We both were raised in families by parents who said we should never talk about money except to our most intimate circle. It was gauche. That meant never sharing how much a house, remodeling, vacation or wedding cost, what kind of salary someone earned, what they might have inherited, even how much they paid for the shoes they were wearing.
OK, maybe in special situations, we’d share about the shoes. Barbara had to tell several friends after she bought her revenge pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps after her former husband left her. And Margaret likes to boast about how inexpensive the sample shoes are that she buys at a friend’s sale.
But in general, we agree with our parents and have continued the idea that speaking about dollar amounts spent or earned is off limits. And it also meant never complaining that you had so much less than someone else. After all, we grew up in a time when our parents urged us to clean our plates since children were starving in India. The message was: talk about those less fortunate and you count your blessings—rather than your money.
We always try to circumvent the topic when it comes up. “How much did that hotel or trip cost?” was something many have periodically inquired if we were off on some exciting trip. Did they need to know because they were saving to go on a similar voyage or was it sheer nosiness; we could tell. To avert the subject, we’ve often replied, “Oh, I can’t remember since we booked it so long ago.” We didn’t want to rub it in that we seemed to have money to burn, which neither of us has, or make anyone uncomfortable if we had different values such as what to spend on a hotel that was more in line with their budget.
Same goes for many other situations that involve how others spend their money. Some like to spend it on themselves. What’s it to you if we choose to spend what may seem an excessive amount on good chocolate, a great sweater, hair cut or coloring or anything! If we chose to spend it on others, that’s our prerogative, too. Avoiding the topic sidesteps us having to defend ourselves if someone thinks we’re being spendthrifts or whatever! We know from experience that such conversations can get downright uncomfortable. Equally uncomfortable is when Margaret at times complains about not being able to afford something. And often she can’t, but Barbara will say gently, “Margaret, dial it down.”
Barbara experienced countless examples of men bringing up finances when she was dating. She was asked frequently by one man how much money she needed to live annually. She refused to divulge since it wasn’t going to be a deciding factor in whether they clicked. In fact, it was a turnoff. Another guy inquired how much her mother’s apartment was worth, and if she would inherit someday and alone or must share the proceeds. Both conversations, Barbara thought, should be axed along with the two men.
As in anything, there are exceptions. In planning her younger daughter’s wedding, Barbara asked a few of her closest friends to give her a ballpark figure of what their daughters’ weddings cost. She prefaced her request with, “If you’re uncomfortable, don’t worry about sharing, but if you do I won’t share with anybody. It will help us figure if we’re in line.” Of course, some might think she and her former husband should just set aside an amount with which they were comfortable. She repaid the favor when friends inquired in doing research for their children’s weddings what they might expect to pay. At the same time, she made the request not to share the information and numbers with anybody.
Regardless of how we handle this conversation, we each have noticed how much topics related to money come up in all sorts of ways when we least expected. In fact, money is not only the root of all evil, it tends to be the root of most conversations. For example, someone Barbara talks to frequently continues to relate how much was made at their business—decades ago. Congrats!
Then there’s the edifice complex. There are some who don’t brag verbally but make known their worth to the world by having their names etched onto building facades and the interior walls of wings, from hospitals to universities and museums because of what they’ve donated. We applaud their generosity, but we also believe in the higher form of giving, at least in the Jewish religion, according to Rambam’s Ladder, which is to give anonymously. It’s called Matan b’seter or giving in secret. (An excellent book on the subject is Julie Salamon’s Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why it is Necessary to Give (Workmen Publishing).
And along these same lines, sometimes money talks too much! Case in point, the Stephen Schwartzman $25 million check he was ready to give to his high school alma mater but with conditions: the school renamed in his honor, a portrait of him displayed prominently in the building, spaces at the school named for his twin brothers, having the right to review the project’s contractors and to sign off on a new school logo. Enough. The town’s residents protested. See the story in the New York Times, Sat., April 14, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/13/business/steven-schwarzman-blackstone-abington-pennsylvania.html
All this talk of money begs the question why? Does it make those who discuss their income and purchases so much more noteworthy? Are they trying to impress? Does it mean they are so much more successful and happier? Does it make them appear smarter?
We are happy for anyone who has done well financially whether trust fund babies or self-made. Yet, their net worth and spending habits don’t tell all about them as a person. It’s just one part of who they are and unimportant in terms of their day-to-day doings and more important their legacy.
As we sit back and analyze why money talk is so prevalent, we link it perhaps to the election of Donald J. Trump, who has boasted unabashedly about his billions. Talk about conspicuous consumption with his lavish Fifth Avenue apartment and Mar a Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
It isn’t what you have but how you live, just as our parents warned. Good deeds matter, as well as how you treat your spouse or partner, raise your kids, teach your grandchildren, talk to the waiter, a doorman, the driver on a bus, Lyft or Uber car, how you donate your money and where, and volunteer your time. It’s not always about money or objects but relationships that are at the core of a well-lived life.
Part II next week: "Money Talk Among Friends Can be Tricky but Necessary at Times- Part II"