I once asked someone this question in a university auditorium filled with several hundred students. A guest speaker had come to speak to the all of the accounting majors. He was the founder and partner at a regional accounting firm. He talked about what it was like building his business from the ground up, occasionally alluding to his wealth and the lifestyle it had afforded him.
I figured his salary was fair game for a question since he kept hinting at his affluence. One of my classmates must have had the same thought because he leaned over and whispered, “Hey Mark, ask him how much he makes.” This classmate knew that I was a bit shameless and that I would probably do it. So I shrugged and raised my hand.
The speaker called on me, and I asked simply, “So how much DO you make?” Quiet gasps of disbelief along with soft murmuring could be heard all throughout the crowd. In contrast, though, a good portion of the students were nodding as if my question were justified. Though I had my supporters, I still sunk a few inches in my chair, embarrassed with the realization that I had asked a socially unacceptable question. Meanwhile, the presenter fumbled with his words to form a vague response that didn’t satisfy our curiosity.
Sometimes it’s okay to be “that guy” or “that girl”
To some people, I became “that guy” who asked inappropriate questions. Others appreciated me for my genuineness and candor. I don’t know if it’s because of my childhood, education, or just inherent personality, but talking about money and personal finances fascinates me. I’m not a big conversationalist, but when I can find someone who has no problem talking openly about their finances, whether they are incredibly wealthy or struggling financially, I can talk all day.
People understandably feel more comfortable talking about their personal financial matters with CPAs, financial planners, money coaches, etc. It’s kind of like telling a therapist about your personal life. We save certain conversations for certain people, which is often a good thing. But I encourage you to broaden the scope of your personal finance discussions. I can’t guarantee it will always turn out well, but I’m willing to bet that most of the time it will. It depends largely on your audience’s view of money.
What’s your money culture?
Everyone has their own opinion about how appropriate it is to talk about money. One of my goals is to help you evaluate how you feel about it and why you feel that way. Every family has its own wealth culture and view of money. Are your feelings about money consistent with your parents’, or have you departed from your family’s view of money? Is too much money bad? Should it only be discussed within the family? Think about it.
My view is that we only benefit through financial transparency. I’m not saying you should go around telling people your salary or asking them to tell you theirs. What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t go out of your way to avoid the subject it if comes up. Don’t be afraid to ask personal questions. Don’t ask them point blank. Start small by asking them about their money philosophies or finding out if that’s even important to them. If the conversation evolves appropriately, then use your judgment. You’ll probably come away with a stronger relationship, new ideas, or a good feeling knowing you’ve shared (or learned) something of value.
I’ve gained so much insight from having transparent personal finance discussions both with people making way more or less than I do. Some of them knew I was a CPA, and others didn’t. I’m not the only one who benefits from these discussions. Both parties have something to gain. It’s a sharing of different ideas, perspectives, and experiences.
If you’ve never had a discussion about your personal finances, try it. I have found that most people appreciate the opportunity to either share what works for them or to learn about what has worked for you.
Start small. Right here.
If an in-person discussion seems like too much, start right here by baring your budget, and throw out a question to me and the BBG community.
Has anyone else asked a stranger or acquaintance about their salary? What have your experiences with money discussions been like?