A FEW MONTHS AGO, my retirement account hit a milestone—$250,000. I’d been looking forward to achieving “quarter-millionaire” status for a while, so when it finally happened, I decided to announce it on social media. I took a photo of my computer screen, with the value of my account highlighted, and uploaded the photo. Just as I prepared to make the post public, I decided to obscure the actual balance and edit the text to say my account had reached a “new personal record,” instead of revealing the specific amount.
I’ve never been reluctant to boast about my other accomplishments. Whenever I win an award at one of the many shooting competitions I attend, I’m quick to brag about it on Facebook. Now, having achieved a personal financial goal, I chose instead to announce it subtly and without specifics.
On any given day, most of us can log on to our social media site-of-choice and read more details about our friends and colleagues than we care to know. People are eager to share what restaurant they’re eating at or talk about the fancy new electronic gadget they just acquired. But the financial details of these transactions are almost always missing. That photo of your friend, happily posing with the family’s new sports car, likely doesn’t include a copy of the transaction’s bill of sale.
A recent study highlighted how deeply conflicted most of us are when it comes to talking about money. A group of university students—who were intending to pursue careers as financial planners—were surveyed about their financial attitudes: There was a stark difference between their personal beliefs and actual behavior. While most thought discussions about money should be active and open, the majority didn’t discuss their own finances with friends and, if they did share information, admitted they were uncomfortable doing so.
Our inability to talk openly about financial topics has resulted in a society that’s left to guess how our own financial status stacks up against others. Outward appearances can be deceiving—friends and acquaintances may seem to be living a life filled with “champagne wishes and caviar dreams”—but a glimpse at their net worth might reveal a financial nightmare. Conversely, there are plenty of anecdotes about men and women who appear impoverished, but who have actually amassed personal fortunes worth millions of dollars.
By keeping financial topics out of the public domain, we now have a society where a majority of Americans can’t make an educated guess about how much money they might need to retire. Without such a goal in mind, how can we expect people to shift their spending and savings habits accordingly? If each of us made a concerted effort to discuss money matters openly, we might discover financial opportunities available to us that we weren’t previously aware of. If we openly shared our account balances and salary information, we might inspire our friends and family to make changes in their own financial habits. As for myself, I’ll start with a pledge: When I officially become a “half-millionaire,” I’ll post it on Facebook for everyone to see.
Kristine Hayes is a departmental manager at a small, liberal arts college in Portland, Ore. She enjoys competitive pistol shooting and hanging out with her dog Zoey. Her previous articles include My Wants and Where It Goes.