Even on social media – where oversharing is all too often the norm – people can come over all coy when it comes to discussing money. We may mention a pay rise at work, but would never say by how much; we'll post pictures of our exotic holiday but wouldn't dream of telling anyone the cost.
This may not all be about consideration for others. Research has shown over and over again that we tend only to share things online that make us look good – and that includes trying not to brag too obviously. Letting all your Facebook friends know the details of your finances runs the risk of having half of them look down on you and the other half think you're showing off.
A bet each way
This can often bring us down because of a desire to “keep up with the Joneses”, as investment management firm Morningstar notes in this white paper. We're not very good at counting our blessings either, says the author, behavioural economist Sarah Newcomb.
“Our research shows that people have a tendency to compare themselves with those who are better off, and this was strongly associated with negative financial emotions,” she says. “In other words, most of us seem to be actively making ourselves feel bad about our own financial circumstances by always looking up to those who have more.”
However, discussing finances doesn't always have to make us feel bad; you just have to do it anonymously with strangers, it seems. A study by Goldsmiths university researchers in the UK suggests that, sometimes, people might feel more comfortable discussing money issues on the internet than in the flesh. They point to parents’ website Mumsnet as an example.
Discussing finances doesn't always have to make us feel bad; you just have to do it anonymously with strangers, it seems.
Keeping mum on money
“Women might be too embarrassed to discuss relationship money troubles with family and friends, but websites like Mumsnet provide online communities where they can get frank advice from strangers on what they see as an unfair financial situation,” explains study author Liz Moor, senior lecturer in media and communications at Goldsmiths.
Adds co-author Shireen Kanji, reader in work and organisation at the University of Birmingham: “The anonymity that online communities offer means people are more likely to be honest and less likely to feel judged than when talking to someone face-to-face.”
Discussing your finances can definitely be a good thing, agrees Jane Goodland, responsible-business director at UK investment and pension provider Old Mutual Wealth. Only 17% of people with dangerous levels of debt actually seek advice, she says, and avoiding the issue generally makes financial problems much worse.
“We desperately need to encourage people to talk about their finances, so they feel more capable of tackling the issues,” she writes in this article. “Part of the problem is that people in debt may feel embarrassed and unwilling to seek help. However, without advice they’re less able to dig themselves out of the problem, which then escalates and preys on their mind.”
Get social, dispel a taboo?
So it might pay to be more open about finances – even anonymously – on social media and the internet. Yet the truth is that talking about money remains one of the last taboos for many people around the world. UK researchers have found that British people are seven times more likely to tell a stranger how many people they've slept with or even whether they've ever had a sexually transmitted disease than to let somebody know what they earn.
There’s a similar feeling in the US, with two thirds of people in a survey for an investing app saying that they’d rather talk about their weight than how much they have in savings, and in Australia, where half of people say they never talk about money at all.
According to UK etiquette manual Debretts, this is simple politeness and partly about stopping others feeling bad.
"Bragging about one’s bonus is a pathetic, and primitive, bid for supremacy: it just heightens the difference between your financial situation and that of the person you are talking to," the etiquette experts explain. “Complaining about shortage of money all too soon tips into [debt-ridden fictional character] Micawber-like wheedling, guaranteed to make the people around you feel guilty.”
Cultural complaint …
Of course, not all cultures are as reticent as some when it comes to talking about money. For example, in Norway and Sweden, people’s earnings are actually public information, and anybody can look them up online anytime.
For people in these nations, any embarrassment might be outweighed by the financial advantages this openness brings. Being able to check other people's pay makes salary negotiations much easier, and might be one reason these countries have smaller gender pay gaps than most. It's a lesson that other countries might learn.
As Swedish journalist Katrine Marçal writes in a blogpost for Prospect, a UK union for engineers and scientists: “Economists tend to assume that having more information helps people make better decisions and the economy work better. Why should pay be the exception?”