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Why it's so hard to talk about money, according to a financial coach who does it every day

We're conditioned to believe that money talk is impolite. But if you're ready to open up, here's some advice.

Cavan Images | Cavan | Getty Images

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I still remember the moment I learned that you weren't supposed to talk about money.

It was summer 1999, and B*witched's debut single, "C'est la Vie" just hit number nine on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. My days were spent listening to that song on repeat while I learned to French-braid my hair and ride my bike with no hands.

One afternoon, my friend and I were sitting on my driveway talking strategy about how we could pull off an epic B*witched lip-syncing concert for the neighborhood. We already had the makeup — sparkly body spray from Claire's, silver Wet N Wild eyeshadow and purple, grape-flavored lip gloss — but we needed trendy clothes to match.

"I make $10 babysitting the neighbor," I told my friend. I was only 9, but the woman three houses down let me watch her 6-year-old whenever she and her husband needed to do yard work and other projects around the house.

My friend replied with something like, "I get $10 per week in allowance."

Then, as though it was the voice of God himself, my dad (who, unbeknownst to us, had been within ear shot of us on the porch) chimed in.

"Megan," he said, "you shouldn't talk to people so openly about money."

Twenty-plus years later, and I do precisely that — talk about money — for a living. Putting my ambitions of singing backup for Irish-pop girl bands aside, I'm pretty satisfied with my career.

But can I tell you a secret? Talking about money can still be really uncomfortable.

I'm not the only one who feels this way: In a 2019 eMoney Advisor survey of 2,500 U.S. adults, more than half (57%) admitted to purposefully avoiding money talk with their friends, and almost two-thirds (63%) stated they've never worked with a financial advisor.

Yet, changing your money situation is impossible without talking about it first. Given the rise of student loan debt, the past year's increase in unemployment claims and the fact that so many Americans are behind on their retirement savings — it's arguably more important than ever to talk about money.

But if you're still feeling squeamish, don't worry. We spoke with Kristen Ricupero, a Pennsylvania-based financial coach and founder of Financial Fitness Coaching, on why talking about money feels so hard and steps you can take to make it (somewhat) easier.

We have to overcome our resistance to talking about money

"Nobody wants to admit that they need help with the money," Ricupero tells Select. "We have an easier time reaching out to a sex therapist than a financial therapist."

Logically, this is odd, considering everybody uses money, and only six U.S. states actually require that high schoolers take a personal finance course. Nobody is born with an innate understanding of money, yet most of us are too embarrassed to ask for help.

"Money is simply a tool," says Ricupero. You might argue that if someone needed help with a screwdriver or a table saw, they would ask their neighbor to come over and give them a hand. So why is it different with money?

It comes down to social comparison: "We assume that those who have a nice house, nice car, nice yard, nice whatever must know how to use money," Ricupero says. And then we feel foolish that we don't have it all figured out, too.

Social media has not done us any favors, she adds.

"Our emotional lows have gotten worse in the last 20 years because we brought this whole 'keeping up with the Joneses' thing to a whole different level. Now it's not just your neighbors; it is everybody across the world that you are trying to keep up with."

With conflicting information on social media apps like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, it may feel impossible to know where to begin. So we stay silent and suffer alone.

Money habits can be hard to break

But let's say we do overcome our inner anxiety telling us to stay quiet or risk looking like a fool. Once we do start talking about money, often as an adult, it can be overwhelming to realize just how many years of habits we have to work on changing.

Early childhood influences us more than we realize. Behavioral researchers from Cambridge University say that kids start learning about money as young as 3, and most of their attitudes and feelings about money are formed by age 7. 

Our observations are often our first teachers. Since very few parents know the best way to sit down and effectively explain 401(k)s to a 4-year-old, the money behavior kids see most is spending. Everything else — like saving, budgeting, investing and donating — happens mostly behind the scenes.

There's also all the marketing we have to wade through: "My daughter received a child's purse for Christmas," says Ricupero. "Inside, there was a fake credit card, but no cash."

Credit cards aren't bad, she argues, just an incomplete representation of how money works. Kids associate money with plastic, but don't see the actual dollars behind what their parents swipe at the checkout. They miss out on valuable budgeting lessons, and they they can't equate how many hours went into earning enough cash to make the purchase.

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How to start talking about money

Clearing up misconceptions and years of social conditioning isn't impossible. We just have to do the work, and that can be a slog.

It may not be considered polite small talk, but having conversations about money is a necessary part of the process.

Of course, you don't have to go and tell the whole neighborhood what you make like I did at age 9. But it's perfectly OK to talk with trusted friends and loved ones to share tips, resources and even your money woes.

The first step is seeing clearly where you are. Using a spreadsheet or another free budgeting tool, add up how much you have in savings, investments, checking and debt. Then, track your monthly expenses to get a pulse on your monthly budget.

When budgeting with a partner, or even a housemate, we recommend these budgeting apps to make communication easier:

  • Zeta: Open a checking and use these joint debit cards with built-in features like automatic bill reminders, budgeting tools and in-app messaging to help partners communicate and build transparency.
  • Honeyfi: Set shared savings goals, track individual and shared spending, and get notifications/balance updates so you both are always on the same page.
  • Honeydue: Collaborate on shared projects/goals and coordinate bills, while using the in-app messaging feature to let your partner know you're on top of it.
  • You Need a Budget (YNAB): Perfect for households or partners who like to have separate budgets in addition to a shared budget. Adjust your income preferences so when you get paid, the money gets allotted to the budget of your choice

As you become a more confident money manager, you might find that you naturally want to open up to your friends and family members more.

And finally, maybe you want to speak with a financial planner or a coach. Doing so can help you reach your long-term financial goals, and if you aren't sure what they are yet, professionals can help you get a clearer picture.

Talk with the coach or planner about your desires, your dreams, the things that make you excited, anxious or confused. Think big, then break your ambitions down into smaller, baby steps. For instance, a $30,000 down payment might start with putting aside $50 per week, and if your friends know what you're up to, they can cheer you along.

When you start opening up to your friends about money, don't be too surprised if you get a little bit of pushback at first. Nobody is great at money talk, and it's probably going to make some people feel awkward.

However, a small handful of friends may appreciate the honesty. Remember that it's often worth riding out the discomfort in order to gain clarity alongside people you trust.

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Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
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