Five reasons we don’t talk about money

And how to overcome them

Elephant in the room. Paul Claireaux

This (10 to 20-minute read) is the first of two Insights for anyone who struggles to talk about (and deal with) personal money matters.

And, let’s be honest, that’s most of us from time to time!

Here, we’ll explore the first five of ten reasons we might find it hard to talk about money, whether with close friends, family or a financial professional.

We’ll offer five more reasons in a future Insight, but we’re sure even that won’t be an exhaustive list.

So, if you struggle to have productive conversations about money matters for some of these or any other reason, we’d love to hear from you.

This is also the first of many Insights we’ll offer to help you make good decisions about what really matters when it comes to your money.

If you’d like to see more, sign up for our newsletter

Now, let’s look at the first of these five reasons we don’t talk about money.

Reason 1. We don’t understand the basics

We don't understand money matters. Paul Claireaux

Our financial literacy problem is very well known, and it’s global, too.

The S&P Global Financial Literacy Survey tests 150,000 adults from 148 countries every few years with four questions like these.

On risk diversification

Suppose you have some money to invest.

Is it safer to put your money into just one business or into multiple businesses or investments?

On inflation

Suppose over the next ten years, the price of everything you buy were to double. If your income also doubled, would you be able to buy less than you can buy today, the same as you can buy today or more than you can buy today?

On numeracy (around loan interest)

Suppose you need to borrow 100 US dollars. Which is the lower amount to pay back: 105 US dollars or 100 US dollars plus three per cent?

On compound interest

Suppose you put money in the bank for two years, and the bank agrees to add 15 per cent per year to your account. Will the bank add more money to your account in the second year than in the first year, or will it add the same amount in both years?

Suppose you had 100 US dollars in a savings account, and the bank adds 10 per cent each year to the account. How much money would you have in the account after five years if you did not remove any money from the account: $150, more than $150 or less than $150?

How do you feel about those questions?

If you found them hard, don’t worry; you’re far from alone.

According to the survey, being financially literate means you can correctly answer three or four of those questions.

Yet, in the last survey (from 2014), only one-third of adults (worldwide) passed that test.

Unsurprisingly, adults in developed (and more equal societies) tend to fare much better than those in under-developed and unequal countries.

Three Scandinavian Countries (Sweden, Denmark and Norway) topped the results table, with 71% of adults found to be financially literate

In contrast, less than 20% passed the test in many poor countries, with the lowest result in Afghanistan, being just 14% (less than 1 in 7 adults)

Financial literacy rates vary enormously, though, even among developed countries, as we see here:

  • Sweden, Denmark and Norway 71%
  • Israel 68%
  • United Kingdom 67%
  • Germany 66%
  • United States 57%
  • France 52%
  • Japan 43%
  • South Africa 42%
  • Portugal 26%

Does this mean things are fine in the UK or the USA?

No, not at all.

Other research in the US suggests that financial literacy levels are going backwards. And, we have dramatic examples of the problem in the UK, too.

For example, a 2015 (Ipsos Mori) survey asked people various questions about money, including this one on pension planning:

‘What pension fund would you need in order to provide a retirement income (including your state pension) of £25,000 a year?’

How would you answer that?

The range of answers given was quite extraordinary.

  • More than half of those surveyed thought this income could be delivered from a fund of less than £150,000.
  • One-third thought a fund of £50,000 would be enough.
  • And one in eight people thought a fund of £15,000 would do the job!

The right answer, in 2015, was about £300,000!

And, if you wanted that income to rise with inflation each year, you’d need a lot more than that.

For information: Updating the target pension in that question to today’s money terms, and taking account of increased levels of state pension and higher interest rates since 2015, would still mean you’d need to target a fund of nearly £300,000.

So, it seems we’re not as financially literate as the S&P survey suggested in 2014.

And while the Mori Poll was in 2015, our pension knowledge is not progressing either.

Fast forward to 2023, and in Boring Money’s Pension Report (based on 4,000 UK adults), we learn that a good proportion of people don’t know how their pensions are invested between shares, bonds or property, for example.

But more shockingly, we learn that:

  • One in five workplace pension savers don’t realise their pension funds are invested at all.
  • And 92% (11 out of 12) of those surveyed said they don’t feel confident about taking basic actions on their pension plan, like switching funds or changing the amount they pay in.

Why don’t we understand money?

School Children. Hands Up. Paul Claireaux

Financial literacy is clearly an enormous issue, and we only have room to touch on it here.

