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Talking About Salary with Friends

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This past weekend I was in a New York Times story about young professionals sharing their salaries with their friends. In it, I was quoted about how I knew the salaries of my friends within a $10,000 spread (I had said about $5k either way) and that we openly discussed our salaries, raises, and other financial details. I was glad the article captured the most important point I was trying to make, not focusing on the fact that we were disclosing a taboo number, which was that sharing information helps everyone involved. The point of knowing my friends’ salaries wasn’t so that we could compare bank accounts, it was so that we would be armed with the most and best information possible to make decisions.

There is only one reason why we all would discuss our salaries and it’s the same exactly reason why people turn to Salary.com. We want to know if we’re getting paid a fair sum for the work we are doing. I knew what my engineering friends earned in a year and I knew the differentials for level of education and area of expertise and the point of knowing was so I could be better educated about my potential value in the workforce. When my friends left, they would disclose the raises they’d be getting to go to another firm. I disclosed how much more I was being paid. For me, it was about learning, with real life data points, what was out there and how I could use it to my advantage.

It’s important to note that we were all in the same field, working for the same employer. There wasn’t a situation of high school friends where life decisions led one to a more lucrative profession or another to a less lucrative one. I don’t see the point in a lawyer sharing a salary with an engineer or a financial analyst sharing her salary with an administrative assistant. Since you’re not in the same industry, that’s not information you can use. In fact, I don’t discuss salaries with my high school friends, or friends in other industries, because it provides no added value (and because it never comes up).

“This is a generation that is much more attuned to teamwork, collaboration and sharing information.” – that’s a quote from the article and one that I feel captures what my friends were trying to do. One prime example of this was that every single year, management would tell employees that “raises weren’t going to be good this year.” By sharing information, we could figure out whether management was feeding us a line or if raises were really not good (it was a defense contractor and we’re spending billions upon billions on defense, plus executives are getting ridiculous bonuses… not everyone’s raise is bad!).

Lastly, one surprising thing I learned in reading the article was that it is/was taboo to talk about how much someone paid for their house. I find that surprising because that is a matter of public record (all home sales and tax records are public), I consider it a much bigger affront to surreptitiously research someone on the internet than it is to come out and ask them. I paid $295,000 for my house. I know roughly (it’s not like I write it down so my memory fades) how much my friends have paid for their homes. It’s not a big deal. I suppose we never learned that talking about that was taboo, but then again the spread of information is valuable.

What do you all think? Salary talk is always taboo? Never taboo? Or are you like me, talking salaries isn’t taboo if there is information to be learned but taboo if it provides no such informational value?

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20 Responses to “Talking About Salary with Friends”

  1. Tim says:

    I don’t believe salary talk, or talking about the price of your house, is taboo. Like you said, having this info isn’t about comparing bank accounts, it’s about being armed with market value information. I’ll discuss both of mine freely with anyone as I like to swap notes on how much they make and compare that to the skills I perceive they have. Of course, I’m 30 years old, and it seems like the older folks believe this is a taboo subject, while the younger ones are happy to discuss it.

  2. There surely are people who regard discussion of any money topics as tacky. :-) Hence the title of my blog: a former friend remarked to a mutual friend (she thought behind my back–I was standing there as she was speaking into a voicemail) that I was “a little funny about money.” Mentioning what one earns is particularly low-brow, as it develops.

    Being such a bumpkin, I can’t figure that out. In the first place, my salary and also those of both the women mentioned above are public record–in fact, the newspaper published them a year or so ago. And in the second place, you need to be aware of what your coworkers are earning, if you can possibly ferret out that information. In our post-union era, the boss would just as soon you didn’t know that the guy at the next desk, who’s doing the same work you are and has been there about the same time, is earning more than you earn.

  3. Laura says:

    I think salary talk should be among friends. It’s very easy to have hurt feelings if you’re speaking with others. We discuss our salaries among each other. We celebrate raises and bonuses and discuss ways to increase income AND quality of work life. If someone doesn’t want to share, then no one forces it. I think when it’s a matter of choice, it releases some of the anxiety. The idea is one of teamwork, not competition.

    We have one couple in our group who have a home and we know about how much the paid for it. It made us realize that we would have to move to be able to afford a home we’d like or wait a lot longer to get a big enough down payment.

