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Money Manners: What To Say When Friends — or Mom and Dad — Ask About Your Money

Yes, we live in a time when we’re used to sharing every little detail about ourselves on Facebook. But some things, like money, you may still want to keep private. Here’s how (even if your mother is pestering you to disclose what you earn).

What to say friends or parents who are nosy about your moneyA reader recently asked:

I’m sick of my mom asking how much money I make. So far, I’ve been able to just mumble and walk away, but she keeps asking.

My friends are nosy in their own way. I just rented a new apartment, and no one seems to think twice about asking how much I’m paying for it. When I bought a car, everyone wanted to know what I paid. Same goes for some new clothes I bought. After complimenting them and asking where I bought them, the next question is usually, “How much was it?” Isn’t it in poor form for them to be asking those kinds of questions?

I just had a baby. Right now, I know everything about her – from the way her eyebrows furrow in a certain way when she needs her diaper changed to the difference between her “Pick me up, I’m bored” cry and the “I’m hungry, feed me” cry.

Your letter made me realize that I should relish this intimate knowledge of her, because the day will come when she won’t want me to know every little detail of her life.

Keep in mind that your mom is only asking about salary because she was once the ultimate authority on all-things-you, and assumes she still has a right to be. And just because you’re old enough to have your own apartment, doesn’t man mom doesn’t worry about you as much as she did when you were in pre-school.

Jorie Scholnik, an etiquette expert who specializes in the millennial market, agrees. “I like to think of parents asking about income as coming from a place of love — parents want to make sure their children have enough money to enjoy their lives and not stress about putting food on the table and a roof over their heads,” she says. “With that being said, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to share this information with a parent. I would respond by saying something like ‘Don’t worry, mom. I have plenty of money to pay my bills and enjoy my hobbies.’”

Hopefully, your mom will accept your right to privacy. But I could see plenty of moms responding with something like, “I used to change your diapers. You think I don’t deserve to know this about you?” Even though I’m a mom now, I’m going to advocate keeping this topic off limits. Don’t take the path of least resistance and tell the truth.

Why? Because the truth may freak her out, and only increase her worry about your financial security. After all, salaries today aren’t what they used to be. Last year, economic analyst Robert Reich found that the median middle class salary is $51,017. In 1999, the median middle class salary was $56,080. And during that time, just about everything  got more expensive.

The more mom worries, the more annoyed you’ll get with her. A University of Florida study found that when parents worry too much about their adult children, and discuss those worries ad nauseum, the child is more likely to view the parent negatively. The next thing you know, you’ll be avoiding visiting Mom at all.

You don’t need to tell your friends how much you spend either. Jorie says, “Try to brush off the question politely by saying something like, ‘I’m bad with remembering prices.’ As for the apartment, try, ‘I negotiated.’ If someone keeps pressing for the exact amount, I think it is fine to politely say, ‘I don’t want to focus on the price of the apartment.’”

Your friend should get the message loud and clear. And if they really want to know, they can always do some internet sleuthing.

Just keep in mind that your friends may not be asking these questions simply because they’re unabashedly nosy. They’re just used to knowing details about others’ lives. “We live in a time where people share everything on social media,” says Jorie. “People don’t think twice before asking questions even if a topic is still considered private.”

What comebacks do you have for someone who asks you private questions about money?

Published or updated on April 1, 2014

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About Patty Lamberti

Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at www.pattylamberti.com. And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at moneymannersqs@gmail.com.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Happy Camper says:

    Since this is Money Under 30 I will pass a bit of well learned advice. Get a balance view of everything you read. I admire most of what this author has to say on the subject, however, Robert Reich is a Hard Left Liberal. Most liberals love to emphasize any difference in earnings between what someone made 20 or 30 years ago and what they make today. I stongly urge you to resist the temptation to fall into the trap of comparing youself to others or, worse, falling for the class warfare arguments about what the “1%” make and what you make. Worry about your career, your aspirations, and do what you love to do. Not making enough money? Maybe it’s time to reasess what you do or make the trade off between love of career and earnings power.

