Growing up, Sanna Guerin learned one thing about money from her family: It causes stress. “My mom spent, and my dad complained about the spending. They didn’t talk about money at all. All I remember is them fighting about it,” says Guerin, now a program officer at the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General in Ottawa.
Guerin’s father took her and her sister to open savings accounts when they were teens, but there were no conversations about what to do with their money. “They never talked to us about budgeting; we never had any good, healthy discussions about money.” With no experience talking or learning about dollars and cents, Guerin had to teach herself as an adult.
Guerin’s experience is common: Canadians don’t like chatting about their finances. We’re also in denial about them. A 2014 study asked people what the most difficult conversation to have would be and 44 percent said personal finances, topping the list.
This silence around money encourages us to stay ignorant and then hide our resulting financial errors. Plus, we seldom know what our loved ones think about money, and misunderstandings fester when we don’t communicate.
Silence causes stress
This silence around money encourages us to stay ignorant and then hide our resulting financial errors. Plus, we seldom know what our loved ones think about money, and misunderstandings fester when we don’t communicate. Studies have also shown that keeping secrets, whether financial or not, can result in stress, anxiety and even depression.
Money secrets, specifically, can lead to marital breakdown and feelings of mistrust and shame, says Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, a professor at the Open University Business School, based in the U.K. Yet despite plenty of good reasons to open up, people find that money is a difficult topic to discuss. Why? Because it often comes with an emotional attachment.
“Financial planning is difficult not because of the technical details, but because it requires us to think about aging, decrepitude and our own mortality,” he says. “We panic when stock markets fall, and then sell at the bottom not just out of a concern for money, but because of what that money may mean for the security of our families.”
As with other hard-to-discuss topics, it’s often easier to stay quiet than to admit that you’re deep in debt or have another money-related problem. But studies show that talking about money can reduce feelings of financial stress and help you make better money decisions.
It feels good to talk
Earlier this year, Ryan Howes, a Pasadena, California-based clinical psychologist, conducted a study around Acute Financial Stress, which is essentially PTSD caused by financial concerns; it afflicts 23 percent of Americans. In a post for Psychology Today, he wrote about a study participant who was in major debt and had such severe money anxiety that he couldn’t sleep and had trouble maintaining relationships.
While Howes tried to calm this person down using the usual cognitive behavioural approaches – relaxation exercises, mindfulness, identifying patterns in negative feelings – the thing that helped most was to talk. After spontaneously sharing his financial challenges with friends, the participant started feeling much better. Best of all, his friends started sharing their feelings about money, too.
“It turns out, every one of his friends had significant stress related to their finances and future, but no one had ever talked about it,” wrote Howes. “Once he opened up, they all dog-piled in with their own financial-stress stories. That led to supporting one another with encouragement and tips.”
More than just money
Of course, talking is easier said than done. When you’re ready to open up, accept that the discussion will inevitably not just be about money, but also what it symbolizes. Fenton-O’Creevy says to start by acknowledging your own emotional relationship with money and understand that finances trigger different feelings in others. As Howes’ study participant found, everyone will feel some shame: Silence has a way of doing that.
It helps to have a goal in mind about what you want the talk to accomplish, and to start conversations about money with professionals that you have no emotional connection with before sharing financial feelings with loved ones. At that point, be patient, listen and try not to judge.
Guerin broke her silence gradually by reading about money, then talking about it. “I started asking more questions of my bank, and I have an advisor for some of my investments.” She gained confidence, which allowed her to plan for and then buy a home. That lesson she learned as a child has been overwritten: Money’s not stressful anymore. Instead, it’s a tool Guerin can use to accomplish her goals. That’s worth talking about.