Financial Literacy: Do We Pretend To Be Dumber Than We Are?

I overheard an interesting discussion last week involving two colleagues planning their summer holidays. They were complaining about high gas prices and the overall cost of their summer vacation, all while joking about just adding it onto their growing credit card debt.

I found myself nodding along in agreement, like I was feeling the pinch right along with them. Why didn’t I chime in with some frugal advice about a staycation or about the importance of paying off credit card debt in full?

Financial Literacy

Most of us have a need to belong, a need to fit in with others. Back in school you were considered a nerd if you studied all the time and knew all of the answers in class. Peer pressure does funny things to us, including making us pretend we’re dumber than we truly are. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we didn’t admit our knowledge or expertise on a subject because we felt that we might be judged in a negative way.

So if the majority of your friends and co-workers are not in great financial shape, should you be the one lecturing them about saving 10% of their paycheque and not going out to eat at a restaurant 3 times a week?  Personal finance seems to be right up there with sex, religion and politics as taboo subjects to discuss.  Perhaps even more than we think.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

In the situation that I described earlier, I chose to play dumb and just nod in agreement with my colleagues about their money woes. My personality is not a type-A where I need to control the discussion and direct the focus on my experiences. Besides, it’s easy to commiserate with friends and colleagues about our finances.  Even people who have their financial act together can find things to complain about.

Financial literacy is something that I feel should be addressed on your own terms. It’s very difficult to give financial advice to your peers, even to those who need it, because there is a sense of pride that gets in the way of admitting you might need help.

That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to start a personal finance blog. I had experiences that I wanted to share about money, but I needed a platform that wasn’t an awkward water-cooler discussion or a boring dinner party conversation.

Should We Just Smarten Up?

Why do we have such reservations in discussing personal finances with our peers, especially when it comes to giving good financial advice? It’s not cool to get into credit card debt, so why do some of us talk about it in the same way we discuss getting drunk on the weekend? Do we want to be seen as normal everyday Canadians who are up to our eye-balls in debt, just so we can fit in with our peers?

It’s easy to express our opinions and share advice online. That type of candor is one of the reasons why personal finance blogs have exploded in popularity in recent years. People don’t want to be lectured by their friends on money saving tips or on how to get out of credit card debt. They would much rather seek out the advice and read about it on their own terms.

Maybe I could have made an impact with my two colleagues by suggesting some different ways they could save money on their summer vacation. I mean, this was not like the final episode of Seinfeld where they stand idly by while someone gets robbed in front of them. I wasn’t witnessing a crime and refusing to help, was I?

Have you ever played dumb with your peers when it comes to your personal finances?

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  1. Amber on July 18, 2011 at 12:43 am

    I have to share my opinion on this, and say that I don’t think it is necessarily playing dumb, per se, but more of not giving unsolicited advice, which is good grown-up etiquette. 🙂

    I usually don’t play dumb about things, but I am more of a thinker than a talker. If I don’t see a good long break in conversation that is big enough for me to jump in with my thoughts, I do what you did…nod along and keep my thoughts to myself, no matter what the topic.

    • Echo on July 18, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      @Amber – thanks for your comment. I am more of a listener as well, so I don’t feel comfortable jumping in, especially with unsolicited advice.

  2. My Own Advisor on July 18, 2011 at 7:08 am

    I’m with Amber here Robb. Unsolicited advice is the worse advice from an etiquette perspective. If someone has asked, don’t answer.

    Overhearing, witnessing or just plain listening to a conversation is not playing dumb, I think it just is being respectful of the conversation.

    On another note, as I age, I’m learning more truths about human behaviour; adults (in general) love to complain about things but rarely do they want to do anything about it. I guess for most people, it becomes harder to change, to learn, to apply in anything we do as we get older for many reasons. Too bad in many respects…

    Finally, on that subject, it is too bad about personal finance being a taboo, heck, finance in general. I’ve never liked that. Hopefully that will change over time as society becomes more open, confident and transparent.

    • Echo on July 18, 2011 at 12:04 pm

      @My Own Advisor – yes, we do love to complain about things, don’t we? I agree that it’s a shame people aren’t more open about their finances. Although I do find it interesting that people are more open to talk about investing (winners and losers).

