Money Talks, but No One’s Talking About Money

“It’s tacky to talk about money.” How many times have we heard that? How often have we been discouraged from discussing financial matters with others? In some aspects, this is absolutely correct: money talk is tacky. But there’s one number that we do ourselves a disservice by not discussing: salaries.

A dollar bill folded into the shape a shirt.How much we get paid is a conversational minefield. It’s so deeply ingrained in us not to talk about money that we guard our salaries like state secrets. And in some contexts, that’s wise. Within your own company, for example. In many workplaces, discussing salaries with coworkers can be a terminable offense. And really, no good can come of knowing what the person in the next cubicle makes. Either you make more and they feel badly, or they make more and you feel badly. Once you’re locked into a salary, making more money is often a near-impossible prospect. And that’s why we need to get over our salary silence.

The best time to negotiate how much money you make is when you’re interviewing for a job. Once there’s a number thrown out there, you’re generally going to be locked within 10% or so of that figure for your entire time at your position. So it’s in your best interest to start out with that number high. The trouble is, we seem to have a problem knowing how high is high enough, and how high is too high, and we can’t figure it out because no one’s talking.

Sure, there are resources for finding out what people in your industry and area make. and similar sites allow you to search specific companies and positions to find out all kinds of information, including salary. But we’re missing out on a huge resource here: each other. We have such a fear of discussing “numbers” that very few of us know what the others make.

I was recently witness to a conversation between two acquaintances who do almost identical types of freelance work, with similar work histories and (as far as I know) similar levels of skill. Throughout the course of a drunken evening, as these things tend to come about, it came out that one acquaintance commanded an hourly rate nearly double what the other person earned. Both were flabbergasted. And they each earned what they did because it’s what they asked for. The acquaintance who was getting paid less tried a little experiment before her next contract with a new company: she asked for the higher rate. And she got it, because it was within the norm of what that company paid for that work. She doubled her earning with two conversations.

So why aren’t we talking about this more? Why is it such a mystery what we all make? So few of us wander into our first “grown-up” job interviews with any real idea of what we could or should be getting paid. So many of us have limited our own earning potential by entering salary negotiations without the information we need to ask for the money we should be making. And one of the ways I can see to remedy this situation is start talking. Sure, it’ll uncomfortable and weird at first, since we’ve been trained since birth, practically, not to talk about money. But once these conversations start happening, we might find ourselves moving closer and closer to earning what we should be.

44 replies on “Money Talks, but No One’s Talking About Money”

I haven’t had a raise in 4 years. I am extremely lucky that I negotiated a decent starting salary at this job — I didn’t think I was going to get offered the position, so I quoted a salary that seemed ridiculously high to me at the time, but is probably actually reasonable. I’ve tripled my responsibilities in the years since I was hired, including now being in charge of the invoicing/collections, but my pay rate hasn’t budged. But while my ‘real’ wage has gone down during the recession, at least I earn enough to squeak by.

Which has given me a new and more cut throat position on salary. I was just offered a position at a new company that might have more mobility for me and in a more exciting industry, but they wanted to higher me at a 6 thousand dollar paycut. I have 15 years of experience under my belt and I’m worth more than I make now. I flat out told them I couldn’t negotiate down to take the position (a risky move even if I had — they fired the last 3 women who had the same job in under a year), so they decided to ‘see who they could get’ for even less than that. And that’s fine. I’m done short selling my talents.

Uuuugh I am probably going to have to do salary negotiations soon. Saw the links for Payscale, so checking that out. The tough thing is that the job would be primarily commission after a time, so… ugh. But that is nice because it breaks it down by how much is salary and how much is commission, which most sites I’ve used don’t specify.

Since we’re on the topic, I’ll ask here. Do any of you use Elance or ODesk for freelance writing jobs? How much do you ask for? I decided to test the waters and I literally have NO idea what to put for my minimum. I don’t want to sell myself short and undercut what other people make, but I don’t want to ask so much that I get laughed off the sites. Any advice?

I’ve done both. I started by asking $15/hr until I built my reputation, now I ask for $30.  I will work for slightly less for a great client or really interesting work, but I can usually pull down my asking rate or higher.

The worst part about those services is the first six months, but as long as you set goals for yourself and really work at hitting them, you can do okay there.  Good luck, and PM me if you want any moral support/advice from a long-time freelancer.

I just want to say “Hooray for this article!”

I have to get to a meeting, but we totally need to be talking about how much we make.  How else will we know if we’re getting what is fair?

