Secret Shame: Will We Ever Talk Openly About Money?

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We may not like to talk about our own money, but we sure like to read about other people’s money. The May 2016 cover story for The Atlantic magazine is The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans by Neal Gabler:

The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?

Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 percent.

The essay has definitely hit a nerve, with over 3,000 comments, a handful of formal reader letters, and several financial experts all weighing in with their responses.

As someone who used to openly share his net worth, I have to give Mr. Gabler credit for candidly sharing about his financial “impotence”. Most people would rather undergo a root canal than share intimate details about their financial insecurities.


I also recommending reading this Esquire piece: 4 Men with 4 Very Different Incomes Open Up About the Lives They Can Afford – From a father on the poverty line to a CEO millionaire. It is interesting to note that despite the disparity in both their current and desired future incomes, all four men are both mostly happy and plan on working into their 60s or longer.

You can see why people choose silence, as it is an exquisite sort of pain to have strangers publicly break down all of your mistakes and diagnose your underlying personal failings. But I think more discussion is exactly what we need, not less. Hopefully despite the judgment, Mr. Gabler will eventually be better off for it. We need to talk it out, share both our struggles and solutions, and face up to the problems instead of just hiding it and hoping it magically goes away.

Let’s put away the snarky internet comments and try a civil discussion with empathy and detail. I’d like that a lot more than reading another article about disappearing pensions or debt statistics.

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  1. From where I stand, talking about money is a bad idea, since you’ll get people envy you for your ‘luck’. I’m not such a big earner either, but, compared to the wages we have in my country, we do make sensibly more than most people. So we’d better shut up 😀

  2. Excellent post.

    A psychologist once told me that people are much more willing to go into detail about their sex life than their financial life.

  3. Patricia Cockerill says

    Thank you Jonathan, wonderfully written and thought provoking piece.

  4. Is there a way to take away some learning from all of these expert and reader articles that doesn’t require reading the hundreds of different posts and long-form articles?

    I read the cover story from Atlantic and got queasy to my stomach reading some of the decisions he went forward with. What should we take from this? Is it as simple as DO this, DON’T DO that? Themes of what could get you in trouble? Is it just luck vs. uncontrollable bad circumstances and everyone is at risk? Will having a 6month emergency fund protect you from this?

    Talking about money is only valuable if we can learn from what is said. What are we learning?

  5. A very interesting post, Jonathan 🙂

    If you’ll try to compile a short list that includes the most intimate and personal topics that the majority of people will never talk about, I’m pretty sure that sex and love life issues as well as personal finance matters will make it to the top.

    It’s actually not that surprising… Can you thing of other, more personal matters that one may find it difficult to openly share and talk about?

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