Earlier this year I started writing a book, Money: A User’s Guide, in which I offer tips on how to understand and sort out your finances, debts, bills and savings, as well as the more emotion-laden stuff, like how should you split cash with a partner? How can you feel more confident about money?
While researching it I started to ask my friends about their relationship with their bank balance and it occurred to me that, at the age of 33, these conversations between us were new. The conversations were also, even when we were discussing our attitudes to life insurance or statutory maternity pay, surprisingly riveting and reassuring. Beyond the odd "bit broke this month", we have never really talked about our personal finances in any detail. I have mastermind-level knowledge of their sex and relationship histories, we are very open and relaxed around one another. Why, therefore, have I never asked any of my friends about something as fundamental to their day to day existence as how much they earn or save, and why do I feel so icky at the thought of revealing to them my own unremarkable financial situation?
Beyond the odd 'bit broke this month', we have never really talked about our personal finances in any detail.
We are not the only ones; a recent survey from Starling bank found that 100% of respondents recall feeling uncomfortable, unhappy, stressed or embarrassed when talking about money in the past.
This is the year of support networks, openness and high-profile sharing. The day I started writing this article, Ruth Davidson MSP, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, was on the cover of The Sunday Times detailing her experience of depression and self-harming. People are posting photos on Instagram of their wonky boobs and belly rolls – even Beyoncé’s talking about her FUPA – while the #MeToo movement has been like a huge women’s WhatsApp group of "Oh my God, it’s not just me" revelations that have helped people challenge sexual harassment and abuse. It is widely accepted that voicing concerns diminishes their power.
But we struggle to speak up about money without fear of judgement from people who we are pretty sure care about us a lot – who have helped us to bed after one too many bottles of Oyster Bay without so much as an eye roll – and fail to be honest about why we do not want to pay £350 for a hen or stag do, in case we set off a hand grenade in our friendship group.
Money – how much of it we have, where it comes from and what we decide to do with it – is extremely personal; it can represent the very essence of who we are or choose to be. But it is also something that everyone has in common and has to find a way to deal with. Unfortunately, as life becomes more expensive, tensions can develop.
Take housing. During the late 20s and early 30s, chasms in wealth start to crack open between those who achieved the same grades at school and split the bill for a mouldy student flat and weekly Nisa shop. The Bank of Mum and Dad can offer some people a level of security which those from different, less financially stable backgrounds feel is totally out of reach, even on a good salary.
The way my friends talk about it makes me feel getting a mortgage should be a rite of passage.
Helen, a 29-year-old charity worker from Edinburgh, says: "In our bubble of university-educated friends, a lot of people can only afford to buy houses because of their parents; either they could live at home to save for a deposit or have been given money towards it. I think it is weird that there isn’t more awareness that this is not the case for most people. The way my friends talk about it makes me feel getting a mortgage should be a rite of passage. It’s like the elephant in the room; our lifestyles look the same on the surface, going for drinks, going on holiday, but we are in very different financial positions."
Those who do buy may also feel unfairly scrutinised and apologetic for being suddenly so much 'richer' as a result of a decision made by their family. Victoria, 26, who is a part-time journalist and works in a restaurant to top up her income the rest of the time, says she feels uncomfortable discussing her living arrangements with friends. "My parents and my fiancé’s parents have just given us some money so we can buy a flat together. When I’ve told people that we are house hunting, the reaction is immediately, how? How much are you paying?! They can’t believe I am buying with my job. It can make me feel really awkward and I change the subject."
Cate Campbell, a relationship therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, believes there is a lot of shame around money and status. What one person sees as evidence of success, another might view as unacceptable showing off or wastefulness.
She suggests that couples who argue about money should abandon their assumptions and be honest about how they want to organise their finances, advice that is equally applicable between flatmates or colleagues.
I have a close friend who is excellent at being upfront about what she does and doesn’t want to spend, which helps prevent that slide into overdoing it and then feeling resentful. She’s a teacher and says it is easier for others to understand that she has more limited means than people who, for example, work in the City, but has never had a negative response when asking at the start, "Can we go somewhere cheaper tonight?" I often think the same about hen dos; if expectations are set from the outset – I can’t spend more than £150, perhaps I can just come on the Saturday if it is going to cost more? – then you avoid that internal debate about whether you can get out of it when the eye-watering grand total is announced, turning up anyway, blowing your budget and not enjoying yourself at all.
Shefali, 28, who works for an NGO in London, recently said no to a week’s holiday with two of her best friends. "I knew I was running out of excuses and I started dreading the guilt that comes from being told time and again, 'You're in your 20s. Just have fun. This is what overdrafts are there for! Why do you care so much about money? YOLO!'"
She admits she does not feel comfortable with being completely honest about why she is frugal, particularly when invited to spas or fancy restaurants. "Financial responsibility can be predicated on values that you do not want to hang up on display for the world to see and challenge," she says. "Secondly, it's sad when you feel you have to justify your decision, because why can't it be enough to just say, 'I really don't think I can afford it'?"
Nevertheless she really wishes she was better at discussing things like inherited wealth with friends: "Not so that we can compare ourselves but so that we can better understand each other and help each other out."
So go on, I dare you: ask a friend if you can postpone dinner until after payday or talk to them about your credit card debts. What’s the worst that can happen? You might find, given they are kind enough to be considered a confidante on all other topics in your life, that they are far less judgemental than you’d feared, and just as stressed out about money.