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Table Topics: Is It Still Inappropriate To Talk About Finances at the Table?

Etiquette says to avoid discussing politics, religion and money at the table. But why is talking about money taboo and when is it appropriate to other conversational taboos?

November 17, 2021

Traditional manners have long insisted that discussing politics, religion and money should be avoided at family gatherings. But is this still the case?

As anyone who has gathered with family recently could probably tell you, it no longer seems that politics are off the table — and we seem to be more comfortable talking about religion. 

But what about money? Many still avoid financial discussions at all costs. Why is talking about money taboo? 

Americans are famously uncomfortable with talking about money

The money taboo is nothing new. Studies have found that 57% of Americans purposefully avoid talking about finances with their friends. 

Perhaps even more telling, another study found that Americans are more comfortable talking about marital discord, mental health, addiction, race, sex and politics than they are talking about money. 

This suggests that out of all the conversational taboos, money may be the most commonly observed.

The taboo is also far-reaching. Americans are uncomfortable talking about money with their friends and family, and often even with their spouses or partners. 

A Fidelity study found that 24% of people surveyed said they were often frustrated by their partner’s financial habits, but avoided talking about it to “keep the peace.” For 20% of couples, finances was their most significant relationship challenge. 

Why is talking about money taboo?

For many of us, money is a measure of status and power. Thus, money can be a deep source of anxiety and pressure in our lives, and we often think that we may be judged based on our income, wealth or debt. 

The hesitancy to discuss financial matters has a variety of root causes and manifests in different ways for different people. 

  • Wealthy people may hide their financial specifics to avoid alienating friends or family members.

  • Lower-income people may feel insecure about their financial standing and therefore hesitant to discuss it.

  • Friends may not feel comfortable discussing money with each other.

  • Some people may present themselves as upper-class but have excessive debt and are embarrassed to discuss money.

  • Some may simply find it rude or improper to discuss money.

There also may be larger societal causes that lead us to remain quiet about money. In recent decades, Americans have seen wealth inequality soar and may feel frustrated about their income level or perceived standing in society. In many cases, it’s simply easier not to discuss topics with which we are uncomfortable. 

Despite these taboos, we constantly talk about things related to money. We use certain questions to gather information about someone’s class position and financial standing without breaking the unwritten societal rule to avoid talking about money directly: 

  • What do you do for a living? 

  • Where are you going on vacation? 

  • Where did you grow up?

Is talking about money still taboo? 

Although it may seem old-fashioned, the tendency to avoid talking about money still exists to this day. 

How do we push back on this notion that we shouldn’t discuss finances? By talking about it! 

If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your financial standing, you can start with more broad topics. You could even discuss this article and why you think talking about money remains taboo. 

Financial conversation starters

If you’d like to discuss financial matters with friends or family, it helps to approach the topic cautiously. 

It’s a good idea to start with “soft” questions that don’t ask for more sensitive information like an individual’s income, wealth or debt. Some fun conversation starters could be:

  • What is the best money you ever spent?

  • Do you think money can buy happiness?

  • What do you think provides more joy: spending money on possessions or experiences? 

  • If you won $1 million, how would your life change? 

If you’re more comfortable with the people you’re talking to, you can share whatever is on your mind. It’s helpful to start by talking about your financial situation rather than directly asking about someone else’s.

Be mindful of who you’re talking to and their financial situations. If you’re financially comfortable, you wouldn’t want to brag about your finances in a room full of people who may not be so financially secure. 

Impersonal discussions

What if you don’t feel comfortable talking about financial specifics with friends and family? If this is the case, you may still benefit from anonymously discussing your finances — or seeking a professional financial advisor.

You could turn to personal finance discussion boards or online forums filled with like-minded individuals. If you take this approach, be sure to hide your personal information and don’t get too specific. You don’t want your true identity to be traceable, particularly if you’re discussing your financial life. 

Alternatively, you can seek professional help. A financial advisor can help you make an investing plan and answer your questions, while a financial therapist can help you get to the root of your anxieties over money. 

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