In short, however, we see four causes of this problem.

First, our numeracy skills (in the UK and the US) are not great, and you need some number skills (and to know what pension income rate to assume) to convert a target pension income into a required pension fund size – as in that question above.

Similarly, if you want to estimate the future value of a lump sum investment (or series of investments) over ten or twenty years, you need to know the formula to put into your spreadsheet.

Alternatively, you need to know which online calculators are reliable and use sensible assumptions. Not all of them do.

The second reason we struggle with questions about money is that (in the UK, at least) the basics are not consistently taught in schools. 

Yes, some basic money management skills are taught in some schools today.

However, according to financial education teachers, what gets taught is a postcode lottery, and the chances of children being taught about money are currently falling, not rising!

Also, long-term financial planning topics are not taught in schools or even in Business or Economics degrees, and this might explain why most people don’t have a clue about pensions, for example.

So, as with other ‘life skills’, we think our schools and colleges could be better.

The third big cause of confusion around money is Government policy.

It’s Government departments which define the taxation and other features of our financial products (and strategies)  – like whether there are government bonuses added to our savings and any input or age limits for paying in or accessing our money.

And it’s the constant tinkering (by all governments) on the taxation of savings, investment and pensions that make it so hard to know which products are best for YOU in your circumstances.

We want to make this product comparison job easier for you.

And we’ll offer you a guide to assess any investment (before you jump into it) very soon.

So, sign up to our newsletter if you’d like to see that.

Finally, for now, we think financial firms (banks, insurers, fund managers and financial product providers) must bear some of the blame for personal finance being so hard to understand.

These firms need to create better (more engaging) content to answer your key money questions. So, they need to put education at the heart of their marketing and stop tilting their messages to sell you their products before you have any idea what they’re selling!

Of course, we know that’s a big ask, and it’s why we offer these insights.

Reason 2: Few people know anything about financial planning!

Coffee shops are simple. Paul Claireaux

If a new coffee shop opened in your neighbourhood, you’d have a rough idea about the product they’d offer alongside the cakes and sausage rolls, but what if a financial planning firm opened in your area?

Could you describe the services they would offer?

If you’ve not worked with a good financial planner, the chances are you could not.

The evidence is clear and shown here – about who searches for what (financial) services online.

Personal Finance Search Terms. Paul Claireaux

Compared to Investments, Pensions and Life Insurance, virtually no one is searching for the most valuable service of financial life planning. 

We tend not to search for things we know nothing about!

Very few people want to study the (tax, investment and charge) details of pension, insurance or investment products.

Frankly, those topics are extremely dull unless you know how to bring them to life, as we will in this programme of Insights.

What worries us, however, is that so few people know anything about financial planning – because that is the service most people need.

A conversation about your financial plan is about YOU and what YOU want for YOUR life… for yourself and your loved ones if you have some.

So, it’s vastly more interesting than talking about financial products or market prospects.

And if you want to have a conversation focused on your needs rather than financial products, you need to find a good financial planner.

Reason 3: We feel out of control when talking about money

Falling through space. Paul Claireaux

Few of us are comfortable talking about subjects we don’t understand.

Or, rather, we feel uncomfortable (and lose our confidence) once we realise we don’t understand something.

And that may take some time, as Dunning and Kruger discovered, while we learn (sometimes the hard way) that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Dunning Kruger. Paul Claireaux

Clearly, it makes sense to learn enough to get past the peak of Mount Stupid and the Valley of (knowledge) despair, and to do that…

we need to know what we don’t know.

and what’s important to learn.

That’s what we’ll focus on here, and we will dig deeper into the Dunning-Kruger effect and other behavioural biases – because these can lead us to make big mistakes in all areas of life.

So stay tuned if you’d like to see those.

For now, just be aware that the feeling of ‘not knowing what we’re doing’ can stop us from talking about or taking any action on vital money matters.

Fear is a natural emotion that seeks to protect us from harm – financial or otherwise.

Fear (for most of us) stops us from jumping into a car and trying to drive on the road before we’ve had any lessons. But sadly, it doesn’t always stop us from investing our hard earned money into things we don’t understand!

The challenge we face is that there are so many people telling us to ‘ignore our fears’ and just jump into their hot money-making scheme. And our natural human behaviours make us susceptible to these calls.

