Does talking about money make you uncomfortable? That’s okay. Do it anyway.

A cartoon of a couple sitting at a table at a restaurant. The caption reads, "Honey, we have to talk about money in case one of us gets hit by a bus."
Original cartoon by Liza Donnelly

As published on LinkedIn as part of the SheMoney monthly newsletter.

I have been having a lot of difficult conversations lately, and many of them are about money. Despite how much I read and write about this topic, I still have a lot of work to do when it comes to my own relationship with my financial resources. And as it turns out, it’s not just me. I know this because over the past several months, I have asked friends of different ages and financial circumstances to share the difficult money conversations that they have either had or really need to have with their loved ones. And every day, that list keeps getting longer. To date, the range of topics covers every possible category of life, including education, family, friendships, dating, marriage, investments, and so much more.

For example, a friend entering into a serious relationship wondered when it was the right time to talk about money values with her prospective partner. Another friend, who is in the everyone-is-getting-married phase of her life, doesn’t know how to tell her friends that she really can’t afford to be a bridesmaid or attend a destination wedding. A very wealthy woman told me that she stopped asking her husband about their financial situation years ago, and now she doesn’t know how to ask about it without fear that her husband will think she does not trust him. I could go on and on.

A photo of Jacki Zehner talking to a group of women with a board full of post its in the background.

A photo of Jacki Zehner, talking to a group of seated women. There is a big board full of post-its behind her.It was questions like these that inspired last month’s ShePlace event at the Kiln in Park City, where we hosted our very first Money Mingle. For this event, we curated 11 introspective questions on the topic of money to help facilitate a discussion around our individual and collective challenges when it comes to caring for our financial well-being. We hung these prompts throughout the space and invited our guests to anonymously write their responses on post-its. We then shared these responses with the group and used them to guide our discussion. It was incredible how much there was to learn from one another, and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to really discuss the barriers we all share in common when it comes to engaging more fully with our financial resources. The top barriers that attendees listed and we discussed? Time, self-confidence, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and not knowing where to begin.

All of us at ShePlace were blown away by the event attendees’ willingness to be honest and vulnerable about their experiences with their money. Of course, it was simply not possible to solve everyone’s money challenges in one meeting. But we did get the conversation started and encouraged everyone to just do something. Not everything. Something.

Curious about the 11 questions? Click here to take a short money survey. I guarantee it will get you thinking about your own money story and the conversations you may need to have. All responses will be anonymous, but we will report back on the results, along with resources to address the most common questions.

So what was the difficult conversation about money that I most needed to have? For me, that difficult conversation revolved around “What if?” As in, what if I die prematurely? What would happen then? I had a health scare last year, and while I am okay now, my husband and I realized that our thinking, and our planning, was very outdated. I needed to have that conversation with my loved ones, because talking about the financial implications of your death is one of the most important conversations we all simply must have.

It is also essential to have a will. Full stop. Every adult needs a will. But if you don’t have one, don’t know where to start, and/or truly can’t afford to do it, I get it. As of May of last year, 68% of all Americans did not have a will, and while I really do not want to scare you, you really don’t want to die without one. To do so is called dying “intestate”, which means that instead of your estate being distributed as you would wish, it will be distributed according to intestacy laws. These vary country by country, and in the US, they also vary state by state. They also tend to be overly complex and difficult to navigate.

That being said, in general, when a person dies intestate, their estate is turned over to probate courts to be distributed among surviving spouses and descendants. While this may seem logically sound, it can have enormous negative implications on anyone in non-traditional families and/or those whose closest loved ones are not blood/legal relatives. Studies have also shown that the widespread phenomenon of unintended intestacy is greatly contributing to the problem of income inequality in the US. And data shows that intestacy unfairly and disproportionately affects minorities and other marginalized communities in many other negative ways.

So with all of these well documented downsides, why do nearly 70% of Americans still not have a will? Testamentary freedom, meaning the right of an owner of property to control its disposition in death, is a right that is enshrined in the US Constitution. And yet only 32% of Americans take advantage of this right? Academics have studied this issue to try and discern the reason, but like everything else in life, there are no easy answers. For example, some have theorized that psychological resistance to thinking about our own death is the main reason why so few adults have wills. And that makes sense to me. Both money and death can be taboo topics, so who wants to talk about wills, a topic that combines both? And yet people aren’t adverse to setting up other forms of non-testamentary transfers, such as life insurance and account beneficiaries, so that can’t be the whole reason. It has also been speculated that the entire process of creating a legal will is and/or is perceived as being too complex, unwieldy, and costly. And this is probably true. But there are lots of resources available to help guide people through the process of creating their own will. I plan on sharing these in the coming months through an upcoming series of ShePlace money guides, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, please start talking to your family about what will happen to your estate when you die. Create and/or update your will. And make sure that your loved ones are having these same conversations about their own estates. Make no mistake, being willing to have these difficult conversations means being willing to be vulnerable, and that takes so much courage. And if you need some guidance on this, I suggest you look into the work of Brené Brown, a researcher who has spent decades studying courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. I have not yet had the privilege of meeting Ms. Brown, but she is at the top of my list of people with whom I’d love to have dinner, and I highly recommend all her work, including her books, podcasts, and Netflix special. There is so much to say about all of it, but she says it so much better than me.

A close up headshot photo of Brene Brown looking straight into the camera and smiling.

So here is my main takeaway as it relates to difficult conversations about money. Just do it. Be vulnerable. Yes, it will be hard. But the benefits will outweigh the cost. I promise.

And… Happy Holidays! Wishing you and yours the very best.

As always, thanks to Lisa Donnelly for her collaborative and original cartoon.

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