Archive for December 6th, 2015

Money: paradigms, transparency, taboos, etc

Let’s talk money.

Or, if you’re an USian — let’s not.

I’ve lived in Taiwan, China, and the US for long enough periods of time to gain some feel for how much people talk and do not talk about money and the differences are striking.

In Taiwan/China it’s perfectly kosher to meet someone and start talking about how much you each make, how much your house cost, how much your spouse is pulling in, etc etc etc. People just kind of stand around, exchanging all these numbers without really thinking too much about it.

In the US that whole aspect of life is seriously hush-hush. I had to apologize a couple of times when I really wanted the information, “hey, I’m sorry for asking, but we were thinking of finding a place in the area and how much is the rent on your place?” and I still got strange looks. And forget talking about salary. That was like asking someone in public, “hey, have you ever thought about anal sex?” or something similar. Not quite “have you ever done it in the ass?” but close.

I was on someone’s donate to me page, and their answer to “why not Patreon?” was:  ”I’m uncomfortable with the transparency sites like Patron and Kickstarter that make public financial amounts and goals. It’s really no one’s business how much or how little anyone is making.”

If they meant “no one gets to judge me and my decisions about my life based on my income”, then sure. Yes. Definitely.

However, I disagree that it’s no one’s business how much anyone is making.

I would like to know what the person the next cubicle over is making. If we have roughly the same duties, then I would like to know if we’re making roughly the same and if not, why. I would like to know what the men and women of the same company make and if there’s any discrepancy that can’t be easily explained by ability / achievements / seniority. That last is suspect, by the way, depending on the male to female ratio of the higher-ups.

I would like to know how much money my professor is making (and how hard was it to get to where she is now) because that would affect my decision as to whether or not a life in academia is actually a good idea financially.  Spoiler: probably not.

I would like to know how much my senators are worth and where they’re getting their money because that sort of info might affect how they vote.

Knowledge is power. I see absolutely no reason why anyone would deliberately disempower themselves.

It’s valuable knowledge to find out that my friend, who carries a full-time job, is incapable of paying for a studio apartment on her own, much less save for a mortgage or children down the road. It’s invaluable to know that most of my friends are in the same boat.

It’s useful to know that the other temp I work with has difficulty making ends meet because of high insurance deductibles and co-pay and she needs to choose to alternate which bills are late because she needs to make rent and daycare first.

It’s helpful to know that the single dad down the street is selling plasma because it’s either that or turn off the heat in the dead of winter.

Know your fellow human being. Know what they have and don’t have and the story behind it all. Better yet, know more about what other people in other countries pay and don’t pay for, what their lives are like, and what their stories are.


You’ll find out the person who supports Obamacare/food stamps/ some other helpful gummint thing isn’t some lazy louseabout who can’t be bothered to get a job. It could be someone you know. It could be someone who you care about. It could be one of your friends or family members. It could be someone who could be a friend.

It’s easy to live in a bubble when no one is talking to anyone about important, potentially dangerous bits of information like this. It’s easy to believe that you’re the only one, to believe in the crazy-making of “pull yourself up by your own damn bootstraps”, to buy into the idea that if you only work harder, you’ll be able to dig yourself out of your life into a better one.

The thing is, we’re not alone. We don’t need to be alone.

It’s more than politics and equality and fair wages and fair pay and all that good stuff though. It’s also about empowering your children and helping them understand this world we live in. It’d be nice if we could give them a better world than the one we inherited, but that’s another blog.

I’ve never understood not being upfront with children about money, how much there is of it, and how it works.

My parents were spectacularly awful at it.

My mom chose to tell me that she uprooted me from the only life/language/culture/school system I’d ever known because I refused to learn Chinese when it was in fact because my father realized that he wasn’t going to be made partner in his firm and they figured they’d have a better chance at better pay/partnership if we returned to Taiwan.

Let’s set aside the mental trauma of believing that all of my subsequent suffering was my own damn fault and the trauma of having a cruel and unusual punishment inflicted on me when I wasn’t even warned of things and consequences.

They did it again three years later, to similar effect regarding trauma and rage and other fun shizz. This time it was moving from Taiwan to China. And no, Taiwan and China are really very different in culture. Simplified Chinese is also sufficiently different from Traditional Chinese that I wandered around for about three months illiterate. Again!

