Blogs | August 1, 2018

Talk may be cheap, but it’s also hugely valuable

Do you avoid discussing money issues? This might cost more than you think, as Jess Exton explains.


Talking about money has long been taboo. Our finances are a prickly topic – and the resulting awkward conversations can make people feel uncomfortable or come across as rude. Money can feel just “too real” for everyday discussion.  Yet talking about money can be useful. If we started talking about money more regularly, we might have more information to hand for our next big financial decision.

Imagine if we talked more about pay rates and packets – or discussed how much we were saving. So why don’t we do this?

Relative rivalry
When two people tell each other what they earn, we can directly compare one to the other, immediately knowing who earns more and making assumptions about relative values at the same time.

This natural tendency to evaluate each other in relative terms, instead of in absolute measures, is very relevant when it comes to talking about money. Relative values can be easy to comprehend as they have some context – but the result may be that we compare ourselves unfavourably. Understandably, this can result in less enthusiasm for discussing finances.

"It's not fair"
In a social environment we experience inequity aversion. This means people typically prefer situations that are fair and relatively equal. For example, while we may want to earn more, having a higher salary can feel rather uncomfortable when socialising with friends or colleagues. Yet another reason to avoid talking about money.

Social norms
Social norms are “rules and standards that are understood by members of a group, and that guide and/or constrain social behaviour without the force of laws”, as this article explains. When discussing money, the social norm is to avoid the topic. This may make it less likely we’ll want to talk about money with others.

There are clearly many reasons to avoid talking about finances. And it makes sense to be considerate of other people’s feelings and needs.

What the research says
In one US study, money was the topic most people wanted to avoid in conversation. And 44% of people indicated personal finance was the most challenging topic anyone could possibly talk about. Amazingly, it was thought even more challenging than talking about death, politics or religion.  

Another study, by a bank, found that 70% of Americans think it rude to discuss money. 

All too human
It’s true that where we live may influence our attitudes to talking about money. However, a discomfort with financial discussion has been reported across different cultures. Business Insider findings, for instance, showed a general consensus: “From the Belgians to the Japanese, everyone … generally considered [it] rude to ask how much money someone makes.”  

But surveys suggest we are happier to discuss some money concepts than others; the bank study mentioned above reported that income, for instance, is a more palatable conversation topic than either savings or debt.  

It also depends who you’re talking to. With some people we are typically more tight-lipped than with others. Even, sometimes, with romantic partners. One study has suggested that 43% of people in a couple may not know how much money their partner earns. Our ING International Survey on savings in 2015 looked at couple secrets and made related findings.

In real life
There are clearly many reasons to avoid talking about finances. And it makes sense to be considerate of other people’s feelings and needs. However, we should all remember to appreciate the benefits of some of those more difficult conversations. If we don’t find some things out, we don’t know how much it could be costing us.

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Jessica Exton
Jessica Exton

Behavioural scientist at ING
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