My parents taught me plenty of important life lessons.
No forks in the microwave is a solid rule. Don’t talk about money outside your family. That’s a classic for a reason. And skip any conversations about religion or politics at the dinner table.
Times are changing and it’s almost impossible to avoid these subjects. So why do we still see money as a taboo topic?
When my editor at Twine assigned me to ask my friends how much money they earn, I was a little nervous. Asking about salary may be the trickiest of all the money conversations.
Despite my trepidations, I decided this challenge was one I was ready to take on as I felt I had a lot to gain by having these conversations.
I wasn’t sure if my questions would upset my friends or damage our relationships, but I hoped that they would want to have these conversations as much as I did. So much good can come from talking about money. You can learn from others’ mistakes (always a win) or gain new money perspectives.
Before I launched my investigation, I consulted a colleague who’s had plenty of practice talking about salaries.
Erica Gellerman is a personal finance writer who pens a column called The Salary Chronicles for Forbes. Every week, she asks women about their salaries. Her experiences gave me the confidence to speak to my friends about money. She found that, “People really do enjoy talking about their salary or money in general, but they don’t talk about it often in real life. A lot of the women I spoke with were excited to talk to me but didn’t share this information with friends.”
I don’t shy away from sharing private details about my life with my friends and neither do they.
We can spend hours working through family issues or career struggles, but money was never a topic we broached. And to be completely honest, I’m not really sure why we didn’t. I was optimistic that if my friends wanted to talk about money, they might want me to make the first move.
I hoped that we were respecting each other’s boundaries by avoiding the subject and that money isn’t as touch of a subject as I thought.
1. The Best Friend
I started with an easy one. My best friend.
We’ve discussed money before as we have similar financial philosophies. Yet, we’d never had the outright “what do you make” conversation.
It wasn’t too surprising that she didn’t hesitate when I asked her. The wine we’d been drinking at the time may have made this conversation a little easier. I had a general idea of what she was making, but she confirmed it for me. Which made me feel comfortable sharing what I was making too.
What surprised me was how many conversations this opened up for us, such as discussing how much money I have in savings to how much she’s getting for her annual bonus this year.
Being open about our incomes gave us the ability to discuss the big financial events in our life. When she’s up for a 5% raise, I’ll now know exactly what that means. If I land a great writing assignment, I now feel free to tell her how much I’m paid for it.
Now we can celebrate our financial wins together.
2 & 3. The Graduate Students
My fiancé is in graduate school and earns a living stipend either as a teaching assistant or through grants.
His classmates are all paid in similar structures. When two of his friends came over for dinner recently, the topic of their funding came up. The students rarely have consistent funding from year to year.
Meaning, these conversations aren’t abnormal.
But like most money conversations, they’re kept vague. I was unsure if I should ask them what they were making since they all worked together. It turns out, they were happy to share what they earn.
They were both doctoral students in a computer science program. They both received monthly stipends either by working as a teaching assistant or through government grants. Give or take a little, they both received $2,000 a month. This number sounds small—by Southern California standards—the fact that their tuition and healthcare is a part of their compensation, makes this a pretty good deal.
In graduate school, how much funding you receive doesn’t reflect how well you’re doing. Students don’t compete for raises. Having an advisor who can pay better or landing a grant is lucky and not a source of competition. These students are coworkers as many of them work in the same labs.
Their similar salaries and funding sources allow them to have these open conversations.
4. The Writer
As a freelance writer by trade, I don’t have an exact income to share.
I can give a ballpark number of what I aim to make, but that number changes by the week. I wanted to find someone who’s worked the same job as me, so I found a writer friend to ask about income.
This conversation was a piece of cake. There is a sense of camaraderie in the writing community and it’s not uncommon to share story rates.
I consulted someone who works with some of the same publications I do. Boy, am glad I did, because I realized my colleague gets paid more by one of our shared clients. Next time I need to negotiate my compensation, I’ll do so with confidence that a higher rate isn’t unreasonable.
5. The Former Coworker
While catching up with a former coworker over drinks, we got to talking about the company we used to work at together.
Because we no longer worked together, I figured it was fair game to ask her how much she’d been making at that job.
After my second drink, I had the courage to ask. Turns out cocktails are even more effective than wine when having difficult conversations.
I’m glad my liquid courage encouraged me to ask—I earned significantly less money than she did in a similar role. I wished I’d known this information while I still worked at that job.
This conversation was another reminder that I need to fight for my worth.
When I spoke with her about our salaries, it did feel a little risky even though we no longer worked together. And I could tell she was hesitant to share, but once the conversation got going, we both opened up. I also learned she had a better benefits package than me.
For the record, I fumed the whole drive home.
Even though I was kicking myself for not fighting for better compensation, I was glad I knew the truth. I can see why these conversations are so difficult to have at work, because it would have stung a lot more to learn about her salary if we still worked together.
What I learned
The biggest takeaway was exactly what Erica told me it would be.
People want to talk about money.
They want to trade tips on negotiating for salaries and investing. I learned which friends had credit card debt and which had enough money for a downpayment. Now, I feel like I have a great financial support system that I didn’t have before.
Next time I have a job interview, I’m going to ask friends in similar roles how much they make. When it’s time to find a new credit card or want to switch banks, I know can turn to my friends for advice.
Will conversations about money ever be easy? No.
Can people knowing how much money you make lead to uncomfortable conversations? Oh yeah. In the long run, I’m optimistic I will gain so much more by being open and honest about money with my friends.
In the long run, I’m optimistic I will gain so much more by being open and honest about money with my friends.
Jacqueline DeMarco is a writer and editor based in Southern California. She has written on everything from finance to travel for publications including The Everygirl, Apartment Therapy, LearnVest, among others. In her spare time, she enjoys going anywhere she can spend time with animals.