Honestly – I don’t know if I’m getting the fair thing or not.  Around here, you’re allowed to say how much you make if you want to, but if you say something about how much someone else makes you get canned.  So nobody talks.

At my last job all non-exempt (hourly) workers’ payscales were published – so if you cared enough you could calculate how much any given person was making based on rank and time of service.  But the exempt (“professional”) payscale was a mystery.

We need to be more vocal so we can decrease this persistent pay gap.

Discussing salary with anyone but your most senior supervisor and then only in certain review-type settings is a terminable offense in my work place. The glassdoor site was very enlightening. And it appears that I’m making several dollars an hour below company average for my position and experience. I don’t know what good it’ll do, but I plan on using that information during my next review in hopes of negotiating a better hourly rate. It can’t hurt to ask, right?

Oh man, I absolutely believe that people should be talking about what they make, without embarrassment. I do not have a problem talking about how much I make, and (though I always preface with a “if you don’t mind me asking”) I will absolutely ask people what they make.

The only people benefitted by people not wanting to talk about money are the people who are doing the paying.

Until relatively recently, I was a public employee, and my salary was available online for anyone to see. Constituents would call up so angry about the fact that they were “paying our salaries” and all that rhetoric that the Right likes to whip people up into a frenzy about. Let’s be frank; I liked my job, but I wasn’t about to work 50-60 hours a week just for the hell of it. I have bills to pay just like everyone else. Anyway, I would always direct them – especially the angriest of them! – to where they could find out every penny that I earned. Was it higher than the regional median? Yes – but not by much, and it was well, well below the median salary for people with master’s degrees. Certainly it didn’t placate all of them, but the knowledge of exactly how little we all were making goes a loooooong way to combat the perception of lazy, rich, fatcat government employees sucking off the government teat.

One of the areas where it’s very, very important to talk about compensation is in academia – specifically the adjunct racket. And it is such a racket. I make $600/credit hour at my current institution. That’s $1800 for most classes, for the ENTIRE semester’s worth of work. If you add up all the time planning lectures, drafting quizzes, grading papers and tests, taking student questions in office hours (and more often, via e-mail at all hours of the day), and actually teaching, it works out to a little less than $9/hour. Now, I knew this was less than my last school (which paid about $2400/semester) going into it, but I had no idea how low BOTH of them were compared to other places. And of course, very few of us are paid a reasonable amount. If adjuncts don’t  talk about it, nobody knows how badly off we all have it, and there’s nothing we can do to fix it.

I don’t know what the national average is (especially since it varies so much by department – hard sciences get paid more than humanities, for example – and region and type of institution), but here are two very interesting links that I came across during a discussion recently.

1) The president of the MLA talks about what adjuncts ought to be paid (hint: it’s much higher than they are) and the shitty way we treat them.

2) A fascinating google doc and accompanying story in which adjuncts get together to crowdsource how much we all make. http://copy–

Cool, thanks, I’ll check that out.

I’ve been talking a lot to the professor I’m TAing for; he’s an adjunct and he’s commented before about how adjuncts get no respect. At the time we were discussing his lack of an office…I didn’t realize how comprehensive the shittiness was!

My department has 17 adjuncts. We share one office that has three desks, three computers, and four chairs. Fortunately, I teach evening classes, so I’ve only run into one or two other people in there at the same time as me. I can’t imagine what the day slots are like.

We are “lucky” in that we’re represented by a union that has negotiated us some stuff. (The big highlight? We don’t get docked pay for classes missed due to snow days or other campus-wide closings, which was apparently happening, before I came on!) You can get state employee health insurance and pay into the state teachers’ retirement system, which is more benefits that a LOT of other adjuncts have access to. Of course, the problem is how in the world does an adjunct afford those things if they don’t have a spouse who’s employed or some other full time job?

Four. Seventeen adjuncts and four full-time professors, one of whom is the department head. (In fairness, it’s a community college and not a 4-year college or university.)

The problem is, it’s not even the department head’s fault. He has classes that majors have to take that he can’t offer frequently enough because he doesn’t have the resources to fill it. He wants to hire three more full-time people, but the college simply won’t give him the money because it’s so much cheaper to hire adjuncts.

This sounds like the situation we had at my super shnazzy 4 year private school too. We were the bastard child department and we only had a few full time staff and then a crap ton of classes that were only offered at 7 at night or on Saturdays because the adjunct proff worked a day job.