      Maybe I’ll just start emailing random blog articles to my friends and colleagues and hope the information sinks in 😉

    • Andrew Gomez on May 1, 2013 at 7:28 am

      I agree that unsolicited advice can be poor etiquette, but I also try to remind myself that for one to not share their experience and/or knowledge due to fear of taboo is selfish.

      It takes some effort but when I feel the opportunity to jump into a conversation I first apologize for interrupting and that I overheard whatever they were speaking about. Then I explain why I’m interrupting (i.e. I had a similar conversation with a friend of mine.), and ask if they mind if I share my experience or knowledge. Assuming they say yes (which they usually do), whether genuinely or out of kindness. You have now been welcomed to participate in the conversation.

      I agree that it is too bad that topics like personal finance are considered taboo, but taboo is a societal creation and unless more of us push against it, it won’t change.

  3. My University Money on July 18, 2011 at 7:23 am

    I think this is a great post Rob, I will consistently play dumb when the dreaded money topic comes up. I sometimes wonder if we still see the affects of that landed gentry ideal from our British roots. Back then the whole premise was that money was dirty and truly well-off people did not talk about it, only peasants and traders did. I will never understand why middle-class people cannot talk about this stuff.

    As a sidenote, I have a post coming up this week about the reality of “all-time high gas prices” that might surprise people. Stay tuned.

    • Echo on July 18, 2011 at 12:06 pm

      @My University Money – interesting take on the subject. Perhaps it’s the Canadian in us that just wants to be polite and not rock the boat.

      Looking forward to your post on gas prices, although I suspect that I will agree with your findings 😉

  4. No Debt MBA on July 18, 2011 at 9:05 am

    I also tend to play dumb. At most in that situation I might say that we had decided to stay close to home for vacation because of gas prices (if that were 100% the case). Unsolicited advice is awkward and can come off as preachy, but sharing your experience or decisions briefly, just as anyone else would, seems to be okay sometimes.

    • Echo on July 18, 2011 at 12:08 pm

      @No Debt MBA – that makes sense, and I would do the same. Since we’re building a house I can just say we’re trying to save because of the new house, which is completely true.

  5. Mike on July 18, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Robb…great post! I always take a similar position. I nod and smile and don’t feel the need to add to the conversation, preferring to keep my PF matters to myself. I’m glad that I now know I’m not the only one that does this!

    • Echo on July 18, 2011 at 12:12 pm

      @Mike – thanks! I’ll admit that when I have offered advice or recommended something and the person has acted on it, that makes me feel pretty good. I just never want to come off as preachy.

      When I switched my payroll over to ING Direct because of the $100 bonus, my HR rep asked me about it…so I explained how it all worked and then sent her the link to the ING offer. She was really grateful that I shared the info.

  6. krantcents on July 18, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    At work, I was the Chief Financial Officer, I couldn’t very well play along or act dumb. I find that unless someone actually asks for help or advice they are not ready to hear it. If they are not ready, it is no use you telling them. They won’t listen!

  7. retirebyforty on July 18, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Yeah, I usually play dumb as well. Who am I to tell them how to spend their money? I pick my battle and keep my energy to fight with families. 😉

  8. youngandthrifty on July 19, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I do it all the time. Smile and nod. Widen my eyes a little (in astonishment to them having credit card debt).

    It would be interesting to see how many people actually do HAVE credit card debt. Of course as PF bloggers, we are type A about our money and it would be blasphemy to have any sort of credit card debt.

    My close friends know I am passionate about saving. And if friends start talking about the market, or investments I get excited and chime in. I don’t usually bring it up though.

  9. LoonieLover on June 13, 2013 at 7:41 am

    I’m a teacher by profession, so lecturing people is an occupational hazard that I try to avoid. In a situation like this, if there is a suitable entry point for me into the conversation, I drop a hint or two that there might be a better way, and then I leave it at that. If they are interested, they’ll ask for more information. If not, they probably wouldn’t listen any way.
    That probably sounds kind of passive aggressive, but after having taught adults for the past 6 years, I see the truth and wisdom in the phrase, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

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