Can you talk to your friends about debt?

By Andrea Karim. Last updated 4 November 2017. 18 comments

Can you talk to your friends about your debt? Can you talk to your friends about their debt?

I've never really had friends who liked to talk about money. That's what boyfriends are for. And I never want to pry into the finances of people who I care about, especially when it's very clear that my input is not welcome.

But a few weeks ago, a friend who is deeply, deeply in debt decided that she would offer me some money tips. I'm talking about a friend who doesn't have money to repair her car if it breaks down. This friend suggested that I was making a mistake by waiting to have children. My protests about the need to be financially secure (nevermind having a suitable partner) before reproducing fell on deaf ears - her financial advice was to get everything you want when you are young and pay for the consequences later. I longed to rip open her credit card statements and beat her about the head with them, but alas, didn't think that would go over well. I let the subject drop, afraid that she would think I was being judgmental, and frankly, really sick of the whole topic.

I was wondering if other people had similar issues - talking about money is really considered crass here in the United States, so we often don't talk about money on a personal level (unless we're bloggers, I guess - gluttons for public punishment). But among the people that we are closest to, we might remain incredibly ignorant about their financial situation. I don't know, for instance, if my shopaholic friend is deeply in credit card debt or simply paid so well that she can buy whatever she wants.

When I lived abroad, I noticed less reluctance to discuss things like salary and housing costs. It's ironic, if you think about it, that the country most associated with being obsessed with money is the country with the fewest friendly discussions about it.

Now, I normally loathe's advice columnist, Cary Tennis. I find him self-absorbed, rambling, and free of any ability to dispense actual "advice". However, today's column struck a chord with me. In it, the frustrated half of a nearly-30 couple expresses the desire to counsel or intervene in the fiscally irresponsible behavior observed in another couple that they are friendly with.

For once, Tennis doesn't discuss his past debt or irresponsible spending or whatever it is that he's eating at the moment, but rather delves right into the problem. His advice? Speak to the younger copuple, but do it separately so they don't feel ambushed.

A range of readers' letters poured in, and advice ranged from "Friend never discuss money" to "Show them by EXAMPLE, dummy".

I particularly liked the letter from reader Aparecida:

"No one responds positively to the Concerned Look and the Carefully Measured Tone. It's just annoying - especially if the well-meaning friend is right.

"Instead, make a point of getting together with your friends in situations that don't demand conspicuous consumption or the use of expensive toys. Suggest doing things that you genuinely enjoy, such as free concerts or day hikes. Don't get ridiculous and do things you wouldn't normally do. ("Say, let's all go to the diner and order cups of hot water. Then we can add catsup and make tomato soup!") But you might find that it's natural to say something like, "Oh, we started doing these Sunday picnics when we were paying down our credit card debt and swore off restaurants. Now we just enjoy it." If your friends are that young, they may be looking around for models of what a happy life together looks like - especially if they picked up bad money habits from their own parents."

What do you guys think? Have you ever had to stage a fiscal intervention to prevent a friend or family member from financial ruin? Would you recommend that anyone else do the same?

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Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Guest's picture

I find that I have to be mindful of which friends I'm talking to when the issues of debt and spending habits pop up. Delivering a self-righteous diatribe about how credit cards are horrible, etc. might make things awkward when the audience consists of friends who are around 20k in debt each while I'm at zero. Some people are casual about their debt, and others keep it to themselves. The ones who casually share their info tend to be people who think that everyone else is in the same boat in my experience.

Guest's picture

Since most of my friends are (like myself) recent college grads, we're mostly saddled with heavy college loans and doing our best to avoid revolving credit card debt. We generally don't talk about monthly payments, but the total amount owed on student loans isn't taboo.

The same feeling goes for housing costs, especially when someone is moving out of rental, "how much are you paying a month?" doesn't seem like an inappropriate question at all, especially if there's an opportunity to reduce one's own monthly costs.