I’m grossly underpaid in my role, and I knew that when I accepted my job. I’d researched the work, knew they’d been through a restructuring and were doing everything on a shoe string budget. I accepted it because 1) Good place to work, 2) Great experience 3) Boss recognises the pay is bad so we have generous leave entitlements (10 days sick leave is heaven) .However, when I start getting a bit of experience up, I will be going down to my boss’ office and doing a bit of negotiation. I know what my peers here are earning (2 of them are very good friends so have shared it with me), so I know where I should be going up the pay rates.

I talked about being asked how much I earn here. That fucker was just being rude and nosey so I declined to answer.

Oh, not only salary is a huge conversational faux pas around here. Don’t even think about thinking to ask what you have in your bank account.

On one hand I completely follow the thought of Why should you tell? I receive money for my work and how is that your business?
On the other hand, in a world were men still get more than women for the same job, I think it is very necessary to know what you need to deserve. And that means talking about it.

I’ve found it incredible hard/scary to negotiate a salary the past four years or so (and I’ve been laid off twice in that time).  After battling through 1,000s of other applicants, jumping through 3-5 interviews, and basically turning over my entire life to people via background checks I’ve just been incredibly grateful to have an offer.  It’s a buyers market so to speak with employers and it’s scary to think asking for a few thousand more a year could be a deal breaker and force you to start over.

One of the best, absolute best, parts of working a union job for me was the public employment contract. It meant that everyone doing the same work with the same seniority made the same money. I really wish there was some way that employers could apply that to every job. No one should feel like their coworkers should not know what they make at the risk of making someone upset. It shouldn’t be some back room hand wavy thing. If there is a system in place that says worker at x task with y seniority make z salary, then it’s easy to see that everyone is treated fairly.

As somebody way off being a productive member of the job market, this shit terrifies me. Where the hell do you guys learn this stuff? Where did anyone who knows it? Why can’t I just be self-effacing and still rule the world? FRAGEN.

My schooling’s actually been really good for bank tutorials and stuff you wouldn’t necessarily pick up off the bat; it’s just that it seems to assume we’ll have a job when we’re opening our bank account and saving thriftily.

I keep wanting to go, “I want to do Mandarin as a degree but I’m interested in Literature. I know I am dooming myself to at least a decade of jobs that value my language skill and nothing of my humanities skill. TELL ME HOW TO GET A JOB.”


That’s great to hear that your schooling has covered finance. We received very little on the topic, I have hunches as to why, but I think it’s such an important topic that it should be taught about more. The whole field needs more education within schools, indeed.


I use sites like Payscale to research fair wages in different roles (by geographical location, years of experience, special skills, and so forth) when I’m interviewing for new positions or trying to negotiate raises, and it’s been really helpful.

Honestly, the reason I don’t tell people how much I make is because a: I live in one of the most expensive cities in the nation, and so my salary is significantly higher than many of my friends (but I still have little elbow-room at the end of every pay period); people tend to raise their eyebrows and lose their sense of compassion when I lament my money troubles after hearing how much I make, and b: so much of my paycheck goes out to student loans. It’s ironic: even though I have a higher cost of living than many of my friends in other locations, I couldn’t afford to live in a less expensive location because my salary would drop, too, and my fixed expenses (like student loans and my fiance’s back-owed taxes) would not be any less.

Anyway, I don’t share numbers because people act like dicks about the money I make and expect me to foot bills I can’t afford to foot afterward.

Absolutely. (Although, honestly, I still am only able to make the minimum monthly payment on my loans.)

I’d love to be able to be transparent with people about my salary, but I’ve just found that it makes things ugly with people I know personally. Essentially it just becomes a number people can throw back in my face. (Even my mother has done this. She mentions my visiting more often, I say I can’t afford it, she comes back with, “But you make $X a year. How can you not afford a $200 plane ticket?”) Sigh. I’m super grateful that I finally make enough that I CAN afford to pay my loans and rent, but that doesn’t mean I’m flush with cash, here, either.

Oh yeah – the family interpretation of it, arrrrgh. I used to live in the DC area, and when I had to temporarily move in with my father while house-hunting (my landlord sold the place I was renting & gave me 30 days’ notice when I had pneumonia…), I accepted a new job offer and told him how excited I was, what I’d be making, how all benefits were paid for, etc. Instead of being happy for me, he accused me of lying about how much I’d be making because it was more than his CPA wife made. Well, for one, she’d barely ever worked, and two, way to diminish anything positive. Then some other relatives started with the ‘well you can afford it’ line, trying to guilt me into paying for things that I really could not budget at the time with a new home to furnish and pay for. I’d get my half-siblings gifts for the holidays, but they never got me anything (nor even thanked me for what I got them) because they just ‘expected’ that the older one with more money should get them something. The youngest is now getting married and expects me to buy her a gift, even though my father is paying for her wedding (refused to pay for mine) and she was able to afford a thousand-dollar dress but I couldn’t even afford a tenth of that amount when I got married. Seems like everyone is a financial expert on how I should spend my money (usually on them).

