Money Talk: Fostering Community Connections
Mogil is a co-founder, with Anne Slepian, of More Than Money.
He is a nationally-recognized writer, consultant, and presenter
on issues of wealth and philanthropy. He also directs True
Story Theater, a community-building theater company.
My father was from a working class family,
and my mother grew up wealthy. As a child, the differences
between my grandparents sometimes left me puzzled and sad.
I loved my Friday-night sleepovers with my father's parents
in their one-bedroom apartment in Queens, but was pained
by their frequent worries about money. I loved it when my
mother's parents took me with them on one of their annual
overseas trips, yet I wondered why Margaret, their live-in
housekeeper-whom I also loved-didn't join us in the dining
room after serving the meal. My birthdays were among the
rare occasions that all of us were in the same room. Our
"togetherness" went only so far. And we never talked about
why. We never had money conversations.
After college, I stumbled onto a group that
changed my life: a residential social action community started
by Quakers. There, we were encouraged to think of ourselves
as life-long "social change agents" and to develop the necessary
skills and knowledge to effect social change. Part of our
homework was to look deeply and critically at different
aspects of our identity. What does it mean that I'm a white,
secular Jewish, U.S. male from an upper middle class background?
How do I both accept who I am and reach out to other people
who are different from me? That was when I began to have
"money conversations" -with myself and others.
The national gatherings of this community
were paid for via a remarkable, experimental group process
called "cost sharing." Everyone at the gathering met in
small groups with people of similar economic background.
There, we were encouraged to disclose our past, current,
and probable future financial situations. Knowing the average
cost of the gathering per person (in 1980, about $200 for
the week) and roughly how many people were in a given economic
group, we were each challenged to come up with an amount
that we judged as our fair share. Over several rounds of
reflection and feedback, people of lower economic means
were usually encouraged to decrease their pledges, while
people of higher economic means were often challenged to
contribute more. One woman was persuaded to withdraw her
pledge of $100 and instead be reimbursed $100 as a token
amount toward her childcare costs and lost wages. Another
person increased his pledge from $400 to $2,000. I seriously
sweated during this process. I wondered: If I were
giving my fair share, how much more should I be chipping
in? I felt excited by the honesty and depth of these conversations.
At the same time, I wasn't sure I ever wanted to do the
process again. It brought up sticky questions about money,
fairness, and how accountable we in this community were
to each other.
After inheriting some money, I began to
receive requests for loans, gifts, or grants-both from people
I knew well in the community and from some I didn't. When
was it OK to say no? When and why would I want to say yes?
I found a few others in financial situations similar to
mine, and we started to have more money conversations. Our
meetings evolved into an occasional but ongoing discussion
group that helped all of us feel less alone and clearer
about what we wanted to do.
Another member of the group and I decided
to write our "money autobiographies." We summoned up our
courage and sent our few pages of prose to the other 140
people in the community, with an invitation to enter into
more indepth discussion about class differences. To our
surprise, many others sent out their money autobiographies,
too. We read the money stories of people across the socioeconomic
gamut: poor, working class, middle class, and wealthy. It
was a powerful outpouring of personal stories that most
in our community had not heard before. (Later, it was no
scarier for me to speak of these same issues on
than it had been to do so in this close community!)
The experience of living in an economically
mixed community became a template for my adult life in the
Boston suburbs. Twelve years ago, my partner, Anne, and
I invited people in our immediate neighborhood to join us
in an informal barter system. We began to organize monthly
potlucks at people's homes, seasonal events (such as an
annual talent show), and a neighborhood association to look
after the local park, which had deteriorated. We have enjoyed
organizing activities in our neighborhood that cost little,
and so are accessible to a wide range of folks-events such
as a free, shared-leadership dance class at the local church;
or swaps to exchange clothing, meals, and child care. Such
activities have transformed what felt like a neighborhood
of strangers into what now feels like a community of friends.
Over time, not only have I grown more comfortable
relating to people of different socio-economic backgrounds,
I've also grown more able to discuss money and related issues
openly as they arise. These conversations are not always
easy, but they almost always strengthen my relationships.
Whether I am in a community of place, affinity, or action,
I've found that money is often an unspoken presence. Being
able to talk about it with others has paved the way to more
authentic, trusting, and enduring relationships.
Conversations How do you have a money conversation?
You may want to start by clarifying
why you're having this conversation. (For example,
"Janet, before we discuss your request for a personal
loan, I'd like us to talk about what this brings
up for each of us and how to protect our friendship.
Our friendship is really important to me and I'm
worried about what might happen between us if you're
in a position of owing me money. Can we talk about
Share your own feelings and experience.
Invite your conversation partner(s)
to discuss their concerns and goals.
Discuss where you might go from
here. How will you address any issues that were
raised? Share relevant stories, tips, and resources.
for Writing Your Money Autobiography
Much Is Enough? Harness the Power of Your Money Story-And
Change Your Life
By Pamela York Klainer, Ed.D.
(Basic Books, 2001)
Includes more than 30 thought-provoking questions
to help you write a money autobiography.
A Woman's Book of Money &
Spiritual Vision: Putting Your Financial Values
into Spiritual Perspective
By Rosemary Williams and Joanne Kabak
(Innisfree Press, 2001)
Offers tools for creating an action plan-including
writing a money autobiography-for aligning money,
values, and spirituality.
Financial advisor Dick Wagner of Worth Living, LLC,
offers an online Money Autobiography Questionnaire
to help you understand your relationship to money.
He suggests selecting three or four questions to
write about. Available at:
Ministry of Money
The Ministry of Money offers a free pamphlet titled
"Guidelines for Writing your Money Autobiography."
Available upon request by phone or online. 301-428-9560
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