• Fri, May 13 2011

Bullish: How Talking About Money Can Make You More of It

Do you love Bullish? Did you read Tuesday’s announcement that B5 Media has launched a new career site, The Grindstone? Does it sometimes seem charmingly incongruous that Bullish columns frequently occur in between a post about a type of platform shoe made from an unusual object, and a gallery on the topic of whether men want to put their penises in some particular part of our readership? If so — and we’re sure you see where this is going — it makes us a strange mixture of sad and excited to announce that, beginning next week, Bullish is moving to The Grindstone. Jen Dziura will also be contributing her own Bullish lifestyle advice to TheGloss — stay tuned for details.

Do you think it’s rude to talk about money?

Ask any etiquette expert, or your grandmother, and certainly you will discover that the answer is “yes”. And yet, these same purported authorities also tell you that it is rude to talk about your sex life. Do you follow that advice? Of course not, right? You engage in certain types of discussions with certain types of friends. One friend showed me a cellphone photo of her husband naked. She just needed to share. She didn’t say anything at all on Facebook. Problem solved.

Most of us talk about our sex lives with at least one person. Yet many of us do not talk about money with anyone at all. We’re shortchanging ourselves when we do this. What would most help you improve your life: knowing how many people all your friends have slept with, or knowing how much money they make and being able to discuss it?

Here are some reasons for a little more financial disclosure.

Quantify everything. Numbers provide goals, motivation, and rational thinking about your career.

It’s pretty normal to tell people “I lost 30 pounds!”, “I ran a marathon in four hours and 23 minutes!”, “Only three more credits until I graduate!”, or “I ate 32 hot dogs in 10 minutes and came in third!” That is, a great many accomplishments are based on numbers.

Because of a cultural phobia in talking about money, it’s pretty hard even to proffer a vague announcement: “Hey, I got a raise! I’m pretty happy! I worked hard for it!” It’s even harder to get any credit for, “I increased my income by 30% this year through hard work and clever negotiating!” (I mean, I’ll congratulate you for that.)

Using real numbers allows us to share our accomplishments, as well as to see what other people are up to and set reasonable (or ambitious) goals. Similarly, I think the Internet did a great service to adolescent men who type “average penis size” into Google millions of times per year. Sharing actual numbers allows the majority of men to realize that they are perfectly normal. Numbers give context.

I have a friend I’ve known since we both made $25,000 a year. When she hit six figures, I congratulated her! Making $100,000 a year as a freelancer is a tremendous accomplishment! I don’t know if anyone else congratulated her, though, because I doubt there are that many people she was able to share that fact with. But why? There’s very little else you could work on every day for years and years, and then not be able to tell people about when you’re done.

You need a money friend. And, ideally, a money ally (or several) at work.

How do you make this happen? I’d try to start conversations in this way: “I’m asking for a raise/pitching a project/going over my records for the year, and I’m not sure if this seems normal. I know it’s weird, but can I ask what you think about my money question?” Then spill some kind of detail that the person would actually know something about: “I made this website for a company, and they paid me $500,” or “I discovered that the person one level above me at the company you used to work for makes $20,000 more than I do.” See if you get a real answer or if the person squirms. Who knows — maybe your friend has also been dying for someone to talk about money with. You could even try, “Isn’t it weird we know everything about each other’s sex lives, but you don’t know how much money I make? It would really help me if you gave me some feedback.” (You might have to try a few friends.)

Finding a money ally is much harder at work. You have to be pretty ballsy to initiate any kind of salary transparency in an office situation, but think of it this way: The company knows what it pays each of the employees, but the employees don’t know what the other employees are getting paid. This allows the company to cheat and manipulate people, or it simply allows inconsistencies to exist in the system because the people who would most benefit from rectifying those inconsistencies don’t know about them. That is, the person in the position to notice that two people in the same job receive drastically different salaries is generally someone with no incentive at all to fix that situation.

If you got pretty friendly with someone at work — friendly enough to suggest that you share salary information — what’s the worst that could happen? You find out that you make less, in which case you say, “Wow, thanks for telling me. This really motivates me to ask for a raise. If you don’t mind me asking, you must be a good negotiator — any tips?” Or, you find out that you make more, and you say, “Wow, thanks for telling me. I think you are really doing great work here, and I’m surprised to hear what they’re paying you.” And then listen to the person vent, and then offer tips if asked. This second scenario is a bit awkward, but if it leads to that person negotiating for thousands more dollars per year, it seems likely that that person would be thanking you basically forever. The worst-case scenario is still kind of a win-win, no?

Oh, and if someone delivers an envelope to your desk, open it without reading what’s on the front. That way if you accidentally open someone else’s paycheck, it’s the messenger’s fault, not yours. I’m joking. Sort of.

Money Assumptions Help No One.

If your friends regularly drag you places that serve $14 cocktails, it’s totally possible that they make twice as much as you do and neither you nor they are aware of it. While you might think that they are recklessly fun and devil-may-care with their money, they might actually just make enough cash that they don’t think about the price of drinks, and they’d be horrified to find out that, when you do the math, you are sitting in a cubicle for 50 minutes to pay for each bourbon-based concoction you sling back. Maybe they’d actually be happy to go someplace cheaper if they actually thought about it.

