Talking about money doesn't have to make us cringe. Here's how to make it easier

How to approach conversations about money with confidence.
Why does talking about money make us feel uncomfortable?
Therapists share tips for talking about money at work, with friends and in romantic relationships.TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY
By Chrissy Callahan

From a young age, we're taught to steer clear of three hot topics in conversations: religion, politics and money. And while the latter might seem like the least polarizing of the three subjects, especially these days, it's actually one that can make us feel the most uncomfortable.

Think about it: Over time, you've learned to dismiss your opinionated uncle's thoughts on politics and you're a master at brushing aside your parents' stern views on religion. But there's something about the topic of money that can really get under your skin. Maybe you're terrified of asking for a raise or don't know how to approach your partner about their spending habits without getting angry. Or perhaps you're not quite sure how to broach the subject of splitting the bill equitably with your group of friends.

Whatever your money conundrum is, you're not alone. TMRW reached out to several mental health experts to get tips for approaching some common financial conversations with confidence. With their help, you'll be mastering the art of money talk in no time!

Why does money talk make us cringe?

"People often don’t talk about money because it is perceived to be socially disrespectful. There is a social implication and taboo around money that suggests we are more likely to talk about sex than money," said Debra L. Kaplan, therapist, financial expert and author of “Battle of the Titans: Mastering the Forces of Sex, Money, and Power in Relationships” and “For Love and Money: Exploring Sexual & Financial Betrayal in Relationships.”

Our view of money is formed at a young age, and although everyone relates to the topic differently, many of us have a somewhat complicated relationship with it.

"For many, self-worth unfortunately becomes equated with financial worth, so there are often feelings of shame laced to feelings about money," said Stanley Teitelbaum, a financial therapist and clinical psychologist. "For some people, talking about money connects to their underlying fear of failure and/or fear of success, which relates to earlier versions of how they were perceived and treated by parents."

So it's not surprising that many of us keep our views about finances and our own financial status to ourselves.

"Discomfort with money talk stems from fear of judgement. For those with few resources, they fear being looked down upon. People may think they are lazy, stupid or a poor money manager. For those with lots of resources, they fear being exploited. People will not like them because of who they are, but for what they have," said John P. Vincent, a psychology professor at University of Houston.

Why we shy away from money talk at work — and how to advocate for yourself

Learning to negotiate your salary is a key skill that can pay off (quite literally) in the long run, but many of us find the negotiation part a bit intimidating. After all, when you're looking for a new job, a potential employer can always move on to a candidate who's willing to accept less money. Or if you're trying to score a raise in your current position, it's also possible that things could get awkward if your boss shuts you down.

"People's fear of talking about money at work or asking for a raise stems from fear of rejection or negative evaluation," Vincent said. "The potential emotional and real-life dangers of being turned down all contribute to avoidance."

Many times, a case of imposter syndrome can also make you second guess yourself and prevent you from attempting negotiation. "Some (fears when it comes to talking about money) goes back to a socially ingrained hesitation about feeling as though we are overstating our abilities, or bragging about what we feel we deserve," licensed professional counselor John A. Cooper said.

Hoping to get more comfortable with the topic of money at work? Try these techniques:

  • Practice what you're going to say: "I encourage clients to consider possible responses by their managers (both positive and negative), and explore their reactions to these different responses as they work to develop more comfort with the subject, Cooper said.
  • Remember, valuing your self-worth doesn't mean you're self-serving: "To ask about compensation, salary and income is about valuing one’s self and our self-worth. We are advocating to be compensated for the contribution that we make," Kaplan said. "To ensure that a salary and compensation is commensurate with our training states that we are valuing our self. This is a profound statement of valuing self and not self-serving."
  • Keep your eyes on the prize: "It is important to remember what the goal of the conversation is: to connect, find information or begin a conversation to better understand another and be understood," Kaplan said.

