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Break the Taboo: Talk with Your Peers about Money

Why and how grad students should talk about money.

April 27, 2015

Emily Roberts received a PhD in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 2014. She is the founder of the websites Grad Student Finances, PhD Stipends, and Evolving Personal Finance. Connect on Twitter with @GradFinances.

Traditionally, there have been certain topics that were off-limits for dinner table conversation. The prohibitions against discussing sex, politics, and religion have largely fallen away, but in many pockets of our society the money taboo persists. Over the past several years, I have fought against the money taboo among my grad school peers, and in return have experienced financial and relational benefits.

I encourage you to begin or continue discussing money with your peers for the following reasons:

1) Take advantage of your own malleability.

One major upside to discussing finances as a young person is that you don’t yet have deeply ingrained habits around money—or at least not as deep as they will be in a few decades! As you are trying to figure out your own relationship with money, you can learn from the best practices of those willing to share theirs with you. Grad students are by and large not locked in to large financial commitments (such as expensive cars and homes) and have the flexibility to change as they gain new information.

2) The information you get from your peers is the most relevant.

The internet has bountiful resources on how to manage your money well—so bountiful as to be overwhelming at times (Google “frugal tips” and find hundreds on just the first results page). When you talk with people who live in the same city, have the same employer, and have a similar lifestyle as you do, the information they impart is as relevant for your situation as it can get. This could be anything from a benefit you didn’t know you had to a tip on a discount retailer to a new-to-you money management strategy. When you discuss money with your peers, you can find mentors all around you and be a mentor yourself.

3) Expose “the Joneses.”

I hope that none of us are comparing our lifestyles to those of our college classmates who got jobs instead of going to grad school—that’s a game you just can’t win. But it may be the case that your jealousy has been kindled by some of your own peers’ apparent spending habits. When you are open to talking about money with your peers, you can find out the real story behind those shared photos, which is likely to dampen your envy.

4) Grow closer by discussing your values.

The biggest reason I like talking about money with people is that money is really a stand-in for our own individual life values. How you choose to use your money reflects your priorities. When my friends and I are open about our money with one another, we are learning what really matters most to the other person, and that spurs us to grow closer (even when we disagree).

Get the conversation started.

Money can be a difficult subject to broach for the first time with a friend. Two baby steps to take toward breaking the taboo are to share something from your own financial life and to ask for advice. Focus your icebreaker on yourself so your friend doesn’t feel as if she is under the microscope. For example, when communicating a spending decision, share your reasoning as well as the final yea or nay. Instead of just rhetorically complaining about pain points in your finances, ask your friend if she has found a good solution in her own life.

When you bring up money for the first time, be especially attuned to your friend’s facial expressions and body language. If he subtly communicates that he is offended, uncomfortable, or bored, change the topic and steer clear for a while!

We have so many superficial conversations with one another. Why not take a chance on a topic through which you may learn something really practical, improve your balance sheet, and deepen a friendship?

Do you discuss money with your peers, and if so what outcomes have you experienced? What keeps you from discussing money more openly?
[Image by by F. // Chicca // K. Silva and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]


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