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Not that long ago it was taboo to speak about money in public. But now, as with so many other things, talking about money has become more acceptable. I hear it all the time. Friends have asked me what kind of debt we have, wanting me to break it down into car payments, credit cards, and mortgages. (When I said, “None,” one friend got huffy and said, “Well, if you don’t want to tell us that’s fine, but don’t lie.”)

At a party a few weeks ago, someone that I didn’t know asked me, upon hearing that we owned a motor home said, “That must have set you back a pretty penny.” “How much?” Extended family members routinely ask us how much we spend on travel and how we can afford to travel so often. A neighbor, upon hearing that we were going on vacation yet again, outright asked how much we make to be able to travel so often. Sometimes this is friendly conversation, but at the root of it is a need to evaluate and compare your worth against others.

It’s this evaluation and competition that makes talking about money problematic. I’ve always felt that money is one of those topics that, no matter what you say or how you say it, there’s bound to be a problem. If someone is asking you about your debt, chances are they’re looking to feel better about their own debt level. So if you say you have none, they feel bad if they have a lot. If you say you have a lot of debt and the other person has very little, they feel superior, but now you feel crummy.

If someone asks you how much you spent on something there’s a chance they may just be genuinely curious about how much something costs, but your answer may brand you as either cheap or an overspender. When people ask you how much you make, your answer may make the other person feel superior to you or much worse off than you.

It’s always seemed to me that there’s no way to talk about money without putting someone in a “down” position. It’s for that reason that I adhere to the old-fashioned belief that talking about money is inappropriate. Even among family and close friends you should watch what you say. But that view is apparently the minority these days.

With more and more people feeling free to ask about and discuss money issues publicly, what can you do if, like me, you don’t want to talk about it? You could always be rude and ignore the other person or come up with a smart aleck answer (”How much did you pay for that TV? Not as much as you paid for that hideous car.” Or, “Well, you know things don’t seem to cost as much since we started selling our kidneys.). Or you could simply lie and tell the other person what you think they want to hear or something that will freak them out. (”Yes, it was expensive, but only a fraction of the twenty-million dollars I made last year, thank you.) But if you want to be better mannered, here are some approaches you can take.

Simply say you aren’t comfortable discussing your finances and then change the subject

Saying something like, “Thanks for asking, but I’d rather not say. By the way, how did you like that Batman movie?” There’s nothing wrong with simply saying you don’t want to talk about it, and by changing the subject you discourage the person from asking again.

Be evasive

If you don’t want to come right out and say you don’t want to talk about it, you can try evasive action. If someone asks, “How much did you spend on that plasma TV?” you can reply with something along the lines of, “More than I wanted to, but it had all the features we needed,” or, “Less than I thought I would. I got a great deal.” You’re not disclosing anything about how much (or little) you actually paid, but you are answering the question in an indirect way. If the person on the other end is at all astute, they’ll realize this is the only answer they’re likely to get and move on.

Try to teach them manners

If someone asks, “How much debt do you have?” you can reply, “You know, I’ve always felt that money is like religion and politics. It’s better left out of polite conversation,” and then change the subject. If you’re lucky, they’ll pick up on the notion that this isn’t something that some people want to freely discuss and refrain from asking in the future.

Answer a question with a question

If someone asks, “How much do you make?” you can always reply, “Why do you ask?” This puts the focus on the other person to come up with a good reason for asking, beyond voyeuristic curiosity. Maybe they want to know because they’re looking for a job in your field. If that’s the case you can always say, “Well, people starting out in my field make $X and the most advanced make $Y. You haven’t divulged your exact salary, but you’ve answered the other person’s question. If they can’t give you a good reason for wanting to know, then you can simply resort to tactic number one.

Try humor

If someone asks how much you make, you can say, “Well, not enough to be rich, but too much to be poor,” or, “Enough to impress my mother who never thought I’d amount to anything.” You’re letting the other person know you’ve heard them, but you’re deflecting the question with a little humor rather than rudeness.

Refer them to the public record

If someone asks how much you paid for your house, or how much your tax burden is, you can say, “If you want to know, the records are publicly available in the tax office.” Things like home prices and taxes are all public records, available to anyone who wants to look. Chances are, your questioner won’t want to know badly enough to look it up so the subject will drop without you having to say anything more.

Stand your ground

Don’t let someone guilt or bully you into talking about things you don’t want to talk about. If you find yourself stuck in this conversation: “I told you how much we make so now you have to tell me how much you make,” you can reply, “I didn’t ask you how much you make, you volunteered that information and I’d rather not talk about it.”

If you’re the one doing the asking, here’s some advice. Understand that it’s fine to talk about money in a general sense. If you want to talk about how the cost of gas is rising or interest rates are declining, those are fair topics because you’re discussing current events rather than someone’s personal business. But when the talk turns to personal matters — individual salaries, purchase prices, debt levels, etc. — it’s time to think about how the questions sound and are being received by the other person. You don’t want to come across as pushy, voyeuristic, or as if you’re competing with the other person or looking to judge them. If you’re the one asking questions, stop if the other person seems uncomfortable or unwilling to pursue it. Remember that it really isn’t your business and think about how you would feel if someone were probing into your private business.

When it comes to talking about money, the best rule is to stick to generalities. If both parties are willing to take the discussion into personal territory, proceed with caution. It’s perfectly fine to refuse to discuss it and you shouldn’t talk about things you’re uncomfortable with in the name of “friendship.” There are mannerly ways to deal with unwanted conversation, but if someone is oblivious to your attempts to end the conversation, you may have to get rude and simply say, “It’s none of your business.”

-J. Derrick
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