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What we talk about when we don't talk about money

“Mom - are they rich?”
“Honey, that’s rude.”

The summer after 4th grade, I spent a blissful Saturday zipping through the fields behind Kristy’s house in a tricked-out go-kart, singing at the top of my lungs about how lucky I was to have a friend who had enough money for each of us to drive her own car. I put glittery stickers with my initials on the bumper so everyone knew that was my car for June 1 through August 30. My bestie spent June through August with her dad, so every May 31st, I’d dig into the b-list of friends to distract me from missing the one person who didn’t need fancy wheels to have fun. 

Putting aside the catch in my throat upon considering the idea of my children racing around in open-top cars without helmets at the age of 10, I made assumptions about Kristy’s family in her giant house with giant cars and boats and smaller cars and smaller boats for the kids, and my poor family living in a house that my dad built, paddling on the lake by our cinder-block vacation cottage in our motorless canoe.

We were not poor. Kristy was not rich. But those were assumptions I made because I didn’t understand my parents’ commitment to making things ourselves and living without debt, and other families’ different comfort levels with the idea of borrowing money.

We had monthly budgeting meetings where my mom would sit down with my sister and me, balance our checkbooks, and talk about our spending, saving and investing goals. I know now how fortunate I was to have a mother who advocated for my own financial independence.

But we were told not to talk about how much was in our bank accounts with anyone. I ran into Kristy when I was back-to-school shopping at Dawn Kay fashions, and she saw my checkbook and asked me if I was rich. What a ridiculous question. She had seen the three-bedroom ranch house where I lived! 

Discussing money openly was seen as impolite or crass. As I researched this subject to put together this blog post, I talked to many women who have felt a sense of shame or judgment around their financial situation, and the “keeping up with the Joneses” trope has only gotten more toxic with the advent of social media platforms spewing airbrushed images of women at their beach houses making us feel like there’s something wrong with us for not having as much. Although we hope to use Instagram as a gateway to growth and understanding for Plums who find solace and inspiration in its pretty pages, the platform does have an insidious way of making surface comparison - and assumption - inevitable.

(Anyone notice the proliferation of suicides among social media “stars?” Heartbreaking.)

Sharing financial information can lead to feelings of vulnerability and the fear of being judged or viewed differently by our peers. It’s why we gravitate to friendships within our own socioeconomic bracket; we don’t have to talk about money because we perceive equal footing.

For those of us who’ve reached 45 with a limited understanding of personal finance, this lack of knowledge can lead to discomfort in discussing money and a reluctance to ask questions or seek advice. A lot of us were conditioned to let our partners take care of it. I’ve seen a weird social phenomena where there’s perceived status in not knowing anything about money - as in, “gee, there’s so much of it, I don’t even think about it! Geoffrey handles all that silly stuff!” But that, Plums, is the stuff of Bravo franchises. 

Money can be associated with power and control in relationships, which is also kind of icky to think about. And traditionally men are “seen” as in charge of money, even if women go to great lengths to hide the ways they’re sneaking control with little purchases and not-so-little lies.

I was 12 years old when my idealistic dad ponied up his entire pension to invest a green energy idea proposed by two shiny businessmen in my hometown. It didn’t fly, and afterward my mom tells me that all we had was our rental property and the house my parents built. Not long after that an administration change saw my dad lose his position in local government. We sold our house and we moved to a new city. 


That was when my mom took the reins and steered our family back into the black. She convinced my dad that it was worth hiring a financial advisor, and the first lesson my mom learned in 1984 was the first lesson Suze Orman and her disciples teach today: You can borrow money for your kids’ education, you can’t borrow for retirement. Mom got serious about her investments. We lived frugally. I saw her checking the NYSE in the Sunday paper, and I started following along. She joined an investment club. My academic-superstar sister chose to go to a state for undergrad instead of her dream school because by that time my parents made too much money to qualify for financial aid, and borrowing for college was not an option. I got a scholarship, too, so that helped, and here we are - grownups on solid financial footing, all because my mom - at the tender age of 43 - took over a role traditionally held by the man of the house.

If you haven’t had a conversation with your partner about what you want your long-term financial future to look like. Do it now. Here’s a script. (INSERT LINK)

If you’re unpartnered, congratulations! There’s no one to weigh in when you take the brave steps of advocating for what’s next in your financial future. 

You fortify that pyramid, Plums. Build that base strong, and then enjoy the fruits of your labor with some of the indulgences at the tippy top. And check back in the Comfort and Security sphere for info and events that keep you on track to reaching your goals.