The Sound of Money Talking

This tax day, how much will you give or receive? The fact that many of us are shy to ask or answer this sort of question says a lot about how our culture treats money and finances—as a private, intimate affair, on par with our deepest feelings and closest relationships.

But why give money such a privileged place in our hearts? What effect does maintaining its sanctity have on our culture and its priorities?

In her column in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion, Sandra Steingraber pulled questions like these into the open, when she shared her “financial autobiography”:

When I file taxes, I feel pleased if our income as author and artist meets the median income for a family of four living in New York ($79,900). We have no credit card debt or car loans. My retirement plan is to be found stiff and cold at my writing desk. That is my financial autobiography.

But when Sandra shared her story publicly in a workshop with other writers, she received nervous, edgy questions about investment portfolios and whether or not she understood the concept of compounding interest.

Even among friends, talking about how much each of us earns, owes, and saves is taboo. The problem with silence is, to borrow a phrase from the adoptee rights movement, that secrecy breeds fear. And shame.

[But] our stories about money, when told without nostalgia or judgment, provide perspective. On the bleak day four years ago when I handed the piano teacher the last of my crumpled cash, I walked around my house and looked at everything. Nothing is allowed to break. I willed the furnace to keep humming, the gutters and downspouts to hang on, the barn roof not to collapse. And I paid a visit to Ruth, an eighty-year-old potter. She listened to my story and then told me one of her own—about the time her father was laid off from a New Jersey silk mill and her mother boiled chicken legs for dinner—the part of the leg that begins south of the drumstick and ends with claws. Here was the point: her knowledge, as a child, that everyone else’s father was likewise unemployed, that everyone else’s mother was likewise turning poultry bits into gelatinous glop, was what made the Depression bearable. We were all in the same boat. It wasn’t private.

Now, some seventy-five years after the Great Depression, facing a stuttering economy and a climate crisis, we’re once again in the same boat. Should our feelings about money change accordingly? How so? Are there healthier, more helpful stories we can tell?

Share your feelings and stories about money below, and read more from Sandra Steingraber, including an excerpt from her March/April 2009 column, here.


  1. “What is he worth?” the Insider asked sotto voce, barely moving his lips. Fingers of his left hand corrected the alignment of his right worsted sleeve. It was as if to say, “Take serious stock of me.” I was there. I stepped back. I asked, “What is worthy?”

  2. For me the situation no-one wants to hear or talk about is poverty. My business (Consilient Garden Design)’made’ $7800 last year…more, by nearly twice, than the year before. That was my income last year. My family in the UK try to help out when they can, and many friends donate venison, rabbit, wood for the stove; and I grow my own veggies. I have no stocks and shares or savings accounts. I have taken early retirement this year which will allow me to live a touch more easily. I still can’t eat out, buy clothes,sometimes food. So by our society’s measures of success I am a total failure. Yet I am content (happiness and sadness rise above and fall below the contentment line.) I am well-respected by my peers in my field. And I live as close to ‘footprint-free’ as my circumstances allow.

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