  2. aaron says:

    I’m with JFP and Sara. All through college, friends shared salaries as they graduated and we all talked so we knew what was reasonable for our field. I think being open about money is one reason some of us are doing better financially than our parents. Knowing about the loans my friends and I are burdened with, we can encourage each other to make wise decisions. It’s similar with retirement plans; if we didn’t talk about finances, we wouldn’t be pushing each other to make responsible decisions for the long term. Obviously, these are personal conversations, not broadcasts.

    And I don’t even see the issue with knowing the price of clothes unless one feels guilty about how much was spent. The same for rent. I tend to think that if someone feels judged for these things it’s either out of guilt or your friends may not be the edifiers you need in your life.

    This sharing is what makes Millennials unique and can put us in a place to learn how to use our money collectively rather than from making mistakes.

    • Mike says:

      I whole heatedly agree! My friends and I discuss financial matters all the time. We help each other out. It’s never about being nosy, more about praise. I just don’t understand the taboo.

  3. JFP says:

    What if I really want to know how much it costs for my own reference? I might not ask how much someone’s new car costs (because I could look that up), but I might want to know how much you paid for that fence with installation costs. Or how much rent for an apartment about the size you just rented costs, in case I was looking to move soon or to get a picture of the housing market.

    • John says:

      I agree. I often ask my colleagues (and they ask me) about rent prices; It’s good to be informed about how much comparable housing costs in different markets. I am never offended, nor (I believe) is anyone else offended, when I ask about rent. On the other hand, I feel that salaries are a different beast.

    • Sara says:

      I was just thinking that. My friends and I share car and apartment price info because we’re all trying to learn about the ranges available to us in our market. Salaries can be a little taboo, but for the most part I find that people are really good about the information if you tell them. Often they’re just trying to figure out whether they’re getting paid at market rate, or if they should change careers. Anyone who would make you feel bad about a too-big or too-small salary isn’t really a friend anyway.

      • Marc says:

        I’d actually ask how much someone paid for a car or how much they make if I know them. While I can look up the cost of a car or the median salary for a given job title, that’s irrelevant information. If a car costs 10,000, is that the MSRP, dealer cost, or median final sale price? No matter the answer to that, it doesn’t reflect what my car dealer buys or sells this car for, or how indifferent or invested I am in obtaining that specific make and model. Additionally, I could be a crappy (insert job function/title here) with no certifications or experience; knowing the median salary for that position in my area does no good, as I shouldn’t be paid close to that by definition. If a friend works in a similar field or has a similar title, I know what kind of qualifications they have and more or less if they’re a driven worker or not, so finding out what they make would allow me to have a better feel for what I’m worth. Call me nosy or overly analytical, but as far as I know it’s only benefited me.

      • Marc says:

        On a more psychological level, why is it okay to discuss expenses but taboo to discuss income?

    • anne says:

      Hmm I wouldn’t be offended if you asked what the range of estimates and sources I’d considered on that new fence. That is relevant and I like helping someone who can use that information for some reason besides speculation.

  4. Marc says:

    I just ask them a question along the same lines, and if they answer with something I believe, I’ll tell them the truth. If they answer with something I perceive as stretching the truth, I’ll either change the subject or play forgetful. Relationships are two-way streets, and I personally don’t care giving information if I’m getting information. Even more importantly, a number is meaningless without context. For instance, making $100k is a decent salary, unless it’s in NYC or a similarly inflated metropolis. Another example is: Buying a new sports car is expensive, unless the person purchasing paid in cash and still has plenty of money to pay their bills and fund their lifestyle.

    • Happy Camper says:

      You call NYC or some other metropolis “inflated” yet these are the metropolitan areas that typically provide, but not exclusively, very lucrative careers. The question is what are you willing to pay to be in an area where the the best and brighest in your field are concentrated? It may not be NYC, but it may be somewhere like Palo Alto, or you name it, depending on your career choice. You need to be the master of your destiny and that includes making life choices about the tradeoffs you are willing to make on career versus family or any other tradeoff to be in a high cost or low cost city.

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