This is exactly why I don’t tell people in my family how much I make.  My sister knows, but she’s the only one and I’m fairly certain most of my family would guess my income is solid 20k lower than what is and I kinda like it that way.  My mother knows I make more than her , though not how much more.  She will occasionally make comments to the effect of “it must be nice” when I buy something big which bothers the shit out of me because one, I work hard and two, I’m incredibly frugal so when I do spend money I don’t need to be chastised about my decision.

Oh, I can definitely relate to this. I once had a friend who briefly worked with me. She was in a non-managerial role, and I was technically a manager. I’d had years of management experience, but was a few years younger than she was. She got fired and had a lot of difficulty finding jobs, partly due to the fact that she knew how much money I was making at a new job (in a different industry as a manager) and didn’t want to take any jobs that paid less than mine (even though she was going for jobs that should have paid what they were offering her). She constantly told me about how I ‘couldn’t understand’ money problems (!) and that she was so broke, and how I should take her out for things because of this… but in the meantime, she turned down any job offers she got and sponged her parents for money so she could get mani/pedis every week and so on. Any suggestions I offered (rent out a room, rent out the townhouse you can’t afford anymore and live somewhere cheaper, sell the place, take a job, etc.) was met with ‘but you make X amount of dollars.’ Yes, and I rented out my basement, didn’t live beyond my means and hurt my parents (her father needed medical attention and had to forgo it for her nails). My salary also went for child support (she had no kids), home repairs for damage an ex did, and so on. But the second people hear a $ number, you suddenly become some rich elite snob who doesn’t have any worries or problems and should take care of everyone else and buy them things just cos.

Ugh. That would piss me off. I’ll treat my friends to some stuff (I still make very little but I have less expenses than some) but it’s ALWAYS me offering, they would never ever suggest or demand that I pay.

To me, it doesn’t matter how much the other person makes. I pay for my own stuff and if I can’t afford it, I don’t get it. Or ask for it. They might make more, but I don’t know their life or their plans.

I also have no interest in knowing how much any of my friends or acquaintances make. It’s none of my business.

I just went to Payscale, and got a little validation. Phew.

But yeah– money is a trick/uncomfortable subject. It’s not only geographic/experience/skill set, it’s also expenses, taxes and a lot of other things people don’t see.

Give a group of people $1000 and each one will have a different way to spend it based on needs/wants/life experience.


Right. I agree that more transparency in information would be really helpful, especially to underpaid (Women, PoC) populations; I also think this is the type of thing that would be helpful to have current, relevant information taught in high schools, votechs, and college/universities, and broader access to websites (like Glassdoor and Payscale) available for people who are trying to make those decisions. I just think the solution to that could be slightly more anonymous than interpersonal queries, and not shared on a friend-to-friend basis. I’ve never seen anything positive come out of a conversation that began with the question, “What do you make?” and that is coming from both ends of that conversation.

I will say that when I have freelanced, my other freelancing friends have been really helpful with assisting me in crafting appropriate proposal amounts. But we tend to phrase those conversations more in a “what do you think is fair to charge per project?” rather than “what do you make per year?” I appreciate that kind of transparency, because I have no idea how many contracts they take or of what duration or size, but I can still garner fair payment information from them so I don’t get ripped off and I’m able to ask for what I’m worth.

Right! I think at the end of the day it’s a little naive to say, “Well if you have X amount of annual salary, then you clearly have free reign to do whatever you want with the full amount of X.” No, there are taxes, rent, other living expenses, debt payments, and other legal financial obligations that most people have to address before they reach the amount that is their “discretionary spending” fund. And sometimes even those of us who make a “larger” (comparative?) number don’t have a very large discretionary pot. Or even have one at all.

I’m glad I just learned about Payscale, even if it just told me what I already know: I should either be making more hourly or be getting benefits. Boo. Such is working at a start-up.

One of my best friends is in the same sort of situation where some people would think she’s making a ton of money but really she’s kind of broke. She makes more money hourly than I do, but she lives with her mom and tries to spend as little as possible because she has a ton of student loan debt and some credit card debt she racked up while she was incurring those student loans. We’ve always been pretty open and honest in my circle of friends about what we make, but I know that’s rare. It’s great if it can be done without judgement.

Leave a Reply