I pondered this question recently after reading Anna Sale’s "Let's Talk About Hard Things". In the book, Sale, the host of the Death, Sex and Money podcast, writes that understanding our answer to this question can be critical to managing the finances in relationships. Yet we seldom take the time to discuss it out loud.
That's a tendency that Sale is pushing to change. Just looking at the last few months of my own life it was easy to find evidence to support their reasoning.
When my husband and I were recently looking for an apartment in Philadelphia, a city we had never lived in, we had stumbled a little while deciding on a budget and the type of apartment we were looking for.
It seemed obvious to me that we should upgrade from our current Jersey City bedroom. For one, we will go from one income to two as my husband recently graduated from dental school. Plus, the cost of living in Philadelphia is lower so we could afford something bigger and nicer for the same price as our current rent.
But my husband saw the move as an opportunity to save money. If we can get what we're used to for significantly less, why not have the extra cash to pay off student loans or tackle some other financial priority?
Our views about the home could really be reduced to what we think money is for. I see it as a tool to provide comfort, which I define quite broadly to include the stability of paying the bills, saving for the future, and yes, the little joys that some material goods offer.
For my husband, the greatest benefit money can bring is security; he sees it as a tool to "sleep at night," as he puts it, and so he would enjoy seeing our savings account grow more than a larger space to live in.
We finally settled on a location, but the next time we make a big money decision, I plan to take Sale's advice to clarify our priorities – and then focus on the cells in a spreadsheet .
Anna Sale's book offers advice on talking about death, sex, money, family, and identity. (Credits: Simon & Schuster and Gabriela Hasbun)
The value of challenging our beliefs about money is just one of many new ways Sale suggests its readers approach their finances, and especially conversations about it. We've talked about where personal finance literature falls short, the importance of sharing your money story, and more.
The conversation was processed and condensed.
Market observation: Long-time listener, first-time caller! I don't know if all of our readers are as familiar with your work as I am, so I wonder if you can talk a little about how you came up with the idea for the book and what "Death, Sex, and Money" was like it affects?
Anna sale: I started Death, Sex and Money in 2014 because I found out that it really came out of a personal need. At the time I was divorced and in my early 30s trying to make some really important decisions about my professional and relationship priorities and I felt really alone in figuring that out.
I was drawn to hearing other people's stories about how they went through life transitions. I have asked people in my life to tell me about different moments, for example when they started their careers or changed careers, or when they moved or entered into a new marriage. I wanted to know all this because without a guide I felt like I was in a thick forest. I wanted more stories just to understand that I'm not doing this alone.
"I wanted to know all this because I felt like I was in a dense forest without a guide."
The financial aspect was very important to me. Before I started the show, I covered politics. So I have shared a lot about Americans' deep feelings about the change in our economy, where they were more responsible for the details. For example, there has been this major, long-term transition from company pension schemes to a gig economy. With this tremendous change in our economy, each of us has to find out how to deal with our money in a different way, and that is through conversation.
I wanted to talk to people in my work about how they make money – I wanted to know whether or not they had joint accounts in their marriage – or I wanted to know how they assessed the risks of trying to become an artist. In my private life, I was hungry for specific information. I wanted to know how people find life in expensive cities, how much savings are enough, how to comfort themselves when they cannot save and how to deal with debts.
Those were all sorts of big questions that I wanted to delve into with the show. I started the book a few years after the show because I wanted to create more of a guide for myself and for the readers as to why to have these tough conversations and how to have these tough conversations in our personal lives.
MW: One thing that really struck me in the book was the emphasis on recognizing the different monetary circumstances we come from. Why do you think people often hesitate to talk about it?
Sale: We have really mixed feelings and fears and shame about our financial history no matter which way we're oriented. When you don't have as much as you think you should, making yourself feel bad and try to hide yourself. When you have more than you think you should – or don't deserve – then you feel bad and try to hide it. And polite society tells us to just gloss over the details
My argument in the book is that if you are not sharing your monetary history to explain your life story, there is a lot that you are revising.
“If you aren't sharing your monetary history to explain your life story, there are a lot of things you are revising. ‘
Another reason people don't talk about money is because in our policy we have these very strict binaries on how we talk about money. Either you say that people have what they have because they worked hard, how smart they are and how talented they are, and it's all about individual achievement or individual failure. And on the other side of the political spectrum, there is criticism of the functioning of systems and structures and less emphasis on the individual's ability to act.
