The Awkward Question of Money Talks: Part 1

(I’m adding this note – as well as “Part 1” in the title – a week later just to say that the comments made by readers helped me to change my thoughts on this issue. Stay tuned for Part 2.)

Post by Tonya at Budget & the Beach

I read a post by Tonya at Budget & the Beach this week, and it got me thinking about an issue that I find difficult. In describing how she lived in the expensive city of LA on an average of $31,000 per year for 7 years, Tonya said,

“I strive towards frugality because it wasn’t that long ago when I was very financially stressed. I learned my lesson the hard way, and although my friends sometimes give me crap for being ‘stingy,’ I don’t ever want to repeat going through that experience again.

I could relate. That terrible financial reckoning when the unexpected happens is no fun at all. It took my husband’s job loss and years of reduced income for us to have our wake up call and to turn things around financially – because we didn’t “ever want to repeat going through that experience again” either.

“I’m not here to tell anyone else what to do and how to live their life, because in reality people are going to do whatever they want. Sometimes people DO need to learn for themselves.”

I certainly seemed to need to learn for myself. And although that was true, once I did learn, I made more than one mistake in spouting off to others about personal finances when it wasn’t welcome. Like many converts to many causes, I was over-zealous at first. So I now make sure to avoid even the appearance of “telling anyone else what to do.”

“My situation is way better than some, and way worse than others. I have lots of aerospace engineer friends doing very well and who own homes nearby and hardly spend any money, and I know people making a lot less than me taking fancy vacations and eating out every other night. You gotta do you!

And that’s where I find it difficult.

Getting real in the comments section

Tonya keeps it real at her blog, and I felt I could make an honest comment:

“… I sometimes find it difficult to balance a non-judgmental ‘You do you’ acceptance with my knowledge that some people’s money-management – like your friends who earn way less than you but spend way more- could bring them a lot of grief. I can’t pretend it’s OK …”

To which Tonya responded:

“I wouldn’t let my friends walk in front of a moving bus, but the thing is for me, I don’t know the whole of anyone’s situation. Unless I thought they were going to do major harm to themselves or someone else, it’s really none of my business. I can feel concerned, but for the sake of my friendship, all I feel I should do is be there if anyone reaches out to me and/or lead by example … I’m not saying I never think judgmental thoughts. I definitely do, but I try to shake them off and keep them to myself.”

What does “walking in front of a bus” look like?

A number of questions popped into my head:

  • Do you need to know someone’s whole situation before you can say they’re heading in the wrong direction?
  • What does financially “walking in front of a bus” look like? What if the bus is some distance off? Isn’t it better to give the warning well before it’s too late?
  • What if harm has already been done to them and to others, but they’re in denial?
  • Doesn’t the friendship become more distant when you feel you can’t express your concerns?
  • Is “judgment” perhaps the wrong word? Is it really concern – possibly tainted with frustration?

Money Talks

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that I feel an uneasiness about people’s bad financial habits that I didn’t used to feel (because I wasn’t aware of them since I had them too). And I’m not sure what to do with that uneasiness.

I think  that Tonya is right in saying that there is a time to recognize “it’s really none of my business” and a time to express concern. I just have a hard time identifying which times call for which responses.

In her book Money Talks, Gail Vaz-Oxlade addresses the awkwardness involved in conversations about finances. “Since no one talks about money,” she says, “we have no models on which to base our forays into these conversations.”

Impact of talking (or not) on relationships

I know 5 people who have had buses barreling towards them. After they approached me to talk about it – because they know I’m trying to become debt-free – I expressed my concern to each one.

  1. One hardly speaks to me anymore.
  2. Another says, “I know!” but feels powerless to change.
  3. A third one is reading more of Gail Vaz Oxlade’s books and plans to read Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover (the book that launched us on our journey out of debt).
  4. Another avoided certain expenses after I talked with her.
  5. One made some changes and became debt-free in response to our conversations.

Mixed results. In the case of #2, I’ll be there when she’s ready to reach out. And of course I’m so glad I spoke honestly with #3, #4, and #5. Should I have said nothing to #1? In her case, I’d say I had the choice between keeping my distance by saying nothing, or risking the distance that she might create if I did speak. It might have been wiser to keep my mouth shut, but I’m not sure.

In conclusion…

Overall, I think it’s more genuine to talk than to stay silent. If the friendship is important, it’s best to be authentic and speak. Your relationship will become stronger if your friend responds openly. If your friend responds with distance, that relationship was bound for distance already. For less important relationships, silence is fine.

A whole lot of wisdom needs to be applied in terms of the when? where? how? and to what extent? of money talks. But we’ll never gain that wisdom unless we start to open our mouths and say something.

Vaz-Oxlade tries to deal with “our unwillingness to tell the truth…” saying, “the only way money will stop being a problem for most of us is if we start talking about it – and talking about it honestly.”


Do you feel an uneasiness when your friends adopt poor pf habits? How do you decide if and when to have a money talk? Your comments are welcome.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  • It’s a tough spot to watch others walk in front of that bus so to speak. The fact that I’ve been there, and know better now, makes me want to offer help to as many as possible. It does bother me when I see family and friend make, what I deem unwise financial decisions, but like it’s been said sometimes I don’t have the complete picture. My usual approach now is to try and bait the conversation with our failures, and now success to see if they will bite, and ask “how”, and then I know I have a willing participant.

