We Need To Talk (About Money)

Our relationships with money are complicated — but the conversations don’t have to be.

by Nondini Naqui, President & CEO of Society of Grownups

Let’s talk about money.

Wait, where are you going? Come back!

I get it. Talking about money is tough, maybe even a little uncomfortable. But it’s important. Here’s why.

For the most part, we tend to think about money rationally, logically, in terms of dollars and cents. We focus on literal balances like how much we have and how much we want. But really, money is much more than that to us. It’s emotional, it’s complicated, it’s a relationship.

And talking about it is taboo.

Like everything that makes up who we are, our concept of money is deeply rooted in our own histories. Our relationships with money mirror what we’ve absorbed growing up: from our parents, friends, and other cultural messages. Despite what we think, money is more than saving and spending — because those behaviors are dictated by our dreams, guided by our aspirations, tied to our ideas of the future, and wrapped up inextricably in our insecurities.

Money is Emotional

When we only focus the money conversation around the math, we miss the point: whether we like it or not, we can’t only be rational about our finances. Money is emotional, entwined with everything we’ve seen, we are, and wish to be. When I say we need to talk about money, I mean that we need to have a soul-searching, all-encompassing, holistic conversation. For many of us, that idea is not only unfamiliar, but also frightening. It’s something we haven’t done. Something we may not even have the words for in our vocabularies.

This language barrier around money was quite literally the case for me. My story is an immigrant story. My parents are from Bangladesh and were educated in Russia. And when our small family emigrated to the United States just shy of my second birthday, my father supported us on a post-doc salary of about $13,000 a year. This was not a lot of money, even in the early 1980s. Money was something he thought of and worried about often.

From early on, I recognized that money was something secretive.

I remember all the languages spoken at our dining room table: Bengali, English, and Russian. But Russian had a special role in our household. It was “the secret language,” the one my parents used when they wanted to talk to each other without anyone else understanding. And when they’d turn to one another and start speaking in Russian, I knew that meant one of two things: either I was in trouble or they were talking about money. From early on, I recognized that money was something secretive, something you didn’t talk about openly.

For many of us, money is wrapped in judgment, shame, and endless comparisons. And that’s not something that I’m immune to. I wish I could say the money conversation got more open as I got older, but instead, these same attitudes persisted.

My best friends and I talk about almost everything: each other’s dating histories, religious musings, political leanings, career goals, hopes, and fears, and lately, we’ve even had intimate discussions about our health. But, even then, among my closest inner circle, you can probably guess the one topic we never talk about.

There is a financial underpinning to every major life decision we make. Yet I have no idea how much my friends earn, their comfort level with debt, the trouble they’ve had, or how much they want to save or spend on a house or car. If knowledge is power and we’re unable to have that conversation, where does that really lead us?

Fear of Judgment

Why is it so hard to talk about money? I think it’s because, at heart, there’s a real fear of judgment. How many of us have looked at someone else and thought, “Oh, they’re irresponsible with money” or “That person can’t afford that”? We also turn that judgmental voice on ourselves. We internalize those judgments and make assessments without context, education, or communication.

Luckily, this isn’t a lost cause. We can talk about money. Indeed, the only way to normalize the topic and de-stigmatize the taboo is by talking. We need to look at our own histories, seek out information to feel more empowered, and be more open-minded about our expectations, realizing they aren’t created in a vacuum.

Having open, honest conversations about our values — and how money impacts them — is something we’ve put front-and-center at Society of Grownups. During my time as CEO, I’ve made a concerted effort to open the conversation with my family, to talk about how and why money makes us anxious or emotional. It hasn’t been easy, and that self-judgment and secretiveness is still present. But every time we have a money conversation now, it’s in a language that we all understand. I feel closer to them — and I feel more self-aware, too.

Now I tell everyone that it’s OK — and healthy — to talk about finances!

I encourage you to break the money taboo and begin to have these conversations, too. If we can demystify our finances, we can begin to control money and stop letting it control us. ❏

For more on money as the last taboo, watch Nondini’s TedX talk at her alma mater, Wellesley College.

Nondini Naqui is the President & CEO of Society of Grownups. She took the road less traveled to get to finance, studying anthropology, Spanish, and business, then co-founding a nonprofit for HIV-positive women in Ethiopia. After a tenure at ING DIRECT, she found she could combine all her skills and interests at Society of Grownups. Day to day, Naqui is focused on business and marketing strategy, and — in true start-up fashion — pitches in wherever she’s needed. Naqui is a graduate of Wellesley College, where she double majored in Spanish and Anthropology, and received her MBA from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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