Why aren’t we more transparent about money? Thankfully, so many issues are far more out in the open now, from mental health to perimenopause. But money is the last taboo.
I’m not talking about money in a superficial sense, like how much you paid for a purse. I’m saying: We exist in a confessional era, where we read profiles and watch Instagram stories of how people make life choices: bought and renovated houses, decided where to live, landed new jobs. Self-care, career, and parenting experts abound. Oversharing is a brand. But somehow, income — the stuff it really takes to maneuver as an ordinary family, especially around here — is glossed over. It’s curated transparency.
My friend, Love Letters columnist Meredith Goldstein, calls it a form of “gaslighting.” Which is why I was so happy to be asked on her “Love Letters” podcast, all about uncomfortable conversations around money and relationships. Meredith gets it. She’s nonjudgmental. She’s also not afraid to expose and empathize with real human emotions: uncertainty, envy, self-doubt. There’s a reason why her column and podcast are so popular.
Meredith asked me on for a few reasons: I’m good at being vulnerable. I believe in demystifying life choices. But also, I’m in an interesting financial spot. I have a book deal (a lifelong dream) and could take a small, income-free hiatus to finish it. I also work for myself, more than full time, and I love my career. I am also a person who needs to work. And so I find myself in a possibly relatable position: My husband and I are in the process of figuring out whose income to prioritize. Ever been there?
If my husband made a bit more — and he certainly makes a decent amount — the scales would tip just that much more for me to focus on my lifelong dream (is that cheesy?), without worrying that we’re undermining our retirement and college savings. For those unfamiliar with the publishing world: You are not typically handed a big fat pile of money to hunker down in a cabin in the woods with tea and incense to write the Great American Novel. (See again: curated transparency.) It requires some amount of capital to begin with. Unless you are independently wealthy or Stephen King, being an author is not a lucrative full-time career.
I went on Meredith’s podcast to talk about how those negotiations with him go and how truly gross they make me feel. Saying to your spouse, “Hi, could you ask for more money, so I could feel comfortable doing less?” feels regressive and anti-feminist, to me. It feels ugly. But also: It sure would help! Meredith — and so many other people — assured me that many people feel this way. Men and women. My husband is even fine with my discussing it here. He loves his job and is happy with his work-life balance. I respect that. But what about me?
In fact, my spreadsheet-oriented spouse assures me that I probably could do a little bit less, not saying yes to every project or offer. This, to me, is absurd: I want to scream at him: “Do you know how much college will cost in five years? Four zillion dollars! We have a mortgage! Who do you think we are?” Every couple has an ongoing fight, and this is ours.
I talk about this negotiation with Meredith in this week’s episode. It touches on gender norms, personality types around money, shame around finances — why is it wrong to want more? when is enough truly enough? — and the true cost of living in this crazy area. Earlier this week, I debriefed with her post-podcast. Here’s a snippet.
Meredith: We both write about — and sometimes give expertise — about topics for which we have no specific degrees. Often, I’m asked: What qualifies you to talk about love and relationships? Are you asked that same question?
Kara: Yes. A lot. It does help that I have two kids, so I’m living it. A lot of it just comes from experience and conversations with other parents. I feel plugged in, but I’m still plugged in in my little narrow subset of life. You can’t capture the totality of the parenting experience.
Meredith: Which is why I always like to tell people that there’s also the journalism piece of Love Letters — that even when I’m doing old-school advice columnist work, I am still thinking of it as reporting and investigating.
Kara: It is reporting and investigating. I think of myself as a cultural journalistic anthropologist who’s trying to get under the seamy underbelly of things that people might think about, but don’t say. That’s why [the parenting newsletter] is called Parenting Unfiltered. There’s so much unspoken when it comes to parenting. I think people live quietly, sometimes within their own insecurities, and are afraid to talk about certain things because it can be polarizing or make them look weak. I see myself as someone who can help uncover that and will hopefully honor confidentiality and abide by certain ethics. So it’s sort of like being a therapist, in a way.
Meredith: That makes me think of this “Love Letter” episode you’re on, where you have made yourself very vulnerable in talking about one of the most vulnerable things of all — money.
Kara: There’s so much that we both write about that is informed by money, but it’s sort of the elephant in the room. You know: How did you buy that house? How did you end up in that town? It’s this unspoken rule that you don’t discuss it. But it’s really elemental to almost every decision we make parenting-wise, relationship-wise, real estate-wise …
Meredith: One of the things that has always scared me about coupling is ... mess. Like, when you add other people into the equation, in the inner circle — [a partner with whom you make financial decisions] — it sounds like a scary mess. But sometimes I remember that we do “mess” because of all the lovely parts that come with it. Any advice for me and dealing with the fear of it?
Kara: Somebody said this to me years ago, and I always remember it, and I think it’s absolutely true: When you’re in a relationship or about to take the next step, do you think your life would be better with or without this person? And that’s really what it boils down to. Would your life be better alone? Are the negotiations and feelings and compromises and adjustments outweighed by the benefits of being with someone? It’s a delicate emotional calculus.