Plenty of us feel totally comfortable talking with our close friends about almost every topic—sex, parenting, even politics. But what about money? In many cases, finances are the final conversational frontier among friends. While many old-school cultural taboos have been broken or at least softened, the stigma surrounding money talk remains—and it's a cultural norm that could actually be robbing women of the very conversations we need to improve our finances.
"You can be embarrassed if you have too little, or embarrassed if you have too much," says Diana Machado, who runs a business in Canada to help women find financial community. "There's no easy outlet to reach out and say, 'I need to talk about finances.'"
Conversations about how to earn money and manage it are important in a world that still undervalues women's labor and financial education. Yet many women find themselves uncomfortable bringing up even the topics of salary or earnings (not to mention discussing financial hardships and discrimination) among friends, especially if they were taught growing up never to ask someone how much they make.
For Machado, these taboos were part of the culture shock she experienced moving to North America from the Azores, a cluster of islands off the coast of Portugal. During her childhood there, she experienced the opposite.
"When I was growing up, everyone in our community knew our financial circumstances," says Machado. "My mom would always have women around her who were all in the same boat and understood what we were going through."
At that time, it was typical for men to be the family breadwinners, which Machado explains made financial stability—while feeding the family on one income—difficult. This became especially true when Machado's father began spending an increasing amount of the family budget on alcohol. To make ends meet, Machado's mother turned to her friends, the women in her community, for support.
"My mom would clean houses... They would pay her with food," says Machado of her mothers friends and neighbors. "I loved seeing women supporting each other. I always knew we would never be alone."
It's typical for women in many parts of the world to form communities around money, whether informally, in Machado's case, in formalized rotational savings groups. In Africa, for instance, traditional, female-driven, peer-to-peer savings co-ops—called tontines—see women friends come together to help each other afford emergency expenses or larger risks, such as starting a business.
"In a Rotational Credit and Saving Associations, everyone knows who everyone is. Everyone has a high level of trust in the banker who has brought this group together. Trust is going to fulfill their savings obligation," says Linda Thompson, a professor at Molloy College who has studied Rotational Credit and Saving Associations (ROSCAs).
Without the formal opportunities to talk about money, the subject becomes even more shrouded in secrecy.
When women share finances like this, "everyone knows how much you're saving in the ROSCA. That's a known factor," Thompson explains. She says that while it's possible a member of a ROSCA could be experiencing financial distress and never let anyone know, it's more typical that ROSCA members are proud of their finances and experience less money shame.
"When I was growing up, I would go to the bank with my father, and we would always go to the same teller," says Thompson. "She would say to him, 'Are you saving the usual?' She'd fill out his slip. He didn't even have to tell her, she knew. Since the pandemic hit, I haven't had to go to a bank once."
Without the formal opportunities to talk about money, the subject becomes even more shrouded in secrecy. And, Thompson adds, the "structure of the banking system...basically makes it impersonal."
What can we do to combat the secrecy and the financial unease and shame that comes with it? Talking openly about saving with your friends is a start. And it's a concept Machado has applied to her own work with women in North America who are experiencing money shame.
"Women need to take the step forward and find someone they trust to talk about finances with," she said. "Go to someone you know isn't going to judge you."
Machado took her own advice when getting divorced in her late 20s. Her husband managed their finances, and when she realized he had left her with significant debt, she knew she needed to break through the stigma and talk to her friends.
"I was so embarrassed. I thought they would look at me like I was dumb. But, I opened up to a coworker who helped me formulate a plan to become debt-free," she said.
Now Machado focuses much of her energy on paying it forward by acting as a mentor to women in similar circumstances. She recommends finding a money mentor among your friends—someone with whom you can talk openly about your finances, including how much you're spending, saving, and earning.
"As women, we talk about almost everything else," she said. "It's time to break the stigma and start talking about money."