The ugly truth behind why we don't talk about money


Money is just a "thing" - a man-made construct created simply to help us trade goods and services and help describe the value of other "things".

But it's not really just a thing, is it? It's so much more. As we grow up, our family's financial status gets linked to our identity and is used as a way for us to create ingroups (people like "us") and outgroups (people not like "us").

Financial status is a way we subconsciously judge intelligence, trustworthiness, beauty, success and meaningfulness.

why we need to talk about money behavioural economics phil slade

Money is not only used to judge the value of things; we also use it to judge the value of people and ourselves.

This value judgement creates all sorts of social and psychological curiosities. The closer someone is to our financial status, the more we like them, the more we trust them, the more they understand us.

If we want to be liked and respected by someone else, we learn to project the same affluence and financial status as the person we are trying to associate with.

However, losing money can mean losing status, friends, respect, our place in society and even our identity.

Our brains are hardwired to avoid the pain of loss, so often we create a version of ourselves that matches our desired financial status, rather than our actual financial situation.

We buy cars we cannot afford, eat and stay in overpriced establishments, purchase clothes and jewellery that often put us into debt.

Above all, we never, ever talk about our actual finances with anyone. Even our tax accountants get a curated version of the truth.

We think if people knew the truth, we may lose things that are vital to our identity.

The more we are attached to our identity, the more we have to lose. This is, in the very literal sense of the word, insane.

Our very own financial psychosis that has become a social epidemic.

We are scared to talk about our finances with people we care about but this is exactly what we should be doing. All the time. This is tough love.

So how do we cure ourselves of our own financial psychosis? We need to talk about it. Not about our presentational financial selves but about our real financial selves.

Talking about our finances openly and honestly releases the power these finances have over you. It puts you back in control. You're not losing status, you're gaining control.

Finances are deeply personal but sharing this with the people you love creates stronger connections, not ostracism. Keeping it to yourself leads to all sorts of poor financial decision making.

This is all well and good if you understand the benefits of talking about money but what if someone you love is making poor financial decisions?

How do you talk to them about money without triggering their fears, offending them or hurting your relationship?

Fortunately, it seems that our brain has a pathway of processing information that allows us to talk about emotionally complex issues.

It's like we have psychological gatekeepers that need to be satisfied in order to progress to the next phase. Follow this path methodically. Remember, you don't open the door - the gatekeeper needs to let you in.

1. Start with "why"

Establish the reason you should have the conversation. Why is it important to talk about it? Why is it relevant to each of you? How is it relevant to your relationship?

This helps qualify you to have the conversation, and builds courage and confidence that the ensuing conversation is important.

2. Make implicit feelings explicit

Be vulnerable.

"Talking about money scares me because --- "; "I often feel --- when I talk about finances"; "The thing that really upsets me about money is --- ".

Articulating how you feel about money helps strip away its emotional power.

Try to talk through these emotions in a "matter of fact" or even humorous kind of way. Recognise emotions, call them out, then move on.

3. Focus on winning

Identify what "winning" at life looks like, and how poor financial choices are stopping us achieving those things. This shifts the conversation from internal reflections to external aspirations.

Talk about money as the enabler to win, not the goal itself.

4. Make it real

This is when you can finally talk about actions.

What are the small things you can do right now to make things better?

Focus on one or two easily achievable changes. Small wins eventually turn into big wins.


Phil Slade is a behavioural economist and psychologist for Suncorp. He works across digital innovation, strategy, cognitive bias and human-centred design, with a key focus on delivering new and improved customer experiences, and has more than 15 years' experience.
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