It is my (perhaps fond) belief that I would have had an easier time of adjusting and understanding just what the hell was going on if they had put it to me in simple mathematical terms:

This is how much money daddy is making. This is how much money we need. If we stay in the US, we will not be able to afford much of anything, including college for you. So we are moving.

and then:

This is how much daddy is making. This is how much money we need. This USian company is willing to pay a shit ton of money for daddy and us to go China (also known as the hellhole where the natives are so poor they eat banana skins along with the bananas [not true btw]) and we’re really sorry this is happening but hey you get to go to an American school and possibly to college in the US later, okay?

My parents, in fact, were so very weirdly non-communicative about money that by the time I went to college in the US, I had this idea that we were middle-lower class. Yes. It’s pretty humiliating. I’m ashamed. No need to rub it in.

In my self-defense, I was making assumptions based on my parents’ visible (to me) spending habits, the amount of money they gave to me for my lunch money, the mathematics behind when they refused to buy me things, and the conspicuous consumption of my peers.

Oh, and I was adequately punished by the fact that I chose not to go to NYU because of the higher (much!) price tag. So there.

Whereas my brother is four-almost-five years younger than I am and he grew up with an different attitude towards money because the environment he was used to was massively different than the one I was used to. By the time he was aware of stuff, my parents were doing much better and we were eating out more, etc. However, he was also never sat down and talked to about just how the whole broken system worked. As far as he knew, it was either feast or famine (red envelopes! rando bonus money! parents refusing to give allowances!) and he never learned how to pace himself or budget.

It also led to his deciding that attempting for medical school and all its assorted fees and loans and lost economic opportunity and so forth is a good idea.

Prediction: probably a terrible idea given someone titled an article “medical school, my $1mil mistake”. (we’re working on trying to dissuade him without discouraging him)

I’m at the point where I feel a good portion of society’s ills could be solved with adequate application of real life numbers at a young enough age.

Answers I wish someone had asked me when I was younger, before I made my college decision (no, not a typo):

- approximately how much money will you need to have the kind of lifestyle you want?

- on that note, what is your absolute baseline “want” for lifestyle?

- so, about buying a house and stuff… you might want to look up house prices in the area you’re thinking about buying versus income

- you realize that college isn’t just about going and learning shit, right? It’s also about stuff like networking, internships, all that?

- do you really like trees more than you like having NYU on your resume? Also known as do you like to have nice things?

- do you understand that you probably can’t just walk out of college with your fresh diploma and get a job that will keep you in the way that you are accustomed to?

- having an English/communications/psychology/women’s study degree with no further intent to study further is maybe just one step above having a degree in dog-sitting. You realize this, right?

- if given a choice between going to a small lib-arts college and subsequent job-hunt versus taking the money and doing something with it, what appeals more? Keep in mind the above question.

- are you capable of taking whatever job you get and being okay with it by virtue of the fact that you’re getting paid, or do you need to be happy and fulfilled in your job?

- do you understand the power of compound interest and delayed gratification and all that jazz?

- on that note, did you know that the only way to get out from under student loans is to pay them off? Bankruptcy will cover that Lamborghini you bought on credit, but not your students loans, just FYI.

- do you understand how shitty it is to live in a country with no nationalized healthcare and be old and broke?

- do you know what the average pay is for a temp/barista/receptionist/entry-level-shit-job in the city you want to live in?

- do you know the chances of getting an entry-level-shit-job are for the city you want to live in?

- on a scale of one to NOOOOOOOOOOO, how much do you want to be one of those people who have to go home and live with their parents after college?

- given the answer to the above three questions, do you want to reconsider the decision on your major?

- do you understand, like truly understand, that you will be judged by the company you keep and who your friends are is going to influence your future success and happiness?

- furthermore, if you’re female, did you know that it gets way harder to meet people after college? Yeah. I’m talking about mawwiage, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

I’m sure there are many other questions that I would have wanted to hear, but those are some of the main ones that that keep popping up when I talk to people around my age.

You can’t learn well when you don’t know what you don’t know. Worse, there are so many myths about how the world works that are either artifacts from an earlier time or just plain not true ever and those muddy the waters further.

Even with the internet being as helpful as it is – it’s only as useful as the search terms that you put into it.

So I’m all for education, for transparency, for shutting down this silly notion that we’re going to refuse to discuss something that’s a major part of our lives.