Today I want to share about something that is near and dear to my heart: empathy in the context of money.
More and more I’ve noticed – and I doubt I’m the only one – that money continues to be a taboo topic.
Most people don’t want to talk about. Some don’t even want to think about it.
What turns people off from money and finances? I think it lies with lack of empathy.
People who aren’t in a good financial spot avoid finances; those who are in a good financial spot lack empathy.
Here’s a conversation you’ve probably either been a part of or have overheard:
Person 1: “It’s tough to get ahead with so much student debt.”
Person 2: “That’s why I didn’t take out loans and others shouldn’t either.”
Take a step back and put yourself in person 1’s shoes. They have already incurred student loan debt. They are even saying that it’s a challenge to manage it as part of their overall finances.
How does pointing out that not having loans help the situation? It doesn’t, yet this is a conversation that happens daily.
Other situations are much more subtle. For example, I heard a sermon where the pastor mentioned the price of his first home, and the point was that it was not that expensive of a house.
Did the pastor have good intentions? Absolutely. But there are many people in that particular church who have trouble even imagining having a home. They may be single parents who are struggling to get by, or simply can’t imagine how the finances would line up to purchase a home. And the pastor was making a joke about this home.
This is what I mean when I say that there is a complete lack of empathy when it comes to money.
Empathy, which includes being aware of how your comments could be perceived by others with different backgrounds, situations, and opinions, is needed in personal finance arguably more than anywhere else.
Be Humble and Self-Aware about your Own Financial Situation
When it comes to money, people’s willingness to share and open up is no different than social media; you rarely hear people share about their struggles, but those who have something to brag about are quick to share.
I don’t think that everyone who shares their financial successes have bad intentions. In fact, most likely have good intentions.
That’s all the more reason to be humble and self-aware about your own financial situation, and how it may be perceived about others. It’s natural to want to share when something good happens in our lives, financial or otherwise. But it’s important to stop and think about how that will be perceived by others, and what sort of impact it will have on them.
If you are doing well financially, recognize that there are many who are not. There’s no reason to share specifics about your finance, such as how much debt you have (or don’t have) or what your income is.
A good general rule is to not share about your finances unless you are specifically asked by others, and obviously it’s best to only share with those you trust and who you think a conversation with would be productive.
Don’t Assume Things About Someone Else’s Financial Situation
One mistake people make is assuming they know what someone’s financial situation is. For example, you may assume others in a similar job make a similar amount of money and, therefore, have a similar financial situation.
But everyone’s financial situation is different. Some may struggle with going on shopping sprees every weekend on things that they really can’t afford. Or others may save every dime they can and have significant assets in the bank.
My point is this: you shouldn’t assume you know someone’s financial situation. Most people don’t share details, at least the ones they don’t want people to know. I’m just stating the obvious.
Think about the couple that has been trying to become pregnant for years. Hearing another couple talk about how difficult it was for them to get pregnant when they only had to try for a few months is not going to make them feel very good about their situation. But the couple who has been trying for years may not have shared their struggles with anyone. So despite the good intentions of the couple who became pregnant relatively quickly, their words were likely hurtful to the couple that has been struggling for years.
While this is an intense example, it can be applied to personal finances. If you have $25k of student loan debt and talk about how tough your life is because of it, your words may have a huge impact on someone who is struggling to pay $100k of student loan debt.
If you want your conversations about money to be productive and empathetic, it’s important to not assume anything about someone’s personal financial situation. You may be hurting others without realizing it.
Don’t Judge the Financial Situation of Others
This goes without saying, but you should never judge someone’s financial situation.
We live in a competitive society, and too often we judge someone’s worth based on their net worth. Money becomes a measuring stick.
Even if we don’t intentionally do this, we treat people different who have wealth and we think of ourselves in relative terms. People are obsessed with comparing themselves to others, and finances is an easy way to do this.
It takes a lot of effort to show empathy towards others, and it starts with not using finances as a benchmark for worth. Nor should we judge others for their financial decisions.
We should only give financial advice when asked. Unsolicited advice is not appreciated nor desired. When we are asked for financial advice, we should do it from a point of empathy and understanding of the goals, dreams, and unique circumstances that make their personal finances, personal.
How do we make money less of a taboo topic? How do we move past superficial conversation and feelings of jealousy, bitterness, and yes, even depression?
We put ourselves in other people’s shoes. We show empathy every time we talk about money.