Why we avoid money talk with our partners — and how to start the conversation

When you start dating someone new, the whole "reaching for the check" moment is just the beginning of many moments where you will have to tackle the topic of money. Naturally, discussing your credit score and spending habits isn't exactly the sexiest thing to do early on in a relationship, so many new couples avoid the topic for as long as possible.

"When considering a longer-term relationship, most people never ask questions like, 'What are your deal breakers for money and work?' for fear that they will be perceived by the other as presumptuous or greedy," Kaplan said. "But two people who are beginning a relationship and are starting to think about being together need to factor money into the conversation as much as sexual interest."

As time goes on, money talk can really make or break your relationship as you begin to learn how your partner approaches spending, saving, debt and more. And it's important to start the conversation sooner rather than later.

"It is vital to have the courage to share from a vulnerable standpoint and say 'I am hesitant and a bit embarrassed to have this conversation but I value you, us and what we have here. I would like to talk together about our beliefs and behaviors with money,'" Kaplan said.

Want to get more comfortable with the topic of money in your relationship? Try these techniques:

  • Develop a plan and stick to it: "To achieve a fiscally healthy relationship, start with identifying your goals and find a way to track how well actual expenses map onto those goals," Vincent said. “'Budget' is not a dirty word; it's just a way to be purposeful about your spending and saving behavior."
  • Avoid placing blame, but don't avoid healthy conflict: "As a relationship develops, many of us continue to struggle around dealing openly with money because it can easily become a source of conflict, leading to unspoken jealousy, resentment, distrust or frustration," Cooper said. "As with so many aspects of relationship building, developing a sense of cooperation rather than competition in the creation of a strong, healthy relationship can facilitate openness, transparency, and a feeling of working together rather than against each other."
  • Ask for a neutral party's help: "Some couples can find conversations about money fairly easy, while others can benefit from having a qualified financial therapist who can serve as a sort of buffer as they attempt to navigate the territory around this subject," Cooper said. "This is especially helpful if the partners in the relationship have conflicting 'money scripts' (developed patterns of thinking about money and how it impacts their lives, both individually and together)."

Why talking about money with friends is so hard — and how to make it easier

Whether you feel like you're catching up to pals who are seem to be more established in their careers or you're the one who's earning a lot more, talking about money between friends can often feel uncomfortable. After all, the topic of salaries can drudge up feelings of resentment and frustration, so many of us steer clear of it as much as possible.

"Sometimes for friends to talk about income is to consciously or unconsciously stir up a feeling of competition. 'If I make more, I must be more important or more valuable or have attained greater success in life, etc.,'" Cooper said.

But if you're regularly seeing your pals, the topic of money is bound to come up sooner or later, especially when you're trying to figure out how to split expenses during a night out at your favorite restaurant or organizing a bridal shower with your inner circle.

"Because the income disparity between friends can be significant, sometimes issues around splitting a dinner check 50-50 may affect one party more than another, even if it may seem equal on the surface," Cooper said. "For one member of the group to question such an arrangement, however, would run the risk of alerting the group that the questioning member is in fact more detrimentally affected, and thus could be seen as having a 'subordinate' financial position."

Want to get more comfortable talking about money with friends? Try these techniques:

  • Take the awkwardness out of that dinner check moment: "With friendships, the best strategy is preemptive. When going out to dinner, start off by saying 'Let’s split it' or 'Separate checks' or 'Let’s go Dutch,'" Vincent said. "Taking turns is also an option, as long as paying for an expensive steak dinner is balanced with buying pizza."
  • Avoid event-planning anxiety: "With events you plan with friends (like a bachelorette party), the first questions should be 'What’s the budget?' and 'How much should each of us contribute?' That way you can determine if you can afford Dom Perignon or Bud Light," Vincent said.
  • Remember, it's awkward for your friends, too: "Often, when people open the subject of money by talking about their own conflicting feelings about the subject, rather than getting caught up in the numbers, other conversational partners can feel safer about jumping in with their own conflicts and insecurities," Cooper said.