Long Story $hort Episode 12

The Money Taboo

As we close Season 1, we want to dig into the question, "Why is money taboo?"

Why does no one want to talk about money? How did we all, collectively, get the attitude that if we don’t talk about our finances, we’ll all master it on our own? We called in a few partners to bring expertise and perspective on the phenomenon we’re calling: “The Money Taboo.”

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Show Notes

  • Guest: Jackie Lam, Hey Freelancer
  • Guest: Jason Vitug, Phroogal Finance
  • Guest: Joel Larsgaard, How to Money
  • Guest: Pam Capalad, Brunch and Budget
  • Host: Adam Walker
  • Publication Date: October 25, 2022

Episode Transcript

Adam Walker: When we started working on this podcast back in April, our team wanted to accomplish a few things.

One, we wanted to share the stories of MMI clients who conquered their debt and achieved financial freedom. Two, we hoped to inspire listeners that yes… they can do this too. And third… and this is kind of the “big one”… we wanted to peel back the layers of stigma, shame, and secrecy when it comes to talking about a thing that most Americans have… debt.

So on every episode, we asked our guests this question: How do you think debt stigma impacts a person’s willingness to seek help? As you can imagine, we got a bunch of different answers. Enough answers for us to think to ourselves… okay, we’re on to something here. Let’s dive deeper.

So as we close Season 1, we want to dig into this issue and ultimately answer the question… why is money… taboo? Why does no one want to talk about money? How did we all, collectively, get the attitude that if we don’t talk about our finances, we’ll all master it on our own? We called in a few partners to bring expertise and perspective on the phenomenon we’re calling: “The Money Taboo.”

Let’s start with the basics. Why does no one want to talk about money? You may think to yourself: “Oh, money is a personal, private thing.” Or, “it’s nobody else’s business.” Which, to be fair, is absolutely true.

But what we’re trying to learn is more about - when people are in financial trouble, why aren’t they asking for help? Why do they feel like they have to do it by themselves? In some cases, suffering for years in silence…

Joel Larsgaard: Most people want to avoid the subject when we start talking about money.

Adam Walker: That’s Joel Larsgaard. He’s the co-host of the How to Money Podcast and a self-proclaimed “money nerd.”

Joel Larsgaard: I think there's, um, it feels like this topic that's shrouded in mystery for many people they don't feel comfortable with. They don't know what they're doing. And so if the topic comes up, they wanna find a way to pivot, uh, pretty quickly because there's oftentimes, there's a deep sense of shame. Even though no one taught them how to handle money, they feel like they should know how handle money. It feels like this thing is like this adulting step maybe that they didn't take. Uh, No one really actually helped 'em understand it at any point along the way.

Adam Walker: That’s a common theme we’ve heard throughout our episodes. That people, somehow, should automatically be good at money… even if they weren’t taught the basics. But beyond the lack of know-how. There’s another reason people are hesitant to bring up the subject…

Jason Vitug: People are afraid to talk about money because they might be financially messy.

Adam Walker: That’s Jason Vitug. He’s the founder of Phroogal, a financial wellness platform, and a New York Times bestselling author.

Jason Vitug: And I find more people are afraid to talk about mo, um, talk about money because of the financial messiness, and that has a lot to do with some shame, some guilt around using credit unwisely leading to debt or not being able to save or invest for their retirement.

Adam Walker: Along with shame, Jason mentioned using credit unwisely and debt. When you add debt into the mix… That ubiquitous shame and secrecy? It tends to intensify. Jackie Lam, the founder of Hey Freelancer and a personal finance writer, compares this feeling to, of all things, a ghost. This is how she explains it…

Jackie Lam: So it's almost like this, like ghost, this debt ghost that's chasing after you. And so the, the debt overwhelm is when people are first not having enough, uh, to pay off debt quickly. So then they're trying really hard to pay it off by either like saving money, cutting, you know, cutting. and also like taking side gigs to just pay it off. And then there's a lot of emotion around that besides exhaustion. Cuz you know when you have a day job and you gotta take on those side gigs, you're also not like getting to go out and having those nice dinners at the steakhouse or whatever. Like it's, you know, your life doesn't feel great.

