Dinner conversations tend to hit awkward points. Opinions about politics, career aspirations (or lack thereof), or societal trends creep up regularly. But occasionally, among those uncomfortable subjects, the conversation will find itself broaching money. Money slips itself into the conversation when the moment is ripe for squirming in your chair and glancing at your phone, and then slips back out just as quickly as it came.
Many may feel that money is best left for the finance seminar, the radio guru, or your relative who is currently imposing austerity measures on his family. It doesn’t matter if you’re not sure what a 529 is, don’t know the difference between a Roth and regular IRA, or are just drinking too much designer coffee—you’d rather leave the subject at the bank.
The truth is, money is not something we can compartmentalize. It is in our pockets, in our gas tanks, at our work, at our church, and nearly everywhere we go. Our society uses money for almost everything it does. Our church uses money for almost everything it does. If money permeates our lives so thoroughly, it should not be such an uncomfortable and neglected subject when we are with family and friends. Whether we feel we are financially illiterate or we already have our retirements set, there are things we can learn from how other people handle finances.
Values Are More Important than Facts
Christianity is not about knowing facts, although they help. It is about having a relationship and a value system. In the same way, money is also not about knowing the facts, although they help too. Many feel intimidated around a friend who sounds like he or she knows a lot about money because they don’t understand all the terms and jargon he or she uses. In actuality, the jargon is not as important as having a value system for your money. Your value system will determine your actions and choices, and can be the difference between handling money responsibly or foolishly.
A value system in money may mean being financially conservative or liberal. If you are financially conservative you may spend very little, not take on debt, make choices very cautiously, and only purchase items when the risks are little to none. Someone who is financially liberal may be willing to make large purchases on debt when the rewards are enough to outweigh the consequences, spend larger amounts of money toward things that have high returns, and be overall more willing to take risks for a financial goal.
Your value system could be philanthropic, capitalistic, or philosophical. A person who is philanthropic would make financial choices based on how much good they or their money can do for others (and no, that does not normally mean giving it all away). A capitalistic value system would involve making financial decisions based on how it improves a business endeavor (no, this is not entirely selfish). And a philosophical value system would mean making your decisions based on a worldview—this could be as grand as finding homes for refugees or as simple as being a minimalist.
Having a value system will determine how you spend, how you invest, how you give, and how you earn. It will determine the amount of money you spend, how closely you follow your budget (or whether or not you have a written budget), where you are comfortable investing, who you give to and how much you give, as well as how much risk you are willing to take to increase your earning potential. College is an example of a risk that people take to increase their earning. The reward tends to outweigh the consequences; therefore people are willing to take on debt to accomplish this goal.
How to Steer the Conversation in Those Awkward Moments
When your dinner conversation slips into finances and everyone gets very quiet, it is best if you start asking some questions of those around you. Your family and friends have a lot of insight regarding money, although they do not share it routinely. Ask them what their primary value system is in money. It may be one of the ones mentioned, or it could be something else entirely.
Their past financial decisions may not make sense to you because they do not align with your value system. But when you apply their value system to those decisions, they may start making sense. Their value system could be as simple as “Whatever is best for my children.” This would explain spending money on private school instead of investing it, or staying at a lower paying job in order to keep their children in a better community. Take time to listen to the reasons people make their financial choices. You might actually learn a few things that can be applied to your own finances.