  4. J. Arthur says:

    I think it is largely a generation difference. I discuss salary with my friends that graduated with the same degree. We are not in a competition with each other.
    As you mention we are acting as a team. By sharing we know if we are being fairly compensated for their work. I also think it is not strange to discuss what you paid for a house.

    I think the problem stems from the viewpoint that your personal worth is directly associated with what your salary. I would like to believe that the younger generations are more cognizant of this and realize it is just not true.

  5. The Baglady says:

    I wrote about this before in this story, and I think it helps to share salary when you’re in the same field. I think it’s also a cultural thing, too because my Chinese friends don’t seem to care much about talking about money and salary, but my friends of other races think it’s taboo. It’s really not a big deal.

  6. I think no one benefits from this socially accepted behavior (money talk taboo).

    Employers pay differential wages in order to motivate employees. If no one knows how much more they can earn if they improve, why would they?

    Employees need to compare their salaries against their colleague’s in order to measure their productivity/compensation relation and decide on whether they are rewarded accordingly.

    I say it’s just a matter of time.

  7. Tom says:

    I must disagree with your point that sharing salaries between industries is not value added.

    Although it is difficult, people change industries all the time. I graduated in 2005 with an engineering degree and half of my friends went into engineering, 1/4 went into finance and 1/4 went into consulting. Some have changed industries since then. Knowing salaries of other industries would be one of the first steps in deciding whether or not it is economically worth it to change.

  8. Sheila says:

    I applaud you and your friend for being so open with salary discussions. The last time I discussed salary with friends was back when I was in college. Shortly after that, I think it became too personal of a topic. No one really ever brought it up again.

  9. GBlogger says:

    I’ve had fairly open and frank discussions with friends or colleagues who are in the same profession as me — but it has never come up (or perhaps it subconsciously on my or others’ part is still taboo) with friends or colleagues who are in different industries or lines of work. I guess that somewhat mirrors where Jim finds there to be value.

    I think there may be something to J. Arthur’s comment on generational differences too… my parents never told me what they were making. I don’t think I really figured it out until a little bit until right before college — and their being more open with me has only come within the last year or two.

  10. Michele says:

    I have been on both sides. I have worked at jobs where salary discussion could be cause for termination. Now I work in Govt where my salary and everyone here is public record. But still there is turmoil if someone is perceived to be getting more in benefits, comp time, etc.

    My son works for a private game company, where pay is merit based, and tho he has only been there for a short time, he is making as much or more than people who have been there for a decade. It might not seem fair, but in an industry where innovation and talent effect profits, it makes sense to reward the people who got you there.

    I have no problem discussing wages with friends.

  11. dha says:

    You should note that roughly 10 states are non-disclosure as far as real estate goes, so you can not find out how much someone paid for their house on-line.

  12. I feel that like many other things in life… there’s a time and a place.

  13. My college friends and I don’t shy away from discussing our salaries if it comes up. Mind you, we don’t ask directly what everybody makes, but still…if it comes up.

    On the opposite end, I make around twice what my mom makes, and on more than one occassion earlier in my career I told her how much I make and what my raises, and bonuses were, thinking she would be proud of the success her son was in the business world. I think she then started to think I was made of money though, <a href=”http://basicfinancial.blogspot.com”which I’m not. Shas has brought up on more than one occasion that some purchase should not be a big del for me. I stopped talking to her about money. I miss not being able to share as much of my life with her as I used to.

  14. Todd says:

    I will talk about the purchase price of items (homes, cars, etc.) LONG BEFORE I would talk about my salary. Strangely enough, bonuses happen to be the topic of many conversations I hear. I suppose, we feel our true income is still shrouded sufficiently to allow discussion of “unusual” income items.

    Pretty strange stuff, and, much better to be safe than sorry !

  15. I actually only share my salary with those super close to me. I’ve told “friends” in the past, but it’s always changed their interactions w/ me afterwards. I used to get the “quit being so cheap – you have the money!” line, or the “Come on, go out with us!” aka cover for me.

    Of course, these were only those friends making less than I – the others who i KNOW make more never bring it up, and I have to respect that. The worst (in my opinion) is when someone just flat out asks you in normal conversation. It just comes across too brash for me. If we’re already talking about money, that’s one thing, but usually it just pops out at me :)

    While I see the great points in discussing salaries/bonus’ w/ co-workers, I have to nix that one as well since I work for a smaller start-up. I’ve had the chance to see everyone’s salary at one point, and i’m SOOOO glad I averted my eyes on that one. Work is crazy enough w/out random badgering.

