The M Word: Money

by Jennifer Li Shotz
Originally Published: 

I am a terrible capitalist.

Don’t get me wrong—I like cold, hard cash as much as the next MFA-bearer mired in astounding quantities of debt. What I mean is that I’m just not someone who is all that fired up about the avid pursuit of earnings, savings, dividends, equity, appreciation and all the other words for money that sound like tinkling faerie bells to me.

Which is not to say that I’m not completely preoccupied with money. I grew up without it, and we talked about it all the time. As in, I can barely pay the rent, so no, you cannot have the Seven Star sneakers in pink. As in, we don’t have health insurance right now, so unless you really feel sick, we can’t pay for the doctor’s visit. As in, I’m sorry, Ms. Shotz, but if you don’t find the money by Friday, you will not be able to graduate with your class.

While not having money sucks in a thousand different ways, it’s also a badge of honor. When you don’t have it, you think people who have it are spoiled and soft. They don’t understand what it’s really like out there, but you, of course, do.

Money—our best kept secret

So, funny story, I somehow ended up at a Connecticut boarding school for high school, surrounded by people with lots and lots and lots of money. Like, old-names-you’d-recognize money. And much to my surprise—as someone for whom money hijacked a massive chunk of brain space—people with money never speak of it. They are apparently under strict orders from the leprechauns who guard their giant pots of gold to never, ever utter a word about it, or their spring break jaunts to Gstaad will be revoked.

Today, as an adult who, with my husband, has achieved a level of financial security that I never dreamed possible (read: our combined household income just narrowly outruns our debt each month), I’m amazed to discover that even now, no one in my orbit is talking about money. In fact, we’re talking about everything but—and this vestige of primness is harmful.

Ask yourself: Do you know the salaries of your five closest friends? Your five closest relatives? Your parents? Anyone?

Why not? Why don’t we talk about it the way we talk about, say, the Breaking Bad finale or our views on vaccines or our concerns about the environment? I have detailed for perfect strangers the pace at which my cervix dilated in labor, but I’ve shared with maybe three people (not including my husband and accountant) how much I make a year.

I know roughly who in my circle of friends and family is bringing in high six figures…or even seven. But everyone else could be making $55,000 a year or $500,000. I honestly don’t know. I don’t know who can actually afford the vacations they take, and who is charging them and carrying the debt for years. But I can tell you which ones have father issues, are cheating on their spouses, had an abortion or steal fancy pens from work.

What are we so afraid of? Being judged for or embarrassed by how much we do—or don’t—make? Is that really our criteria for valuing each other?

Why we can’t talk about it

There’s an argument to be made for keeping numbers close to the chest. For example, when we’re discussing real estate or school choices, and I think we’re having the same conversation, but later I learn that you are sitting on a trust fund big enough to send all the Duggars to private school, Harvard, and med school six times over without making a dent, then I do not want to talk to you about real estate and school choices. We should stick to discussions about artisanal cheese.

For most of us, though, there are always people above and below us on the earning scale—and the degree of our need or want is extremely relative. If everyone walked around wearing little plaques strung around their necks stating their net worth, chances are we’d all feel both rich and poor in the course of one afternoon.

© Flickr/401(K)2012

The constant chatter about money when I was growing up wasn’t useful, because it put the emphasis in all the wrong places. Constantly being reminded that you don’t have it doesn’t teach you how to get it—or, more importantly, keep it. Part of the reason that I’m horrible at accruing money is that I wasn’t raised with the expectation that I would…or could. No one told me it was okay to even want to—and that silence, that void, is booming. (Also, no one told me that 19 percent is a bad APR on a credit card: So for those of you who don’t know this already, 19 percent is a terrible APR on a credit card.)

And that is exactly why we should be talking about money. Other people might have something instructive—in both practical and philosophical terms—to say about it. We might actually gain insight into our own relationships to money by understanding theirs.

Sharing the wealth (of knowledge)

Think about this: I met my husband through friends. I pick doctors and mortgage brokers and schools based on recommendations from people I trust. When I was nervous about some pregnancy or newborn something or other, I called a friend or sister-in-law. I am writing this very essay for Cafe because of a friend. We bought our car from friends. The amazing woman who cares for my children when I’m working? Yup. Found her through a friend.

Who better to help us learn about money? We trust them with our secrets and yearnings, the areas of our life where we lack knowledge or confidence. That reliance on each other is at the core of every relationship—it’s what connects us and indebts us and endears us to one another. I can’t think of one factor that is more material to our daily lives than earning, spending, saving, worrying about, fighting over, doling out, divvying up and hoping for money.

And yet we treat it like it’s something shameful, and we stress about it in a vacuum. When we don’t talk openly to the people who know us best about our incomes, our lifestyle choices and the exigencies those factors create, are we really having an honest conversation? Are we exposing our true selves? Money isn’t just a practical issue, though it is enormously that. It’s also about values and beliefs and ethics and morals and really uncomfortable things, like racism and sexism and rich-ism and poor-ism and other gross truths about ourselves.

So maybe the conversations won’t be exactly easy, but they will be important.

Let’s help each other. Let’s talk about it. Let’s reveal our deepest financial fetishes and fantasies and screw-ups.

Right after we get back from the slopes in Switzerland.

Photo: flickr/Bullion Vault

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