salary or wage are ubiquitous; goals, motivation, lifestyle choices, industry, age, race, sex, privilege, etc. They all play a considerable role.
For example, I work at an advertising agency as a Project Coordinator. I make a modest living at $40,000 a year, less than that of the individual Albertan median income, according to Stats Canada ($41,800 in 2017). Does this make me any less intelligent than an Engineer making $130,000? I graduated with a degree in Finance. If my goal was to make money, I could have gone into Investment Banking, where the starting wages as an Analyst would be around double what I make now, not including bonuses. But it also would have meant that I would have to work anywhere from 80-100 hours a week, seven days a week most of the time. It means my work would take over much of my life. I love watching movies, reading, writing, photography, and above all seeing my friends and family. I chose the life I have because it affords me the opportunity to pursue my creative passions and spend time with my loved ones throughout the week. This is not to say that any job or lifestyle choice is wrong. We all make decisions and sacrifices in regards to what we value. Furthermore, we all execute those values in different ways. It is for that exact reason that we should encourage people to speak about their finances, knowing that a lower salary doesn’t mean someone is failing or uneducated or dumb. Making assumptions about someone because of their financial resources is extremely shallow. It has created a tradition of keeping everyone in the dark, unaware of how to approach handling their own finances, even though it plays such a critical role in how our lives play out. The amount of money you make should never be anything you are ever ashamed of, unless you want it to be. We need to be more receptive of others situations and be more candid with our finances, whether this is with the ones we love, or a wider circle in our networks.
There are other negatives that come from avoiding conversations about money. In a 2015 Couples Retirement Study completed by Fidelity Investments, it was shown that 43% of Americans were unable to identify how much their partner made, which is ironic considering data shows that the frequency of financial disagreements in a relationship can act as a fairly accurate predictor for divorce. Whereas another study shows that homes that more openly speak about finances result in more positive spending and saving habits. Another study by the University of East Anglia has shown that joint financial decisions are typically more risk averse than those made by individuals. I would imagine that similar principles would apply to how parents raise their children and those positive habits being passed on.
One of the most important considerations in making the decision to speak about money is about creating a better ground for financial liberation and wage negotiation. When we speak about money more regularly, we raise our floor of knowledge. If it’s something people regularly discuss, you become more knowledgeable just by default. It can change the way we perceive money and influence more of a positive attitude towards conversations about spending and saving. It liberates us to pursue financial freedom in a greater capacity, from a greater position of power. The same can be said for wage negotiation. When we make decisions, we look for as much necessary information as possible. If you are unable to gauge how much your peers or competitors make, how are you able to negotiate from a position of strength? Being able to reduce the stigma behind speaking about money is an important one, not only for your sanity, but for your wallet's sake.
If you feel comfortable, the next time you’re having a conversation about money, speak as if your money isn’t connected to you, the individual, because it isn’t. Unfortunately, life isn’t always fair. For example, if you’re born black, your likelihood of incarceration (per 100,000 people) is 5.8x greater than that of a white person; therefore, you would be unable to make an income. The deck is always stacked in different peoples favours, so don’t use it as a metric to measure your worth. Take pride in what you make, whether it’s something you want to improve, or something you are content with.