Over at Surviving and Thriving, Donna Freedman brings up an interesting topic: the old tradition that you don’t talk about money. Spinning off an article that appeared on CBS MoneyWatch.com in which an informant told a reporter that “talking about money is really crass,” especially during a recession, Donna suggests that there’s a limit—a fairly tight one—on how much you should say about what. In particular, she objects to sharing details about one’s salary and one’s net worth. The Surviving & Thriving piece generated a lot of lively discussion, including a comment from a behavioral scientist at an outfit that coaches people on requesting a raise.
Like Donna, I grew up in a time when you did not talk about money matters. It just wasn’t done, as my mother would say. Personally, I find the whole subject of money fascinating, and so I talk about it freely. If that’s crass, it explains why people don’t like me. What’s iconoclastic when you’re young and pretty is something else when you’re old and fat. 😉
The first time I really shocked someone by frankly revealing what I earned came when I was working at Arizona Highways, at the time the largest regional magazine in the country. I was earning about $24,000, the highest salary I’d ever made. Because Highways was a state publication—we were part of the Department of Transportation—my salary was a matter of public record. Anyone could (and to this day can) look it up.
One of my job responsibilities was to trot around town giving little dog-and-pony shows to plug the magazine. I was asked to go to a low-income middle school for “Career Day,” a much-ballyhooed event in the public school district.
Grinding poverty is a real phenomenon here in Arizona. Because it’s a right-to-work-(for-nothing) state, salaries in general are surprisingly low, and when you’re poor, you’re very poor indeed. Low-income districts include the children of migrant workers, who earn minimum wage or less and who often are stiffed for their pay in one way or another. In a state whose schools overall rank near the bottom nationwide, education in ghetto schools is a heart-rending joke. A friend who worked in a low-income high school for several years told me his kids did not know where the Pacific Ocean was or even what an ocean was, that they could barely read, could not do basic math, could not make change, did not know enough to make their way through the modern world.
When I walked across the campus, I noticed only one white face among the teeming students, and that (I was later told) belonged to the son of a teacher. Most of the teachers looked as worn-out as the school buildings, which were old and shabby. As I spoke to the class, the teacher, an older, tired-looking man, translated my words into Spanish.
During the Q&A period, one girl asked me how much I earned. Without a pause, I told her.
After the class ended, the teacher took me aside. He actually was angry.
“You shouldn’t have told her how much you earn,” he said.
“Why not?” said I. “It’s public record. And it doesn’t do me any harm to let her know what a magazine editor earns.”
“She has no way of understanding what that $24,000 means.”
Well, thought I without saying it, You’re her teacher. Maybe you should teach her how many pairs of Adidas $24,000 will buy.
In retrospect, I think he was more offended by the question and the frank answer than by the darkness in which his students lived.
Over at WalletPop, SmartMoney.com reporter Kelli Grant lists five money faux pas, some of which are bound to ring everyone’s bell. Right at the top is asking people what they earn.
Now I will allow that it’s rude to bluntly ask someone about their income. On the other hand, I feel no great compunction about voluntarily sharing such information. There are some situations in which it’s useful to know what coworkers earn or what people in your part of the country earn for the job you do. Certainly, family members, including older children, should know and understand what you earn, so they can make reasonable decisions of their own.
My former husband never told me how much he earned. I knew in round figures, and of course I could have figured it out from our income tax statements if I could have grasped the complexities of a corporate lawyer’s income tax statement. But that was beyond my ken. He just handed me a credit card and a checkbook and that was that. I spent freely, because I had no idea how much we had but assumed a corporate lawyer must be earning plenty. We were in debt up to our teeth, partly because I charged anything I pleased whenever I pleased.
It doesn’t do to be overly private with your spouse about money matters. A marriage is supposed to be a partnership, and in practical terms that means a financial partnership.
Nor, I think, does it serve our interests to be overly private with our coworkers. The only way we can know what we should be earning is to know what people in our company and in our trade or profession are earning. One of the reasons this state does have such grinding poverty is that people don’t fully recognize how poorly they’re paid relative to their peers in other states, and even relative to their peers in other companies. If no one will discuss what they earn, it’s impossible to know how well your own salary stacks up against a fair rate of pay.
To my mind, what’s rude is conspicuous consumption. Living in a McMansion is rude. Bragging about your vast wealth is rude. Carrying a purse emblazoned all over with some expensive designer’s logo is rude. Looking down your nose at people whose clothing cost less than the Armani you’re wearing is rude.
This is more a matter of behavior than of talk. The classiest millionaires are the ones who look, talk, and behave like you and me.