Do you really want to know what other people do with their money?

In my last job, there was a grassroots push to publish everyone’s salaries.

A document was circulated in a clandestine fashion, and everyone was encouraged to enter their own salary details. This went around for a little while before it was summarily put down by the legal department, claiming that such a thing violated some law (I can’t recall which).

The reasons for pay transparency have a lot of merit. We live in a very biased society where we pay people very inequitably, often linked to personal characteristics like gender. Shedding light on these biases may help them become less tolerated or acceptable.

But while it could do us all good to know what people earn, does it do us any good to know what people spend? I mean, day-to-day spending.

Some say yes. But I’m skeptical.

Money diaries

I recently stumbled across a site, Refinery29, which bills itself as “a modern woman’s destination for how to live a stylish, well-rounded life.” (Hat tip NYT.)

Okay, so I’m not the target demographic, but what drew me to the site was its Money Diaries.

This page just scrolls on forever

These reader-submitted blog posts delve into a week-in-the-life details, specifically on one’s income, budget, and spending habits.

From someone in Boise, ID with a $64,000/year salary, she goes into detail about a lot of things, some that to be honest feel a little irrelevant to the task (she does love her dogs), but what I’m really interested in are the stats. Like, how much does she spend on food and clothes, and the other categories I talk about.

In her case, the answer was $1,180.42 for that week, though it’s impossible to really know how typical of a week this was.

You can go way down the rabbit hole on this site. For example:

(That last one caught my eye because the graphic contained the cover of the book The Ethical Slut, not what I was expecting in this section for sure.)

What can be learned?

I applaud every one of these people for being brave enough to share intimate details of their lives. I’m not sure if I would be comfortable being that forthcoming.

Actually, I’m sure I wouldn’t.

But typical/atypical results aside, what am I supposed to take away from all this information?

For those people who spent what I thought was an egregious amount on food or travel or whatever, my first impulse was to feel a little bit of envy for that kind of life. And for those people who seemed like they were skimping of silly things, my first impulse was to scoff.

Immediately I thought of that Desiderata poem: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

I felt like I learned nothing. People spend money in different ways. I knew that already.

Is the taboo a good thing?

I recognize that talking about money, specifically salaries and spending, is a taboo, up there with sexual behavior and preferences, if not topping it.

The question I want to ask is: is there some validity to these taboos?

Going back to the salary question, I know I’m in a privileged demographic, so feel free to discard my opinion, but I personally would prefer to know as little as possible. I don’t want to know how much my boss makes. I don’t want to know how much my favorite blogger pulls in. I definitely don’t want to know what my coworker makes.

The problem with knowledge is that you can’t un-learn something you’ve learned (unless you do something like this). And this knowledge can be a burden. It feels impossible to have the knowledge of someone’s salary not color your interaction with them in some way.

Even knowing some details about a person’s life can be challenging. I was once in a band with a guy who bought a condo in Brooklyn that was easily north of $2 million. To me, this meant he was in not only in a different tax bracket, but a different order of magnitude of income to me at the time.

The one time I went over to see it was one awkward meeting, let me tell you.

One place where full transparency is needed

Here’s one place where I think that full transparency is a clear good thing, and important too: in relationships.

I believe that if you are in an intimate relationship with someone, you want to know not only what they make in salary, but also their spending habits. You should have a sense of what they have in savings, whether they use credit cards, what their student loans are, the whole package.

There are practical reasons, sure, especially if you decide to share finances, and there are far too many stories out there about one partner with a huge secret, like a gambling habit or even a second family.

But also, your money is one of the most important reflections and indicators of your life and your values. How you spend your money is a lens into how you live your life.

It’s my assertion that you can’t be truly intimate with someone unless you understand how they feel about money—and how they act on it.

So, in that case, have that dialog, and not just once either. Pull up your checking account. Talk about your categories. You’ll have to do this if you’re sharing your finances, of course (I hope, right?) but you don’t need to share finances to be intimate. You just need to understand and know what is important to each other.

That’s so much more worthwhile than knowing what some random person did on an average week. And their dogs.

Do you wish you knew more about how other people spend their money?

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