Opinion

The Money Taboo

What we don't ask and won't say.

“So, how much money do you make?”

It’s hard to imagine starting a conversation this way. You can ask about a person’s education and grades. You can ask what music they like. You can even ask why they still follow a certain Toronto Hockey Team even though they haven’t won a Stanley Cup in the era of colour TV (my email is listed above – feel free to write me, Leafs fans) but you can’t ask a Canadian how much money they make.

In fact, “personal finances” is one of four taboo subjects in Canada, according to a 2020 Leger study. The other three (religion, politics and relationships) all scored about the same as the thing people least like to talk about.

But it gets more interesting. Not surprisingly, older Canadians are less likely to talk about money than younger Canadians. But women are less likely to discuss finances than men and, the more we make, the less likely we are to discuss money with anyone – including our spouses. Three quarters of Canadians said they would not speak to a financial planner about money issues. According to another survey, 1 in 10 Canadians would literally rather have a root canal than speak to a financial advisor.

What these surveys don’t tell us, though, is why.

Nondisclosure clause

We can speculate. Maybe it’s because Canadians are fairly conservative by nature, and it seems a little gauche to talk about income. Maybe we don’t want to seem like we’re bragging if we have a lot of money, or judged if we don’t. But in Canada, no one knows what you make, and no one is encouraged to ask.

Unless, that is, you’re on the “Sunshine List.” In Ontario the salaries of public servants are publicly known, announced in an annual media event. In other provinces, salaries are disclosed on demand. So unless your friend or neighbour is a public employee making over $100k a year, you will have no idea what their salary is.

Right now, thanks to COVID, personal finances are probably an even more difficult topic. Millions of us are out of work, and many millions more have seen their companies struggle. The impact is being disproportionately felt by women, visible minorities and people who own or work for small businesses. Sure, some sectors are doing well, and this means that overall the financial impact isn’t as bad as some feared, but other sectors – like the hospitality industry for example – have been hit hard. Whether you won or lost during COVID really depends on who you are and where you work.

Financial literacy

If you’re like me, your parents never spoke about money in front of you. As kids, we were forbidden from knowing how tight things were. Our parents didn’t want us to worry about that “adult stuff” in what I think was a well-meaning attempt to protect us.

But not having those conversations can be a problem, too. We want our kids to be financially literate and responsible, but if they’re not hearing those conversations at home – if they don’t understand how a mortgage works, or what a line of credit is, or how to save – when it comes their time to make those decisions, they may find “adulting” especially hard. We’re expected to have the “birds and the bees” conversation with our kids, but few of us ever have the “RRSP” conversation.

There is, of course, a fine line between sharing information with other people and burdening them with it, or bragging – and hopefully most of us are smart enough to know the difference. But if we’re here to help one another – and I believe we are – why wouldn’t we help each other by sharing what we know about saving and spending and earning? And if we’re called to be faithful in all things – and again, I believe we are – why not also be faithful and forthright about finances? A lot of us struggle needlessly, when the answer might be a phone call away, or even lying right next to us.

  • Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.

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