A couple of months ago, I walked into the Wall Street 2/3 stop, headed someplace important, wearing a winter-white wool suit and a slightly darker winter-white wool coat and some silvery pointy-toed heels and feeling pretty good. I had always wanted a white suit, and Ann Taylor finally sold me one. Now, while it’s possible I may have looked super pro — as though I were born in the New York Stock Exchange — in my head I was thinking, “I love my new suit! I look exactly like I hoped I would look back when I was a fourteen year old in Virginia and my parents waited too long to get me braces because they’re expensive and I was afraid that if I didn’t work hard I’d be stuck in Virginia forever with my crooked teeth and dorky plastic glasses and isn’t it cool the sound heels make when they click on the subway platform? OMG!” I mean, I always assume that the actual rich can tell that I am a Gatsby-like pretender. (See Bullish: Social Class in the Office.)

So, I go to sit on the bench, and this woman — about forty, casually dressed — looks as though she is about to cry. And she looks up at me and says, “Oh! Hmmph! Damn.” And then she looks at my bag — a pretty but functional briefcase-like thing — and she makes some indecipherable noise of dissatisfaction, and then finally basically explodes with discontent. She shows me a business card from the Tumi store on Wall Street, where she had just been. She tells me that she just got a new job working for the MTA and her friends told her she needed to get a “real bag.” (Now, this is someone who just got a civil service job, not a job fetching coffee for Anna Wintour. Why does she need a new bag, and a bunch of consumerist peer pressure?) She went to the Tumi store and almost bought a $600 bag, but hesitated, and now was crying in the subway.

Now, I would never, ever spend $600 on a bag. I’m trying to think of exceptions here. Maybe on a piece of actual luggage. Maybe. If the luggage were an objet d’art that also were outfitted with specifically designed pockets for each individual item that I, personally, take on trips, and also if the luggage sung me to sleep at night in my hotel. So, I said to the woman, “Oh, I got this at Loehmann’s. The original price tag said $550, but I only paid a hundred.”

I also wanted to say, “Your friends are bitches!” What I really said was, “Go get something name-brand at T.J. Maxx and say it’s from Bloomingdale’s. They’ll never know. Save your money for something that counts.”

Assumptions are often wrong. Sometimes somebody is in the same situation as you, and just happened to get a really good deal on a nice coat. It’s hard to tell whether your friends’ spending habits are “normal” or reasonable without being able to consider those habits in proportion to those friends’ incomes.

Even Telling People You’re Broke Can Help.

Making money is a skill, like anything else. It can be improved, and one way to improve is to know people who are really good at it, and to talk with them about it. In order to do that, you have to disclose your position. If you were trying to break into a new field and had no experience at all, there would be times that it would be appropriate to disclose that — anytime, for instance, you find a benevolent expert who seems willing to help you out. Same deal here. Telling people your financial state can work to your benefit.

In my column about being late, I talked about a friend who — surprise — is always late. That might be okay in a friendship, but it’s not okay in the professional world. The point of the anecdote was that I could have sent a lot of freelance work her way, but I never did, because she was very irresponsible. The reason I mention it here is that if you are both broke and extremely competent, the reverse is likely to happen — letting allies know your financial status will allow them to send appropriate opportunities to you. In fact, being obviously both extremely capable and extremely underpaid activates the justice sensors in many people, who will be actively looking to rectify this great disparity!

Many people move up in their careers by in small but frequent jumps — from a low-paying temp job to a slightly better-paying receptionist job to convincing whoever you’re the receptionist for to let you update the website to then designing websites for a few dollars more than you were paid to be a receptionist, etc. You don’t have to become a millionaire all at one, or get hired out of obscurity for your dream job. You just have to be hypervigilant in looking for the next step.

So if your friends knew that you were a hard worker and currently making $25/hour, or $32,000/year, or whatever, then they would know to send you something that might pay a little more. If others don’t know your situation, it’s fairly likely that they wouldn’t pass on some of those opportunities out of fear of offending. (This advice especially applies to you if your job title is way more impressive than your paycheck. If you’re the Director or Editor of anything, people assume you’re doing well, possibly by tens of thousands of dollars above what you actually make.) When I get an email from a friend or colleague looking to hire for a position that pays less than $40,000 a year, I basically just delete it, because sending it to friends who make $60,000 might look like an insult. But if I were aware that someone were really good at her job and persevered despite making only $32,000, then I’d forward the email, secure in the knowledge that she wouldn’t take it the wrong way.

It might even be possible to broadcast this information without having close friends or allies with whom you discuss money. Possible Facebook status update: “I love working in public relations! My new goal: Make $70,000 a year at it by 2013.”

Peter Post of the Emily Post Institute (seriously, is Peter Post not an excellent porn star name?) says that, if someone asks you your salary, the only appropriate response is, “I make enough to get by.”

I agree that that’s a nice response to a nosy stranger who’s poking into your business, but that’s not the conversation you want to be having with people who could help you. Sure, it can sometimes be hard to be friends across a large income gap (once the truth comes out). But I’m sure you have friends who are more or less attractive than you, and more or less educated than you. Work through it. It’s worth it.

(See also: Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Business.)

What We're Reading:
Share This Post:
  • Jon

    black people.

    just saying

    • Amita

      Could this subject get a predicate, please? What?

  • melissa kate

    i wish i’d read this last year, but i’m so glad i read it today. money is a constant conversation with me, but most of the time i think i’m boring people with it, or they are scared of actually talking about it. thank you for your upfront conversation, definitely need MORE.
    –melissakate.net