The Taboo Topic
Starting the Conversation about Money
How often have you said the word aloud? How often do you talk about it with your friends, your family, or your colleagues at work? Do you know your best friend’s credit-card balance? Or how much your parents owe on their mortgage? Have you ever asked your colleagues how they manage their money?
Probably not. To do so would seem almost as intrusive as asking about their bedroom activities, right? Or worse! In fact, we’re probably more likely to share stories of our sexual exploits than to divulge details about our paychecks or credit-card statements with our friends and family.
Money is ever-present in our lives. We use it daily and can’t survive without it, yet women hardly ever talk about it with each other. We’ve been conditioned to believe that it’s impolite to ask how much money someone makes, or how much they paid for their home, and distasteful to disclose how much we earn from our investments. We’re discouraged from discussing how much money we have, and we worry about being perceived as greedy for wanting to earn more–or, at least, saying so out loud–especially if we have a job that we love. (The Smart Cookies definitely do not subscribe to this belief. It’s one of many myths about money we’ll discuss in this book that keep women from earning what we’re worth.)
You probably have no problem telling your girlfriends about the great deal you got on that Isaac Mizrahi dress at Target. But have you ever compared earnings or investment strategies over cocktails?
Until we formed the Smart Cookies Money Group, we hadn’t either. In fact, we would consciously keep from talking about how much money we had, made, or owed, to avoid making anyone uncomfortable, including ourselves. Instead, we’d steer the conversation toward more neutral topics like dating or shopping or the last great book we read. We didn’t want to find out that our friends were making a lot more than we were or to admit that our paychecks weren’t as big as we wished they were. Some of us were embarrassed to disclose how much credit-card debt we had or, worse, to admit that we had no idea what our bank-account or credit-card balances were.
Whatever the reason we gave, we know now that our collective refusal to discuss our money problems only made them worse, and that our explanations were really all just excuses. Do any of these sound familiar?
IF I DON’T ACKNOWLEDGE MY DEBT,
MAYBE IT WILL GO AWAY
I used to live by the motto “ignorance is bliss” when it came to money: If I didn’t think or talk about my growing debt, I thought, I wouldn’t have to worry about it. Of course, I knew deep down that it was there. But I figured I’d pay it off at some point. In the meantime, I just didn’t want to stress out about it. So I avoided looking at my ATM receipts and credit-card statements. I rarely even kept track of my bank balance (it was usually so depressingly low). I regularly went over my checking-account limit and paid extra fees as a result. But if my debit card was declined, I’d just pull out a credit card. That would explain why, at the time I joined the Smart Cookies Money Group, I had nearly $12,000 in debt.
I’M NO GOOD WITH MONEY, SO WHY TALK ABOUT IT?
I didn’t like to discuss money because that would have meant revealing my ignorance on the topic. I remember being so clueless about my finances when we had our first money-group meeting that I actually had to check with my then-boyfriend to find out how much we had in our bank account and what we paid on our mortgage each month. It is awful to admit, but I handed my paychecks over to him every two weeks and he essentially handed me an allowance. At the time it seemed like the right decision. He was good with money, and I thought I wasn’t (something I laugh about now). He liked reviewing our finances, and at the time I’d convinced myself that looking at numbers on a spreadsheet was boring. He told me he had everything under control, and I believed him. I rarely spoke up about our finances because I felt I didn’t have much credibility. The result? I wasn’t even sure where to find any of our financial documents or how much equity in our home I was entitled to claim when we separated.
I DON’T WANT MY COLLEAGUES TO THINK
I CAN’T KEEP UP WITH THEM
Since my friends and I never talked about how much money we made, I’d assumed that Andrea, with her well-kept hair, Seven jeans, and designer sunglasses, had it all together and wouldn’t relate to my financial problems. Andrea and I both worked at the same company, but I never asked how she afforded her elegant attire. That seemed impolite. I just figured that if she could, I should be able to too. I had been really disciplined when I’d lived at home with my parents, automatically depositing a portion of my paycheck into a savings account. I’d put away nearly $8,000. But saving money became a much bigger challenge once I moved out on my own and was suddenly responsible for covering my room and board and everything else. Within months, I went through the money I had saved up and charged another $2,000 on my credit card, going out and trying to keep up with Andrea and my other well-dressed colleagues. I was shocked (and a little relieved) to learn at our first money-group meeting that Andrea had the most debt of all of us: nearly $18,000.
