Money Talks

Money Talks

Exploring the questions and answers transforming life, work, and play in America.

It’s time we had the money talk. Empower’s new research explores foundational perceptions about money, its biggest taboos, and Americans’ attitudes and behaviors around spending, saving, and investing. We talked to 2,000 U.S. adults, digging into lessons learned about finances growing up, money in the workplace, and exchanges in social situations. Money Talks is about the financial questions shaping how we live, work, and play – and the conversations we’re having (or not) to find answers. Here’s what we heard. 

There’s a saying that money makes the world go round. Talking about it is another matter. While 66% of Americans believe more open conversations about money are the key to financial freedom – speaking candidly about their own finances remains hushed.*

Money talk remains taboo across almost every aspect of modern society: economically, educationally, culturally. Americans are constantly planning (64%) and dreaming (58%) about their future, saying they’re often thinking about finances (61%) – but that’s where it goes silent.

Over six in 10 Americans (62%) don’t talk about money. Mum’s the word with their family (63%), friends (75%), and even with their spouse/partner (46%). Many people would rather discuss politics (43%) and death (32%) than their finances (24%). Millennials (56%) and Gen Z (49%) are less guarded, free with money topics compared to older generations (38% Gen X and 22% Boomers), and twice as likely to say they’re an “open book” (28% vs. 13%).

People may not be talking, but they are searching. In 2022, more Americans searched Google for “how to buy I bonds” and “how to be rich” than “how to be smart.” Nearly all survey respondents professed they have questions about money (86%), with how to make more (67%), and how much to save for retirement (63%) topping the list. Given the space to ask, respondents poured out their most burning questions, seeking answers to pressing and profound money worries like, “How do I save for the future when there are so many things to save for?” 

The survey revealed that the very questions people have are the ones they’re holding back on: Americans wonder how much money they should invest in the market (26%), yet 49% say they never talk about investing. One in 5 are curious how to pay down debt (19%), but 36% confess they don’t talk about debt. Paradoxically, money is on the mind, but it’s not on the tip of the tongue.

The story of money can be complicated, and roots run deep, all the way back to our earliest years. A majority of Americans surveyed (61%) say they never learned about personal finance in school, and half (52%) say that money wasn’t talked about at home or growing up. Respondents report they’ve been raised without practical, critical money lessons like budgeting (32%), saving for retirement (21%), negotiating a salary (18%), or investing (17%). Rather, the biggest lesson they say they were taught is money doesn’t buy happiness (48%). Yet, when asked to define “financial freedom” people tend to equate the two, saying it means “having a comfortable lifestyle” (50%) and being debt-free (54%). To a third of people, financial freedom is just as much about being able to go on vacation when you want (28%) as it is about the classic American dream of owning a home (29%).

In a society where “money talk” is ingrained in people’s everyday lives – we sing along to lyrics about making paper on our playlists, binge watch reality TV shows about America’s most wealthy, and scroll through social timelines filled with influencers popular enough to sell out products overnight – Americans are not talking about it enough in the ways that matter.

Staying tight-lipped about money is something people may no longer be able to afford. Today, the average American holds a debt balance of $96,371. Student loan borrowers owe a collective $1.76 trillion. Home equity has proven elusive, with only 27% of millennials saying they own a place. And 32% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 in cash to pay for an emergency.

If conversation is a currency on the pathway to financial security, it’s time to start speaking up.

