Saturday, January 3, 2015

Money Talks

Here is a random observation. This started as a one or two liner and then got longer so I changed the title:

The more income a person has, the less comfortable he is discussing it with general company. When there is disparate income between relatives, the higher income person really, really does not want to discuss money. There is a certain level of income above which nobody wants to discuss it unless they are quite certain that everyone around also makes a similar income. I am ballparking this income amount around 75K when all of sudden the topic falls to the verboten category, but that's not a hard and fast guess. When the topic of money comes up, the people who have it fall strangely silent.

Now why is this? I think there are two things at play. First I have heard that around 75K of income is the level where money stops being an issue. At that income and above, you can afford all the basics and a reasonable amount of luxury on top of it. I wonder if the topic falls away because money just isn't really a concern anymore for those who budget wisely. Nothing to talk about. Second I think there is some level of guilt, especially with family, from having more than others. I'm not saying that people who make more think they don't deserve their income (or that I think they don't deserve their income), but that when you are in a position of having and others, especially family, who come from similar circumstances as you but don't have as much income or actually struggle to make ends meet, there is some feeling of guilt about the situation. Why do I have this money while others don't? I think there is a self-consciousness about the differences in circumstance that makes the higher income person clam up.

I would also imagine this scenario happens when most of the company has lots of money and there's that one guy who doesn't. The conversation is all about their venture capital investments while the poor guy is hoping that nobody notices that he is just smiling and nodding. I would guess that happens too.

Agree? Disagree?

(See, I like to talk money, but I've found that almost no one else does.)


Darwin said...

Well, I would probably date the point when I became more reluctant to talk about money to about the time I passed the 75k mark, so I think there's some validity to the theory.

I think there is a bit of guilt and/or a feeling that some people who otherwise like you may dislike or at least resent you for making more than they do. In my own case that was perhaps exacerbated by remembering how back when we were first married and really struggling financially, I had enjoyed making significantly more wealthy friends who were much more liberal in their politics feel uncomfortable by strutting my working mans conservatism. My politics haven't changed a huge amount since then, but I definitely no longer try to use my income to shame people, nor would it work.

I don't think it's so much the case that once you pass the 75k threshold you don't need to worry about money anymore. There's a sense in which budgeting becomes easier, especially on petty spending. There's a lot of stuff that I put off buying because I think I shouldn't buy something that expensive this month, but I also know that I can get away with buying something for $50 or $100 on something of an impulse so long as I don't do it very often. However, people who consistently have higher incomes end up getting themselves into higher expenses: more expensive house, more expensive car, expensive activities for their kids, etc. I know people at work who have families with two incomes as big as mine, and they nonetheless talk about how dang hard it is to afford that... vacation, renovation, new car, whatever.

Anonymous said...

I agree that there is reluctance. Having written on this topic (tangentially) for many years, I know that there is so much emotion involved from those below and above that mark. For instance, people who make below can't fathom that the mark wouldn't be enough for everything. Even if you don't bump up spending as income rises, people question why you aren't buying better groceries, newer cars, etc. Or the morality of shopping at a thrift store when you could buy new. When we moved from a teacher to administrator income in our family, it became very difficult to write about frugal living at all.

This year we reached another uncomfortable threshold where his name/income were published in the newspaper as public record. So we are forced to be transparent, like it or not!


Anonymous said...

Also adding that I believe it is not only those making the lower income who are emotional and/or irrational in money discussions. Those with the higher income (and I include myself in this observation) feel that in a way they deserve/earn it, rather than being the happy circumstance of being born with the right intelligence/ability/family/country of opportunity. This is not to say that my husband didn't go to school for a long time or doesn't work hard enough to earn that figure, but it we grew up in Haiti, would we have still possessed the factors that enabled us to earn more? In my own personal experience, the more we earn, the easier it is to forget the stress and worry of not having enough.


Jenny said...

I have somewhat experienced this phenomenon from both sides. Growing up my family (eventually) made a lot more money than anyone on my mother's side of the family. I remember them talking about money and then my mother no longer joining in the conversation and her angst at the income difference. It made sense at the time that she didn't want them to feel uncomfortable about their situations so she didn't talk about hers.

Now I am the poor relation amongst my siblings and am on the receiving end of the gaping silence. It bothers me more that the topic is mostly off-limits than that I make less money. I know that they make more money than I do, not talking about it doesn't change it, so it certainly isn't *my* comfort level that is being preserved by the lack of conversation. But then again I'm the weirdo who likes talking money.

entropy said...

I like talking about this too! We don't make 75k and have definitely experienced the "gaping silence." I think part of it comes from the fact that they do have more money and they can't commiserate and it wouldn't be appropriate to offer money to support you, so what do they say exactly? "Boy, I'm glad we don't have to check the price of gas every time we fill up."

I was at a girls' night a few weeks ago in which everyone except me made significantly more than 75k (if the price of their houses are any indication) and one of the girls started lamenting the fact that she spends so much and doesn't really budget for groceries or anything and pretty much just waits for her husband to tell her when she needs to cool it. (She's so much fun and absolutely lovely, so it sounded adorable when she said it). I was the one smiling and nodding and perhaps giving a "gaping silence" because I do not have that luxury (though I am happy nonetheless) and it just would have made her feel bad to mention it.

On the other hand, we have family that has been unemployed for over two years and despite our tight budget, they have even less and sometimes that makes things uncomfortable. It's definitely not fun being the person with more money in that situation.

I absolutely agree that the cutoff is around 75k though for all the reasons you mentioned! I heard somewhere that money does increase happiness up to about 75k because then you finally don't have to worry about essentials anymore and you have enough cushion to fix your car when you need to, etc.

Jenny said...

Yeah, there is that question of how do you talk about these things without sounding trite or pitying. In my perfect world, it would nice if money topics could be mentioned without walking on eggshells. If I am having some kind of trouble, it would be nice to be able to talk about it and get more than "mm-hmm' or "I'm sorry" as a response. If you have some kind of money triumph, I'd like to know so I can be happy too.

My only ground rule for those who have more money is to refrain from telling me that something is affordable for me when it clearly is not. I don't care if that $100 dress is a great deal for you, I cannot afford it. Keep perspective, I guess. I know that we now make enough money to grocery shop at Kroger instead of WalMart, but I don't forget that there are plenty who can't afford Kroger. So tell me about your raises and your deals and your vacations and all the stuff I can't afford and I will be happy for you. Just don't tell me I can afford it too.