And so there's that fatigue, they call it debt fatigue. And there's also a lot of emotion around that. Anger. Anger is a big thing with debt. It's just this like, “Why do I have to deal with this?” You know, it's a constant for a lot of people.

Adam Walker: So we have a lack of education, a feeling that money is messy, and then the debt ghost following us around, causing debt fatigue and anger. Seems like we’re painting a grim picture, don’t you think?

But it’s not our fault! There are several reasons that our conversations about money are seen as “taboo.” Let’s break them down.

Have you ever heard a friend or colleague share an opinion of theirs in passing? You may not actively think about what they shared, but it somehow embeds into the recesses of your brain, and you find yourself restating that same perspective weeks later over dinner or drinks with friends? You might’ve just ingested that opinion without critically thinking about the meaning behind it. And guess what? This belief may not be true.

What we’re getting at: a misconception. Something that’s assumed to be true, maybe talked about like it’s true, but upon further examination, isn’t. Let’s frame the idea of a misconception in terms of money. Here’s Jason Vitug again…

Jason Vitug: I think one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about money is that you need a lot of it in order to start mastering it. And so let me backtrack here a little bit, because when people tend to think, Okay, I need to make X amount of income before I start thinking about budgeting, before I start thinking about investing or planning for retirement. Whereas, it's really essential the moment you start earning income, regardless of what that is, is that's the moment where you should start thinking about how to manage money.

Because I've seen this over and over, many times is that there are people who are making minimum wage, and then all of a sudden they're able to climb up the corporate ladder and then they start making six figures, and they're still unable to control that income or the cash flow in and it's all the money that's going out. And so it's really essential to, to learn to manage money because there's no amount of income that's gonna help you achieve your goals if you're unable to manage it.

Adam Walker: So Jason was talking through one misconception, but there are tons of others out there. So many that we can’t get into all of them. But we want to zoom out even further. When I say the word “money,” where does your mind immediately go?

Do you think of positive words? Like… wealth, abundance, security, freedom? Or, do you think more negatively? Debt, bills, overdrafts, fees? Wherever your mind automatically goes? That’s a learned behavior. But… where did it come from?

Joel Larsgaard: I mean, we all have money hang-ups from how we grew up…

Adam Walker: Here’s Joel Larsgaard again talking about the people who typically influence us the most…

Joel Larsgaard: …based on how our parents handled money, how our parents talked about it. Some people have, you know, there, there's like four different attachment styles when you look in like psych psychology and we've all got some sort of different attachment style to money and, and as well.And so mine was kind of this insecure attachment because my parents, uh, there were a lot of money arguments and they didn't handle money very well. And so I grew up with this real like feeling. Uh, money was this scarce subject. I had to grab enough of it and then, uh, I was gonna have a hard time partying with it to do positive things.I was just hyper frugal.

And so we have to be able to recognize some of those money scripts that are running in the background that we all have so then we can deal with them, right? So there's like this deeper psychological component to how we think about money and how. It's influencing how we're interacting here and now every day with it.

Adam Walker: The tricky thing about talking about parents and family is this: we’re all different. We don’t grow up in a vacuum. As kids, we’re taking queues not only from those who raise us.. but our education system, our extended family, and our current position in the world.

Jackie Lam: Unless you're like, you know, you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth, I think the cards are stacked against most people financially.

Adam Walker: That’s Jackie from Hey Freelancer.

Jackie Lam: I mean, it could be systemic. If you were born, like, we're gonna go heavy here, but like, if you were born in a, like certain socioeconomic class, you know, if you're a certain ethnicity, you know, if you like for me, I'm, um, first-generation Vietnamese American. My parents immigrated from Vietnam in the seventies, and so we came with nothing or they came with nothing. Um, they didn't really have a good idea of like how basic finances work, how our financial system works. So just having a lack of knowledge. That’s one thing.

Adam Walker: We all know this, but let’s reiterate: every family is unique, therefore everyone’s background is unique.

