Despite growing efforts to bring personal finance education into the classroom, the topic of money remains taboo in many homes. It tends to harbor between:
Yet, many in the financial community suggest that those who talk about their savings and spending have healthier relationships with their loved ones and may even be more likely to achieve their financial goals.
“Money is not only a difficult topic, but the most difficult topic in many homes, and particularly with couples,” said Deborah Price in an interview, a money therapist and founder of the Money Coaching Institute in Novato, California. “It’s important to talk about money because it creates a feeling of safety in your relationships, whereas not talking about money often leads to fear, secrecy, and a loss of intimacy.”
Price acknowledged that breaking the silence can be difficult. Why? Money is charged with emotional subtext: the fear of being judged, feelings of shame, or an adherence to old-school etiquette that held it was impolite to discuss income or assets.
To change the communication standard in your own home, it helps to explore the money taboos that persist in modern America and the many benefits that may be derived from bringing the family finances to the fore.
Taboo #1: Silence between spouses
Married couples who don’t share their vision for the future, fully disclose their assets and liabilities, and set financial goals together create walls in their relationship.
Even worse, those who keep secrets from their partner about money (or anything else) erode trust in the marriage. But many do.
A 2021 poll for the National Endowment for Financial Education found that 43 percent of adults who have combined their finances in a current or past relationship committed “financial infidelity” against their partner – meaning they have either hidden a purchase, bank account, statement, bill, or cash from their partner. Sixteen percent of them said they committed more serious deceptions, like lying about the amount of debt they carry or their income.1
“When you comingle finances in a relationship, you’re consenting to cooperation and transparency in your money management,” said Billy Hensley, president and CEO of National Endowment for Financial Education. “Regardless of the severity of the act, financial infidelity can cause tremendous strain on couples—it leads to arguments, a breakdown of trust, and in some cases, separation or even divorce,” says.
But it’s never too late to change. By verbalizing your vision for the future and working together toward shared goals, you can help to strengthen trust in the marital team, said Price.
To further fortify your relationship, she suggested sharing details about your personal history with money, either from past relationships or from your upbringing, which may help your spouse better understand and appreciate your perspective. Perhaps your ex spent his way into bankruptcy court, or your parents worried incessantly about the bills, which played a role in forming your own emotions and behaviors toward money.
Keep in mind that you may not know what drives your saving and spending decisions. To identify and break unhealthy patterns, you may need to seek out a financial therapist or money coach. (Learn more: Do you and your partner need financial therapy?)
A professional, she said, can help you identify and establish healthy new financial behaviors. (Related: MassMutual can help)
Taboo #2: Talking money with your kids
Parents often talk about money behind closed doors. They fear their kids will hear too much, that they might share private information with their friends, or that household budget discussions will worry them unnecessarily.
Indeed, young children don’t need to be told that you’re struggling to pay your bills or know how much you earn, but they do need to hear healthy dialogue about your values concerning money.
On an age-appropriate basis, explain to them how you allocate your budget, why you save for retirement, and how you prioritize your financial goals. They’re already watching you, whether you realize it or not. (Related: Teaching kids about money by age groups)
A 2020 survey from T. Rowe Price found that children pay close attention to topics related to money. Sixty-two percent of children who responded to the survey indicated that the conversations their parents have with them about finances made a difference, but 28 percent felt their parents did not know how to talk to them about financial topics and 27 percent said their parents seem uncomfortable talking about money.
Taboo #3: Aging parents and adult children rarely discuss dollars
Older generations, especially in some cultures, may be more likely to guard their financial information carefully, unwilling to divulge personal information to their adult children about their savings, debt obligations, or any estate planning they might have done. (Related: Buying life insurance on your parents)
A 2017 TIAA Family Money Matters Survey reveals both parents and adult children feel that talking about money is “very important,” but very few follow through.3 Roughly 11 percent of parents and 37 percent of adult children are initiating conversation.
There is also a disconnect in terms of when they think those conversations should take place.
About 25 percent of parents surveyed said they were happy to wait until their age or health becomes an issue before having financial conversations, and 20 percent said they were content to never have the discussion at all. By contrast, 25 percent of children surveyed said they should start those conversations well before their parents’ retirement.
Parents and adult children who do open up with each other about money matters overwhelmingly indicate that the discussions were not very detailed, perhaps because the vast majority said the conversations happened spontaneously, according to the survey. TIAA suggests that’s good reason to draft discussion points for future communication. (Related: Talking money with your aging parent)
Adult children and their aging loved ones have much to gain from candor, said Bronson Kibler, a financial professional with Arch Advisory Group in Atlanta, Georgia.
Parents need not disclose specifics about the value of their estate or whether they intend to leave their kids an inheritance, but they can assure their offspring that they have what they need to cover their living expenses. They can also use the discussion as an opportunity to get their estate planning documents in order, if they haven’t already, that will ensure that their wishes will be carried out when the time comes.
On the other end of the spectrum, parents who are less prepared financially for the costs associated with their senior years may also benefit from verbalizing their concern. While just 20 percent of parents said they believed their children were obligated to help them financially, roughly 75 percent of children said they would feel compelled to help their parents. (Learn more: This Thanksgiving, talk estate planning)
If discussing money with your parents is too uncomfortable, Kibler said, you can still initiate dialogue by helping them find a qualified financial professional, tax professional, or estate planning attorney who can help them get their financial house in order.
“You should always be respectful of their privacy,” he said. “Tell your parents that they can choose any financial professional that they trust, but that you would just like to know that they’re taken care of and that they’ve had those important conversations.”
Families who talk about money may be more likely to foster healthy relationships, raise children with better saving and spending habits, and achieve their goal of attaining financial security. If you haven’t opened up with your loved ones lately, it may be time for a family meeting.
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1 National Endowment for Financial Education, “Two in Five Americans Admit to Financial Infidelity Against Their Partner,” Nov. 18, 2021.
2 T. Rowe Price, “12th Annual Parents, Kids & Money Survey,” 2020.
3 TIAA, “Family Money Matters Survey,” March 1, 2017.