  • Our brains like to save energy (avoid overwork), so we look for quick and simple answers to complex questions all the time.
  • We’re often too quick to place our trust in others who don’t have the competence to deserve that trust.
  • We too readily accept instructions from those we believe are ‘authority figures’, as discovered by Stanley Milgram in some ‘shocking experiments’,

And those are just some of the reasons we make big money mistakes.Road to riches. Paul Claireaux

Just be aware there are many psychological forces and behavioural biases that can lead us to make bad decisions. So we will come back to these topics in future.

For now, we’ll focus on how poor knowledge and skills can seriously hold us back.

We’ve known since the 1970s (from Psychologist Albert Bandura’s ideas on Self-Efficacy) that we’re more inclined to engage in activities in which we feel capable.

We can all identify goals (things we want to achieve or change), but we also know that converting ideas into action is challenging.

Bandura and others have found that as we become more capable in complex tasks, we:

  • Develop more interest in those activities and commit more strongly to them.
  • Recover quickly from setbacks and re-frame our problems as tasks to be mastered.

On the other hand, when we feel that we have little capability at a task, we focus more on our personal failings, lose confidence and avoid that task.

To learn more about the drivers of behaviour change, look at this model, which illustrates how our capability is key to our success. (It was developed by Social Scientist and author of ‘Tiny Habits’ Dr B.J. Fogg)

In short, to have a better chance of making better financial decisions, we need some knowledge of the financial planning process and of the financial products we might put our money into.

Ideally, you’ll acquire this basic knowledge before you start investing, but it’s never too late to learn. And it’s best to learn the concepts in a safe environment like this, where there is no hidden agenda to sell you any financial products.

You do not want to learn from an experience of taking heavy losses in unsuitable investments.

Of course, you don’t need as much knowledge about personal finance if you have a good adviser, but we’d encourage you to learn the basic concepts so you know you’ve hired the right one!

And this leads nicely to the next reason we tend to avoid talking about money – with advisers.

Reason 4:  We don’t trust financial Service firms

No one cares how much you know. Paul Claireaux

The fact is that a great many people (worldwide) don’t trust financial service firms of any kind, so if you feel this way, you’re not alone.

As we can see here, the financial services sector (as a whole) performs very poorly in trust surveys like the Edelman Trust Barometer

Edelman Trust Barometer. Paul ClaireauxLooking at the UK, the 2023 Langcat advice gap report shows that 3 million more people would seek financial advice if they could find someone they trusted.

The good news is that you should be able to find a good adviser if you know what to look for because this report shows that nearly 90% of those who take financial advice feel it represents good value for money.

The real problem is that there are not enough advisers in the UK to help a fraction of those 3 million people who feel they could use advice. So, if you don’t yet have an adviser, but you’re thinking of finding one, now is a good time to do so.

Trusting relationships are built on a great many attributes, as we’ve tried to illustrate here.

However, the evidence* suggests that, for most of us, it’s the warmth and competence we sense that matter most for building trust.

Elements of Trust. 2. Paul Claireaux

* Universal Dimensions of Social Cognition, by Cuddy, Fiske and Glick.

We think Teddy Roosevelt’s observation is brilliant.

No one cares what you know,

until they know that you care.

However, this quote also reveals a trap for the unwary.

If you focus too much on how much your financial adviser (or coach) seems to care, you may fail to notice how much they actually know!

So, when choosing an adviser, we urge you to look beyond their ‘warm and friendly’ nature. And check that they’re competent in the areas where you need advice.

Reason 5: We fear we’ll lose control of our money

Take Control. Paul Claireaux

Finally, for now, it’s worth noting that some people avoid talking to financial advisers because of a mistaken belief that the adviser will take complete control of their money.

Indeed, some people seem to like the idea of abdicating all responsibility for their money to an adviser.

But we don’t recommend this approach, and a good financial planner won’t let that happen.

A good planner will work closely with you to design a plan to help meet your future needs and achieve more of your goals – for yourself and your loved ones.

YOU are the only person who knows all about YOU!

You are the expert on your circumstances, your attitudes and your future ambitions.

So, you will stay in charge of your financial plan – provided you engage with it.

And if you know the basics about financial planning, you’re more likely to trust the process – and do what you need to – to make your plan a success.

Next steps

We’ve mentioned the Financial Planning process several times in this post, and we will outline that process for you in a future Insight.

In the meantime, if you don’t yet work with a financial adviser, think about when would be a good time to do so.

And don’t leave it too late. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

Thanks for dropping in.


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Educational Insights are key to your success. Paul Claireaux

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