14 February 2019
Ever struggled to say ‘no’ to an expensive dinner with friends? Found yourself unable to ask for a payrise even though you deserved it? Got stuck in an overdraft and felt too ashamed to tell anyone?
Open Up is an outspoken, warm and timely book that destigmatises the way we talk, think and feel about money. It’s full of conversations about money in everyday life – how we earn it, how we spend it and how it affects us. Whether learning from friends, being transparent with partners, finding community with colleagues or recognising what you’re worth, talking about money means letting go of shame, and creating a healthy relationship with your finances. Full of advice on everything from mindful spending to the freelance jump, this is a book that strips away the awkwardness, to help you find the power in talking about money.
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When I was terrible with money I talked about it. I complained about how far away payday was. I took pride in my reckless spending. I showed off to friends by withdrawing my last £20 from a cashpoint, then running into Tesco to buy two bottles of prosecco on my card before the bank realised I’d taken all my money out. I was proud of how useless I was. Despite buying into the idea that the more money someone has, the better their life is, I felt strangely comfortable being bad with it. ‘Reckless 20-something’ was a relatively uncomplicated character to play – I was that person, the one who could get their ass in gear to book a flight to Berlin but who never opened a bill. Maybe, because I knew I wasn’t earning the most money, I took refuge in bowing out of the competition and just being bad with money. There seemed less shame in staying broke than admitting money mattered.
There was a time when all my friends were open about money. When we were leaving university and trying to get our first jobs, we were all at the bottom of an imagined ladder and there was a pack mentality: us against the world. Sharing benefitted us all. In a couple of conversations we’d know what to expect salary-wise by industry and entry-level position, which for a graduate was pretty invaluable information. Then as we slowly peeled away from each other and into different industries, some of us earning more, some earning less, money became a shameful subject. Perhaps it’s because people can literally be placed in a pecking order of highest earner to lowest that we stopped sharing what we earned. No one wanted to feel that they were in a league table with their friends and subject themselves to that kind of direct comparison, so money became a subject to skirt around. The more complicated our lives got, the more it solidified into a taboo subject. As we moved forward as adults, we faced decisions about money on our own: how much salary to ask for, what was a normal amount to pay in rent and whether we could really afford to go to that hen do in Barcelona.
The idea that our salary and the money in our bank account defines us – that it represents our happiness, our power, our status, our popularity, our intelligence and our freedom – is a hugely popular idea that we are constantly encouraged to believe. It’s why we protect our salaries to such an extent; we’re warned that revealing our number might feel akin to public masturbation or broadcasting a therapy session, that if you spoke about your salary, people would know you too intimately. It was something I completely bought into as a young adult, yet as I’ve got older I’ve realised that salary isn’t as defining as I first thought. That number doesn’t indicate everything; it’s not your happiness or your popularity or any of those other identifiers. In fact, I’ve seen people who earn less be happier than people who earn more. I’ve learned to see that there are many currencies in life other than money: love, health, time, passion, purpose and freedom. Now I can’t help but see how often we sacrifice the other currencies in pursuit of the only one we recognise to the decimal point – money.
The social code dictating that we shouldn’t talk about money was invented and perpetuated by the richest of society and trickled down to the rest of us; not talking about money is a privilege of the wealthy. For those who inherit wealth, discussions about money serve no purpose: their funds are secure, they don’t need to talk about it. In contrast, if you’re not rich then discussing money becomes critical to your survival: ‘Where are the cheapest places to buy food?’ ‘Where are the affordable places to live?’ Equally, if you’re trying to make it in a new country, or a new city far away from your home town – in New York, or London, or Paris – you are going to want to discuss how the hell people afford rent. If you’re a woman and suspect you’re being paid less than your male colleagues, the only way you’re going to find out is by asking. If you’re a person of colour and think you’re being charged more for your insurance, you’re going to want to make it known. If you can’t afford to eat at that restaurant you are going to have to tell your friends.
We’ve basically allowed privileged people to determine how we talk about money. And as a result, we’re stuck in a place where talking about what we earn, spend and save is just too awkward. There is seemingly too much at stake to talk about money with any level of earnestness; everyone is too scared of embarrassing anyone else and too scared of feeling any shame themselves. Also, we don’t know how to talk about it. We haven’t developed the vocabulary. How do you tell your mum you’ve got into more debt than you can handle? Why does sharing a money trouble sometimes feel like a request for funds when what you really need is an ear and some advice? Shame feels so intrinsically tied to money. But shame is an emotion we harbour in secret, and so it’s possible that if we were more open about money it wouldn’t be allowed to fester to such a degree.
I was a sell-out. For years I worked in advertising, selling beer, junk food and clothes on credit to people who couldn’t afford them. My job lacked purpose. It left me with little time to myself, and I often went years not exercising, but it did pay me a decent salary. Weirdly I feel more shame admitting I had money than I ever did about not having it. Talking about money when you have it feels crass and materialistic, like you’re ‘showing off ’, or suggesting that you’re better than someone else – two things my Northern upbringing taught me to scorn. I still feel uncomfortable admitting I’m not in my overdraft, and I sometimes miss the student camaraderie of all being in the same skint boat, even though I appreciate I’m lucky.
I can think of so many conversations with friends lately that have felt inauthentic because money-related parts of the story were missing. Just because I’m no longer a skint student doesn’t mean I don’t have money issues I need to work through. We all do. When I quit my full-time job to go freelance I didn’t really talk to friends about it, because to elicit any real advice I’d have had to talk actual figures. I’m tired of skirting around the subject of money with people I love and trust. It feels ridiculous that I’ve accompanied a friend to a sexual health clinic but I have no idea how she bought a flat in London.
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