WHAT WOULD MY FRIENDS SAY IF THEY KNEW
I felt a lot of pressure to keep up my professional appearance, and I had told myself that I needed to maintain a certain image to be successful in my career. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with looking polished and put together. But for me, that was just an excuse to spend a lot of money I didn’t have on pricey designer clothes and too many dinners out with friends that I wanted but knew I couldn’t really afford. I may have looked like I was wealthy, but I was anything but. I was in such financial straits at the time we formed our group that I had begun avoiding the phone for fear of facing another call from my creditor–or, worse, one from a collection agency. If Sandra had continued trying to keep up with me, she probably would have ended up in the same financial predicament. Of course, until I became a Smart Cookie, I did my best to make sure that no one knew how I’d paid for all those clothes. I was petrified that the people I liked and respected would think I was a failure if they found out how much debt I had accumulated trying to maintain a lifestyle I couldn’t afford.
I DON’T WANT TO STOP SHOPPING!
As a public-relations manager, I was making a lot of money for someone my age, and I figured I deserved a nice wardrobe (“nice” meaning expensive, of course). But I must have known deep down that my spending was a little out of control. I looked forward to my fiancé’s golf outings so I could go shopping and stash away new purchases before he came home. I would scurry around trying to hide the evidence, putting the cut-off tags and shopping bags at the bottom of the trash bin. When he’d ask whether an outfit I’d bought was new, I’d lie and tell him he’d seen it before. Then one afternoon, after I’d bought a $300 pair of True Religion jeans, I forgot to tuck the receipt away in my wallet. My fiancé spotted it and asked if I had really spent this much on yet another pair of jeans. I felt my heart race, and my face grew red. He was flabbergasted by this kind of spending–especially since I owned nearly a dozen pairs already. And I couldn’t explain the purchase to him, or to myself. I knew it was time to get help, or, I feared, my spending habits could cause long-term damage to our relationship, not just our bank account. I realized I’d been afraid of talking about money with my friends or with my fiancé, because that meant acknowledging the hundreds of dollars I was spending, or charging, on new clothes each month–and it might mean the end of my shopping sprees altogether! By the time we formed the money group, I had about $3,000 in credit-card debt, almost all of it from shopping. That was something I definitely didn’t want to admit to my fiancé, my friends, or myself. But I did. (And, by the way, I am as stylish as ever. I just became a smarter shopper. But we’ll get to that in Chapter Four.)
In fact, we all confessed the details of our financial situations in that first meeting: how much we made, how much we owed, and how much we needed to learn about managing our money. It was scary and a little embarrassing. But it was also a great relief. Admitting our own money mistakes, and learning about those that our peers had made along the way, actually made us feel less anxious about our situations and created an immediate bond between us. The real reason none of us had wanted to talk about money was because that would force us to take responsibility for the mistakes we’d made–or were still making. But we quickly realized that it was only once we started talking about the less-than-ideal state of our finances that we were finally able to do something about it.
It was comforting for each of us to know that four other intelligent, successful women–who, by outward appearances, seemed perfectly put together–faced similar financial challenges. We learned that even though our incomes were different, we had each been struggling with similar issues. There was no reason to tackle them on our own. We all had concerns and questions about our finances. Now we also had one another to provide answers, support, and advice; to hold us each accountable; and to keep us motivated as we worked toward our financial goals. That gave each of us a renewed sense of commitment and confidence.
As we mentioned in the introduction, you don’t need to be in a money group right now to enjoy the same benefits. But if you want to form a money group, skip ahead to the last chapter for a step-by-step guide on how to do it. Once it is in place, you can go back and use this book as a curriculum for your group meetings. At the end of each chapter we’ve included five exercises we’ve done ourselves related to that chapter’s issues, along with five questions you can answer yourself or use to help fuel the discussions with your fellow money-group members. These sections can also help set the agendas for your money group; there are enough subjects in each chapter to get you started and to keep the conversation going for several meetings. We’ve done a lot of research too, so you should be able to find the answers within the chapters to any questions that come up in your meetings. (They certainly did in ours.) But if you get stumped, you can e-mail questions to us directly through our website: www.smartcookies.com or at email@example.com. And if you need extra work sheets or other tools, you can download them from the website as you go along.
From the Hardcover edition.