  16. Liz says:

    I have become more open about this over time. I have always tended to be reserved and discreet, about money and all topics. My parents’ view has always been that what they make is their business. When I started out in the working world, well, I was a payroll administrator so I knew people’s salaries, but I thought that it was important never to talk about it. Of course I knew that I was the lowest paid employee in the company : ) For most people I know this is still a taboo subject. But I have changed my mind about discretion regarding salary. I have seen articles that point out that it is in the best interests of the employees always to know what the others are making. I was living abroad and people talked very openly about this. I think it is important for people to be open regardless of the field they or their friends are in, as an earlier commenter noted. I am thinking about changing fields, and have just been offered a job that pays around $40K per year. I was talking to a friend of my husband’s about the field I would like to switch into, and he told me that he didn’t recommend it for x reason, but that he is making $80K three years out of school–I have a master’s degree and am 30, and I had to negotiate like heck to get the 40K offer. I have good references and strong work history. I’m not that motivated by money, but understanding that a different set of skills would be much more highly valued is important to me as I think about career choices going forward. I really appreciate people’s frankness, and I intend to be frank with our children about how much money we make, save, etc. so that they have a clearer idea of financial reality than I have had. It still feels gauche to me to ask direct questions about money, though.

  17. Phil A. says:

    Don’t discuss salaries. It leads to envy and anger which are two very unattractive qualities.

  18. dong says:

    I’m a big fan of discussing with friends, and especially across industries. People should be aware of what career opportunities are out there. However this does not mean salary should come up at every turn. There’s a time and a place for the discussion.

  19. Leslie says:

    Sharing salary information with peers can go both ways.

    It can create discontentment (for the person making less) and make him/her less enthusiastic about her job. By now knowing she is making less than a peer, she will feel unsatisfied thinking she deserves more. Yet pay increases and pay negotiations have nothing to do with how your peer makes, it has to do with the individual’s own accomplishments, education, personality, and contribution to her work place. The arguement “but she makes more” never works when negotiating for salary incrases.

    On the other hand, it can inspire and motivate action. The individual making less can realize she can get paid more and go about getting it. Ie. She can enroll in more courses, research and apply for a better job, and/or research to obtain concrete proof of what her position is worth and build a case for a wage increase.

    Like any topics of conversation, it really depends who you are speaking with. What I think is taboo is outright asking a person how much he/she makes, since not everyone is comfortable sharing this. I think a more effective way would be a subtle approach and/or transition a conversation to induce this topic of conversation without outright asking “how much are you getting paid?”.

  20. Minnie says:

    I have a different point of view. I can understand why employers don’t want us to discuss salary with our co-workers because then everyone will want a raise. I once asked my co-worker how much raise she got the year before and she told me 13% and everyone else said over 10% so I was quite excited while I waited for my first salary review. I was disappointed and only got 7%! I believe everyone got the same but the ones that were there longer all got over 10%. Needless to say my co-worker got 16%!

    As for discussing salary with your friends, sometimes I believe we all live in a competitive world and sadly to say even your friends are competitive. They want to be skinnier than you, have more bfs than you, more designer handbags and shoes etc…

    I realise it was a mistake to discuss salary with one of my girlfriend – she graduated in Bachelor of Arts, not the industry she’s doing and so having said that she has a degree but not a relevant one. However she’s got 2-3 years experience in the field whereas I graduated with an accounting degree and have 1 and 1/2 years as assistant accountant then moved into the finance industry and only have 1 years of experience. I recently re-located overseas to where she is and now I’m job hunting. When I told her how much I’m looking for she was displeased saying I’m expecting too much. Then I told her the advice my ex-manager had given me and she was even more upset and said that if I earned more than her she would be unhappy.

    While I understand why she’s upset because she’s got more experience than me in the field but she’s also failed to consider my qualifications as well as experience. In the finance industry she’s got 2 and 1/2 years experience and I have 2 and 1/2 years experience all together including both accounting and finance.

    It was a big no no to discuss salary because now it’s created a dent in our friendship. She’s now job hunting for a job that is no doubt much more than what I’m asking for.


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