Guest's picture

I never bring it up, but if someone else does then I will talk about it. It is interesting (and sometimes scary) to listen to other people's views on debt and it often is further clarification that my wife and I are doing things right!

Guest's picture
Rob in Madrid

"They, like us, come from families where debt is a way of life and a foregone conclusion"

How true it is.

Guest's picture

I live in Turkey. Turks have no qualms whatsoever about asking each other about money. "Hi, how are you, how much do you make at that job, do you rent or do you own?" Students will come into my home and say, "Who did you marry?" (I married an architect, but they assume that he or I must have rich relatives.")

Different cultures have different sensibilities about things. When the Turkish economy crashed and we lost our life savings and came perilously close to losing our house, my wealthy mother floated us a loan-- and we had to endure three years of her snarky second husband making "Bank of Mommy" comments-- but my not-so-wealthy in-laws, bother retired and on pensions, gave us twice as much and have never mentioned it again.

In Turkey, the fluidity between generations when it comes to money is heart warming. If someone were in terrible debt, their families would help them. It's not like in the US where we are cut loose at 18.

Myscha Theriault's picture

both on the friend and on the situation. As far as he offering you advice, I try never to take advice from someone who isn't in a position I would like to be in myself. As far as having a discussion with her about her habits, I guess only you can answer that. But in general I only give them specific advice about how to handle debt if they ask for it. However, I usually offer tidbits about how I saved on a particular item, or a strategy we are using that is working out well for us. If the friend is open to discussing the gory details and wants input and suggestions, then I have the conversation.

I've also noticed that the more comfortable people are with their financial situation and plan the more comfortable they are discussing it. If they are on edge, chances are they are not comfortable with their money at all. I've also noticed that certain people are comfortable discussing savings strategies and shopping resources but not investment strategies. Some people are the opposite. But for me to take advice from someone, I need to be very comfortable with knowing about their financial situation. I think Sarah or Julie did a piece a while back on how to spot a financial bullshitter . . .

Great topic generator.

Guest's picture

I don't intentionally discuss money with my friends, but I am open about my situation. I refer to my debt, my choices to do things cheaper, and possibly moonlight. I openly discuss my curb shopping (dumpster diving) finds and love "shopping" in one of my friends slightly upscale neighborhood. However, my set of friends has a wide range of money income and debt situations, so it can be difficult to be entirely frugal. But, on the plus side, there isn't much judgement, so it works out.

Julie Rains's picture

As a general rule, I don't dispense unsolicited advice, financial or otherwise-- except as a blogger and I hope only to give my perspective. However, I am always ready to give my advice if asked. Sometimes people make what seem to be unwise decisions because of 1) lack of knowledge, 2) poor decision-making skills and 3) information that is unknown and makes a person's situation unique. Telling someone if/when to have children, I'd stay way away from that one for a jillion reasons, beginning with "it's none of my business."

For giving and receiving financial advice, and discussing financial matters, well some people get that there are many ways to live, spend, and invest and some don't.  

Not too long ago, I had an invited guest (who happened to be relatively new in the financial business with just some basic licenses -- not a Chartered Financial Consultant or Certified Financial Planner) who tried to give me financial advice -- at least I think that's what he was doing. I can't tell you how uncomfortable that made me feel: not sure if he was trying to give me a sales pitch or if he thought he could help. Rather than make a guest feel bad (I am using other resources/more experienced professionals for advice including my own research), I said nothing.

 So Andrea, I think you are right to drop the topic -- such discussions work only  when both sides are willing to listen and consider varying viewpoints (it doesn't sound like your friend is willing at the moment). I do wonder though if people justify their own decisions (and perhaps messes in your friend's case) by fervently advancing a particular point of view.

Guest's picture

I have issues with speaking my mind with my friends, financial or not, and I just blogged about the last time I blabbed about something that was none of my business.

I try not to give advice that wasn't asked for, but when I really care and the friend is close, I do give suggestions and then drop it. Actually, my best friend and I talk about everything, and money is a part of that. Guess it depends on the relationship.

