Atomic investigates the claim that we’re useless at talking about, and managing, our money.
We have a problem. We don’t talk about money.
‘Money is the last taboo.’ In a recent episode of podcast ‘Death, sex, money’ Anna Sale, the show’s host speculated that the reason we’re so prone to personal financial mismanagement is because we don’t talk freely enough about money. It turns out we really are; collectively in the UK we owe £1.6bn).
And there’s certainly evidence to back up this claim. In a study conducted by UCL, it was found that British adults would rather share intimate details about their sex lives than divulge their salary.
Indeed, we’re so reluctant to talk about money that we let it ruin our personal as well as our financial lives. Money worries are the leading cause of marriages failing. Of the 107 000 divorces in 2016, 20% of them were the result of financial strife.
It’s a phenomenon we’re becoming increasingly self-conscious, and even self-corrective, of. Two years ago, on International Workers’ Day, American Lauren Voswinkel started a social media movement to encourage everyone to talk openly about their salaries: TalkPay. It gained some traction in the UK, and globally garnered around 30, 000 tweets. But the movement has stalled, with only 40 mentions in the last 7 days. When you see that #ipadPro already has 70 000 tweets from today alone, it puts into perspective just how insignificant this thing that should be really significant is.
So why don’t we talk about money?
Anna Sale’s answer to this question is routed in our innate reluctance to share details of anything that might make us look a mess. In 2018, conspicuous consumption, dramatically documented on social media, is the ultimate marker of success.
To try and unpick this reluctance to face up to our problems, I decided to get a bank’s point of view. I spoke with Mark, a manager from Skipton Building Society. ‘People won’t talk about it, because they’re not doing anything about it. And they’re not doing anything about it because they don’t know how to. They just bury their head in the sand.’
To me, this sounded like a perfect storm; a vicious cycle of not knowing how to best manage personal finance, so therefore not talking about it and then, consequently, not taking any action.
So why aren’t we doing anything about it?
In her book, ‘Money: A User’s Guide’, Laura Whateley attributes our reluctance to talk about money to our inability to comprehend the financial world. She argues that banks and providers offer a ‘paralysing choice of financial products… grow(ing) into (a) dizzying, off-putting blur of numbers, percentages and jargon.’ This is undeniably true and, as Whateley points out, there are currently over half a million different mobile and broadband providers to ‘choose from’. The financial world loves to over-complicate and obfuscate.
Whilst I love the idea of being able to blame the banking world for my own lack of financial savviness, I do feel I owe myself a little more agency over my own affairs.
We need to remember we do have tools at our disposal to make sense of finance
Both Mark and I point to the plethora of de-jargonising platforms and information available to consumers; all snackable content on banks’ websites (Nationwide are particularly good at this), pop culture icons like Martin Lewis, and the rise of price comparison sites like www.comparethemarket.com and www.gocompare.com.
More recently of course, there’s also been a boom in financial tech offering a helping hand. It’s no coincidence that Whateley’s book is designed to look just like a Monzo card. Whatever your financial quandary, it feel like there’s an app for that; for investing, try Wealthify, for savings, there’s Qapital, and for general financial management, there’s challenger banks like Starling.
With all this new tech and information, you’d think our relationship with money would change forever.
But will it? We seem to be embracing these innovations on a surface level – there’s no doubt that banking with Monzo is fashionable – but they don’t seem to be impacting our deeper relationship with money.
Above all else, we still find personal financial management unpleasant. We conducted a survey and two thirds of respondents found financial management ‘dull’, a quarter found it ‘stressful’ and no one found it ‘enjoyable or interesting’.
To me, it seems that this is the heart of the problem; our collective reluctance to take our heads out of the sand; to be conscious that we can learn and improve our understanding of financial management. When you take a step back, it’s clear that this is the first thing we need to fix.
Yes, some banks don’t make financial self-education easy, but indubitably the information is there for us to wade through, and make sense of. To break through the vicious cycle the majority of us are whirling around in, we need to understand our situation and how to take appropriate action (reactive and proactive), and then share our knowledge with others.
Ultimately, it’s not even really about effort. It’s about self-esteem. I think we just need to have a bit more faith in our abilities to manage finance well. Perhaps if financial institutions started talking to us as actors rather than dependents, having this sense of self-confidence wouldn’t feel so unnatural.