When Financial Talk Turns Personal


Recently, my family needed a new vehicle. I’ve always wanted a truck, and I knew we would get tons of use out of it. Could I have found a cheaper vehicle? Sure. But I knew we could afford the truck, so after lots of careful thought, we decided to buy it.

Anytime I make a major purchase, I end up feeling insecure about it, and this was no exception. Not long after buying the truck, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. When he saw the new truck, he said: “Wow, Carl! Things must be going really well for you at work!”

For some reason, this comment really bothered me. This one little statement completely hijacked my mood and sent me down an emotional roller coaster.

Perhaps you have been through this before. Maybe you are going on the trip of a lifetime, which by definition would mean you may never be able to do it again. Your family has been working and saving for this trip for a very long time. Could you spend the money somewhere else? Perhaps pay down your mortgage or save for retirement? Yeah, of course you could. But this is one of those experiences you know your family will remember forever.

As the trip gets closer, you share your travel plans with a friend, who says something to the effect of, “Wow, I wish we could afford a trip like that.” Then you walk away feeling a downward spiral of insecurity and doubt about how you chose to spend your money or shame about how you made someone else feel. It may consume you for days. It may consume you for months. It may even ruin your trip.

I know, because I’ve experienced it. I’ve also recently heard similar stories from a number of friends. And my sense is that this problem will only become worse as our reliance upon digital communication increases. We’ve all learned that when we communicate via text, comment on Facebook or “like” something on Instagram, it lacks the emotional context that we get from face-to-face communication. It makes it even easier to misinterpret something somebody says. So more and more, we are left wondering what to do with the things that people say to us that have something to do with our choices about money.

So back up and dissect this. The first thing to remember is that other people have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. This is a lesson I keep repeating to myself: People don’t know your financial situation. They are making assumptions based on some outward appearance.

Using the trip as an example, they may assume you are putting the whole thing on a credit card. But the reality could be something completely different. Maybe a rich aunt just gave you $10,000 specifically for you to use on a family vacation. Or perhaps you are using three years’ worth of accumulated frequent-flier miles.

The point is that they don’t know, and even if they did, it’s none of their business. We shouldn’t forget to turn the lesson back on ourselves and remember that it’s none of our business what they’re doing with their money, either.

The second thing to remember is that it’s all about them. Often what people say about you, particularly when it comes to money, is more a reflection of their own mental states than an accurate commentary about you or how you live. If they are insecure about their own situations, often that will be reflected in what they say. I don’t mention this to give you ammunition to judge them; I say it to remind you that it’s not about you. It’s about them. Just let it go.

The last thing to remember is to give people the benefit of the doubt. What if anytime people say something that hijacks our emotions, we simply remind ourselves that they did not mean it that way? We know they did not really mean it that way, because they can’t mean it that way. In order to mean it that way, they would have to know what they were talking about. To know what they were talking about, they would have to be us.

The reality is that these comments have no bearing on the soundness of our own financial decisions. You wouldn’t decide to invest in a stock based on what somebody from one of the financial pornography networks is yelling at you, right? So why would you allow uninformed comments from friends and strangers to affect the way you spend your money? My suggestion is that you don’t.

This commentary originally appeared January 11 on NYTimes.com

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