Forgive me while I break a writing rule and employ a cliché: Knowledge is power. You knew that, right? Then why do you refuse to talk about money?
Talking about the nitty-gritty of your financial life is one of the most empowering things you can do for your career. Sharing salary information with colleagues arms you with information you can use to negotiate pay, set goals and learn about the market. Talking about take-home with friends who work in other industries gives you a sense of what people of equal smarts and hustle feel they’re worth. One of the tenets of business is that a product—or service—is worth only what the market will pay for it. How do you know what you can earn if you don’t have a clue about the marketplace?
The only way to learn about this marketplace is to talk to other human beings about money. Specific details about money. I know, talking about money is certainly considered impolite in most circumstances. I venture to say it is the last taboo. I can think of no other topic that is still off the table in nearly all social and even professional circumstances. I find that people speak more freely about the inner workings of their marriages, sex and sexuality, religion and politics than their salary, net profits or investment balances.
Let’s break the cycle and speak up.
1. Share first. I make it routine to share financial information–even if I don’t have an agenda for learning someone else’s. I may casually mention how much I paid for my apartment, or the interest rate I got on my car loan if it works naturally into the conversation. This helps to establish rules for money talk, and puts others at ease about opening up to me.
2. Pay attention to stress points. I learned a lesson about writing long ago: if it makes you uncomfortable to write something – or, in the case of a reporter, to ask a source a question – that is where to good stuff lies. If I find myself holding back or squirming over money topics, that means there is some powerful information at stake. It is in these moments when I push myself to break through the discomfort and share.
3. Ask. I recently had lunch with a new colleague. While merrily chatting about contracts over poached salmon salad, I casually asked, “So, how much are you getting for that kind of work these days?” She responded with equal ease. Be courteous, and keep a light tone that allows for the other person to politely decline to share.
4. Act normal. Don’t pad your money talk with embarrassment or shame. Avoid disclaimers like, “If you don’t mind me asking…” or “Don’t tell anyone, but…” or “I promise this is between the two of us.” Instead, just state the figures as facts. “I got $10,000 for that project.” Or, “I have $15,000 in credit card debt.” Try: “How much is that client paying?” or, simply: “How much did you pay for your sofa?” You may be pleasantly surprised by how candid, normal and relieved your friends and colleagues are in return. Because if you want to know, they certainly want to know, too.
I recently had a fantastic revelation that could not have happened if dollar figures were not revealed. A business coach I know mentioned a client – a coach herself – who bills $400,000 each year. Holy smokes! According to this client’s website, this young woman was adorable and quirky (not unlike me, right?) and I began to think more critically about my own early notions of launching a coaching business. All my negative thoughts about such an enterprise (it’s a service business model I want to avoid in an industry flooded with hacks) suddenly went out the window and I allowed myself to dream about my own endless potential.
A second example: An established author friend shared with me her latest book advance: $30,000. She also shared her frustration of not owning rights to her own material, which has lacked marketing support from the publisher and as a result sold poorly, which has all but destroyed her ability to land subsequent book deals. Then last week I read an article by an opinionated blogger (not unlike me, right?) James Altucher who details how he successfully earned many times my friend’s advance in the first month of publication by self-publishing his work.
If my friend had merely complained in broad terms about a lousy publishing contract, she would have sounded like every grumpy writer who has lived in the past 300 years. And if Altucher had merely bragged about his outrageous writing success, he would have sounded just like every egotistical writer who has lived in the past 300 years. But with hard dollar figures to support their cases, these two professionals made strong points for their cases–and strongly informed my next professional steps.