When Ani Gupta*, 30, and her husband bought their first home outside of Raleigh, N.C., a few years ago, they were almost as excited about the new neighbors they'd have as they were about their gorgeous digs.
They were all first-time homebuyers in their late 20s and early 30s who were just starting to have kids—and the whole group would meet up regularly for backyard barbecues.
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But before long, Gupta picked up on an unsettling trend in her new social circle. “They loved to talk about money—and not in an advice-seeking manner,” she says.
They’d spill details about their own bank accounts, gossip about other people’s income, and ask the Guptas prying questions about their financial situation—from what they paid for their house to the interest rate they scored on their mortgage.
Gupta circumvented their queries with vague responses, but she was often left feeling uncomfortable.
“I think they wanted to make sure they weren’t doing anything wrong,” Gupta speculates. “Since we’re all in a similar place in our lives, it made them feel validated to know that they were on par with everybody else.”
Think this tell-all attitude about money is just a fluke financial twilight zone that Gupta tumbled into?
Not so, experts tell us. In fact, it turns out that being an open book about your bank account is a certified movement on the upswing.
Full Financial Disclosure: A Tricky Trend That Requires Treading Lightly
It probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that we have young people—and the Internet—to thank for the prevalence of the "too much money information" trend.
“With all the open conversations that people are having on social media, there is a loosening up of talking about money,” says Judith Stern Peck, LCSW, director of the Money and Family Life Project at the Ackerman Institute for the Family.
But there’s another factor at play: the stormy economic climate.
“We have been through two bubbles and two crashes in the last 15 years, which has made people much more aware of how financially vulnerable they are,” explains Maggie Baker, Ph.D., author of “Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What to Do About It.”
“In turn, that awareness has brought attention to the need for greater fiscal literacy, be it understanding how a mortgage works or how to best save money,” she adds. “Financial savvy is the primary survival skill of the 21st century, and discussing money with others can build up your knowledge base, as long as they know what they're talking about.”
“People have a tendency to make social comparisons with others, and wonder, ‘Do they have more than we do? Who’s better off?’ ”
Indeed, hashing out a money topic with a buddy can be a huge boon to your bottom line, Peck confirms—especially if you're willing to drill down to specifics.
“Talking to someone about how they negotiated a lease on a car or secured a low interest rate can help you figure out how to do a better job if you’re facing the same thing,” she points out.
The only problem? Not everyone has bought into this new trend, and many people still consider it the last taboo when it comes to getting real with friends—and even significant others.
In fact, a 2014 NerdWallet study found that 13% of middle-age couples have never even considered discussing their finances with someone else. “It’s an intimate subject, and even though people are beginning to break down the stigma, it continues to be hard to talk about,” Baker says.
Baker's theory? Those who are hesitant to embrace the tell-all trend are clued in to the darker side of financial sharing. “People have a tendency to make social comparisons with others, and wonder, ‘Do they have more than we do? Who’s better off?’ ” Baker says. “But this line of discourse is not very productive.”
So the question remains: How can you successfully navigate this tricky terrain to ensure your wallet benefits from the extra intel, but avoid ruffling feathers and veering into TMMI territory?
Well, it all comes down to mastering the proper money-chat etiquette.
How to Ask What You Want—Within Limits
So you've been mulling over a tough money question, and you're dying to get a fresh outsider's perspective. But before you strike up a convo, Baker says it's important to examine your motivations.
“Ask yourself: Is your goal self serving? Are you insecure about your finances, and want to gossip about someone who’s worse off in order to make yourself feel better?” Baker says. “Or is your aim to gain useful knowledge and feedback?”
Clearly, if it’s the former, you should zip your lips. But if your intentions are in the right place, then move on to step two—and follow a few ground rules to suss out who might be game to talk.
For starters, consider how well you know the person you're thinking about chatting up. “The closer you are to someone and the more trusting the relationship, the easier it is to speak honestly about money,” Baker says.
Translation: While your brother or best friend might be good options, the latest addition to your softball team probably isn't.
Next, make sure the person is in the same boat as you, financially. It’s much dicier to talk dollar signs when one of you is raking it in while the other is struggling. “That's when you risk touching on sensitive emotions, like pride and shame," Peck says, which can make one—or both—of you feel bad.
“Each person has a limit to how much they’re willing to divulge about money. Listen closely to their responses and pay attention to body language to gauge whether or not you can probe deeper.”
You should also take into account the situational circumstances, and tread lightly if the conversation risks bringing inequalities to light—like a discussion of bonuses with your coworkers or private school costs with parents whose kids might need more financial aid.
Fortunately, once you pinpoint someone who’s likely to entertain a money talk, Baker says, no topic is off-limits—as long as you're subtle and respectful.
To emphasize you're seeking guidance and aren't just being nosy, Peck suggests language like, “I’d love to pick your brain about a money issue I’m dealing with. I’m comfortable being transparent about finances, and I’m hoping you are too. But if you’re not, please let me know and I’ll understand.”
If you get the green light, make sure to craft your query carefully. According to Baker, asking a direct question like, “So how much do you make as a pediatrician?” comes off as way less tactful than the more roundabout, “My niece is considering specializing in pediatrics but is worried about paying off her student loans. Do you think $120,000 to $150,000 seems like a reasonable salary range for someone new, given your knowledge of the field?”
If that still doesn't elicit the response you were looking for, try phrasing it another way—but look for signs it's time to back off. “Each person has a certain limit to how much they’re willing to divulge about money,” Baker says. “Listen closely to their responses and pay attention to body language to gauge whether you can probe deeper.”
When they start to hedge their answers or avert their eyes, that’s a sign you’ve reached the limit.
How to Shut Down a Financial Snoop
Let’s say you’re sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum. How do you handle someone who's getting a little too Barbara Walters on your bank account?
Peck promises that honesty works best when you’re on the receiving end of an awkward line of questioning. She suggests telling the busybody, “I’m not quite sure why, but I’m not ready to talk about that with you right now. I’ve shared as much as I’m comfortable with for today.”
Keep the mood light—you can smile and chuckle as you evade their questions—but stick to your guns.
One comeback that’s worked well for Gupta: “Why do you ask?”
“Their answer reveals the motivation behind the question,” she explains. “It also changes the direction of the conversation back toward the person asking.”
For example, when a neighbor was digging around to find out how much the Guptas' mortgage payments were, she used this tactic to learn that the neighbor’s mortgage payment just went up. Immediately, the conversation shifted into a discussion of why it rose—a topic Gupta felt much more comfortable discussing.
But if the person keeps prying, you can always try Gupta’s last ditch, no-fail retort. “When in doubt, I blame it on my husband,” she says, laughing. “ 'I’d love to tell you, but John hates when I give out our financial information.' ”
*Name has been changed.