Guest's picture

I tried to talk to my friend about his debt but it didn't work. He didn't listen and his views about what he could and should spend money on are scary.

Andrea Karim's picture

EmSaidSo - I recall that "How much money do you make" was one of the most common questions I was asked living in a Turkish area of Western China. It wasn't behavior specific to the Turkish population - everyone asked. It was kind of refreshing, actually, and a good way to know if you were being screwed over on your salary (turns out that I was).

Guest's picture

Recently, I had a friend who had a lien against her account. It turned out to be a bogus claim, but regardless, she ended up having her bank account frozen for twice the amount of the debt (2,600 dollars) for 3 weeks. This is a 32 year old woman who works in finance. That money was the content of her checking account. She could not pay bills (which she had a lot) and barely got by. I gave her money and I figured at that point, I probably had the right to give her a little kind advice. Does it worry her that at 32 years old, having made no major purchases (house, car, education etc) that she had no savings? Imagine living from pay check to paycheck on 75K a year (which is a nice chunk of change for most of us). I didn't beat her over the head with it. She is a grown woman and hopefully, this will have scared her enough...sometimes the $40. GAP jeans are fine, you can forgo the $250 jeans from Bloomingdales or heaven forbid, forgo a new pair of jeans.

It's so funny, my friends are more forth coming about an STD than financial debt.

Guest's picture

It depends on my group of friends. My college educated friends are fine. The ones that made mistakes, e.g. CC debt, learned their lesson. They cleaned things up immediately when they finished school. Any debt we have is: mortgage, school loans, and/or auto.

My few non-college educated friends, at least 5 years older than I, I don't bother with any more. They never have and never will save money or budget it wisely. They waste money on stupid stuff and eat out a lot. One has $8K in CC debt and once his auto loan is paid off he is going to take out a $7K loan for a toy (original plans were to use equity in his house) instead of heavily paying down the CC. Another friend asked for budgeting help. He did not like it when I said his $250 eat out budget for dating needed to go/shrink when he had debt that needed to be eliminated.

Guest's picture

Maybe my husband and I are lucky because we can talk to any of our friends and even our family about debt and money. We can even offer our "advice" (more of a "Have you ever thought of doing it this way?" "What do you think of savings/tithing/emergency money/etc?" questioning phase which then leads into an explanation of what we do or would do in their situation) and are listened to.

Maybe it's the way we talk about finances (making sure we don't sound like we have all the answers, but instead put ourselves in the "same boat" as them and offer "possible remedies" that we would try) or maybe it is the strength of our relationships... but we haven't had much problems when it comes to this. It probably also helps that our finances are in very good order (a little "action" speaks louder than words), even though we are not as financial well off. (Case in Point: My sister is "hiding" her financial oopses from the whole family, but us. Instead, we've helped her get a budget together, talked with her about ways she's thinking about paying it off and kept checking in with her to see how it's going.)

For those friends who might take offense at our "advice"... well they're probably really not our friends (more like an acquaintance), they usually just get the "raised eyebrow" look they get when they talk about doing something financially unsound. If they keep hounding the point, then they get the "I don't think that's a good idea." Conversation done... or opened into a whole new discussion.

Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

I think employees should be more open about their salaries with each other. Secret salaries is how employers retain all the power in salary negotiations.

Unfortunately, everyone wants to know what others make but no one wants to share what they themselves make. Lots of people know how much I make, and as far as I know, they all make either "enough", "not enough", or "around that range".

Guest's picture

There is a difference between saying "I wanted to have kids earlier, because even if I still have debt, I will be able to provide for and love them" than crossing the line and saying "You are wrong because you have a different plan." I would say the first case, but not the second.

Same with other financial advise. I made simple suggestions to my parents and sister that they should consider a High Yield Savings account. They didn't listen, but my boyfriend did.

My parents are clearly not saving enough for retirement, but I don't bring it up. My dad said "my house is my retirement" and I commented that I didn't think that was a great idea, but left it there. I wish they would bring it up, but if they don't, I don't.

