I've had more than a few people ask me if there's a bright side to our bleak economy. Is it that retailers are having more sales? Or that people are learning to buckle down, pay off debt and get some money in the bank for a rainy day?
I think all of the above is true, but I'd like to add one more silver lining to the list as well: This recession has the potential to crank open the lines of communication when it comes to money.
Don't get me wrong. The subject is still fairly taboo in our society. It's not acceptable dinner-party conversation to ask someone what their salary is, or how much they have invested for retirement. And I'm not sure it ever will be.
But because we're all pretty much in the same boat -- most people are losing money these days, whether in the stock market or because of a layoff -- talking about these struggles may start to become a little bit easier.
"In a way, there's this sense that people are not necessarily as in your face with the things that they're buying. Even when you look at the news, the theme is to use what you have. People don't feel like they're in this alone, which can be very helpful," explains Robi Ludwig, a New York City psychotherapist.
Still, we're going to have to work to get there. Most of us were taught at an early age that, like sex, money was not to be discussed. Turn on any television channel during primetime, though, and you'll quickly see that we've long since gotten over our issues with sex. Why not take this opportunity to tackle money?
-- Start small. In this case, that means working on your own issues first. Trust me, you have them, even if you can't pinpoint them right away. "Money is so wrapped up in self-esteem, which makes it a very private thing. We relate our salary or our income to our place in the world," says Hilary Black, editor of the new book, The Secret Currency of Love, a collection of essays written by women about money and the effect it has on their relationships. You may be basing a portion of your self-worth on your bank account balance without even realizing it. Instead, try to pinpoint the things that make you feel fulfilled free of charge, along with your positive qualities that have no bearing on your wallet. Write them down, if it helps, and stick the list on your fridge.
-- Remember that you're not alone. "Regardless of their level of income, everyone feels uncomfortable talking about their own finances, across the board. It's not necessarily based on what we have or don't have," says Ludwig. I'd even take that a step further and say that the opposite is true as well: Everyone, regardless of their financial state, would feel better if they could air their money fears once in a while. Money is a hugely stressful topic, and it takes a toll on your mental -- and often physical -- health if you keep your feelings bottled up inside. Realizing that you have some common ground with others can give you the confidence you need to raise the topic.
-- Do a little research. This may sound superficial because there are deeper issues here than vocabulary, but knowing a little bit about the subject can't hurt. A lot of people feel like personal finance consists of an entirely different language. If you tend to shy away from participating in money discussions because you're scared of embarrassing yourself, pick up a personal finance magazine or turn on CNBC once in a while. At the start, it may seem completely foreign, but you'll start to absorb the information. It's not going to morph you into a day trader, but when the topic of credit cards comes up, you'll feel like you're standing on steady ground.
-- Take a time out. Gratitude is huge here. We live in a culture that highlights the desire to have more, no matter how much we already have. "We're almost fed messages that we're deprived, that we need the next best thing, and if you can disconnect from that, you'll be able to take stock of how lucky you are for what you already have," says Ludwig. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, give a donation to a cause you support, or just simply look around you because often, jealousy is what holds us back from having the money talks. If you're comfortable with what you have and who you are, you'll automatically be more comfortable talking about your finances.
-- Work your way up. No one expects you to walk up to a stranger and announce your salary, or strike up a money conversation at the next party. But if you and your spouse struggle when talking about your bank accounts, or your friends always sidestep financial discussions, see if you can start jimmying open the lines of communication. It's OK to say that you don't know how to approach the subject, but it's something you want to discuss. If you hit a wall -- either with yourself or with the other person -- remind yourself that you're tackling a huge obstacle, and keep trying.
Note: Did you know that many cell-phone carriers charge 20 cents per text message if you don't have a package included in your plan? That means sending four messages a day could cost more than $200 a year. Use the calculator on myrateplan.com (www.myrateplan.com/text_messaging/) to make sure you're not overspending. Or, call your carrier and ask what kind of plan you need to keep that spending in check.