Debt Talk: Breaking the Taboo at Work

Our high school staff photo, taken as part of yesterday’s PD Day.

MT = Math teacher

DH = Dear Husband

Staff meeting during a PD Day: What does it look like?

Do you remember PD days (professional development days) when you were a student? When you got to stay at home, and your teachers went to mysterious “meetings”? You were probably happy to have a break from school but also a bit curious about what was going on behind the closed doors at school or the board office. Here’s your chance to find out! I’ll give you a peek into a PD Day at the high school where I work.

World Mental Health Day: Our efforts to be proactive

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day, so it’s no surprise that mental health was the underlying theme for most of the workshops and discussion groups that were held for staff at our school. As part of the opening meeting for all of us – I’d say about 100 teachers, support staff, and student teachers – the social worker and psychologist who serve our students gave a presentation about characteristics and symptoms of anxiety, and they advised us about what steps to take when we suspect a student is suffering from it. “Break the taboo about mental health issues in the classroom,” they said in the conclusion to their talk, “and model good mental health for your students.”

My choice to remain silent

That last bit of advice struck me as a bit false. Were we to put on a “I-have-it-all-together” facade? Wouldn’t it be better to model some transparency on tough days? Not too much information, but an honest acknowledgement like, “Bear with me today. I had insomnia last night,” or “Rough start at home this morning,” or “We’ve been told that my dad has only a few weeks left, and it’s going to be a rough road ahead for me.” If we want to create an environment in which students can identify and share their vulnerabilities and learn to manage them, shouldn’t we as teachers model the same? I didn’t say anything. I just thought it.

MT says what I only think to myself

One of the math teachers (I’ll refer to him as MT) raised his hand. “Mental health is like the final frontier,” he said as he stood up. “I mean, someone is way more likely to say ‘I’m gay’ than ‘I’ve got an anxiety disorder.'” Mental health isn’t the final frontier, I thought. People are even less likely to talk about their personal finances than they are about their mental health.  MT continued. “I totally agree with breaking that taboo in the classroom, but when you say, “model good mental health”, does that mean when I’m having a bad day, I’m supposed to pretend that everything is fine? Shouldn’t we show our students that it’s fine not to be fine?” You go, MT! I thought.

He is an extraordinarily heart-on-sleeve colleague and teacher. I had the privilege of presenting him with our school’s “Teacher of the Year” award in June of 2013, and this was exactly why he had won it. He says things that others, like me, find too awkward to voice. Students flock to him for math help, academic or personal guidance, and just to hang out. He is authentic, disarming, and a safe place to be. “Like, I just say it when I have to pee. Everyone has to pee, but nobody talks about it,” he said. Laughter broke out in the room. We hadn’t expected that! “All of my students think I have a perfect life,” he continued. “Good job, nice family . . . But I’m in debt, and I tell them about it. I’ve got my credit card debts and my truck debt – I’ve got all these debts and they can’t believe it. I mean, how does a math teacher end up in debt?” Love this guy! I thought as more laughter filled the meeting. The psychologist agreed with MT, and she modified the advice “model good mental health” in light of the point that he had raised.

I felt more than just grateful to MT for challenging what the presenters had said and for getting clarification. I felt more than just surprised admiration about the fact that he has been open with his students about his personal debt. I felt the tremendous satisfaction that comes when you realize you’ve had a positive impact on someone.

My early debt talks with MT

When DH and I first started our journey out of debt, I was in the difficult position of being really psyched about something that I didn’t want to disclose to anyone – because I felt an embarrassed shame about our debts. The few people with whom I shared our situation and our plan to deal with it were those I trusted thoroughly. MT was one of them. His response was along the lines of, “It’s cool that you want to pursue debt-freedom. I don’t see what the big deal is myself, but you go for it!” MT and his wife were not stellar with money themselves, but while there was some stress associated with their finances, he considered it manageable and worth the benefits of buying on credit. Most notably, MT had a truck with monster wheels that was his pride and joy.* Never mind that it was a money-sucker. High gas prices, high insurance, and a constant need for repairs kept the debt train running. But it wasn’t enough to faze MT. “I want to pay off my truck so that I can get a loan for a new car,” he said once. I bit my tongue.

