I interviewed a family living in the suburbs of Orlando, Fla., who had gotten into nearly $100,000 of credit card debt and were driven into bankruptcy. They were too ashamed to tell any friends or family of their trauma. Even worse, they felt they couldn't confide in their pastor or any of the other couples in their close-knit weekly Bible study group. "We don't want to be viewed differently," the wife told me.
Their self-imposed isolation made the experience worse than it had to be. The family was sure they were the only ones in their community that had gotten into unmanageable debt and gone bankrupt. That only compounded their shame and loneliness.
The reality is that for every two couples who've gotten divorced in the past year, three families have gone bankrupt. Yet we can't tell who the latter are. We're too secretive about anything to do with money -- and not just debt and difficulties, but also wealth.
Psychologists call money "the last taboo" because it is so rarely discussed even in therapy. Yet as one psychologist put it, "The money taboo is a serious psychological problem because, though we do not talk freely about money, it is of major concern to almost everybody in America.
Spiritual advisers don't get closer to our money issues than psychologists do. They hear many details of people's private lives, but congregants are usually silent about their money concerns. "They'd be much more prone to discuss any issue or problem than their finances," says the Rev. Stephen Bauman of Christ Church United Methodist in New York City.
A sermon that talks about personal finance -- or even the taboo itself -- is rare. Why? The Bible itself doesn't treat money as a taboo subject.
Scripture has plenty to say about wealth, poverty, making money, giving it away, what is virtuous about having money, and also how love of it can be our downfall. Bauman reports that one-sixth of Jesus' words recounted in is the Gospels address money. Only the Kingdom of God, he says, is a more popular topic.
We're continually getting more comfortable opening up about private issues in public. We've recently broken taboos against discussing sexual abuse and mental illness, for example. Yet money remains largely a mystery.
One way this is harmful is that it has become common for us to believe that we are the only ones we know struggling financially. My husband and I fell into this trap when we envied our next-door neighbors for being better-off; when I got bold enough to ask them about their money, it turned out they had a heap of credit card debt and anxiety about it.
Since we keep our money issues so hidden, we end up living in a fiction and wondering why "nobody else" shares our problems. When we have only clues and guesses to go on, we work ourselves into psychological pretzels over money and how we're fitting in with those around us. In fact, we are miscalculating.
Another pitfall is that when we don't see what's going on behind the scenes with others' finances, some of us -- like the Florida family -- use debt to try to keep up with those who appear so much better-off. More honesty and openness would help prevent this.
I don't think we can underestimate the amount of stress and anxiety over money that we are enduring largely alone. Changing how we manage money is only part of the solution. The large social side also has to change, and that means breaking the taboo.
Be more brave when it comes to money. When you have a concern, go ahead and make honest comments, ask questions, start a discussion. When I did this while researching my book, I was amazed and relieved at how people opened up about their situations.
And if you're in a position of leadership, speak up about money and encourage others to do the same.