Go Ahead, Be a "Money Jerk"

The topic of money is so taboo that the etiquette experts say, "Avoid it." Dayana Yochim says, "Get over it." Money talk isn't gauche and shouldn't be off limits just because it's not polite to bring it up in conversation. Here's guidance on when and where it pays off to put it all on the table.

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By Dayana Yochim (TMF School)
May 31, 2002

A recent column on asks readers, "Do you know a money jerk?" You know, the guy or gal who lacks the decorum to stifle inquiries about the cost of your car, your rent, your kids' private school tuition, or your new chiseled-chin implant.

Your money is your business, say the etiquette experts. The only people who have any right to this sensitive information are your spouse, your boss, and your financial planner. With all others, the manners mavens conclude, simply demur. "You can never go wrong by not talking about money."

I'll come right out and say it: Go ahead, be a "money jerk." I am. (Apologies for the PG-13 word choice, but "bozo," "boor," and "Chatty Cathy" just don't pack the same oomph and implicit understanding.) Share your expenditures and your budget shortfalls with your pals! Compare your electric bill with your neighbors! Lament your investment losses publicly and celebrate paying down your debt with a block party (potluck, of course)! Go ahead, fan your bills and brokerage statements across the kitchen table and talk about money -- with whomever you want and to whatever extent you desire.

If being a "money jerk" means being a free cash flow spirit, then I'm all for it.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating throwing manners out the drive-thru deposit window. There's no excuse for being an obnoxious braggart or nickel-and-diming a dinner guest. The kind of money jerk-i-ness I advocate doesn't excuse the co-worker who squeals, "What'd he pay for that diamond chip?!" And it doesn't give you permission to call your best friend to exclaim, "Property values in my neighborhood are skyrocketing! I'm rich, rich, rich! So... how's grad school going?"

In these matters, I agree with Mses. Manners, Landers, and Post: Don't be a boob. Don't brag. Don't pry when it's clear someone's uncomfortable. And don't blab about other people's finances.

But imagine what you would do -- what you would ask your parents, tell your kids, and debate with your co-workers -- if you didn't feel weird bringing up the topic of money? I think that putting it all on the table can really pay off.

Prod your parents
A show of hands, please: How many people know what their parents make (or made when they were working)? What was their monthly mortgage payment? What financial and professional sacrifices did they make to have kids or to keep the family business in the family?

This stuff doesn't just come up during your regular every-other-Sunday dinner. But why not bring it up when it's time for you to buy your first (or third) home or decide on public or private school for your kids? You may learn something.

Ease into the topic by reminiscing. Ask your folks what a gallon of gas cost when they first got a car. What was their best investment -- both financial and emotional? What sacrifices did they make to give you kids the good life?

In the future, talking about long-term care insurance and living on a fixed income won't seem as awkward. Do they have enough insurance? Have they updated their wills? When these conversations come from a place of concern and genuine interest -- and not out of the blue or during an emotionally charged situation -- they are extremely worthwhile. It gives you a chance to hear your parents' wishes and for them to learn about yours.

A great book for every family is The Beneficiary Book, by Martin Kuritz. It's a binder-style, estate planning book with room to record all your obvious and not-so-obvious money wishes. Put it all down in black and white. After that, you can brag about the grandkids for hours on end.

Teach your kids
Do your kids know what it costs to put a roof over their heads and macaroni and cheese in their tummies? Why not? (Okay, we'll accept the whole "he's only mastered monosyllabic words" excuse.)

But when your tikes are older and start to realize that the green stuff equals more toys, start talking. Tell them how you make your money decisions -- why they can't have the Xbox and how come Leif gets more lunch money than Lisa (the lunches at his school cost more!).

My friend Kristin's family instituted a brilliant rite of passage for their three girls. When each girl turned 13, it became her responsibility to balance the family checkbook. Kristin and her sisters saw what their parents paid for the mortgage and utilities; the amount deposited into the account each month on payday, and how the family dynamic changed when the balance hovered perilously close to zero. They learned how much things in the "real world" cost at an early age. Her family's open-checkbook policy inspired Kristin to sock away all her earnings from her paper route to help pay for college.

Chat with your pals
How do your friends and peers spend their paychecks? Do they max out contributions to their 401(k) accounts? What does their weekly grocery bill come to? Where did Jenny get that fabulous sweater? When I talk about money with friends, I don't expect 100% reciprocity. ("I'll show you mine if you show me yours." I'm talking about checkbook registers, you cretins.)

Knowing that a friend is trying to tackle her credit card debt, I'm more likely to suggest an afternoon at the dog park instead of a day of window shopping. When my extremely frugal neighbors moved out of their apartment into a dream mid-century modern home in a tony neighborhood, it became crystal clear why we always had cocktails at their apartment instead of at the corner bar. (So that's what it takes to amass a decent-size down payment.)

The whole salary issue is too touchy for many, but my close friends in the biz have long shared with each other what we're paid. Our open salary exchange gives us a good barometer of what's happening in our industry -- all around the country -- and if our employers are keeping pace. (And it also alleviates any guilt I have about letting Bill Mann pick up the lunch tab.)

One company that embraces fiscal forthrightness is Whole Foods Market Inc. (Nasdaq: WFMI). The company's forward-thinking disclosure policy gives all employees access to the books and annual individual compensation report. That may be one reason the CEO's salary is capped at 10 times the average store worker's. Maybe it's also why Whole Foods keeps showing up on Fortune's list of "100 Best Companies to Work for in America." Gee, what a bunch of "money jerks." Yeah, right.

Someday, money won't be the conversational third rail. In the meantime, try a little bit of financial openness with close friends, family, and Fools. Talk about your next major purchase and how long it's taking you to save for it. See what you learn when you're open about money issues. Don't feel obligated to broach the topic in hush-hush tones just because it's the polite thing to do.

Since the Fool is all about full disclosure, you can click here to see that Dayana Yochim owns no company mentioned in this column. She'd also like you to know that she pays her credit card balance in full every month and that her phone bill in May was $56.63. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.