Money in closeup

61% of Women Would Rather Talk About Their Own Deaths Than This Topic

My trigger to stop being so secretive about money occurred in a Palm Springs hot tub, while my sister and I were parboiling ourselves under a clump of shaggily glamorous palm trees. She is 61, I’m 59 and we were talking about money for the first time since the days when our “salaries” came in the form of weekly allowance from someone we called Mommy. Which is to say, we were having a meaningful money discussion for the first time in a half century. 

“How much do you make?” she asked.

I told her.

I asked her the same question.  

She answered it. 

“Oh, O.K.,” we said simultaneously. 

And then, as if we had walked through a heretofore unseen wall, we started talk openly about all sorts of money matters: how much money the family lost after the IRS caught up with some early-80s tax-filing shenanigans; “Mommy’s” financial situation; how much we had saved for retirement. 

It was an inexpressible relief to discuss our family’s complicated relationship with money. The short story: my mother’s father made a tidy sum in the post-World War II building boom. My father’s mother was an Italian immigrant who worked as a seamstress and a housecleaner. She was also a single parent and something of a hoarder, long before those labels existed. (Fun fact: she was vegan and into horoscopes, as well.) I grew up in a college town, and my dad, as a professor at a public university, had his salary published in the newspaper every year. I recall a sum of $14,000, back in the 1970s. My dad was dismissive about money, as if there was something unseemly about making it. I remember him joking, with some weird kind of pride, that his four daughters chose professions that paid very little: a dancer turned professor of dance (my sister from the hot tub), an editor (that’s me); a woman who, at the time of this remark, was getting her master’s degree in history; another, who was getting her master’s degree in social work. 

The message I heard from this: Money isn’t important. 

Also, to quote Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher, born in 4 BC: It is noble to be poor. 

And always: But let’s not talk about it.

I feel slightly queasy sharing this for public consumption. But in doing so, I’m trying to make a point: when women don’t discuss money, gender-biased thinking is perpetuated. For instance: that the world of money belongs to men. That women are too emotional—and immature—when it comes to money, hiding shoe and handbag purchases from their husbands, to cite just one hideous trope. That women don’t understand finances, investing, retirement funding. 

Sallie Krawcheck, for one, has some thoughts about these biases. “That’s some societal money taboo bullshit,” says the founder of Ellevest, an investment platform for women, who held the title of CEO at firms that were, at one time, three of Wall Street’s biggest sausage parties: Merrill Lynch, Citi Wealth Management and Smith Barney. (Because I’m such a fangirl, this post could quickly turn into a piece of branded content about Krawcheck’s work to promote #financialfeminism. So I’ll stop right here, with an invitation to check out an Ellevest blog post called “Let’s Disrupt Money…By Talking About It.”) 

The stat that’s at the heart of the problem: According to 2018 Merrill Lynch research, 61 percent of women would rather talk about their own deaths than about money. Worse still, another study shows that parents treat sons differently than daughters when it comes to talking about money. One finding by the survey of 1,000 parents: respondents were more likely to teach their daughters fiscal restraint, while their sons were more likely to be taught about building wealth.

To paraphrase Krawcheck, “that’s some next levelsocietal money bullshit.” 

Why are women so silent on the subject of their finances? Money, on the face of it, isn’t all that complicated. It’s a concrete thing. Its value is knowable. A $20 bill, for instance, says “Hi, I’m worth $20.” My paycheck, when it lands in my bank account, says…Oh, I’m not going to tell you how much I make. And my retirement account, when I remember to check it, says…Oh, I’m not going to tell you that either

Here’s why I’m not revealing those things. If I were to tell you my compensation comes in at, say, $35,000 a year, and I’ve got around $15K in retirement funding it would inform the way you think of me. By contrast, if I threw a handful of zeroes on the back of those numbers, putting my salary at $350,000 and my Fidelity account at a sweet $1.5 million, you’d think something else. Maybe I’d rise in your estimation (“she’s killing it!”) or lower (“yeah, but she’s in branded content, yuck”).Whatever, there’d be a judgment. 

I know this because I’ve judged. 

True story: In Florida, I played tennis with a woman who shared her very full schedule of weekly clinics with a pro, which meant she was spending a lot of time and money on her game. It showed; she crushed me on the court. She also mentioned her financier husband was speaking at Davos. I Googled him and he makes $10 million a year, which helped me post-rationalize the loss of the match: Well of course she’s better than me, I thought. She doesn’t have to work. 

See, I’m judging her, based on a number: 10 million. I’m poor, compared to Tennis Barbie (that’s how I thought of her). Which makes me want to believe Seneca the Younger. That there’s some nobility in my relative poverty, something along the lines of, I may be a crappy tennis player, but I am extremely noble. 

But now I say, screw Seneca (who, by the way, was a very rich man). Can we, as women, think more like Sallie? Or Suze? Or Kathy Murphy, Fidelity’s president of personal investing?  Can we stop with the silent judging? Can we try to own discussions around money and, more importantly, own our own money? Let’s try that, starting with some solid advice from four of the best female money minds in the business. 

1. Own it 

Suze Orman says, Women will always think that their money is for their parents, their spouses, their brothers, their sisters, their pets, and everybody but them, because a woman’s nature is to nurture,” Orman told Fast Company. “Men, on the other hand, know absolutely that the money that they make is for them…they have no problem keeping it for themselves, investing it for themselves…”

2. Invest it

Murphy, at Fidelity, told Business Insider that behind…“women’s reticence to talk about money lies a lack of confidence in their knowledge of finance… This lack of confidence is really self-imposed. Our analysis of more than 12 million investors shows that women actually demonstrated stronger saving rates than their male counterparts and enjoyed better long-term investment performance when they did engage.”

3. Talk about it

Nobody says it better than Sallie and her #disruptmoney manifesto: “We will change the money game by disrupting societal expectations that talking about money is ‘unladylike.’ We will talk about money with friends, partners, colleagues, family. We will talk to our daughters and nieces about it. We will talk about it at the dinner table. We will normalize these discussions and thus, collectively, give ourselves the information we need to close our gender money gaps.”  

4. Cover it

If you—like me—work in the media or know people who do, start talking facts like these, also from a Merrill Lynch study, with an introduction by Lorna Sabbia, Head of Retirement & Personal Wealth Solutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “Women’s media does not often contribute to smart and open dialogue about money, lifelong financial planning, and investing questions and needs. Case in point: Of 1,594 pages of editorial content in the March 2018 issues of the top 17 women’s magazines, there were only 5 pages covering personal finance.” 

That’s less than 1%. 

We can do better than that, ladies.

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