Pam Capalad saw this phenomenon time and time again as she made a career shift and started working with different clients. Pam works as a certified financial planner and she’s also the founder of Brunch and Budget. She made this shift. When she moved from working in traditional wealth management…

Pam Capalad: ….and started working with non wealthy people, I also found myself working with a lot of people of color and I started noticing things. I started noticing patterns and I started realizing that my certified financial planner designation didn't really prepare me or equip me for how to work with my clients of color.

I mean, everything from like, I like to say, like first generation, everything, right? First generation college graduate, first generation in this country, first generation with a professional salary, first generation to have the opportunity to buy a home, right? To be making enough money and to have enough resources to be able to buy a home. They're usually, you know, don't have a history of home ownership in their family. They were more like, they're more likely to have student loan debt, people of color. They are more likely to be supporting other family members sending money back home. They have more financial obligations, right?

And so I can have two clients both making a hundred thousand dollars a year and my white client is able to save, is able to, you know, put money into their 401k, is able to like build the nest egg. And my client of color is like sending $500 to their mom for rent. Their cousin hits them up and they're like, Hey, I need help with this. Oh, like they need to help someone open a credit card, right, in their family cuz they're the only ones who have like a good credit score.

Adam Walker: We’ve heard a lot of opinions, stories, and perspectives about how we, as a society, have these learned beliefs about money. Misconceptions from, our parents, our families of origin, and our placement in society… it all contributes to our money psyche.

So now that we understand the obvious: that people don’t want to talk about money… but also why they don’t talk about money, let’s make a plan forward…

What can we do so that people will break through their feelings of embarrassment, unease, or nervousness… and actually get to talking? Pam Capalad thinks it starts with setting the right tone…

Pam Capalad: I think that people need to get the sense that they are entering a judgment free zone. And you can't just say that. You can't just be like, it's gonna be a judgment free zone, right? You have to figure out how to show them that it's gonna be a judgment free zone and a big part of that, I feel like there's a couple strategies that I use as a financial planner and financial coach is like, talking about my own fallacies and my own failures around money, quote unquote, right?

About how I've had credit card debt, about how I don't have my estate plan together, about how I have trouble sticking to a budget. And I think that when we all realize that we're all in the same position and we're all feeling vulnerable about this, that's where you start to lay a foundation and lay that common ground.

I think the other thing too, when it comes to a judgment free zone, is like really and truly like when someone says something, when someone says a number. Don't put qualifiers on it. Right? Like when someone tells you an amount of debt, you don't say like, Oh, let's take care of your large debt. Like, uh, that just, that just was judgment right there. Yeah. Yeah. Right. So like, even like being that mindful and that precise about your language and understanding how people receive that. It's like such an important part about breaking down the taboo and really creating that judgment free zone. Really creating that cushion for people to say, Oh, cuz people will do it themselves.

I have so many clients who come to me and they're like, Am I the worst you've ever seen? And I tell them like… I mean, that's very unlikely. Like 99 chances out of a hundred, you're not the worst I've ever seen. And if you are, that's okay. None of this is permanent, right? It's all temporary.

Adam Walker: Creating judgment-free zones isn’t reserved for a relationship between a financial planner and the person they’re working with… it can be formed in more informal venues. Joel Larsgaard thinks really great conversations can happen on the internet…

Joel Larsgaard: If there is a community, let's say on Facebook, a Facebook group, you can join where you see encouragement and tips. Um, That is gonna go a long way in helping you in your endeavors. So like how do money, We have a Facebook group and people are in there all the time helping each other offering advice. And so if you're on this personal finance journey and you feel like you're an island, I think you're gonna have more struggles.

And when you hit a setback, you're more likely to just kind of, um, Uh, take it lying down or maybe let it decelerate your progress when if you're doing it with other people, they're gonna be like, Hey, but did you think about this? Or, Hey, you know what, that's okay. And if you, uh, if you take the next step forward, you're gonna keep going. But I, I think the more we silo ourselves off from he, the helpful advice and, and input of other people, um, who, who can be of help and who can offer advice, the more likely we are to diminish our progress.

