The 10 Golden Rules of Money Etiquette

We know how awkward – and frightening – talking about money can be. Yup, it’s oftentimes considered more taboo to chit chat about the “M” word than about sex and politics.

While shooting the hay about your job may be less anxiety-inducing than your debt situation, having convos about financial matters is super important.

Yet, as the saying goes, “there’s a time and place for everything.” If not well-timed or in the proper context, chatting about finances can simply create tension. To avoid socially awkward situations, money faux paus, or full-on blow-ups, here are the 10 golden rules of money etiquette:

1. Thou shall not inquire about one’s debt during family functions

 That’s right. No meddling about Uncle Harold’s outstanding credit card balance or cousin Ave’s student debt load in front of spectators at a 4th of July grill-out or during Thanksgiving dinner.

Or even worse, it’s probably not a good idea to start a convo about how much debt is owed to you. What’ll most likely happen? Probably nothing productive. Instead, you’ll probably painfully endure mad-dog glances for the duration of the meal.  

What to do instead: If a family member’s debt involves you (can you say authorized user, or long-overdue loan?) carve out some private time to suss things out. If the person is in a bad financial situation, see if you can talk to him one-on-one about how to build solid credit card habits. But tread carefully! You don’t want to set off any landmines.

2. Thou shall not ask to split the bill afterward.

Does this sound like a likely scenario? You’re enjoying a lovely patio brunch with some pals. Your meal companions order double espressos, bottomless mimosas, while your frugal self meagerly gulps on tap water. When the check drops, your friends say they’re too tipsy to do math, and suggest splitting the bill evenly. You know, for the sake of convenience.

What to do instead: Oy vey, this is one of my personal pet peeves. Figure out the payment sitch beforehand. Otherwise, you’ll be tasked to be the “uptight one” who wants to divvy up the bill according to what each person ordered. Note that you may be expected to be the one that has to calculate the tab. This is far better than paying more than you budgeted. You can also decide ahead of time to use an app to split the tab. Easy peasy.

3. Thou shall not text about serious money matters with your partner.

This is a money faux paus I’ve ashamed to admit to. This happens when I’m feeling particularly brave and resolute about having “a talk” on budgeting or how to best split bills. I’ll then send my partner a mini-novella of a text. In turn, he gets agitated or feels blindsided. A likely reply: Let’s discuss IRL.

What to do instead: It’s simply not in good taste to bombard your partner with long-winded texts about serious money topics. Instead, carve out some time to discuss spending habits or your financial future. It doesn’t have to involve a five-course dinner. You can chat en route to the supermarket, or during an evening walk around the neighborhood. Just make sure it gets done.

4. Thou shall not outright ask about another’s salary.

While discussing salaries isn’t always a social no-no, it’s deemed outright rude to ask someone how much she earns. Why? It can easily lead to feelings of inadequacy, or cause your friend to go into “compare and despair” mode.

What to do instead: If you suspect you make more than your friends and family, it’s easy to be the one mouthing off about how much you take home. It’s quite a different story if your friend earns more than you. But please, don’t be the clueless one who lives in a self-absorbed, more financially-astute than-thou bubble.

If you’re dying to talk salary, start by broaching topics with lighthearted money topics. For instance, mention a great deal you nabbed at a sample sale. Or how you’re trying to cut back on eating out. Or… you might even start out with a general discussion on career planning or investing in your professional life. Then feel things out, and take it from there.

5. Thou shall not hide important financial information.

If you have outstanding debt, or made a money boo-boo in your younger years, you’ll need to let the cat out of the bag eventually. You loved ones deserve to know the truth. Plus, remaining silent is a borderline act of financial infidelity, and can lead to feelings of hurt and betrayal.

What to do instead: Be upfront with those who could be negatively impacted by information you don’t share. Otherwise, this may just lead to more problems down the line.

6. Thou shall not ask for one’s credit score on a first date.

…Or net worth for that matter. A relative of mine once had his date ask him what tax bracket he fell into. The proper response? “None o’ your business.” You’ll probably want to make sure you have similar interests and values before prodding about someone’s net worth. Just sayin’.

What to do instead: As you know, talking about money matters is a super sensitive topic. When you’re just getting to know someone, you want to be extra careful. When on a date, I’ve learned to look for subtle cues on how my date manages money. Granted, as a personal finance writer, many times my date will outright express an interest in money management or flat-out admit they’re terrible with money. It’s a start, and will lead to more serious discussions as the relationship progresses.

7. Thou shall not ask for money during a friend’s birthday.

Sad but true: I have been guilty of this. Granted, I was a broke college student at the time. My good friend checked out some books at the university library using my card. He lost them during a bad breakup, and I was fined three hundred dollars.

On his birthday, I brought up the topic and suggested coming up with a repayment plan. The lighthearted chit chat in the room dramatically faded into dead silence. #majorfail

What to do instead: Approach the situation with kid gloves. In private. You really don’t know what is going on in the other person’s life. My friend eventually paid part of it of back, only to have his car towed, and he needed the moola to get his car back. We were both riding the broke student train. While three hundos was nothing to scoff at, especially at a time when I subsided on mac and cheese, I realized it was best to just let it go.

8. Thou shall not push your frugality on another person.

Yup, this was former me. I used to assess people’s capacity for frugality with a harsh, critical stare. And just like how some youngins would only choose friends who drove certain cars and carried certain brands of handbags, I picked my friends based on how good they were at scouting a killer deal.

What to do instead: While hanging out with frugal folks can help you stick to your budget, it’s also great to have friends with different money philosophies and habits. It’ll not only help you be more open-minded and compassionate, but you’ll build your resistance to FOMO.

9. Thou shall not judge others on their money decisions.

There’s no point in harshly judging others on how and why they spend their money. People have varying relationships with money, mindsets, and ways of being. Just because you may decide to do something differently doesn’t mean what they’re doing is plain wrong.

What to do instead: If you really want to help others with their finances, be the cheerleader or accountability buddy they need in their life. Only help out if they ask for it. Sure, you’ll want to tout the benefits of auto-transferring a portion of your paycheck, or saving for an emergency fund. But, put a lid on it – for the time being. Otherwise, you’ll come off as intrusive, which will just lead to ill feelings of resentment.

10. Thou shall not debt shame.

Debt shaming can feel just as bad as looking down on someone who doesn’t have a lot of money. You just don’t know what kind of situation someone is in, and what factors led them to their current state of affairs. Debt can create a lot of stress, anxiety and depression.

What to do instead: Be a pal. If someone shares tales of debt woes, nod and commiserate. Offer up resources and tips if you think it would be useful.

Bottom Line

Stick to these golden rules of money etiquette, and I assure you, you’ll be a well-regarded money nerd. It sure beats being the insensitive, out-of-touch one who just doesn’t get it and is privy to an eyeroll – or two. Trust me, your relationships and social life will be better off for it.

 

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