#13: Let’s talk about money, baby

14th December, 2020

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that thinks talk isn't always cheap. This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that the words you use when talking about money make it harder to use it well... and that everyone else is silently facing the same struggle.

We don’t talk about money (or when we do, it’s a hindrance, not a help) because we’re so attached to it as a measure of value. But the antidote to that attachment is talking about it. Damn.

One of the most enlightening moments of my life happened a few years ago, in a small room with maybe 30 other people, while Alain de Botton pulled our anonymous confessions from a hat.

He unfurled the first scrap of paper: ‘I fear I’ve married the wrong person’. The room was as silent as a tomb, but the air was buzzing; pulsing with the synchronous vibrations of a block of people on expectant yet apprehensive edge.

‘I have a brain tumour’. ‘I’m worth 10 billion dollars’. ‘I fear I’m only ever going to have painful and dramatic sexual relationships until I get too old, then I’ll be alone until the end’. And so on.

And then: ‘I’m really anxious a lot of the time.’

Sensing, I suspect, that the pulsing had paused, as if waiting to be told what to do next, Alain stopped.

‘Raise your hand if you often feel you’re significantly more anxious than other people.’

The pulsing disappeared. Hands shot, squirmed, and squeezed up. And, though I doubt anyone other than me saw it (given I was stood at the back while everyone else was sat), I’ll bet everyone felt it: every shoulder in the room dropped two inches.


I think of this moment a lot in relation to talking about money. Especially so in the dozen weeks of sending out this newsletter.

So many of our worries about money stem from the fact we assume everyone else knows what’s going on, but because we never talk about it, we never know this isn’t true. We suffer both in silence, and because of it.

This creates all sorts of problems, from believing that more money makes the worries go away, to never quite getting around to working out how investing works, and so either never starting to do it, or paying someone far too much to do it for us while never understanding how badly we’re being ripped off. And that’s before we talk about unexamined expenditure, unfulfilling jobs, and an unsatisfying lack of luck redistribution.

My experience inside the heads of those that have what other people believe they want (and often sacrifice the majority of their time and energy – aka their lives – for) is behind writing about this stuff in the first place.

I was hardly unaware of the scale of these self-deceptive issues, nor the high price we pay by our refusal to open our eyes to them. But sending out this newsletter has reminded me of the human costs behind the statistical ones.

I’ve been honoured to receive your comments. I’m flattered to be party to thoughts that clearly strike many of you – rightly, in my personal and professional opinion – as pretty darn important. Most of all, it’s great to see the thoughtfulness. The book is, after all, aimed at instigating thinking, not replacing it. The comments that say I’ve opened eyes, or stopped someone in their tracks (regardless of any change of mind) are the best of all.

The one thing these comments have in common is that they’re much more happily shared in private than in public. I asked a few people about this.

  • ‘Money is in everything. And people – including me – don’t like to have it pointed out when they haven’t got their shit together.’

  • ‘There's a bit of a stigma attached to admitting that you don't have your money game in order. Especially among certain company/circles.’

  • ‘I can think of so many people that really need to read this… might risk offending colleagues however...’

  • ‘Good luck getting anyone to talk about this in public!’

I even had separate people tell me they didn’t feel comfortable sharing one newsletter because ‘people will think I’ve got loads of money’ and because ‘people will think I’ve got no money.’

And of course variations on a theme of ‘so what do I buy to fix this?’ Because obviously the cure to believing that value is measured in numbers is a numbers-based solution.

My health-and-fitness friends see a similar thing. Fancy new workout equipment that costs a fortune and probably won’t work: ‘take my money!’ Learn how to breathe, move, sleep, and eat properly, it’s free and makes every minute of every day better: ‘lalala I’m not listening’.

As our friends at Examine.com put it:

It sounds counterintuitive, but people are verrrry skeptical of free treatments. You can make millions selling the latest and greatest supplements, but if you try to convince someone to focus on their breath, be prepared for them to nod along with everything you say then forget it all right after the conversation is over.

With money, it’s even worse. Because the very problem with money we need to overcome is the very thing that’s stopping us seeing the problem in the first place.


So what should we do about it?

Talk. Put your mouth where your money is.

By talk, I don’t mean count the numbers. I don’t mean talk about investment strategy, charges, cash-flow models, or definitions of ‘risk’. They’re all important, but most talk about them really isn’t. Even chat about ‘financial wellbeing’ usually ends up at which product is best to provide it.

I mean talking about money as a facilitator of trades – an investment of one thing in the hope of gaining something better that justifies it – and about how we make better trades, better decisions. What works and what doesn’t?

I mean challenging (and where appropriate changing) worldviews the only way they can be changed: one word, one phrase, or one concept at a time.

For example, catching yourself using ‘treat’ to mean ‘costs money and worsens health’, or ‘better’ to mean either ‘pays more’ or ‘costs more’, rather than ‘makes life better’, asking yourself if you mean what you said, and if not, telling your brain to do it better next time.

I’ve listed a load more money maxims in this bit of the book, and will be adding one to the newsletter each week. Please share your own: what words associated with money do you commonly hear in a distorted, distracting, or downright dumb way?

Better than debating with yourself is debating with others. In public.

If what I write about were already being done, or even talked about, I wouldn’t write about it. There must be dissenting voices. I’d love to hear them.

Comments welcome

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