talking money taboo
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The Science Behind the Last Taboo

Krystal Covington has been married to her husband for eight years, but it wasn't until recently that she had a real conversation about money with him. "We had managed our finances separately, and I broke down and explained to him how much I struggle emotionally with money management," says Covington, 31, who lives in Lakewood, CO. "It was very uncomfortable, and he didn't realize how tough this was for me."

For Covington, dealing with money successfully is a mark of strength — and feeling like she didn't measure up was bringing her down. "I feel like managing money, earning a certain amount of it — or being in charge of it — is kind of a testament to your ability to manage life," she says. "It's just having it together. If I had been having conversations about money all along, I would have been more comfortable asking for more, managing my money well, and would likely have more wealth."

People are more willing to discuss their sex lives than they are their financial standing. Manisha Thakor

Unfortunately, talking about money isn't easy. For many people it's an intensely private topic, and even a source of shame and embarrassment. "Money has become the way we define — consciously or subconsciously — our self–worth," says Manisha Thakor, Director of Wealth Strategies for Women at Buckingham & the BAM Alliance and author of Get Financially Naked. "People are more willing to discuss their sex lives than they are their financial standing. I believe it has become one of the most intimate ways in which to reveal yourself."

The financial benchmarking paradox

Money is also one of the things people use to compare themselves to others, although it's a difficult thing to benchmark, because people don't talk about it freely. "We can easily see how fit a person is or how attractive a person is, but personal finance is a little bit different," says Sonya Britt, Associate Professor at the Institute of Personal Financial Planning at Kansas State University, CFP®. "Then you have to start asking questions. And if there are all those other ways you can already feel bad about yourself, why introduce this other topic?"

Consider how likely you are to talk about paychecks or other financial numbers with the people you work with. "I think it is inappropriate to talk about salary around coworkers, especially since people will inevitably be making different amounts and you'll never look at each other the same again once you know they are making X amount more or less than you," says Stacy Caprio, 25, who lives in Boston. "It doesn't breed anything but dissatisfaction."

While there's comfort in knowing that other people are in the same boat that you are, finances often happen under the radar. You probably don't see your neighbors going to the bank or the financial planner, for example. "If I see my neighbors out running, then I might go run," Britt says. "They look good, they seem happy, maybe I should go for a walk, too. But that same thing isn't there for personal finance."

Money stress: It's not just in your head

In fact, research shows that even thinking about finances creates physical and mental stress, which may dissuade us from talking about it more often. In experiments in which people watched videos about stock market news, for instance, subjects began showing signs of stress — sweating, increased heartrate, and cold hands and feet when the body sends blood to the heart in a fight-or-flight response. "Our body is preparing to survive," Britt says.

Stress Sign #1: Faster pulse

Consequently, less blood is going to the brain, leading us to make choices based on our emotions rather than thinking about the future. "That's really bad for financial decisions, because almost all of them have long-term consequences," Britt says. "That's why it's important that people are relaxed when they're talking about money, and that we make it so it's not so difficult to talk about it."

Stress Sign #2: Sweating it out

This is also key because our mood — are you hungry, rushed, angry? — affects how your brain operates directly. "You have a host of chemicals that are bathing your brain that change the way the brain's cost-benefit calculation is done," says Paul Zak, Ph.D.,neuroeconomist, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. In other words, the part of your brain that's deciding whether you should spend money now or put money away for the future is highly susceptible to stress influence.

Stress Sign #3: Chillier hands

How to reduce the stress around talking money

The less stressful it is to talk about money, the more likely people might be to do it — and being comfortable can help. In studies, people who talked with a financial planner while seated on a loveseat were less stressed than people in a traditional setup. This may translate to other settings, such as talking to loved ones about their finances. For example, sitting in comfortable chairs in the living room may inspire a more relaxed chat than sitting at the dining room table at what feels like a meeting.

Acknowledging the awkwardness or discomfort may also help everyone relax. Many of these conversations — such as talking to your parents about their finances — aren't things that happen regularly, and admitting that you're nervous can help break the ice.

And finally, checking in with yourself can raise your own awareness that you're stressed. "Take an assessment of what your body is doing," Britt says. "I do this all of the time by feeling my own hands. Are my hands colder than the room is? If so, there's definitely something going on, whether I immediately recognize it or not." That's your cue to take a break, take a walk, do something to refocus yourself and find a more balanced mood. Says Britt, "What your body is doing is a great indication of what your mind is doing."

As far as making money talk easier in general, it's an uphill battle. "We're raised to not talk about money," Britt says. "Normalizing it is really critical." In other words, money talk needs to become a regular part of our lives, not something we conceal from everyone. It must become commonplace for people to talk to bankers, accountants and financial planners about money — to ask questions without feeling embarrassed about it.

We're raised to not talk about money... normalizing it is really critical. Sonya Britt

"We have to help people feel more comfortable," Britt says. "It's helpful to have a place where people can professionally talk about money, such as between them and a financial planner. It will help them feel more confident. It just gets the conversation going."

Kate Ashford
Kate Ashford is a freelance journalist who writes about personal finance, work and consumer trends. She has written for BBC, Forbes, LearnVest, Money, and Parents, among others.

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