Let's Talk About Money

Feb 2022
Julianna Donovan

The adage, “actions speak louder than words” is true for many of life’s important lessons. But when it comes to learning about money, actions without words—the absence of open and candid conversations—can create gaps in our confidence and competence regarding money matters.

There is not enough conversation about money. In a recent study,[1] nearly half of Americans described personal finance as the most challenging topic to discuss with others, more so than other sensitive subjects like death, religion, or politics. Over 60% of women say they would rather talk about anything other than money. Money is often characterized as a leading cause of stress in relationships, and frequently noted as a primary cause of divorce.

We need strategies to normalize these conversations. Being aware of our own personal relationship to money (how we think and feel about it) fosters a greater sense of control. Once we are aware of the factors and experiences that shape our behaviors regarding money, we can more effectively identify barriers to our learning and gaps in our knowledge. These steps prepare us to make more informed decisions, set aspirational financial goals, and learn what it takes to achieve those goals.

These conversations should not feel as though they are a measure of financial worth. Rather, these are opportunities to bring the power of sharing into our financial lives and build connections. Learning and sharing with others in a non-judgmental setting helps us understand that everyone has financial anxiety and that we are not alone in our need to address the challenges.

The importance of using storytelling as a tool

Research shows that knowing our stories can be a powerful thing when it comes to building resilience and confidence. Emory University psychology professors Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush have studied families for decades, including after the trauma of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. These researchers found that those “who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning that they could moderate the effects of stress.” Dr. Duke asserts that it is the “oscillating family narrative” that contributes most to the family’s resilience. [2]This means that it is important to share both the good times and the painful ones that are a part of any family’s history. 

This concept of storytelling can be applied directly to money. Knowing our money story—the personal experiences, beliefs, and goals that shape our feelings and behaviors about money—can be instrumental in gaining the confidence, control, and connection we need to achieve our money-related goals. Understanding our family’s money story can be instrumental in becoming more comfortable with conversations about money—not only for women, but for the entire family. The concept of “oscillating family narrative” is particularly apt for money stories since, for most families, there are always ups and downs when it comes to our financial lives, and yet we are often reluctant to share those experiences.

How can we start the conversation?

Sharing money stories with others helps us become more aware of our attitudes about money and why we feel and act the way we do. Breaking down the topic into manageable parts helps us remove barriers to learning. Below are some thought starters to go deeper in your conversations.

Formative experiences include the early memories, behaviors and norms around money that we experienced growing up and which shape one’s approach to money today. Our money stories begin forming from a young age and evolve with us. Consider questions such as,

  • How did your family talk about money and approach spending? 
  • What is your earliest money memory?
  • How do you think you and your parents were influenced by the economic climate in which they grew up?

Milestones are the defining financial accomplishments or setbacks that influence the way you live your life or think about money.

  • What was the first significant purchase you made and how did it feel?
  • What haven’t you been able to accomplish due to money-related issues?
  • Has a relationship changed your thoughts or behaviors about money?

Mindset is how you currently act and feel about money, and how that shapes your decision-making. 

  • When you think about money, how do you feel?
  • Do you feel like you deserve money?
  • Do you feel like you have enough?

Aspirations are what you hope to achieve or do with your money, and anything you want to overcome to get there.

  • What would you do if you had more money than you ever dreamed possible?
  • Do you want to change anything about your approach to money?
  • Is there a legacy you want to leave?

On A Tactical Level

During our recent Money Stories podcast, Howland Capital’s Carolyn Beatty shared her own personal money story, reminding us that even financial experts experience challenges in their personal financial lives. Carolyn’s vivid memory about how unprepared her own parents were to handle out-of-state college costs for three kids addresses one of the major life expenses that faces families, one that her parents tackled but only through enormous sacrifice. 

In retrospect, Carolyn recognized this was an example of a topic that her parents could have discussed with the children and that perhaps less expensive schools might have been an option worth considering as part of a conversation about the realities of this worthy (but very expensive) family goal of contributing to their children’s future success by paying for college.

As The New York Times columnist Ron Lieber writes in his book, The Price You Pay for College: “And if we haven’t talked to them much about money, they may have no idea what we make, what college might cost or what kind of strain it could cause for a family.”[3] Carolyn noted, “It’s important to start sooner when it comes to preparing for these big life expenses, and part of the work is talking about the family’s financial situation and potential trade-offs.”

Every phase of life brings with it major financial opportunities and challenges, and this can be particularly true for many women.  Whether it is college and career choices in one’s 20s, work-family balances during child-bearing years, unexpected mid-life work or family transitions, retirement, or legacy planning, establishing a foundation of open conversation with our family members about not only the emotional aspects of these events, but the financial implications will serve us well.

One promising outcome of the pandemic is that more women are recognizing the importance of focusing on their finances. Recent studies indicate that 63% of women said that the pandemic has affected how they think about money, and 64% intend to discuss finances more with their spouse or partner, and 51% intend to discuss inheritance plans with their children.[4]

Bring Your Financial Advisor into the Conversation

Since we know it can be hard to begin a conversation about money, it is often wise to ask for help. As Carolyn Beatty shared during our discussion, she and her husband bring their own financial advisor into their personal finance conversations. Even financial experts benefit from an objective third party to help guide the discussion, consider alternatives, develop a plan, and stay on track. In addition to being knowledgeable about your own financial situation, an experienced advisor has helped many other families address similar topics. 

It’s not always “doom and gloom” when it comes to money. One of the benefits of these “money talks” is to remember to think in inspirational terms and set aspirational goals. As women wield more influence with their money, their impact will be felt not only in their personal lives but across all aspects of society. 

“Give a woman a dollar and she can put it to good use.  Teach a woman how money works and she can change the world.”  — Linda Davis Taylor


[1] Wells Fargo Financial Health Survey, National Fact Sheet, 2013

[2] Duke, M.,Fivush,R.,Lazarus,A., 2003, Of Ketchup and Kin, Myth and Ritual in American Life, Emory University, Atlanta, GA

[3] “The Price You Pay for College,,” Ron Lieber, 2021

[4] “Own Your Own Worth,”UBS, 2020

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