As a former recruiter, one of the things you must get used to when you’re talking to new candidates is asking them 1) how much they currently make, and 2) how much they want to make at their next job. For many people, it’s an uncomfortable question to ask, as well as to answer, but it’s critical for making sure that the candidate is making a market value salary and will be placed in a new job that offers them what they are looking for.
Because I spent so many years asking these questions to complete strangers, I often forget in the public sphere that money is a taboo topic: we’re not supposed to talk about income or debt, because it’s none of our business what someone else’s financial situation might be. Additionally, income levels have historically been used to place more or less value on people, so the silence around money is a way to try and avoid that.
Except it’s not working.
A report from this year shows that nearly half of all Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Overall household debt has increased by 11% in the last 10 years, according to a debt report from 2016. Credit debt averages hover near $17k per household, and overall debt, to include mortgages, average a staggering near-$136k. Put succinctly: we’re being crushed under the weight of our debt-to-income ratio…and not talking about it only means suffering alone.
The internet has provided a way to have sub-communities and cultures for all walks of life. Users can belong to groups that create space for different religions, eating habits and weight loss goals, parenting and post-partum depression, and even wedding planning or travel. Yes, there are forums, blogs, and communities out there that focus on knocking out debt and trying to gamify living within your means. But what these spaces provide in the way of “someone behind a keyboard somewhere knows how I’m feeling,” they lack in “the people closest to me understand my situation.”
Talking about money with your friends and family, including the hard stuff like income-to-debt ratio and how you’re going to pay your bills this month, can go a long way to helping you make better decisions, as well as to alleviate some of the stress of struggling in silence. Being open about your financial situation can mean that you find that your friends or family are in the same boat. Knowing that you aren’t the only one dealing with financial woes can be freeing: you’re not a failure. Maybe you’re actually just an average person and your friends are feeling the same way. When you find that some of your friends or family might be struggling with the same issues, you can work together to build healthy money habits and strong accountability. You can suggest low-cost or no-cost activities to continue having fun with your friends, but not at the expense of the budgets of any of you. You can share tips and tricks on how to make dollars stretch, and you can cheer each other on as you work toward your financial goals…aren’t successes best-enjoyed when others can see what hard work you’ve done?
Additionally, if your friends or family are not in that situation, you can start to advocate for yourself and hopefully breed some sensitivity or empathy on their part (or on yours, if the situation is reversed for you.) If you hate having to say “no” to social gatherings because you can’t spend that much money at a restaurant, or you can’t afford to go on that trip, your friends should know about it: not so that they don’t include you, but so they remember that you have a different situation to which they can be sensitive. They can begin to suggest more financially inclusive activities, or they may be okay with just picking up the check once in a while, simply because they enjoy your company. Allow others in to your situation so that they can be a better and more empathetic friend as well.
There is a real science in the benefit of talking about money with others. While plenty of blogs will tell you that there is danger in discussing your salary, simply because it can be frustrating to find inequity, the research shows that when people discuss their salaries with one another (particularly with coworkers) they stand a better chance of being paid what they are worth and being paid fairly in accordance with everyone else. Talking about income levels proves to help people understand their market value and what their skill set is worth, and it also helps us better negotiate to achieve those levels if we aren’t currently there.
Finally, talking about money can begin to breed community, much like it already does online. When we don’t feel alone and isolated in our struggles, and when we know that we are not the only ones dealing with situations like ours, we enjoy greater mental health, greater positivity and self-compassion, and greater clarity on problem-solving and making better money decisions in the future.
Talking about money with people you love doesn’t have to be uncouth. As a matter of fact, it can help you (and your friends and family) start to better understand the financial path in front of you, as well as how to navigate obstacles when they come up. Don’t stay hidden in the shadow of your financial situation: talk to someone close to you for solidarity, for community, and for accountability.