Want to know how tough is it for many Americans to talk about their financial concerns?
About as tough as any topic you can imagine. Kathleen Burns Kingsbury lays it on the line in her new book, "Breaking Money Silence" (Praeger, $37).
"Almost half of Americans say that the most difficult topic to discuss with others is personal finance and they would rather discuss death, politics or religion" she writes in the book's opening lines. "Take a minute to let that information sink in," she continues. "Many people would rather discuss dying than finances."
Ms. Kingsbury, a financial services industry consultant, explains the goal of her book in her subtitle: "How to Shatter Money Taboos, Talk More Openly About Finances and Live a Richer Life."
It's a worthwhile objective, even if she stumbles occasionally. More on that later, but first the good news.
Ms. Kingsbury forces you to think about several things that are important to achieving financial health, starting with the phrase that comprises part of her title "money silence," her term for someone's refusal to talk and ask questions about personal finance.
She scatters explanations throughout the book for why the sounds of (financial) silence might occur.
They range from embarrassment — people may be reluctant to talk about money because they are ashamed that they haven't saved enough, or that they don't know much about personal finance and so they don't want to ask "dumb" questions — to relationship discord. If one person is a spender and another is not, discussions can get heated when the credit card bill arrives, and so people avoid money discussions.
There are more subtle reasons as well. Parents who are struggling financially may not want their adult children to know about their financial woes, for example, so they keep quiet and that may create ambivalence. If you aren't sure how you really feel about money — Is it the root of all evil, as some people believe, or a potential force for good in your life and the lives of others? — you may not want to think about it.
All this is on top of what Ms. Kingsbury believes is the biggest reason for money silence: misplaced propriety. Some people feel it is simply wrong to talk about their personal finances, even if they need help — or can help someone else.
You can understand any or all of those reactions, but none of them are helpful to your overall financial health.
As Ms. Kingsbury points out, "Money silence contributes to the high divorce rate in the United States," citing research done by TIAA among others.
Curating the research on the nonfinancial part of personal finance is where she shines.
The interesting study that opens the book came, oddly, from Wells Fargo — and it was conducted while the bank's retail operation was opening millions of phony consumer accounts, as revealed in the recent scandal. Ms. Kingsbury also points to other research, including the finding that "talking regularly with your partner about money increases intimacy and relationship satisfaction. "
Then there is this surprising finding that you may have missed. (I know I did). Ms. Kingsbury writes that almost half of couples disagree about when they will retire "and one in three couples is not on the same page when it comes to their expected lifestyle when they retire. "
And she is also good on basic advice.
She says, for example, that "money compatibility is an important factor to consider in a romantic relationship," going further by suggesting questions you could ask a potential partner early on. A representative query is: "How much financial autonomy do you want in the relationship?"
Unfortunately, as Ms. Kingsbury is laying all this out, she has a tendency to get in her own way.
References to personal experience are often helpful, but the constant examples in this book from the author's own life are distracting. We read multiple times about her husband's previous financial missteps. And in an attempt to emphasize the importance of her topic she tends to make unsupported, and hyperbolic, statements, such as claiming that a reluctance to talk about money is "bankrupting businesses and making it almost impossible for the next generation to be healthy around money."
She also tends to repeat herself. You can find a variation on her excellent opening quote about money just six pages later, and her seemingly constant mention of her previous books gets annoying.
The result is that this book is uneven, which is too bad because Ms. Kingsbury's message is important. We do need to talk and know much more about money. The nation's financial literacy is remarkably low. When asked five basic questions about personal finance in 2015 as part of the Finra Investor Education Foundation's Financial Literacy Quiz, only 37 percent of the people surveyed got at least four right — and that number has been trending downward since Finra started conducting the survey in 2009.
It is difficult to learn about a topic unless you are willing to ask questions. If Ms. Kingsbury's book encourages people to engage and seek more information, it will have performed a valuable service.
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