“How are you?” It is a question we may be asked many times a day, but seldom answer completely truthfully.
Let’s face it — most British people would reply “Fine thanks, how are you?” even if their leg was hanging off. If you have known someone for a few years, you might dare to confess feeling tired and in need of a holiday, or express surprise that the weather is so hot, cold or wet for the time of year.
Friends and colleagues from the US are tickled by the famous British reserve — as a nation, they seem to find it much easier to talk frankly about their true feelings.
For most Brits the things that really are weighing on our minds — relationship problems, a family disagreement or health worries — may be expressed to a close friend. But talking about our financial fears is a subject that remains very much taboo.
Often, it is easier to talk to a stranger. As the FT’s personal finance editor, I have given more than a hundred money talks over the past four years. Questions that people are prepared to ask in front of an audience are usually of the “how do I . . .?” variety, whether that’s “how do I get started as an investor?” or “how do I get on to the property ladder?”
But there are always people who hang back at the end, as they want to confide a personal question. Nine times out of 10, this will relate to debt.
You can have a successful City career and still be troubled by these questions — debt problems pay scant respect to income. The more you earn, the bigger the debts you can amass.
Many of the men and women I’ve spoken to have fallen into the trap of spending too much to keep up with fast-living friends. One woman confessed to buying people overly generous gifts as she felt somehow unworthy of their friendship. She had a credit card balance of several thousand pounds and nothing to show for it.
I was so glad that she could confess this mistake to me and face up to the problem. I gave her some practical tips about how to shift the debt to an interest-free card and tackle paying it off, but warned that unless she dealt with the emotional reasons driving her spending, this would only be a temporary fix. By the time we parted, she was smiling again and felt ready to make some positive changes.
I mention this particular example as it shows how deeply our emotions are intertwined with our attitudes towards money. Asking for help — either for practical advice, or to be bailed out — carries a huge sense of shame. It is something most people feel they must deal with alone.
I recently spent a day with PayPlan, which operates one of the UK’s biggest problem debt call centres. Most callers had been struggling with money for two years or more before picking up the phone. People will wait until they are on the brink of bankruptcy before asking for help. Yet if the right help and advice reached them earlier in the process, this could have prevented their money problems from spiralling out of control.
So what could improve levels of financial wellbeing?
Julia Round, one of PayPlan’s debt advisers, told me that a question she was frequently asked was quite a basic one — how to set a budget.
I was intrigued to see that “how to save and budget” also topped a recent survey of financial topics that British adults said they wished they had been taught about in school — 81 per cent wanted to know more about this. Buying a house and dealing with credit cards and loans were ranked second and third.
While I agree that personal finance topics should feature more prominently on the school curriculum, the learning should not stop in the classroom. After all, the average age of a first-time home buyer in the UK is now 33.
I think there’s a strong case for enlightened employers to continue the financial learning experience within the workplace. We reach the relevant age and stage for many “money milestones” while we are working.
For many, starting their first job will mean starting to repay student debts (another topic that I am frequently asked about). This is an immediate concern — but what can be overlooked is the need to educate yourself about the company pension scheme, for example.
Away from explaining company benefits, helping employees with financial worries and problem debts are increasingly a part of financial wellbeing. Convincing employers that they should help their staff with these sorts of problems is slightly harder, yet there is a strong case to make.
This year’s Salary Finance survey found that worrying about money was the biggest source of stress for British workers — and this can also cost employers in terms of lost productivity. On average, the survey found workers spent at least three hours a week dealing with personal financial issues and took one sick day per year to deal with pressing financial concerns.
Nearly one-third confessed to regularly running out of money before payday. As a result, they said they were more likely to suffer sleepless nights, see the quality of their work suffer and have troubled relationships with work colleagues. They were also four times more likely to be suffering from mental health problems than those who felt positive about the state of their finances.
Intriguingly, those earning over £100,000 reported the same level of concern about their personal finances as those earning less than £10,000.
So, it seems, we are all secretly worrying about money. Remember this the next time you ask someone: “How are you?”
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