We have to face one fact in our modern lives. Money is important. It’s not the most important thing in the world. No, not even close. But it is perhaps the most important material thing in the world.
In my previous post I asked the question of whether money or sex is the more serious taboo in India. My vote goes for money.
I am not saying sex isn’t important, or that it’s not a taboo, but it just seems – from personal experience, mostly – that more fights happen in families due to money than they do due to sex. Siblings fight over property. Couples fight over who is earning more and who should spend less. Children fight with their parents. Parents lie to their children about how (un)wealthy they are.
It’s only after I began to write a book about the subject – more on that in its own time – that I realized how pathetic we really are when it comes to sitting down and talking about money. My wife and I are quite open in our discussions, often debating ‘taboo’ subjects such as rape and sexual abuse with abandon. But once conversation veers toward coins and notes, we clam up.
We avert our eyes. We mumble. We get irritated. We end up fighting.
At least we did on our first few conversations. Those were stressful times. My wife assumed that I could read her mind. I assumed she could read mine. We repeatedly hit roadblocks. We disagreed a lot.
Here are the three main questions we had to answer before we could get more comfortable in our money conversations. If you’re someone who struggles with talking about money to your loved ones, maybe answering these will help.
1. What does money mean to you?
Money by itself is only a means of exchange. It has no other function or power. But it means different things to each one of us depending on what we think we can achieve if we had more of it.
For some, money is security. For others, it stands for power. For many it’s a parameter of success. For a few it’s a source of comfort and luxury. What does it mean to you? None of those? Or – as is more likely – all of those, in differing proportions?
Wherever they may begin, money conversations often return to this fundamental question. Better than coming face to face with it for the first time in the middle of a heated debate, do your homework. Plumb yourself as deeply as you can. If it helps, sit down with a pen and paper and make a few notes.
For a read on what money means to different people, read this blog post and the comments following it.
2. What are your financial values?
Depending on your answer to the first question, you will be able to deduce your value system when it comes to money. Are you a spender or a saver? Do you prefer to live a life of luxury with minimal planning for the future, or are you a compulsive planner, always putting away something for a rainy day? Are you interested in money matters or does the subject bore you?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. The idea is to know yourself.
When my wife and I were trying to figure out our financial values, the following two thought-experiments helped us.
a. What would we do if our incomes were halved?
b. What would we do if our incomes doubled?
Ultimately when it comes to money, you could do only do one of five things: spend on essentials, spend on non-essentials, pay down debt, save, or invest. Answering the two questions above will make it clear to you which of the five options you’re naturally inclined towards, and which ones you shun.
For a more in-depth view of financial values, look at this link.
3. How much is enough?
This is perhaps tied into ‘values’, but it’s so important that I think it can stand on its own. To break this further down, I found it helpful to define ‘enough’ on three levels. Namely:
a. How much do I need to be able to pay the bills and take care of the necessities of my current lifestyle?
b. How much do I need to be able to indulge in comfort spending?
c. How much do I need to be able to save/invest enough for the future?
Once you have answers to all three, add them up and that will be your monthly ‘enough’ figure.
Now you’re ready
After you’ve answered all three questions, you’re ready for your first conversation with your loved one. Preferably, he/she has done the same exercise, and you can compare notes. Remember, though, to expect disagreement. Even welcome it. Be calm, promise yourself that you will not raise your voice (yeah, right!), and begin. Since both of you have done your respective homework beforehand, at the very least you can expect not to be taken by surprise.
All the best!
Now your turn. Have you ever struggled with speaking about money? What are the steps you think we can take to make money a less taboo subject in our families?