Money and Manners: Are You Offensive?

Last Updated Sep 13, 2010 1:24 PM EDT

I recently found myself sitting around a pool listening to a complete stranger brag about how he has too much money and too little time to spend it. This conversation went against a rule I was taught as a child: you don't talk about money and you certainly don't boast about your own wealth.

Oddly enough, no one else at the table seemed uncomfortable, so I began to wonder if perhaps my thinking is a bit old fashioned. We live in a much more casual society today than the one I was raised in. Perhaps in 2010 it's okay to discuss topics that were once taboo. I decided to give etiquette expert Peter Post of The Emily Post Institute a call for his opinion.

It turns out my instincts were correct. "Talking about wealth is really crass, especially when it's done in a one-upmanship sort of way," Post says. And it's even more distasteful to discuss money during a recession like the one we are experiencing now, he says.

Avoiding any talk of money, of course, can be difficult. The key is to handle these discussions in an appropriate manner. Here are five sensitive topics and how Post recommends you handle them:

1. Your Salary
The rule. Everyone knows you should never divulge your income unless you're speaking with a headhunter or spouse. The same guidelines apply to your bonus. And under no circumstances should you ever brag about your compensation package, even if you don't mention an exact number.

Sometimes, however, you may be put in the uncomfortable position of someone asking you how much you earn. The only appropriate response is "I make enough to get by", says Post.

2. Real Estate
The rule. Real estate can be tricky. How much money a home trade hands for is recorded in the public record. Still, Post recommends you don't show off to your neighbors and tell them how much you got for your four bedroom Colonial or how much you spent on your new Tudor. If a neighbor wants to know, he can go down to the local county clerk's office or look it up online.

If you're asked how much you got for your home, you should keep the answer vague and just say it went for either below or above your asking price, says Post.

3. Cars
The rule. You never start a conversation by talking about the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan you just purchased. And you certainly don't mention its sticker price -- even if you feel you negotiated a great deal. But if you do own, say, a Ferrari, it's okay to drive it around town and even to your kid's school, says Post. The key is to never discuss an automobile's value, he says.

If asked what you drive, you should simply name the car that sits in your driveway and leave it at that.

4. Public versus Private School
The rule. It's no secret that private elementary and high schools cost a small fortune. They can also serve as a status symbol for the parents writing the checks. Post, however, feels it's wrong to name drop your child's prep school with strangers or to try and impress friends who send their kids to the local public program.

If asked where your kids go to school, you should mention the private school's name but then follow up with something you like about the curriculum.

5. Your Investment Portfolio
The rule. Your investment portfolio is like your income, you should not divulge its value. Similarly, you should stay away from gloating about money you made during a particular trading session or quarter. You can, however, discuss your investment strategy or even a stock you recently purchased, says Post. Just don't tell your friends how many shares you bought.

If asked how much your portfolio gained or lost last year, it's better to deflect the question or answer using a percentage rather than a dollar figure.

In closing, try to remember that bragging about money and wealth is offensive, and even worse, it's boring, says Post. Better to ask your friends and acquaintances about themselves instead of trying to impress others.

Are there any other sensitive money topics I've missed? What conversations offend you?

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
Money Money Money image courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.
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  • Stacey Bradford

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