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Published: Sep 24, 2019 5 min read
Illustration by Jade Schulz

Money recently launched Dollar Scholar, a personal finance newsletter written by a 27-year-old who’s still figuring it out: me.

Every week, I’ll talk to experts about a money question I have, whether that’s “Are online banks sketchy? or “How many credit cards do I need?” As I learn, I’ll share simple ways to improve your financial life… and post some funny memes.

This is (part of) the 10th issue. Check it out below, then subscribe to get future editions of Dollar Scholar every Wednesday.

Despite the amount of YA books I've read about manic pixie dream girls, I'm not really a mysterious person. Sure, I had a couple of angsty blogs in high school, and every once in a while I'll subtweet, but in general I pretty much wear my heart on my sleeve.

I talk with my family and friends about anything and everything: how I've been considering dying the ends of my hair purple, what I think about the sheet pan gnocchi recipe I made last week, why Justin Bieber's Instagram posts have me worried about his mental health, et cetera. But I am aware there are some topics people don't typically discuss, and one of those is income.

Why not, though? Is it weird to ask my friends their salaries? And if not, how should I do it?

First I called Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert who founded the Swann School of Protocol. She told me that the rules of decorum have historically dictated that people refrain from talking about salary because it can make others feel uncomfortable. (The entire concept of etiquette is built around putting other people at ease.)

If your salary is higher than a friend's, for example, they might feel jealous of you. Or they might start asking you for financial assistance.

Plus, "people don't know all of the other intimate aspects of your life," like your cost of living or other responsibilities, Swann says.

However, Swann does recognize that times are changing. Younger generations have grown up sharing every detail of themselves online, and that habit influences IRL interactions as well. A 2018 Bankrate survey found that 58% of millennials shared their salary with friends, but only 33% of baby boomers did.

"Yes, you can most certainly talk about your salary and what you make; however, my advice is to keep that info to people you know, love and trust," Swan adds.

There are legit reasons to take the salary talk out of the shadows, especially in the workplace. Not only is sharing your pay fully legal, but having the information out there also helps close wage gaps.

PayScale's Wendy Brown told me transparency can foster a better and more trusting relationship between employers and employees, too. (PayScale has developed a pay transparency spectrum where it has different levels that describe how much workers know about their compensation and what goes into it.)

On a less formal level, "transparency could help your friends to realize, ‘Wow I should really check this out, do some research and make some moves,'" Brown adds.

Finally, since I dragged my friends into this discussion, I took my question to the group chat. I asked directly what they thought about talking pay.

One replied, "I'm pretty open about it generally, but I'm also less concerned about my salary than lots of people" — which makes sense, because we work in media (it's, uh, not exactly a lucrative field). Another responded, "I don't super mind it, especially when I know someone is tryna figure out where they stand," and a third said, "I think it's complicated but good to talk about."

Yep, that about sums it up.

The bottom line is that talking about salary isn't weird unless I make it weird. But I learned I should keep two things in mind.

One, if I'm going to bring up my pay, I need to do it politely and in context. I shouldn't just randomly drop the number into unrelated conversations, but it's cool to broach the topic if, say, if I get a raise and want to celebrate. That's a good, not-awkward way to start the conversation.

Two comes straight from Brown. Whenever talking about pay, she said I should have accurate data. Rather than trading rumors about what I overheard in the hallways, I should rely on sources like Glassdoor, PayScale or Salary.com.

"Make sure you get good evidence," she adds.

Photo by Peter Ardito