Money, Now + Beyond

Talking about money may be taboo, but it’s vital for us

How can we know when an employer is exploiting us when it's socially unacceptable to talk about our wages?

They say there are three things not to talk about at the dinner table: sex, religion, and politics. Even if they’re considered a little unsavory, we’ve begun to break through the first two stigmas. But talking about money remains taboo as ever.

Whether it’s our interest rates, loan debt, income or the cost of the car we’re buying, we’ve all been taught to avoid mentioning it. But talking openly about all of these is not just beneficial – it’s downright critical. If we’re cut off from talking about our financial situation with our friends and colleagues, we will never know if our interest rates are too high or if we’re being paid less. How can we know we’re being taken advantage of when it’s socially unacceptable to talk about it?

Sure, I understand why talking about money has been stigmatized for so long. Finances are considered an extremely personal subject, sometimes even more personal than sex and religion. There are valid anxieties that go along with financial transparency. Will talking about wealth, especially if I’m more well off, open the door for people to take advantage of me? Will I come across as either boastful or begging to my peers when I mention how much money I’m making per hour? Will I be judged for the number of credit cards I have or my monthly rent or the fact that I still haven’t set up my 401(k)? We’re afraid we will discover that we’re more or less well off than others—something that we have been taught to be embarrassed by, since money is so often equated with self-worth.

We all know the rules that we have constructed over the years to perfect the avoidance of this taboo: never tell anyone your income, the price of your car, house, or investments. You can’t mention the price of your vacation or Christmas bonus. You can’t mention the amount you’re paying in student debt or the price of your rent.

“It’s in bad taste to talk about that,” they tell you. “It’s rude to ask those questions.”

But it’s not rude, and it’s well past time to break the money silence. Our public schools’ financial education systems are broken: if our schools don’t teach financial literacy in any depth, and our friends and coworkers squirm at the mere mention of money, where else can we turn to for an education?

For young women, particularly LGBTQ+ women and those of color, we’re already at an institutional disadvantage. The wage gap is real, as is housing discrimination. Women of color are less likely to have access to paid family leave and paid sick days: nearly half of Latina workers and 40 percent of working African American women can’t earn paid sick days. In 2014, women were paid 79 cents for ever dollar that men made. However, these numbers are worse for women of color. Within their specific ethnicity groups, women of color make anywhere from 89 percent to 79 percent of their male counterparts. When compared to white men’s earnings, the wages are disparate to say the least. At the worst end, Latina or Hispanic women make 54 percent of white men. African American women come in at 63 percent.

We can’t know if we’re making less than others without sharing it with our coworkers. We’ll never find out if we’re receiving extremely high interest loans if we’re not talking about it.

We can’t identify this gap in our own paychecks when people refuse to talk about their finances. And if we can’t identify this discrimination – how can we protect ourselves against it?

For millennial women, the wage gap is even more detrimental because of the rising cost of college. While I’m glad to say that more women are going to college, this also means that more women are taking out loans than men. Because of the wage gap, women—especially women of color—cannot pay off their loans and are more affected by their student debt. Although much more action needs to be taken in order to totally alleviate this problem, talking about our finances is a needed step.

You only realized you’re being gipped when you realize your classmates earned thousands of dollars in scholarship money. You only realize the importance of filling out your FAFSA, of negotiating for higher wages, of setting up a 401(k), when you see how successful it was for your peers and coworkers.

We can share resources on winning scholarships and creating budgets and negotiating for higher wages all we want. But until we’re willing to talk about money, young women will be left in the dark.