By Marlis Jansen with Lily Boyar
Most people say that talking about money is difficult. Money is a survival resource. Discussing it runs the risk of exposing our most private selves as well as differences between us and others.
I remember a conversation I had in college with a few friends. It was sophomore year and it was the first summer that we planned to stay on campus rather than returning home to our families. One of my friends suggested we drive to her parent’s lakehouse for a group getaway. We hatched a plan and began discussing all of the fun activities we had in store.
Later that week, I called a friend to discuss the trip and what we should pack. She had been to our friend’s house before and I knew she would have some suggestions on what to bring. Before we hung up the phone she said, “Just so you know, this house is super nice. Be prepared, Lana’s family is loaded.”
I’d never forget that word. I am not sure if this was the first time I heard it being used, but it made an impact. I remember feeling a sense of intimidation and fear. Her family wasn’t just wealthy. They were loaded.
This word has several meanings. It can convey a weight or bias on a particular outcome. It is also a term we use to describe someone who has consumed drugs or alcohol in excess. And more commonly, it is used to describe a gun with ammunition, ready to fire. The word felt visceral and threatening in some way as if her family was dangerous.
Can’t Fight This Feeling
“I can’t fight this feeling anymore
I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for
It’s time to bring this ship into the shore
And throw away the oars, forever.”
Not to date ourselves, but this REO Speedwagon song seems relevant here. While the lyrics were not written about wealth, they are surprisingly fitting when you consider the strong emotions many people associate with money.
Our emotional reactions to money are often instinctual and automatic (“I can’t fight this feeling anymore”). Money conversations are always connected somehow to our lessons learned early in life, our values and experiences. We often don’t know or say what deeper issue is really at stake (“I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for”). It’s common to avoid these conversations altogether because they feel risky. But this is not a winning strategy.
Instead of trying to get rid of the feelings or avoid the conversation (“throw away the oars, forever”), we encourage building emotional awareness so we can have more freedom. By becoming aware of our reactions, we create space between ourselves and our experiences, allowing us to gain perspective and recognize that we can choose how to respond For most people, this is a lifelong pursuit.
Words can have very different meanings to different people. We can talk about money and finance in practical terms. But knowing how to talk about finance doesn’t ensure that we know how to manage the money-related interpersonal situations that arise in life. For example, how couples manage their finances, planning a group trip, deciding who picks up the check, or whether to give a friend a loan. Ultimately, knowing how to discuss money in a personal way helps us learn how to use it as a tool for wellbeing rather than it being a source of anxiety or relational strain. It also gives us the confidence to be open to views and choices that are different from our own. When we know ourselves, we are better equipped to accept and honor the experiences and circumstances of others.
Look at the following list of words. Notice the first word, thought, emotion, and physical sensation that arises in your body when you contemplate each of them. This may take a few minutes, but trust me, it’s worth it.
- Net worth
What did you notice? Maybe one word makes you feel a sense of shame, disgust or judgment, while another feels less charged. Maybe you noticed a physical tightening in your chest when reading one, and a sense of lightness with another.
Words are often “loaded.” (There’s that word again!). Language elicits feelings and allows us to make meaning of our experiences. And there are so many words surrounding money. The more we understand our emotions and associations with money, the better equipped we are to have more vulnerable and effective conversations on the topic.
Practice Makes Present
Building emotional awareness around money is a challenge for most adults. This is hard for everybody! Even as a professional who talks to people about wealth and emotions, I sometimes find myself surprised by sticky interpersonal situations. We are all human. And, like anything else, the more we practice having conversations about money while being aware of both our feelings, as well as what is being symbolized, the easier they will become. In the immortal words of my mother, “It takes a long time to grow up.”