How to start a conversation about money with your friends
Empathy is key to navigating tricky conversations, and that’s true now more than ever.
When the 2008 recession hit, Emma Connelly was in fourth grade. The mass layoffs hit close to home. “My dad was unemployed off and on for basically six years, so he became a stay-at-home dad,” Connelly, 22, said. “We got very close.”
As was true for many households at the time, money had become a major source of contention for the Connelly family. “There was this constant thread of money anxiety,” Connelly said. “To this day, I think my parents feel guilty for not being able to give us more growing up.”
Despite their financial setbacks, Connelly’s parents taught their children that money isn’t everything and demonstrated the lesson through their actions. “At one point my grandparents told my mum to leave my dad because he was unemployed,” Connelly said. “And my mom was like, ‘He’s a wonderful father, he’s a kind man, and I love him. I’m not going to leave him.’” Years later, when the extended family gave Connelly a hard time for pursuing a degree in studio art, Connelly’s parents supported the decision.
But when the pandemic hit, sending the global economy into yet another recession – this one reported to be worse than the last – Connelly’s money anxiety resurfaced.
Money is an emotionally charged topic as it is, but many people are now financially struggling in new and conflicting ways.
“Growing up in the recession, I was already primed to worry about money all the time,” Connelly said. “Now COVID hit, and it feels like I’m in the second grade again.”
Before the pandemic, Connelly, who lives in Los Angeles, was working three jobs and going to school. Now, Connelly hasn’t been working for the past two months. Graduating into a crisis has made finding any kind of work seem impossible. “This is the thing that everyone said was going to happen,” Connelly said.
Connelly also feels guilty talking about financial problems with friends. “I have more than other people have, so that feels weird, too,” they said. “I’m trying not to have my anxiety be a tax on anybody.”
Money is an emotionally charged topic as it is, but many people are now financially struggling in new and conflicting ways. Some 17.8 million Americans are unemployed, and another 10.6 million are still on “temporary layoff,” according to data released by the Bureau of Labour Statistics in July.
Like Connelly, many people are feeling both vulnerable and guilty about their financial situations. They say talking about money feels uncomfortable, complicated and awkward. But does it have to?
STARTING THE CONVERSATION
Erin Lowry, the author of the Broke Millennial series, suggested that conversations about money could be more candid in the midst of a crisis. “Those classic awkward money conversations are going to be easier in the coming months because so many people are losing jobs or losing work hours or being furloughed,” she said.
Normally, people associate shame and judgment with money, but the current crisis has moderated that shame. “You’re seeing a lot of language repositioned that this is not your fault. It’s not a moral shortcoming on your end. This is something that is happening globally,” Lowry said. This makes it easier to broach the subject. “I think that helps people feel OK to be open and honest about their situation,” she said.
The pandemic might serve as an icebreaker, but money is still emotional and complicated, and much of what’s happening to the economy points to a larger problem. “And that’s a much harder conversation to have,” Lowry said.
How you bring up a topic is even more important than what you’re actually saying.
“There’s this camp that still fervently believes that the system works, this just was a glitch. They think it will be fine. And then you’re going to have another camp who’s saying that clearly there are issues with this current system. What can we do to fix it? And in a time where we’re also so politically polarized, it’s going to be very hard.”
Whether it’s a roommate who can’t afford rent, a friend who still has a job when you’ve lost yours, or a family member who needs financial support, empathy is key to navigating tricky conversations, and that’s true now more than ever, said Debra Roberts, a communication specialist and the author of “The Relationship Protocol.”
“How you bring up a topic is even more important than what you’re actually saying,” Roberts said. From the start, you should address the discomfort and let the other person know your intention. “You might say something like, ‘I know this is a complicated topic, and I want to be sensitive to what you’re experiencing,’” Roberts suggested.
If you’re asking a landlord for a rent reduction, for instance, you might acknowledge the fact that they’re being hit by this crisis, too. If a friend has lost a job, it might feel awkward to reach out at first, especially when you still have yours, but you can address the awkwardness and let them know you’re thinking about them.
“It feels uncomfortable to talk about it, but it’s important to check in,” Roberts said. “And if you feel guilty, that’s something you need to reconcile for yourself so you can have the conversation.”
It’s human nature to avoid awkwardness in these situations, but ignoring the problem often makes it worse. In most cases, it’s best to address the discomfort from the beginning.
For example, if you’ve asked a roommate for a rent reduction because you’ve lost your job, you might feel guilty ordering takeout later. To mitigate hard feelings, have the conversation upfront, Lowry said. “Just say to them, ‘I’ve had a really bad week, and I would like to spend 15 dollars ordering from my favourite restaurant. I just want to tell you that before it gets awkward.’”
HOW TO SUPPORT A FRIEND
If you feel compelled to offer a friend financial support, there’s an easy way to make it feel less like a handout and more like a gift: Offer something tangible aside from cash. “So instead of just sending them a hundred bucks, Venmo them $100 with a note like, ‘Use this to splurge on some takeout, buy from your favourite restaurant, get your favourite meal,” Lowry suggested. “That way, your friend isn’t thinking, ‘Oh she’s taking pity on me because I lost my job.’ It’s a gift, a nice gesture.”
Communication is as much about listening as it is about talking, and that’s a good rule of thumb to apply to any difficult conversation.
If you decide to lend money to a friend or provide some other kind of financial relief, avoid micromanaging the situation. “Only give what you can afford to give, and when you do give, it’s a gift, not a loan,” Lowry said. “And if you get the money back, great. But you have to mentally frame this as a gift.”
Communication is as much about listening as it is about talking, and that’s a good rule of thumb to apply to any difficult conversation, but especially ones that arise from crisis. It’s a skill Connelly said she’s been practising within her own friend group.
“I try to do a lot of listening to my friends, and I think they really try and do the same,” Connelly said. “I feel grateful that we did the work to have a friendship that’s built on this foundation of listening to each other and really trying to think, ‘How can I show this person that I care for them and how can I receive their care back?’”
There may be no way to escape the complicated, uncomfortable ways these conversations will play out. “I’ll be honest. It’s still going to be awkward,” Lowry said. “No matter the tips, no matter the strategy, some of these conversations just are straight-up difficult. We just have to push our way through.”
By Kristin Wong © The New York Times