Should we talk about money and shame? Yes, we should. We need to have this conversation and we need to have it now.
Shame is something we all experience and something that has become a problem in our culture. We like to shame. We shame moms, we shame dads, we shame kids, we shame rich people, and we shame poor people (a lot).
Shame works. It is a powerful tool that makes someone so embarrassed that they cannot continue their behavior. In certain situations, it may be the best and most useful tool. For example, in certain situations, people stop doing destructive and toxic behaviors because of shame or fear of being shamed.
However, this is not because they want to stop doing those things or because it is a growth opportunity. No, they are quitting because of shame. If you’re going to stop a dangerous behavior, then it doesn’t really matter- we want the rapist to stop raping, and if he stops because of self-loathing, then no one really cares- as long as no one else is getting hurt.
The problem is when we use shame as a tool to teach other behaviors. This is particularly a problem when it comes to money. Money is a very taboo subject in our society. We don’t like to talk about it. We are too confused about it to have a good conversation with each other or our kids. we instead want to rely on specific rituals and traditions regarding money that we never fully explain even to ourselves.
Check out this quote from Why Shaming Doesn’t Work | Psychology Today: “Shame can become internalized, and the shamed person begins to view him or herself in ways consistent with the disapproval. In cases of internal shame, the individual becomes both the judged and the judge and experiences self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy. ”
Instead of encouraging introspection and building good habits, shame can cause someone to hide what they are doing. This is particularly a problem when there is a lack of education around finances. When people hide what they are doing, there is no one to correct them when they are doing something wrong. This goes both ways. People feel ashamed about being inept with finances.
They are ashamed of their debt or their bills, so they turn to bad, at best, dangerous, at worse, solutions to help them. This includes unscrupulous debt consolidation companies or unscrupulous payday lenders. There is very rarely a situation where someone asks for recommendations about a good debt consolidation company. So companies do bad things but still clients because no one wants to speak out.
This is also true when people are doing WELL with their money. It can be shameful to be good with money. Having money, especially in certain communities or societies, is a shameful thing as well. You can have money, but you can’t talk about it. This leads people to make choices with their money that are not ideal. There is no one for them to discuss financial matters with- except, again, possibly unscrupulous money people.
In personal finance communities- Facebook groups, Reddit groups, etc., there are constant comments of “there is no one in real life I can talk to about this” or “I’ve finally found someone to talk to about this in this group.” there is a sense of relief that comes when sharing information with other people. the problem is that even in these types of groups, shame keeps many from revealing certain mistakes that they have made, or they feel the need to defend the financial choices they have made. “I have a lot of student debt- but I was young and didn’t know better!” there is a need to defend yourself from strangers cutting and shaming remarks.
Shame is an issue in our society around so many topics: parenting, weight, sex, etc., which keeps people from getting the help they need or asking the right questions. By removing the emotion out of money, we can talk about it without feeling scared or ashamed. Making a mistake with money should be no different than tripping when running. It happens. Mistakes happen. People make bad choices. People don’t know to make better choices. When we approach a topic without judgment, then we can have better discussions.
Financial literacy in schools is critical, and many schools do have great programs that teach and discuss financial matters. However, even this can be a minefield if not approached appropriately.
When dealing with generational poverty, it’s important to make kids know that they do not need to feel shame about their family’s’ circumstances or choices. Additionally, when they (hopefully!) start doing better, they need to navigate their new reality without making others feel bad or less than. Ideally, we should celebrate financial success, but unfortunately, it is often those who feel closest to us who are the most threatened by success. when we talk about these issues and start a communal discussion around money, these issues can be more readily dealt with.
Money is the basis of all we do. Without money, we could not survive. It is also a potent tool that allows us to affect change for ourselves, our community, and the world. Using money to help others is one of the greatest things you can do. Using money to help you live your best life is the point of money.
Why are you feeling guilty about spending money? That is what it is there for. Spending money on the things you value should not be a matter of judgment or shame. We all need to recognize that what is important to us may not be important to someone else, which is okay.
When discussing money and spending becomes less about shame and guilt and more personalized and more matter-of-fact, we can actually help people struggling with bad money choices. When a behavior is normalized, we can see who has an unhealthy relationship with money and actually help them in a way that matters. While we hide these problems under cover of darkness, we cannot help those who genuinely need help. When we focus on someone’s small frivolous expenditure, we cannot focus on the issues that truly matter and truly need fixing.