But I didn’t always bite my tongue. Over the months, MT and I would have money talks here and there. He’d ask how our debt-reduction was going; I’d fill him in on our progress, ask about his situation, challenge him now and again; and he’d stand his ground. So I was surprised at the start of this school year when MT told me, “I want to get out of debt. It’s because of you. I just want to pay it all off.” When I asked for more details, he referred to a time a year and a half earlier when he and I had supervised our school track team at an out-of-town regional meet. On the long bus ride, we’d had a lot of time to talk. “You said that you and your husband got to the point where you were more uncomfortable with your debts than you were with not buying what you wanted. I remembered that. And that’s where I am now. I want to get out of debt more than I want the things I want.” Wow! I thought. I could barely remember that bus conversation, and I’d certainly had no idea that it would be influential in any way. But our talks had awakened his awareness of his debt, and he was going to do something about it! What a great feeling!

Exponential impact of breaking the taboo

Yesterday, that great feeling morphed exponentially. MT has the gift of courageous openness when presenting to a group that I don’t have. He has an influence with students that I don’t have. And if he is charging through the barriers against discussions of personal finance and debt – not only with students, but now at a staff meeting too – then you can bet there will be a powerful ripple effect. A ripple I could not have effected on my own. But I recognize my role in initiating it – by breaking a taboo and disclosing my debt to a trusted colleague.

“I would die before I would reveal to anyone IRL (in real life) that I have a debt problem,” reads an anonymous comment to a post I wrote a couple of months ago. The hidden shame with which most debtors carry their secret is so unfortunate. I can’t help but think that every person who acknowledges a money problem knows at least one trust-worthy person. And if each of us decided to confide our situation to that one person, just imagine what the combined ripple effect would be! It’s one thing to share online; it’s another to do so face-to-face. In real life. My own reluctance to initiate discussions about personal finances has all but disappeared. I now have to rein in and remind myself, Oh right. This is out of most people’s comfort zones. I believe it could be that way for everyone, but for now, I encourage you to take a deep breath and have that discussion with your most trusted person. IRL.

What has been your experience with opening up to people about your personal finances/debt? Have you ever witnessed a positive ripple effect?

*(Fun fact #1: MT’s monster truck is featured in the 44-second video “Cuttenfreuden” that DH and I created in response to Visa Canada’s 2013 ad campaign, “Smallenfreuden”. Don’t blink. You can see it between the 14 – 16 second mark. Fun fact #2: MT plays a part in the video.)


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prudencedebtfree

18 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I love that MT brought al that up. I mean there is a fine line between laying “it all” out there, but it’s OK to be honest and vulnerable…it’s much more relatable and it does model what the students should be OK opening up about. I have found that once I started telling my friends IRL about my blog, some of them felt comfortable talking about their not so perfect life themselves. Not only did it probably make them feel good (I hope), but it made me feel not so alone in my group of IRL friends as well.

    • I have found the same thing, Tonya. When IRL friends read my blog posts, there is greater trust and a whole new comfort level between us. One of the great things about being open with vulnerabilities is that they tend to lose their power once they’ve been exposed. It’s when we keep our vulnerabilities hidden that they take over. Thank you for commenting : )

  • Oh my gosh – what an awesome story. We felt the same way for years, and even still now at times are embarrassed of our situation, but our eagerness to help others get free trumps that embarrassment and gives us the courage to share with others what we’re going through and how we started, and continue, on this path. I’m so proud of you for sharing with others and helping them get out too, and I’m SO excited for MT – I know they’ll just love being debt free. 🙂

    • It shows a real generosity of spirit when you say that your eagerness to help others trumps your embarrassment about your debt. I also feel a happiness for MT and his wife. I’m sure there will be many conversations ahead as he takes the long path to debt-freedom. Thanks for your comment, Laurie : )

  • That must feel so good to know that you helped him so much with those talks. You just never know how many people you see every day that seem so sad or snarly may just be debt stressed. I loved this article, Prudence. It was truly uplifting! 🙂

    • I think you’re right about the sad and snarly thing (not that I would ever have described MT as either). In my own experience, I found that once I identified debt as a significant problem and started to act on it, stress that I didn’t even know was connected to debt started to lift. Thanks so much for your kind words, Kay : )

  • I talk about money a lot at work, almost to the point that I am sure people are like “Oh don’t bring that up with her….” LOL I try not to give advice only if I am asked for it. Some people have opened up about their struggles/goals/opinions but you are right it is one of the last taboos. Nice to see thats you inspired someone to examine their own financial journey.

