There's an old saying about never discussing politics and religion in polite company, as the company may not get so polite when opinions differ on both issues.
Yet when it comes to taboo topics of public discussion, government and God don't hold a candle with personal finances (especially around the holidays, when spending is more aggressive.) A 2014 study by Wells Fargo notes that religion, politics, personal health and even death are preferred topics of discussion among Americans over money. "Nearly half of Americans say the most challenging topic to discuss with others is personal finances (44%), whereas death (38%), politics (35%), religion (32%), taxes (21%), and personal health (20%) rank as less difficult," notes a Wells Fargo's Financial Health study.
While it's great to see loved ones during the Christmas season, expect some hostility if you bring up any dollar-based discussions. In a more recent study by Midvale, Utah-based Ally Bank, 70% of Americans believe it's "rude or inappropriate to discuss personal money matters in a social setting."
Nevertheless, while the holidays are a natural time for family and friends who haven't seen much of each other to gather around the table and partake in the cheer, there can be a tendency to launch into awkward discussions about personal finances, particularly spending and debt. The reasons are clear: with everyone in place, it can be a convenient time to address estate planning matters for an elderly relative or tap into the collective mind-hive for advice.
"Budgeting, saving and spending are important lifelong activities, and we wanted to explore whether these topics are part of the conversations people have during social gatherings for the upcoming holidays and beyond," says Diane Morais, CEO and president of the Ally Bank subsidiary. "What we found is that when people do discuss finances socially, nearly one half of our survey respondents said they prefer to keep it neutral - for example, talking about price comparisons on goods and services, or where to find a better interest rate on a savings account."
In a twist, Ally states a clear majority of Americans don't mind mentioning their incomes to family and friends around the holidays, while 62% actually want to surround themselves with peers who are "financially secure."
Money issues are taboo, especially if they veer toward the problematic in need of rectification. "People don't like to be told they have money problems," says Nobby Kleinman, a Melbourne, Australia resident and creator of Money Rules FX, a consumer debt reduction program. "They like to think they have worked money issues out for themselves."
If you want to "go there" anyway, just make sure you have your own financial house in order first, Kleinman says. "Only once you have your own money under control do you have any right to advise others how to do it," he says.
Also, if you really feel compelled to discuss money with family and friends this holiday season, have a good reason - a very good reason.
"Before you begin any money conversations with your family, be clear about your why," says Michelle Jackson, a personal finance and lifestyle blogger and host of the Girl Gone Frugal podcast. "Why is it now the time to talk about money? Are you having troubles with your finances? Are you concerned about your a family member's finances? Once you're clear about your 'why,' be careful about putting your relatives on the defensive. Think baby steps, then as people get comfortable with having money conversations continue to move your family to where you would like the conversation to eventually end."
If you're on the receiving end, and want to pull away from a negative financial conversation, speak with clarity to curb any more financial talk. "It depends on your role in the conversation," Jackson says. "If you're the one with the money problem in the family then you might need to ask your friends and family for a bit of a break from talking about finances so that you have time to get some clarity on where you stand financially and can re-engage in the conversation. Or, just firmly call a money time out for the holidays similar to the 'no politics at the table' rule."
To better engage your viewpoint on any family personal finance discussion, break the ice by quoting a respected financial expert, like Dave Ramsey on debt, or Warren Buffet on investing, says John Pugliano, host of the WealthSteading podcast.
"And if you really want to end a family discussion about money, ask if you can borrow some - that's a sure way to end any conversation," says Pugliano.