Month-to-Month Special: What’s Up with Money Shame?

Whether your paycheque is high, low or right in the middle, many of us feel sheepish about what we earn. An expert tells us why.

August 29, 2017

By Tessa Vikander

We first started profiling regular Vancouverites for our Month-to-Month series as a way to lift money talk out of hushed, private conversations and into the bright social world. In a city where affordability dominates every facet of life, the series is a snapshot of real life for real people—something we hope helps our readers put their lives, and finances, in perspective. Month-to-Month is a fan favourite. It nearly always ranks as the top story on our site, but wow, is it ever hard to find brave souls willing to open up about their financial reality. The reason? Money shame.

In the time that I’ve been writing this column I’ve done everything I can to make it easy to participate. I’ve created an online sign up process, shamelessly reposted my call out on social media, asked everyone I know if they’re game to participate, or to ask their friends on my behalf. I’ve had fewer than 10 people step up to the plate. Two people pulled out of the process early on after their spouse objected to them being public about their low income. Another two people scheduled interviews with me, and pulled out last minute, one citing that she wasn’t ready to tell people how little she earns.

Ironically, it’s the high earners who get skewered online. People were offended when we profiled a couple who each work 50-plus hours per week, and collectively earn $150,000 a year, which, in a city with an exorbitant cost of living, really isn’t all that much—especially if you’re raising a kid. They were judged, harshly, for not saving enough and spending too much. Similarly, a lawyer who earns $110,000 a year (that’s normal, if not low for a lawyer) was mocked because she had essentially inherited a home, and didn’t pay rent.

Joanna and Chris took a lot of online criticism for the way they spent their $8,700 a month.

That kind of response likely explains why high income earners are also reluctant to tell us about their income and spending. It’s as if there’s a certain shame in doing well in a city where many people struggle.

Meanwhile, our low income earners get sympathy, as if scraping by is morally superior. Obviously I’m glad they aren’t roasted. Being poor often means necessities get sacrificed. I’ve seen it up close, and it’s not fun. But all of this has given me some insight into how we value and interpret money in Vancouver. My general sense is that it’s desirable, but seen as morally reprehensible to be wealthy. And shameful, but morally superior to be low income (even though many people who consider themselves “low income” are actually closer to median earners). It’s a pretty stark difference to cities like Calgary or Toronto, where making big bucks and keeping up with the Joneses is part of the culture and money shame takes on a whole different tone.

I wanted to figure out why it’s so hard for us to talk about money. So I reached out to Hiro Boga, a writer and business mentor who counsels people on their relationship with money to get her take on why it’s so hard for us to open up about what we earn and where it goes.

The Social System of Money

The backbone of money shame, says Boga, is that many people think their financial situation is a direct result of their actions.

“Part of the shame around money, and the identification [of] money [with] status and worth comes from believing that your relationship with money is a direct result of what you single handedly do,” she says. “The reality is that we’re all operating within multiple [economic and social] systems that govern and regulate the flow of money…that determine who has a leg up on that ladder and who doesn’t. What pathways are available to people to increase their wealth, what systemic causes exist that [make] poverty multigenerational in nature.”

I agree. Class is definitely a determining factor in our financial realities.

Although Boga recognizes that how much a person is willing to work can influence how much money they have, she says it’s not the be all and end all. That rings true for me, a middle class millennial Vancouverite. According to a 2015 study, the average millennial household of two people (25 to 34 years old) earned $72,291, the second lowest of any city in the country. Nonetheless, Vancouver surpassed Toronto this year to become the most expensive place to live in Canada.

Annie and Mike got accolades for managing to live on $3,000 a month with a newborn.

Taking a look around at luxury shops and multimillion dollar homes in Vancouver, we see myriad ways in which money is used a status symbol. But money, especially in today’s world is also a marker of personal safety, says Boga.

“Money is such a signifier of provision and support,” she says. “We are a culture in which there is no longer an extended network of family and friends who can provide when people are ill or when they’re vulnerable or when they’re elderly. And as a culture we haven’t done enough to take care of the people who are most vulnerable.”

Money Shame is Everywhere

Money shame comes from our own self-judgment as well as judgment from others, says Boga, and social media makes it so easy to judge others—often without getting the full picture. (Month-to-Month for example, only shows a 30-day period of spending and saving—it’s far from the full spectrum of savings, debts, inheritances and investments that make up an entire financial strategy.)

In my own life, I’ve witnessed people talk about the internalized shame of poverty. It is undoubtedly deep and painful. But Boga says money shame isn’t limited to those with less. In fact, when a person with a social conscience is earning or has more than they need and sees others who are without food and shelter, they may feel ashamed of their earnings or lifestyle. I have a sneaking suspicion that’s why it’s so hard to get higher earners to talk about their income in this city, where struggling is part of the mainstream narrative. Similarly, if they’re the first in their family to own a home or have a career, Boga says some people may feel that their financial success is a rejection of their roots.

Tim was by far our lowest earner—living in a van on just $1,000 a month. Our online audience gave his financial management mixed reviews.

How someone feels about their wealth, or lack thereof, “all depends on what their belief system is and what their values are and…whether what they earn and how they spend their money is congruent with their values,” says Boga. “If you believe that everybody should have the basic necessities of life and you have homes in three different places and you travel by private jet then you’re doing things that are not congruent with your value system and some part of you is going to be ashamed,” she says.

But finding congruence only tackles internal shame. That doesn’t do much to stem the tide of never-ending judgment from others when we talk about money.

How to Shed Money Shame

Boga says part of moving beyond money shame requires cultivating an awareness of the ways we mistakenly conflate our own financial situation with our identity or personal worth. “When we make those conscious it allows us to have a much cleaner, clearer relationship with money that’s based on our own values,” she says.

As for how I think we can end money shame? I think we need to talk about it more. We exist within a messy capitalist system that is designed to define us based on what we earn. But we don’t have to buy into that. When I was a kid I asked a friend how much money she had in her bank account. Her mom scolded me and said I should never ask anyone that question. That response didn’t make sense to me. It still doesn’t: by opening up the conversation about what money really is—a number—maybe we can regain some power over it.

View more in this series here ▸▸▸


Month-To-Month is a regular series that looks into the finances of Vancouverites of all backgrounds and all incomes. Are you brave enough to let us peer inside your wallet? Sign up here or email tessavikander@gmail.com for a chance to be featured on vanmag.com!

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