Adam Walker: We can’t talk about judgment-free zones and finding community without talking about the work that we, Money Management International, do. Throughout this podcast season, we’ve heard nine client success stories. When it comes to getting out of debt, we’ve been there before and we have the brainpower and experience to help. Jackie Lam agrees…

Jackie Lam: And then look at some professionals, you know, look at credit counseling. Look at organizations that are there to help. They're experts. They've been doing this for a long time. They can work one on one with you to see like what's going on with your situation and then like, give you some options on like what's the best route for you to take based on, you know, your comfort level, your budget, all that. Um, and I recommend there's a lot out there if you just Google credit counseling, uh, debt management plan, there's a ton. So I highly recommend going with a nonprofit. It's NFCC is a great website to look and do, look in reviews, review and see what's out there. Because nonprofits usually have, they have your back, you know, they will, they're usually free or, or low fee and I recommend that as well.

Adam Walker: So far we’ve really only talked about external things: how to create an open environment to talk about finances, finding community, and engaging with nonprofits if you need credit counseling. But, what can you… just you… do today to help your money situation without any outside help?

We’ll close this episode with one piece of advice from each of our guests. We asked them: what is one actionable item that someone can do today to improve their financial picture? Let’s start with Jason Vitug at Phroogal:

Jason Vitug: The first thing that everyone should start with in terms of taking control of their finances, it goes back to understanding your relationship with money. It really is asking the why. Why do you spend the way you spend? Why haven't you saved? What are the things preventing you from achieving your financial goals? It really goes back to those basics. It's, it's the feelings and it's the thoughts. And I want people to kind of simmer with those, uh, ideas because that's what's gonna help them get from where they are then to where they wanna be.

Adam Walker: Next up, Pam from Brunch and Budget:

Pam Capalad: A first thing that I would say is, to understand what your money personality is.

There's so much financial advice out there. I can give you tips, I can give you strategies, whatever, whatever, right? But if you, if I don't know what container it's landing in, if I don't know how you're gonna be receiving that, it doesn't matter because financial advice, if you look hard enough, it contradicts itself.

And so if you hear something, if you hear piece of financial advice and you try it and it doesn't work, that doesn't mean you're bad at money. That means it didn't work, right. That's it. You try something else. Right? And I feel like if you're in the early stages of figuring your finances, it's about understanding your relationship with money, one. Also knowing that there's going to be this period of experimentation until you figure out and find a system that works for you.

Adam Walker: Here’s Jackie Lam from Hey Freelancer:

Jackie Lam: A good first thing is to just, uh, get over, pull over the, pull back the hood, and, uh, work through that avoidance. So that's the first thing I think. Cuz avoidance is real. It's avoidance is something that we all do. It's a, it's the ideal. You know, when like your car, the check engine light goes on, you put the.You put the little masking tape on top of it cuz you wanna ignore it until it really gets bad. You know? That's what all of us do with money. It's great when things are going great. We love to like, we had no problem. So the first thing is to just have, get over the avoidance and just really see where your debt is, what your debt is.

Adam Walker: And last, Joel Larsgaard from How to Money.

Joel Larsgaard: Just final thought, I guess, is that this is doable. I mean, I think there's, it, it, it feels, let's say you're in a lot of debt. It feels insurmountable, but nobody gets anywhere without making a plan. Right. And being intentional. And so, like, let's say you are in a lot of debt. There's a really cool tool called undebt.it, and you should go there and like use, use the helpful tools that are out there. Like personal finance has gotten more complicated in a lot of ways, but there are also uncomplicated tools on, on the internet that is now ubiquitous that we all use, that will, that will help guide you and, and make it easier and break it down into those bite size chunks.

Adam Walker: Do you think, like us, that…

Jackie Lam: Debt shame is like 2008. It's so 2008…

Adam Walker: And do you want help getting out of debt? We’re here to help! Visit our website at: moneymanagement.org and find us on social media. On our website, you can talk to a credit counselor 100% online… without even having to pick up the phone. Our counselors will help you create a budget, provide advice, and find debt repayment options or referrals to other vetted organizations that can help you achieve your goals.

This episode was produced by Edgewise Media. Scriptwriting and production by Clara Jennings, editing by Brandon Ellis, and show hosting by me, Adam Walker.

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