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My Biggest Financial Lesson

A Chinese cabby’s query leads to Mary Pilon’s epiphany

Marketplace Contributor Mar 25, 2015

With the Mandarin language skills of a buffalo, I began chatting with my taxi driver in Shanghai, a polite man with plenty of questions about the United States. It was early 2007, and sitting in a back seat that reeked of stale cigarettes and body odor, I certainly didn’t see a financial epiphany coming. Then, the driver went straight for the jugular.
“How much money do you make?”

Like many Americans, I was happy to talk about macroeconomics, such as the dazzling growth of China’s G.D.P. at the time, the increasing cost of living in Shanghai or how his country’s trade relations were knotted with those of mine. But when it came to the more micro, as in the very digits in my bank account, I felt an urge to jump out of the moving cab. (I was a student at the time, so an honest answer was easily at hand: “None.”)

Since then, a recession has come and gone, and I think of this cab ride often. Many of my 20- and 30-something peers struggle with student-loan debt and high rent, and more than once I’ve erupted in laughter at the idea that I will collect any Social Security in my Betty White years.

Yet when it comes to talking about money as in, our money, there’s a risk that we’re carrying the bad financial discussion habits of our parents with us. If I ask any of my friends their “number,” I’m more likely to receive an estimate of the number of people they’ve slept with than anything related to their credit scores or net worth.

Money can be a reflection of our perceptions of power, self-esteem, personal history, fears and happiness. Or, as a friend recently put it to me, your personal finances can feel like “your grown-up report card.” But whatever its source, this reluctance to talk money hurts us. The topic matters if you want there to be gender equity in pay or economic diversity on college campuses. I’ve often wondered what would happen if an Edward Snowden of human resources sprinkled salary spreadsheets around workplaces.

The app Venmo may be our best shot at transparency. Like PayPal, it offers a handy way to exchange money with friends. But people can also display their transactions Twitter-style as a stream of digital money changing hands — a bizarre and sometimes revealing window into the wallets of those you know.

In a recent episode of the engaging podcast Reply All, a guest spoke of knowing via Venmo that a couple was splitting up, by noticing charges for things like “half a couch” or “half a chandelier.” My own feed recently had transactions for “shenanigans,” “your mistake,” “Girl Scout cookies” and “therapy,” the latter two having a certain poetic similarity. So it’s not salary Snowden, but a start, with emoji for emphasis.

After that cab ride with the driver who popped the money question, a Chinese friend explained to me that, in spite of systemic issues with corruption, some transparency around personal finances remained. Under Communism, it was common for people to know what their peers were making. Some Americans, like those working in government or nonprofits, know the consequences of having their salaries public. Last I checked, the planet hadn’t imploded. And I’m sure if I had thought at the time to ask the cabdriver what he made, he wouldn’t have flinched at responding.

While I’m not calling for every American to pick up a copy of “The Communist Manifesto,” I do find it ironic that a country that for decades has enjoyed more personal wealth than most places in the world is more reluctant to talk about it. For the equivalent of a couple of bucks, I received a window into China’s lesser-discussed pockets of openness. As the personal fortunes of many in China continue to swell, I wonder if their willingness to discuss it will as well. Or if, just as it has adopted KFC and “Friends,” China will import America’s money taboos as well.

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