What should I do when someone asks how much I make?

This is the latest installment of our “Dear Ms. Etiquette” series, where our columnist untangles the issues that happen when people and money get together.

Dear Ms. Etiquette: I’m up for a new job, and my friend at my old job asked me how much I’ll be making. What do I do? I feel weird divulging, and I feel weird saying I won’t!

Ooh, salaries. The Haunted House of money, where around every corner is something that will scare the pants off you. Exposing yourself and feeling vulnerable—ahhhh! Offending someone by asking impertinent questions—eeeeeeee!

Here’s the bottom line on this for me: There’s no right answer. Helpful, right? That’s what they pay me for.

But give me a minute. I promise to be more useful.

Part One: Search Your Soul. Or Someone Else’s.

Let me start by asking you a question. Why do you think a person—a friend, a coworker—would want to know how much money you make? Well, sure, because people are nosy. And sometimes impolitic. But the reason people are nosy in the first place is often because they want to feel better about themselves. If we discover that our friends or colleagues (or Taylor Swift) are flawed, for instance, it makes us feel better about our own flaws. It’s kind of the same with money. People often want to know about other people’s salaries because they are trying to feel OK about their own salaries.

I talked to my friend Michael Lipson, who’s a clinical psychologist, about the question. “In general, the reason you share is to compare. And that’s both the reason to do it and the reason not to do it,” he said.

Yeah, it can be risky. If you submit yourself to a round of Paystub Roulette and everyone’s trying to feel good because they make more than their friends, someone is going to lose and want to lie in bed watching Game of Thrones instead of going to work. “You’ll either benefit in some way from the comparison, or you won’t and then the other person will suffer by the comparison. In most cases, I’m not a fan of comparing,” he said.

My advice here is if it’s about feeling that you’re doing better than the next guy, don’t do it. If you get the vibe that your pal is asking so he can feel superior, or if you search your own soul and realize you’re asking because you’re stuck in a pity party and are looking for a pick-me-up: Don’t do it.

Part Two: Knowledge Is Power. And Apparently Younger People Know It.

I did some anecdotal research on my own, and I found an interesting wrinkle. In my office at a Famous International Media Company, young people see this question differently than their more aged counterparts. That is to say: Every 20-something I spoke with said it’s fine to ask and it’s fine to tell. Why? Knowledge is power.

“If I find out my friend working in a different field is killing it, that might mean I want to change career paths—and better to do that sooner, right?” one of my wrinkle-less social media–savvy young coworkers told me. A couple of people also noted that it also might help you know whether you’re being underpaid in your current job: If you have the same job as a friend but they make significantly more than you, it may be time to ask for a raise.

Your managers won’t be surprised if you come in bearing some info (though keep names out of it). I’m a manager myself—you don’t think we know that you all talk to each other?

Michael, my shrink friend, said something similar to me. Sharing your salary can be a kind of altruism. “What if someone expressed interest in your line of work,” he suggested. “Like, ‘Hey, if I start selling Amway, how much can I make?’” Telling them the answer to that question is blessing them with information with which to make life decisions.

That said, I’m not Buddhist enough personally to think everyone deserves your blessings. Some people are jerks. If someone you’re hardly friends with presses you for personal information while assuming, “Hey, any idiot can do what you do,” I like to say, “Gosh, I feel funny talking about money. Sorry! But try the Internet!”

Part Three: When It Comes to People You’re Related to, All Rules Go Out the Window.

Sharing how much you make with your family? Well, it depends on your family. If your parents are wise souls who’ve always offered guidance, support, and money—but only occasionally!—while being deeply compassionate, then by all means, let them know. Most parents want to know everything about their kids, and knowing your salary can help them have a kind of baseline understanding of the rest of your life, financial or otherwise. It feels good to have someone know everything about you and still love you. If you’re lucky, that’s what family is for.

On the other hand, if your family is crazy, it’s best to just accept that and not look for the whole unceasing support/unconditional love thing from them. If your mom is judgey and an unapologetic underminer, if your father can hardly let a meal or birthday card go by without uttering the phrase “You’re not working to your full potential,” then maybe your parents are a good stop to skip on the honesty train.

Part Four: Realize You Probably Have Enough

This brings up a motto Michael quoted from a woman named Lynne Twist, a philanthropist and the founder of the Soul of Money: “Sufficiency, not abundance.”

“Abundance has this hyperanxious state of trying to always be overflowing,” said Michael. “Sufficiency, on the other hand, is enough-ness. I’m good now. I’m going to work and if I make more, great, but I have enough. I’m good for now.”

And the best way to find enough-ness is not to just stick your head in the sand so you don’t have to find out whether anyone has more than you. The best way is to know the way the world works, and be happy where you are.

If You Don’t Want to Talk About It, Try One of These Phrases:

Here are a few of my favorite ways to get out of giving the info myself:

“Only if you tell me how much you weigh!”

“What’s the number after eleventy zillion?”

“My mom told me not to tell you.”

“Not enough to make you jealous, but not so little you’d feel sorry for me.”

Wealthsimple uses technology and smart, friendly humans to help you grow and manage your money. Invest, save, trade, and even do your taxes in a better, simpler way.

Money Diaries

"MY UNDERGRADUATE ADVISER TOLD ME I SHOULD JUST FORGET ABOUT THE WHOLE WRITING THING. ‘YOU SHOULD FIND A GOOD MAN AND GET MARRIED,’ HE TOLD ME."

Margaret Atwood

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