For anyone that might be reading these posts, they will know that I spent a good deal of time in China. About 10yrs to be more precise. Other than my wife and kids, the best thing I gained out of my time in China was a different relationship with money. To preface this whole article, not all Chinese are good with money (see Soap’s story over at The Frugal Gene). Nor are all of anybody good / bad / whatever at anything. Stereotypes suck, but there are certain social behaviors that work in some parts of the world and don’t in others. Wanting money is one of those behaviors. Talking about money is another.
Although my father was pretty diligent in teaching us about savings, investing, and entrepreneurship, outside the house, money was still a dirty word. Driving a fancy car or living in a big house is fine, but never ever ask someone point blank how much those things cost. How much do you make? That question would (and still does) lead to instant, social ostracization. It was good to work hard, get a good job, live a nice life, etc., so long as all of that was detached from the underlying thread that wove through it all. Money.
In contrast, I remember first being in China and random people just asking me what my salary was. How much is your rent? How much is your scooter? Pretty much anything was fair game. I thought it was a bit offensive at first, but then I started to realize that most people would voluntarily offer up the same information about their own possessions. Very often without even asking. After many years, it became rather common to have someone over and say, “Nice house. How much?” I would answer and we would start a conversation about local RE prices or the general cost of things in the neighborhood, etc.
Even with the advent of Zillow and other online estimators, flat out asking someone in the U.S. how much their home is worth is usually only done amongst close friends and family and even then, often in hushed tones. Why the difference?
To get rich is glorious!
Ok, this quote is often misattributed to Deng Xiao Ping, leader of the Communist Party of China after Mao Zedong, but I found a sense of the idea ripe in everyday Chinese life. It is ok to want money. It is good to be wealthy. Wealth is seen as a means of stability and should therefore be sought after. This idea that wealth could, and did, lift millions of people out of poverty into a global middle-class is what seems to have brought the topic of money into the acceptable social sphere. And why not?
Having lived in both places, it seems that the glorification of money in one place and the vilification of it in another is directly related to the general levels of financial education and frugalness. Please note that this is all anecdotal and based off my own experience and absolutely zero hard science. But in my experience, when money is seen as a positive, people are more likely to bring it up in casual conversation. The more often and destigmatized the topic is spoken of, the easier it is to get information about it. I know people here in the U.S. that are self-proclaimed financially illiterate, but they still do not like to “talk about money”. Well, then how else are you going to learn?
I’d love to know what others think about this. I am very aware that this is my own experience so I’d enjoy hearing views from everyone else. Do you talk about money with your friends? If you end up talking about money, is it a fun topic or a necessary burden? Does anyone think that there is a correlation between a high consumption, consumer debt type society and the negative place of money within polite discourse?
I hope that some people chime in on this one. Being able to talk freely about money with my wife, kids, and close friends is something I really value. It allows me to be honest about my wants and desires and about the sacrifices I make in life in order to get there. The more I talk with folks about the subject of money, the more I learn. I hope other people gain a little something by talking to me about as well. This way, we are all becoming more financially literate and I think that is a good thing for society and for our future.