None of this is completely true, what is true and what is real is that each of us has what we have or does not have, what we do not have, due to factors that we control and factors that we were not under Control. I decide every week how much money I want to spend on the things my family needs, and I've also benefited from having graduated from college in an economy that wasn't in recession. I also benefited from being born into a family that had no generational debt, and that allowed my parents to pay for my college education.
When you admit that your location is the result of decisions you made and decisions that you had no control over, talking about money becomes a little easier. Without that conversation, it's so easy to go there and say, "Oh my god, how did everyone else find out and me not?"
"I want to shovel all the extra money we have into a savings account."
MW: One of my friends drew my attention to this “green tick” idea. You wonder how did you come up with it? If only they had a green check mark, like the blue one on Twitter, letting us all know how this happened.
Sale: Oh that's interesting
MW: On your point, we could just talk more openly about it.
One of the questions I've been happy to ask during these conversations in the book is, “What is money for?” And I wonder if you can just talk a little about that question.
Sale: Asking what money is for – that is an entirely different dimension to the question of why money is hard. Since we do not speak directly about money culturally, the beliefs and values that each of us carry about money are often unspoken and unspoken.
I didn't analyze what I was taught about money because it felt kind of natural, but rather by asking the question, "What is money for?" When I talked to my husband Arthur about it, I realized, oh, I have those really deep beliefs about stability and survival. Any extra money we have I want to shovel into a savings account, and even money that we should really be spending on things we need I still want to shovel into a savings account.
"I have these beliefs about what is honorable about the expenses inherited from my childhood."
I have these beliefs about what is honorable when it comes to expenses inherited from my childhood – and that's specific to the region I grew up in, the type of family I grew up in, the financial Situation of my family when I was growing up.
Perhaps you have another person, for example a recent immigrant to the United States, who grew up in a family where everyone shares money and is all about that group of people rather than just thinking about individual achievement and stability. This is a whole different way of thinking about money that has really different consequences on how comfortable you are to borrow and borrow from people in your life.
If you don't talk about it, you don't know that there is more than one way to make money. When you acknowledge that there is more than one way to make money, you suddenly find yourself in this conversation where you can say, "Hmm, how do we want to make money?"
When you're not having this conversation it feels like you're breaking that deep instinct and it got me worried. Now I think: 'Do I still believe in these beliefs or do I want to make them a little more spacious?' Because I now have words for them.
MW: One thing that I also really liked about the book is that it offers money advice that is different from your traditional personal finance literature. What do you think literature is going wrong and how can it be used more healthily?
Sale: I love literature on personal finance, I'm not here to tap it. I have relied on personal finance literature and found it really useful in my life, I just think it is not enough. The mistake that I can say I made, and I think the easy one to make when Googling financial issues, is to run to the to-do list of what specifically to do with my money, without checking: what do I think about money? Or what else plays a role here?
"What can happen in a tough conversation with someone in your life is that all you can do is add a little extra meat to the bones."
The other challenge with the personal finance literature is that it can be really difficult to find advice that is contextual enough to cover all of the specifics and nuances in each of our lives. If you're recording personal finance tips outside of a conversation, when you're consuming tips on the Internet, a podcast, or tips in a magazine, there is plenty of consistent advice out there on how to set aside the specific percentages for emergencies or retirement.
What can happen in a tough conversation with someone in your life is that you can just put a little extra meat on the bones, you can think about the sacrifices and adjustments that are needed in the short term in order for you to achieve the long term.
MW: Were there any conversations that really stuck in your mind, either through "Death, Sex, and Money" or the book that made you change the way you think about or deal with money?
Sale: What I learned from the Death, Sex and Money interviews and writing the book is that there is more than one way to make money right. I got the idea that I had to follow the rules to be safe – that was my attitude towards growing up with money – and the thing is, there are no rules that will protect you. There is too much uncertainty to control.
There are certain phases of life that you go through with money.
When I became a new parent and suddenly had to pay for childcare, I was so freaked out because it was this spending of money, big constant weekly bills that I'd never had before.
It helped a lot to talk to other parents about what it was like for them when their children were too young for public school. It just reminded me that it was something that was going to be a discreet time instead of that bottomless precipice of something that cried out for more money as I felt emotionally.
The other thing I learned from the show and honestly from my marriage too is this trick of zooming in on the numbers and then zooming out, which is our shared vision? Let's make our priorities clear and then let's move on to the question of how much we should spend on this rug in our living room.