As far as friends, mine all seem financially savvy enough that it isn't an issue. We don't talk money, but no one is struggling with it.

Guest's picture
Anon For This One

you have friends who are in massive debt, unwilling to change spending habits, yet constantly *complain* about their finances. It's even worse when they it's your employee who can't manage the paycheques you sign. That's awkward with a capital A!

I find it easy enough to keep my nose out of others' business when they keep it to themselves. But I tire of complainers who claim that your own successful strategies (like not buying two of items because one is to be used and one is to be collected) "won't work for them." Sure, what works for us might not work for them, but that doesn't mean that you do *nothing* and just keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Guest's picture

Sounds like your friend was trying to justify their own stupidity of having kids and spending more than they make by trying to convince you to do the same.

We're brought up in a world that tells everyone to: "spend spend spend. It's ok, you have a credit card. You can pay the monthly minimums, you don't really have to have money to act like you do have money."

This is not smart and it ends up being an emotional issue for many people because of the stress it causes. Most people don't want to be told that with their income and the cost of kids that they really should have bought that $150,000 house instead of the $250,000 house. Or that they shouldn't have bought that HUGE tv just because they were offered a sears card that allowed them to make monthly payments on it (barely putting a dent in the actual cost I might add.) People want to be rich so they live like they're rich even when they aren't. They play keep up with the Jones'.

I remember growing up and my mother was always saying "NEVER EVER tell anyone what you make." It was some sort of taboo.

Now that I'm self employed it's not really a number most of my friends can associate with anyway because they don't understand the difference between billable hours and the number of hours I spend on my business. Net vs Gross doesn't make much sense either because there are business expenses for items I would buy even if I worked for someone else (I love what I do and that's why I do it too so it also doesn't compare to someone who slaves away at a job to make lots of money but hates their life.)

My parent's are all secretive about their money. Too much so because if something were to happen to them tomorrow we (their kids) would have to deal with the nightmare of trying to figure out what their financial situation was as well as deal with running the business with almost 50 employees they would leave behind. We've tried to discuss it with them but we're "just kids" in their minds even though none of us live at home anymore.

As for talking with friends about money - there are a few who get it. They want to live debt free lives and be smart with their money. Most however I don't bother talking to about money - it would just fall on deaf ears.

Occasionally an easy way to talk money is actually to recommend books or authors to people. My favorites are Dave Ramsey and Robert Kiyosaki. I don't agree with absolutely everything either one of them says but they both have some of the best financial advise I have ever seen. If the person I recommend them to goes off and reads them and likes them (and remembers your recommendation) you may end up having additional money conversations with that person.

Giving the books is a tricky thing though because if the person doesn't want to read it they will just take it as an insult (kind of like when my grandmother gave me a book by some conservative female author warning all women about cohabitating with men outside of marriage because "they only want one thing"... I am the one who doesn't want to get married.)

If someone is complaining about debt though I definitely recommend they read Dave Ramsey (I don't do pity parties well so if they're complaining I will probably be making suggestions on how to fix the problem.)

I know I'm not personally perfect with money. My boyfriend pointed out the other day that I will have a burst of working and billing clients and then spend it all on bills and have no money for awhile, have some "off" days and then have another burst of working and making money. Always keeping afloat but never making it to exactly where I want to be.

That I do need to work on...

I will leave with this though. I really wish schools would get a little involved in financial education (parents should be more involved too but sometimes they don't know what they are doing either.) Even just something where a class does a project to find out how much it would cost to live in the real world. How much an apartment would be, electric, gas, water, a car, gas for the car, insurance. Helping them understand things like what a deductible is (I will admit I didn't understand what a deductible was until someone hit my car and ran and I didn't have their insurance covering my repair costs.) How to balance a checkbook (or in today's world just keeping tabs on their bank balance since more and more of us use debit cards as if they were credit cards instead of actual checks.)

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