The Coach: For The Love Of Money
Why there’s no shame in talking openly about your salary – in fact, it might just set you free
We think we’re talking about money when we tell our friends how much our new Bottega Veneta boots cost us or about how we were upgraded to business class when we paid for premium economy. But when we discuss these things, we’re not talking about money at all. We’re just status signalling. We’re saying, “I’m a successful guy who can afford to treat himself to luxuries,” or, “I’m an influential guy who can make things happen.”
I’d been working with Andy for more than two years before he was able open up to me about his feelings around money. Even after all this time together, it still wasn’t easy for him.
“I can talk about absolutely anything here, right?” he said, as if we’d been working together for only a few weeks.
“Thing is, even my wife doesn’t know how much I earn,” he said. “I hate talking to anyone about money, but I feel it is something we should talk about because, whenever I think about money, I always start to worry.” As his words tumbled out, Andy looked down at the floor as if he were admitting something shameful.
Andy, 38, was a new dad whose stay-at-home partner was not returning to work for a year. He earned a six-figure salary from a steady job in finance, yet he didn’t feel safe financially. He told me about his mortgage, family costs and the holidays, bills and socialising he had to pay for. He said he was worried he wasn’t earning enough. “I guess you think I’m a bit useless,” he said.
“It takes real courage to talk honestly about money,” I replied. “It seems to me you’re being pretty brave right now.”
I could sense the pressure he was feeling, but also his relief at finally opening up about something that had clearly been weighing on his mind for a long time.
“I can’t believe you’re not judging me,” he said, smiling nervously.
In later sessions, Andy explained how secretive his dad had been around money. He told me stories of his parents squabbling about what they could or couldn’t afford to buy. Growing up, Andy picked up the powerful but unhelpful message that talking about money makes people angry and upset. Yet by not being able to talk about money, he was making himself unhappy and anxious.
Money conversations are always charged, according to Dr Daniel Crosby, behavioural finance expert at IncBlot Organizational Psychology. “There is so much subtext and hidden meaning wrapped up in money,” he says. “Money is shorthand for happiness, power and personal efficacy, so it can be very scary.” When money is tight, it can be seen as a deficiency on the part of the breadwinner, he says, and when there is lots of money, people fear that greed may start to take them over. How much money we have can be a profound reflection of who we are.
With his six-figure salary, Andy hardly seemed like the kind of person to lose sleep over money. Indeed, people in less fortunate positions would most likely scoff at the thought. But his experience reveals money worries affect all of us.
After building up his confidence, Andy spoke to his wife about his issues around money. She was totally understanding and together they were able to get a much better handle on his income and their joint outgoings. They even started to budget together, which took a lot of the heat out of Andy’s anxiety about money. By looking back at his childhood and by opening up to his wife, Andy had begun to rationalise his feelings. After years of denial, he was at last being honest – not just with his wife, Claire, but also with himself.
“It’s funny,” he said during one of our final sessions. “I really thought Claire would think less of me when I told her what I earned, but guess what? She said how proud she was of me and that I’m a really hard worker. It was just so great to hear. Talking about money has brought us closer together. Finally, we’ve named the elephant in the room. It’s a huge relief for both of us.”
This time, it was me looking at the floor. When Andy walked into my office I couldn’t help noticing his smart new footwear. “I can see you’re checking out my new boots,” he said. “Claire helped me choose them. We’ve had a good month and we both felt I deserved a treat.” It was a small thing, but it certainly seemed to help Andy stand tall.