What To Do When Your Family Refuses To Talk About Money


Jennie here.

The cheapest lunch I ever had was at my elementary school cafeteria. It was 25 cents for a reduced meal - one fifth the price of what the other kids paid. Even at ten years old, nobody had to tell me what that meant. 

I was born and raised in a first generation Vietnamese household where openly discussing money was taboo. So in the late nineties, when my dad got laid off his factory job, the whole family had to put up this facade that everything was okay. A lot of it was about “saving face” and “keeping up appearances.” Meanwhile, our debts piled up and problems festered beneath the surface. 

Stopping The Cycle Of Financial Instability

Fast forward to 2017. I’ve got a well paying job, an eight month emergency fund and am currently in the best financial shape of my life. Yet my family remains a black box. 

Worse, I started noticing that my siblings were displaying similar behaviors. Over the past 18 months, I’ve had to bail them out four times, all over issues that could’ve easily been avoided.  Their responses to why they waited so long to ask for help felt like deja vu:

I thought I could handle it on my own.
I didn’t want to bother anyone.
I’m paying off the minimum balance.
I was too ashamed to say anything.

I didn’t want my siblings to pick up the same bad habits as my parents. And because they asked, I decided that 2017 was the year I would make a concerted effort to help free them from the cycle of paycheck-to-paycheck living, of reacting to one crisis after another. 

How to Talk to Family About Money

Here were the five steps that I took:

  1. Map out the problem areas.
    Ivan and I brainstormed the things that we wanted to make sure to cover/ask about with each member of the family. It helped me think more clearly about each individual’s pain points and how we could work to address them.

  2. Have individual conversations.
    If your family is anything like mine, they hate airing out dirty laundry to an outside audience. Private, individual conversations helped control the environment and made my siblings feel more at ease.

  3. Adjust your message to the personality.
    The way I talk about money to Ivan compared to how I talk to my siblings is like night and day. My siblings prefer that I acknowledge the positive aspects of any given situation (i.e. what they’re doing well, what they can build upon); this is a bit hard for me because I know my frustration comes out in my tone.

  4. Ask the right questions.
    Personal finance questions are invasive and sometimes, people can associate their self-worth and pride with money. For example, I suggested to my sister that she sell the car (that she objectively couldn't afford) to get rid of her biggest source of debt -- but she took this as a personal affront and thought I was questioning her ability pay off her car.

  5. Leave the door open.
    Setting my family up with the right tools (e.g. automated savings, retirement funds, personal finance apps, etc) is just the beginning. The hard part is remembering that you can’t force anyone to do anything. All you can do is offer to listen and give advice. My siblings now call me on a weekly basis to share their progress.

My hope is that through this intervention, I can guide my siblings to have a healthier relationship with money than what we experienced as a family. 

As for my parents, I realize that it's harder to change people the older they get. I’m hoping that over time (and with persistence), they’ll eventually be able to accept help in preparing for the next chapter in their lives.