    • Thank you, May. My kids give me the reaction “Oh no! She’s going to talk about money/debt!” so I know what you mean about having to filter your money talk. As far as inspiring someone else, the only pat on the back I deserve is for having broken through my own discomfort in being open about money problems. I wasn’t trying to inspire MT. It just happened as a result of open discussion. Your discussions at work might just be having the same impact : )

  • You just never know how those seeds you sow will come to root. Great story, Prudence, and it really motivates me to be more open IRL with people I’m not as close to. It’s almost like the people I feel comfortable talking to about it, don’t want to talk to me (kind of the situation May described) because I think they are in denial / avoidance mode still. Love to hear when people turn the corner. Great you can continue that conversation with MT for awhile, too!

    • I’ve learned in talking with people to speak about my experience for the most part, and not to dissect theirs. If they want to share, they will. If I do challenge people, I avoid coming across as dogmatic, and I don’t push the point if they become defensive. It’s a bit of a risk to engage in money talk, but it can be great as I’m finding out! I’ll be interested to know how your IRL talks go. Thanks for stopping by, Debs!

  • I think there is a fine line. For example, I worked with someone who complained a lot about her financial situation once. She even had debt collectors calling her at work. Yet, she would order pizzas and go out to lunch all the time. It made me crazy. I only think it’s helpful to open up about your debt if you are actively trying to fix your situation.

    • Your former coworker sounds like someone who feels victimized by her finances – convinced that she is powerless to do anything about her situation – “So why bother?” I’ve had that frustration too – of hearing people out about their financial stress and then seeing them do nothing about it. I just back off from the topic in those cases and hope that in time, they’ll see how much they can do to resolve their situation. After all, it took me a long time to see the light too. Thank you for your comment, Holly (or Greg?)!

  • How cool! It’s awesome that your off-handed conversation (that you don’t even remember clearly) got to him and made him realize that he wants to get out of debt too. It’s even more exciting that he is taking it to the next level, sharing with students and adults, about his debt and why he wants to get out of debt completely. You are right, it may not be all you, but it’s all because of you sharing your story with him. Awesome!

    • Thank you, Kayla! This whole experience has encouraged me to keep talking about debt and personal finances with other people. It’s not a matter of being preachy; it’s a matter of being transparent. The risk is, people might think, “Wow! How did she get into that much debt?!” But the great thing now is – as far as I’m concerned, they can think that if they like! (There was a time when I would have been very sensitive to any judgment like that.) And the possible benefit is that I’ll deepen my connection with that person; perhaps get some good advice; and perhaps – best of all – make that person feel safe in being transparent too.

  • Wow, that’s awesome! Good for you for being able to be such a positive influence on MT! And even more kudos to you for talking about this with a work colleague. It can be difficult enough to talk about debt with your friends and family. Way to break down those barriers in a positive way!

    • Thank you, Dee! It used to be that our debt didn’t even register on my consciousness. Then I just felt really stupid about having allowed our finances to get to such a vulnerable point. Once we realized we really could do something about it, I wanted to talk about it, but felt too awkward to do so. It feels really good now to know that we’re going in the right direction, so the awkwardness has essentially gone. It still takes discretion (in terms of when and with whom to open up), but I think I’ll be talking with people about money for a long time to come!

  • Great story. I talk about our progress to co-workers, casually. If hey have an interest they typically follow up with me. I don’t want to be in their face with it. Agree with Holly, it’s a double edge sword sometimes. I see co-workers spend money on lunch, fantasy sports and then complaining they don’t make enough money to pay their bills. Ah maybe you should cut back on your spending first.

    • It’s a tough line to walk. I don’t consider it my place to tell people what to do, but I will venture to the topic of debt and money if I it’s on my mind and it flows with a conversation. I try to be aware of the extent to which the other person wants to pursue the talk. If he or she is uncomfortable, in denial, or defensive, I know to stop. Nagging never convinced anyone of anything. But sometimes there’s a relief in the other person – who has possibly never before discussed finances or personal debt. I take that as a green light to keep the conversation going. Thanks for your comment, Brian!

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