In a long-running group text with five former co-workers, now good friends, we recently shared our respective salaries from when we all worked together almost a decade ago. It was bizarrely cathartic; I couldn’t believe we’d never done it before. One person who’d shared my cubicle wall had assumed that I made more than her and secretly fumed about it; in actuality, our salaries were almost the same. That said, we’d both been sorely underpaid, and knowing more about each other’s paychecks could have helped us do something about it — or, at the very least, commiserate and confirm that we both deserved better.
This is the battle cry for wage transparency: The more you know about everyone else’s paychecks, the more ammunition you have to demand fair compensation for yourself. It’s commonly cited as an important tool in closing discriminatory wage gaps, although research shows that its effects, while notable, have limitations. (Federal and some state laws protect workers’ ability to discuss their wages with their colleagues, but certain employers still find ways to punish workers for doing so by making them sign nondisclosure agreements, so tread carefully.)
The benefits of speaking frankly about your salary, and your finances more broadly, go far beyond the workplace. A 2009 study found that people who grew up in households where money was discussed openly were less likely to have problems with impulse spending and credit-card debt. Another study found that people who share their financial goals with their peers are more likely to achieve them. Field researchers with the Common Cents Lab, a nonprofit dedicated to finding ways to improve financial well-being, noted in Scientific American that they observe many people who “accumulate crippling debt, miss opportunities to save, or are unaware of basic financial strategies,” all because they were “embarrassed to ask their friends and family for advice about money.”
That embarrassment comes from a very real place: These conversations, while important and helpful, are also risky and hard. They require a willingness to be vulnerable or socially awkward. Lots of people have personal baggage around money, think it’s rude to talk about, or simply have never heard it discussed and lack the skills and vocabulary to do so. I discovered the limits of my own financial transparency when someone I’d just met asked me how much we pay for our apartment. (I turned beet red, started sweating, and stammered that I just wasn’t comfortable sharing, which made the situation ten times worse.)
So how can you reap the benefits of sharing — and asking about — more financial information with your peers without making it weird? Here’s where to start.
Be clear about your motivation.
“What is it that you’re hoping to learn, and why do you feel like more financial context would be helpful to you?” asks Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist based in L.A. “If you can explain that, then the other person is likely to feel less defensive and more collaborative.”
You also want to be sure to get permission before you ask anything specific, she adds — test the waters a bit. “That could sound like, ‘I’m working on my own spending habits, and I’m curious how you budget for X. Would you be open to telling me a little bit more about how you do that?’ Or, ‘I’m trying to figure out if I’m underpaid, and I’m curious what the salary range in your field is. How did you determine that what you’re making is appropriate?’”
You could even try something very earnest, like, “I’m trying to learn more about how people budget their income, and it seems like you have a good handle on it. Would you be willing to talk more about it with me, or would that make you feel uncomfortable?”
Pay attention to how the other person reacts.
If someone stiffens up when you introduce the topic, you can change the subject, says Clayman. It’s also worth paying attention to your own body language. If you’re feeling anxious, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but don’t ignore it, either — this is sensitive territory.
A friend of mine — let’s call her Emily — has some friends who constantly talk about money and others who never do. “I have one group of friends who mostly work in creative fields, and we talk about money all the time, because we’re all struggling to afford our lives,” she says. “I know how much they all make, approximately. If one person can’t afford to go out to dinner, then we won’t go, no questions asked. Sometimes it’s almost like a broke-person support group, in a great way.”
By contrast, her other friend group is much more well-off — and much less willing to talk about it. “They clearly make more than I do, and their spouses do too,” says Emily. “Their lifestyles are noticeably better. And they get very uncomfortable talking about money, probably because they don’t need to do it as much — it’s not something they constantly need to be aware of.” When Emily did try to bring it up once, it didn’t go well. “I asked a question about finances at a group dinner and the entire conversation shut down. I was like, ‘Oops. Never mind!’”
No matter what, you can’t force the issue, says Clayman. “If none of your friends want to talk about money, maybe you’re at a place in your life where you’re ready to explore new relationships with people who do,” she says. “This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your friends. But you can find other communities where these kinds of topics are more welcome.”
Remember that you don’t know the full picture.
Someone might tell you their salary, but leave out the part that most of it is their bonus, which changes wildly from year to year. Or they might also have six figures of credit-card debt or a boatload of student loans. You never know the complete landscape of another person’s finances, so don’t compare or judge yourself (or someone else) based on the snapshots they share with you.
Instead, focus on how that information can be useful, says Clayman. Sometimes smaller, lower-stakes conversations around money can be just as constructive as disclosing big numbers. “There are ways that we can start to engage each other about finances that don’t have to be so revealing or anxiety-provoking,” she explains. “We can go run an errand at Target together, and start talking about the prices of things and how it fits into our lives. Then, these casual conversations become a regular part of the friendship, and you can build on them and normalize the topic more and more.”
And even if you don’t come away with immediate financial benefits, Clayman adds, you might feel closer to someone because you’ve discovered something new and intimate about how they live. Which seems like a worthy goal in itself.