“How much money do you make?”

Let me ask you a simple question.

How much money do you make?

If you just vomited mildly, I understand. 🤑

My friend’s comment encapsulates the discomfort of money conversations:

If I talk about money I’m either boasting or feeling insecure and there doesn’t feel like a middle ground. It feels like I’m being judged or on the flip side that I’m judging others. Why do I feel that way?!

Most people rank money as the most taboo subject. The top position only switched recently to politics because…Trump He-who-shall-not-Tweet.

Money is so much more than numbers. Talking about money can open up the pandora box of self comparison.

“Mind your own business”

My mom has been scammed a few times and had people ask her for handouts. She warned me about the dangers of disclosing too much about personal finances. People may want to take advantage of you. The lives of lottery winners get ruined when “friends” and family show up out of the woodworks asking for money.

I’m part of the “mind your own business” camp. I never ask how much other people make, and I’m cautious when asked. I’ve developed new rules for talking about money money conversations, which you can skip to here.

If you also Googled “talking about how much money you make” and “talking about salary,” you’ll get starkly different opinions.

Sam from the popular Financial Samurai blog said never tell anyone how much you make. After a friend found out how much more Sam made much than he did, that friend stopped talking to Sam.

I’m not going to apologize for making more than Peter when I was his age.  I was just trying to help him out in his negotiation process as he wouldn’t relent on asking.

…It was an absolute mistake revealing my income to him.

I mean, c’mon…how’re you going to compare yourself to someone named the Financial Samurai?

Career site Monster extends this with corporate examples, like the potential for team strife if coworkers share salaries.

On the other hand, some are of the opinion that talking about money helps reveal systemic issues, like the gender pay gap.

Context matters in money conversations

If you just asked me point blank how much money I make, I’d look at you with strong side eye. Uh, you want my SSN too? 👀 Mathematically, it’s a few degrees ruder than asking about age or sexual preference. 

But let’s say I’m chatting with a stranger in Madrid’s beautiful Atocha train station. It’s 2AM (just about dinnertime there) and the conversation’s flowing. I end up telling stories and details about my life with this stranger. 

I share information that I might not even share with close friends back home. I do it because I have no fear of recourse, no negative consequences. It helps when the person I’m talking to doesn’t speak English.

Who cares if a stranger I’ll never see again knows how much I make?

But if it’s someone I know personally and see often, the risks feel higher. 

If they make more than me, will they feel superior and pity me?
If they make less than me, will they feel inferior and be jealous of me?

(Yes, it’s my job to voice your unexpressed pettiness.)

This points to something interesting. Talking about money can lead to self-comparison, which I think is best illustrated with a thought experiment.

Thought experiment: 3 Rich Friends

Friend 1: Imagine that one of your friends just won $10 million dollars. Let that sink in for a moment. Your friend will never have to work a day in their life, while you still have to spend 8 hours a day in Zoom meetings.

Does that change your opinion of your friend?

Friend 2: You have another friend who’s been working 16 hour days for the last 5 years, and their startup gets acquired for millions of dollars.

Does that change your opinion of your friend?

Wow, their hard work paid off. <— That’s what I’d think. I’d appreciate their grit.

Friend 3: Last scenario (trigger warning). Let’s say there’s a friend who’s pretty similar to you. You live a similar lifestyle—same neighborhood, identical jobs. You find out that this friend makes twice as much as you.

Now what do you think?

The takeaway is that you have 3 friends, and for that you should be grateful.

[Cue cheesy music] Just kidding.

These scenarios highlight something deeper about psychology.

When it comes to talking about money, it’s not about the dollar figure.

It’s about our values and how we project them onto others. If we don’t think someone works hard, we might be pissed that they make more money doing the same job. If someone is fabulously rich, we might expect them to give more money to the homeless.

If my rosy picture of a friend changes drastically after finding out how much she makes…then I am the asshole.

Judgment money is just a proxy for how we judge each other and ourselves. It’s about our sense of place in social groups.

All things being equal, most people prefer being at the top of their social groups than at the bottom.

So if someone is relentlessly asking about your income…or if you’re that relentless bastard, recognize the superficiality of that conversation. You can offer to get more specific, which is exactly what I’m about to do.

My rules for talking about money

I won’t be offended if someone asks me how much I make. After all, asking is free.

But I won’t necessarily tell them. I ask about their goals instead.

Does this person want to figure out how much money to save for retirement? Do they want to become a digital nomad? How does their relationship with money map to Maslov’s hierarchy of needs?

The tactic is to annoy the person with enough questions so that they regret bringing up the conversation.

Why am I so adamant about this?

Because we have the Internet, dammit. Why do I need to reveal my personal finances when all this is available on Glassdoor? For more nuanced data, there are plenty of salary surveys and LinkedIn/Facebook Groups willing to chat about this. The Census Bureau has tons of data on household income, broken down by geography. Here’s the woke version of the income map.

Heck, you could look up almost any celebrity’s net worth on the internet. Wow, Trevor Noah was even richer than I thought.

If someone still insists on extracting my personal finances, here’s my script:

Look, I don’t like disclosing my salary or net worth because that type of conversation lands us in an unhealthy place of self comparison. I’m happy to talk about goals, how we manage our finances, and investment ideas. Those are not only more interesting topics for me, but I think they’re ultimately more useful for both of us.

My friend made the good point that talking about money is better when it’s done from a place of shared experience, e.g. “I want to level up in my career, can I get your help?” versus self comparison “Why do I make less than my friends?”

And speaking of shared experience, what’s better than learning together?

Choose useful learnings over personal judgments

My friend shared that her stock investments went up 5X in 2020. I was impressed, and had to suppress my Shiny Stock Syndrome to ask a couple questions:

  • How did she build such strong conviction in the company?
  • What are price would she consider taking profits?
  • Would she consider buying more into this company over the long term?

I want to extract useful learnings, and not personal judgments.

Who cares about my friend’s portfolio value? Whether it’s 5,000 or $500,000, the lessons still apply.

If we go beyond the numbers and seek deeper questions, then we’ll have high quality conversations that help everyone learn.

What are your thoughts on sharing details of your salary, net worth and other personal finance details? No opinion is wrong, and I’m open to changing my mind.

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