    • That’s a smart way to go about it, Brian! I like that “bait” idea. It is like an open door. The other person can decide whether or not to enter. Thanks:)

  • Sometimes it’s necessary for a person to hit bottom before they acquire the willingness to change. If you want to inspire others to adopt good money management, the best thing you can do is to be a power of example. If a person wants what you have, they will ask about your experience.
    ❤️❤️❤️❤️

    • I thought of you while writing this post, Laurie! For #2, I shared my concern with you, and you said, “Is she concerned? (Answer: No) Then you shouldn’t be either.” Wise words. Well, now she is concerned – but feeling powerless. Anyway, about hitting bottom – I’m amazed at the different levels of depth people experience as rock bottom. Mine might be someone else’s mid-way-down point. Each person has to recognize his or her own low point – and yes, I’ll be happy to answer if they then reach out to me (though I still can’t promise to stay completely silent leading up to it). Good to hear from you:)

  • I think the key is being able to express your beliefs without being preachy and telling someone what they should do. Telling them what you did or do can be a model if that’s what they want. But some people seem to enjoy the thrill of the oncoming bus. Those are the ones we need to pray for the most.

    • Hey! That’s just what Margaret Atwood says in her book Payback. There is a “jolt of brain chemical rush” that happens as the debtor gets as close to the edge of being “caught” as possible while still avoiding it. And you’re right, Kay. That kind of destructive thrill-seeking belongs to a higher power than any of us can offer.

  • I’m never comfortable talking to people about how they spend their money. It’s bitten some of my friends in the ass, but by and large people seem to get by. Even if they struggle a bit at times. I just don’t feel comfortable risking friendships (I don’t have a ton) by talking about something that rarely goes well. In fact, I’m surprised three out of your five did. Maybe they were at different stages than my friends are/were, so they were more open. That said, if a friend were drowning in debt and lamented one too many times, maybe I’d offer my help. But if they didn’t want my input, I’d leave it at that.

    • Thanks Abigail. I should have mentioned in my post (and I might edit in a change now that you’ve made me realize it) that I didn’t just barge into the conversation. In all cases, the people talked to me about the situations they were in – because they knew I was trying to get out of debt. It’s the “lamenting” part that I responded to in challenging them to take ownership of their situations.

  • Some people have to be hit by the bus to stop walking in front of the bus. Some people get hit by the bus repeatedly and will KEEP WALKING IN FRONT OF THE BUS. Some people hear a bus coming down the road, remember that near miss or seeing their friend hit by the bus and step ten feet back.

    We are all so different in how and why we react the way we do, and how we choose to act, that I know that it’s not worth my time to try and teach anyone anything because if they want to learn from me, they can and they will.

    There have been people I’ve offered to coach who whined the whole time that the time I’d devoted to teaching them better core habits was wasted because it didn’t magic away their debt. There are friends who have come to me and said my incessant tweeting about money made it seem manageable so they’ve started saving or investing. The difference that I can see is that the people who want to learn use what I’ve already put out there and then ask me for nuanced advice. The ones who don’t already know me well and want me to answer really basic simple questions without doing any digging are often the ones who don’t intend to learn. They just want you to fix it for them.

    Offline, I don’t talk about money much at all because of the same principle – though I admit that it makes it harder because people don’t necessarily know they can approach me. But some observant friends notice what I’ve done with my career and money in general and ask me for advice to apply to their lives and it’s a real point of pride that they’ve implemented my advice to get some serious raises.

    • So well said. And ringing with truth. I concede defeat! Well … not exactly defeat, but a more effective way of approaching this “to talk or not to talk” issue. Be ready to respond to the ones who genuinely want to make their situation better, and keep a serene distance from the topic with those who want a passive and quick fix that requires nothing of them. After all, I have fallen into both camps myself, so I really do get it. Thanks Revanche!

  • I definitely have my group of friends who are just… For lack of better words.. bad with money. I’d love to just get in there, ignore their excuses, and get them to do a financial make over, but I’m not a TV reality show nor Dave Ramsey. They all know I’m all about $$$, so when they so feel like seeking advice, they come to me, but also complain about their lack of money (because of mismanagement). I try to be cognisant of when they’re looking for advice and when they’re just whining about their own situation, and try to give advice when they’re looking for it, and laugh it off when they aren’t. It’s an iffy line, but we’re all adults now, and I have hopes that they wouldn’t do anything TOO detrimental… And I hate to be the preachy friend! Especially since I obviously don’t have everything figured out either! (If I did, I’d make double what I’m making now and be on my way to early retirement. Lol.) Hope you find a good middle ground ☺️

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Hiro. ” It’s an iffy line, but we’re all adults now, and I have hopes that they wouldn’t do anything TOO detrimental…” It really is an iffy line! And here’s the thing – I think your wisdom applies even if they do something very detrimental. Often the harm doesn’t surface until years – even decades – have gone by. But like you, I don’t want to be that preachy friend, and unfortunately, I have allowed myself to slip in that direction on occasion. I’ve got to move over a bit to find that good middle ground. Thanks again:)

  • It’s always a tough call. Kudos to you for speaking up to help your friends. “You do you” makes a lot more sense in some circumstances than it does in others. I think that’s ultimately based on a philosophical worldview that I don’t entirely agree with, but it’s also invaluable to recognize I don’t know everything and my way of doing things is not best for everyone.

    Whether I’d say something has a lot to do with how close I am to the person, and how receptive to input they seem. If I’m super close and very concerned, I’ll speak up no matter what. If I’m super close and it’s a mild concern, I will decide based on the other person’s openness and if they’re asking for help/looking for solutions. If I’m not very close, the person’s interest in seeking help is a bigger factor. At least, that’s how I’d generalize my approach.

    • That approach is actually very much in line with what I’ve been settling on. But here’s the thing: “If I’m super close and very concerned, I’ll speak up no matter what.” I did this, and it didn’t turn out well. Now that I look back at it though, the person in question, although she appeared to be receptive to input, really wasn’t. I have to be wiser in discerning that receptiveness. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Kalie:)

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