  • Money is the monster under the bed in many homes – and it’s time to turn on the lights: More than half of Americans say they never talked about finances growing up, and 1 in 4 learned that it’s not polite to talk about money. Another 35% of Americans say they were taught to never ask someone how much money they make. Respondents report being raised without practical, critical money lessons like budgeting (32%), saving for retirement (21%), negotiating a salary (18%), or investing (17%). 
  • There’s no such thing as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but when it comes to money, it’s much easier for Americans to believe in magic: 71% of Americans have purchased a lottery ticket and 1 in 4 millennials turn to a fortune teller for advice, and yet only one third of Americans have spoken with a financial advisor.
  • Financial knowledge is power – and many Americans could benefit from taking stock: Just six in 10 Americans know their own net worth (58%), and only 38% know their partner’s. More people are familiar with Elon Musk’s net worth (28%) than their own family’s (24%). Having clarity around your full financial picture (40%), talking to an advisor (36%), and financial education (34%) can be critical to achieving success.
  • Pay transparency could redefine the modern work experience and motivate people to work harder: Americans avoid uncomfortable money talk at work (68%), but wish discussing salaries wasn’t taboo (56%), stating it would help avoid miscommunications (60%) and motivate them to work harder (50%). To help with potential career opportunities, 34% of Americans, including over half of Gen Z (53%) and Millennials (58%), would share their salary information on their LinkedIn.​
  • More candid “money talks” have the power to change the world: 66% believe that open money conversations can help more people achieve financial freedom and can help people build generational wealth. Six in 10 say it can help improve the gender wage gap (62%) and over half say that open money conversations can improve workplace transparency (56%).

Key stats:

  • Growing pains: 1 in 4 Americans were taught it’s impolite to talk about finances and only 32% learned how to budget while growing up.  
  • Stressed out: A third of Americans regularly worry about money. 
  • Mirror, mirror: 43% of Americans say they have prepared for a money conversation by practicing in the mirror or writing down their thoughts ahead of time.  
  • Would you rather: More than a quarter of Americans (29%) would rather wait in line at the DMV, sit on jury duty (27%), miss a flight (26%), or have a TV show spoiled (26%) than tell a stranger how much money they have.  

Break open the piggy bank 

Don’t talk about money: that’s the message half (52%) of Americans hear, learning it’s impolite to talk about finances (26%), and certainly not what you earn (35%). The taboo prevails for two-thirds (60%) of people who don’t feel comfortable on the topic.

Americans recall stowing away coins in a piggy bank (41%) but say many practical financial lessons weren’t discussed – like the importance of having an emergency fund (31%), building good credit (30%), and managing debt (27%) – as kids or adults. This might explain why Americans tend to clam up when the conversation turns to money. While many received an allowance (36%), the majority (68%) were never taught how to manage a budget. Nearly a quarter of Gen Zers (23%) grew up in a household with a swear jar teaching about money and manners – yet 79% of all people say they never spoke about how much is “needed” to be financially secure.

YOLO

One in 5 (18%) Americans surveyed say they were raised with a YOLO money motto: “You only live once, so don’t worry too much about finances.” Despite the saying, more than a third (37%) say they regularly worry. That’s even higher for Gen Z and Millennials (51% and 49%) and women, who are considerably more stressed about their personal finances than men (42% vs. 33%).

Less than a quarter discussed saving in a 401(k) (21%), salary negotiation (18%), or investing in the stock market (17%), critical lessons that could alleviate some anxiety in their adult years. When it comes to the stock market, 75% of men vs. 50% of women say they understand how it works. All this silence may come at a cost, leading to increased uncertainty about opening up: 43% of Americans admit to having practiced a money conversation in the mirror before the real thing.

Let’s change the subject

People are more open about polarizing subjects like politics (43%), existential topics (32%), or even relationship advice (31%) – before conversing about cash. People prefer dishing about their favorite food (57%), what they watched on Netflix (46%), or celebrity news (28%) over sharing their financial plans (24%).

Ever hear the phrase, time is money? Not to the more than a quarter of Americans (29%) who would rather wait in line at the DMV, sit on jury duty (27%), or miss a flight (26%) than reveal how much money they have in the bank. Nearly a third (28%) would rather give a big presentation at work, and 17% would prefer a blind date to showing their financial statements. More than a quarter of Americans would rather have a movie, TV show or book spoiled than share how much is in their coffers.

Asked but not answered 

Besides their spouse or partner, less than half of Americans talk about their personal finances with their own family (49%), friends (35%), financial advisor (34%), or a coworker (12%). And while 70% of Americans think money conversations should be kept private, the vast majority (86%) have at least one question about money on their minds. ​“How do I make more money?” (67%) and “How much money do I need for retirement?” (63%) are two of the biggest ones asked today.​ Nearly half (44%) say they never talk about how much money they have or how much they need to be financially secure (44%), even though 65% feel confident about their long-term plan.