What we talk about when we talk about money

12 Dec

Aka: the best thing I did in 2020

Religion. Politics. Money. The stuff you’re not supposed to talk about at the dinner table; the stuff you rarely bring up with friends. But where we might feel comfortable, after a couple of glasses of wine, gently probing someone’s attitudes to the death penalty or the afterlife, somehow money-talk can be a step too far. 

Transitioning into the world of fintech in the early part of this year and researching the foundations of financial wellbeing, I’ve realised why. Money comes with a whole heap of baggage. It’s not just about your account balance. It’s also about feelings of shame, stigma and fear. 

That’s why I jumped at the chance to take part in the Own It project, developed and run by Friends of the Earth and Enrol Yourself. After a taster session at the Finance Innovation Lab’s Women in Finance networking event (RIP in-person networking), I signed up to train as a facilitator so I could run my own online project over the summer of 2020. 

Own It’s premise is simple. Women will soon hold the majority of the world’s wealth (60% by 2025, according to The Centre for Economics and Business Research). And 83% of women care about where their money is invested (Moxie Future). But many women (43% – Scottish Friendly) feel put off investing their savings because it seems complicated. There’s a gender gap when it comes to money matters, and it means women sometimes don’t have the confidence or knowhow to put their money where it makes a difference. The Own It project puts together small groups of women to get them talking about their money: what they spend, where it’s stored, and how it could be used for positive impact. The women who take part can then go off and talk to other women about their money – and so on! 

My Own It training cohort was made up of women from a range of backgrounds, with different levels of experience in finance and environmental causes. We worked through how to facilitate effective sessions and how to run some of the specific activities. But we also started to break down some of our own barriers when it comes to talking about money. 

In the first session, we were each asked to show an object representing our relationship to money. I held up a stuffed rabbit I happened to have nearby. “Rabbit in the headlights,” I said, thinking of how I felt like my lack of financial acumen was being harshly illuminated now I’d moved into fintech. It was a theme I returned to when I started running my own Own It sessions: my own sense of inadequacy. I remembered starting university and barely knowing how to use my bank card, despite earning my own money since the age of 16. Then I encountered people who had savings accounts, ISAs and inheritance. I felt ignorant and poor. And that just made me stick my head in the sand. 

Own It felt liberating. In both the training and my actual project, we worked together to create a non-judgemental space where we could open up about our feelings and experiences. I didn’t feel ashamed to admit how much I still have to learn. Instead, I felt motivated to take action.

What happened in our sessions stays in our sessions, but I will relay two key themes that came from our work. One was the notion of mindful spending. I’m a woman interested in environmental and ethical causes, who’s been gradually introducing plastic-free alternatives to my life over the last few years. But Own It’s money mapping exercise showed me that, in many cases, I was spending without thinking. Did I need to get my fruit and veg from the supermarket? Was I just shopping on a notoriously unethical website just because it was convenient? Did I know anything about my insurance provider or was it just the first search result? Taking time to really think about my money habits and future spending was one positive outcome of the project. 

Through peer coaching, I was also able to set SMART goals for myself, which I’ve gradually ticked off over the year. Since the first taster session, I’ve opened a new savings account, switched my current account to a more ethical provider, decided not to buy a new phone, shopped locally more often, built a decent emergency fund and moved my pension investments into sustainable funds. Not yet a millionaire, but more in control, and more confident that my money isn’t causing harm. Without Own It, I’d probably still be paralysed by fear. 

The second key theme was the importance of bringing others along with us. None of us operates in a vacuum; we have family members, partners, colleagues and friends, all of whom influence our financial wellbeing. 

Own It wasn’t just talking about money. It was talking about the fabric of our lives. 

As we head into 2021, I’ve got new courage to tackle my financial goals. But I also want the conversation to continue. Money is something we all need to deal with, for better or for worse. And talking about it can be the first step to not only feeling good, but doing good. 

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