Etiquette and Finance: How to Talk About It

Emily Post made it clear in 1922:

“A very well-bred man intensely dislikes the mention of money, and never speaks of it (out of business hours) if he can avoid it.”

Times have changed since the days of Ms. Post, but her point continues to resonate. Money is a touchy subject, one that can turn friends to enemies and produces jealousy or pity in the closest of circles. Consider the following dos and don’ts when it comes to discussing money. The info you find will help you keep it classy.


Why avoid money talk?

1. You’ll seem snobbish and/or shallow.

You might be the most earnest person in the world, but innocence doesn’t make it okay to say things like, “We got such a good deal on our house; it was only $500,000!” No one likes a show-off, even if it’s unintentional. By spilling the contents of your bank account to family and friends, you run the risk of appearing snobbish at best.

Oppositely, complaining about things you don’t have is a great way to garner unwanted sympathy and, eventually, annoyance. If your friend is doing well at work, don’t undercut his accomplishments with backhanded compliments: “Congrats on the promotion, Steve. It must be nice to get a raise every six months.” A casual jeer is fine, but why belabor the point?

2. You risk divulging too much.

You may feel comfortable putting all your financial cards on the table, but that doesn’t make it a wise move, especially if your friends are also coworkers. Revealing your salary, bonuses, and other perks could spark jealousy amongst your group of friends. Worse yet, your colleagues’ envy could lead to bigger problems at work. If you value your job and your work/friend relationships, it’s best to keep your earnings private.

3. You run the risk of saying no.

So, things are looking up for you in the financial realm. Maybe you just received a raise and were able to pay down some debt. Good for you, but don’t discuss your surplus of cash with too much vigor. If your friends and family are aware of your income, what’s to stop them from assuming:

  • You’ll pay the bill at social events
  • You should contribute more than your share regarding familial responsibilities
  • You’ll give them a loan or monetary gift when they ask for it

Do yourself a favor and avoid awkward conversations that end with “no.” Keep your good fortune to yourself.

We’ve talked about what not to do, but that doesn’t mean the topic of money is off the table. If you must discuss it, keep the following in mind:

1. Consider your (and others’) motives.

When talking about money, it’s important to remind yourself of the goal. Are you discussing your earnings to illustrate a broader point, or are you just in the mood to brag? Within the same vein, why is your friend or family member asking about your income? The bottom line: Keep the conversation on the level of need-to-know. Your privacy and your relationships are safer that way.

2. Keep it abstract.

If you and your friends like to compare notes, there’s no reason you can’t share without divulging too much. Consider the following example:

Mark is hoping to buy his first home by the end of the summer. He asks and old friend, Steve, for advice on how much he can afford to spend on a mortgage. Steve earns $170,000 per year as a software engineer. He purchased his own home in 2007 for $500,000. Rather than getting too specific about numbers, Steve helps his friend by saying, “Usually, you can afford a mortgage that costs three times your annual income. So, if you earn $50,000 per year, you should look for houses that cost $150,000 or less, get it? I’m not sure how much banks require for down-payments nowadays; you might talk to a broker about that.”

Steve was able to use his experience to help his friend without making the conversation uncomfortable. Take a lesson from this situation and talk about money in abstract terms.

3. Offer tips in the right way.

Just as Steve illustrated, there are ways to offer helpful tips without handing over your bank account number. For example, if you’ve been working hard on credit repair, you’re probably eager to share your experiences with others. Consider doing it this way:

Don’t say: “I had $21,000 in credit card debt and another $42,000 in student loans. Thank goodness I found credit repair!”

Say this: “My credit score suffered from unfair and inaccurate marks about my student loans and credit cards.  Credit repair is really making a difference.”

The difference is subtle, but the intention is clear. If you want to share wisdom with others, focus on the lessons rather than the numbers. Just as we learned from Emily Post, when said well, your message will resonate.