Why is money taboo?

Why don’t we talk more about money?
Earlier in this series, I suggested that two key reasons include the fact that money means different things to different people, so it can be hard to get on the same page, and secondly, that it simply isn’t considered polite to discuss money openly.

Money is frequently considered a taboo topic – more so than sex or death in many societies. And it is precisely because of this taboo nature, Adrian Furnham reports in The New Psychology of Money, that couples are frequently surprised at the beliefs and preferences of their partner when they are revealed.

Many cultures have folk stories that tell tales of wealth. Christopher Booker lists ‘rags to riches’ as among The Seven Basic Plots of the stories that we tell over and over again. According to Furnham, most of these can be categorised as having two themes:

  • Money brings security
  • Money brings freedom

These notions can seem so basic and so obvious to us that if money represents freedom to me, I may be shocked to discover that it means security to you.

 

Consider a couple – Abby and Bobby, who’ve just gotten an unexpectedly large tax refund. Abby wants to save the money, putting it into superannuation. Bobby wants to spend the money on a holiday. Abby thinks Bobby’s suggestion is irresponsible. They’ll never have enough for a secure retirement if they don’t put away unexpected windfalls like this. Bobby thinks Abby’s suggestion is repressive. They’ll never have the freedom to travel if they don’t take opportunities like this.

Abby and Bobby find each other’s suggestions incomprehensible, and their ideas are incompatible.
In order to for couples (or business partners, or flatmates, or anyone who has to split expenses with another) to talk effectively about issues like what to spend a tax return on, where to go on holiday, how to save for retirement, etc. it is essential for them to understand each others’ underlying views about money.

Our attitudes towards money are in part driven by social convention, and what we think everyone else will think. According to Furnham, money is imbued with such meaning and power it’s difficult to think rationally about, as we apply a range of ‘rules of thumb’ or ‘heuristics’ when thinking about money that often result in making mistakes. These beliefs often stem from our childhood experiences and early education.

At the start of this series I argued that any definition of financial literacy -or indeed, wellbeing – that focusses solely on economic capital without addressing the related cultural, social, and symbolic aspects will be found lacking, and that in order to talk about and make effective decisions about money, we need knowledge, skills, and education, often derived through connections and group memberships, self-confidence, and an understanding of the symbolic nature of money. This series of posts has touched upon all of these issues – what constitutes financial literacy, and how we learn to speak money. Why we can’t talk about money effectively, how money is like language, and how the language of financial ‘experts’ can influence our decisions. What does it mean to be rich, the nature of money itself, and how our definitions of money differ. And we’ve started to look at some of the tools you can use to improve your financial literacy and your relationship to money, and to build a community striving towards enriching ourselves and others. But we’ve only just scraped the surface.

10TabooThis post is the tenth of a 10 part series over 10 days introducing Enrichmentality.

From now on, I’ll blog more occasionally as we start our travels! But as Enrichmentality continues, we’ll go on asking questions. If you have ideas for questions, please post them below!

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