Author Jennifer Risher discusses the critical role communication and conversation has in demystifying wealth, and normalizing tough money conversations.
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MICHAEL: Hey, humans. I’m Michael Liersch, and this is the About Money podcast presented by Wells Fargo. I’m a behavioral scientist with a PhD in cognitive psychology who loves openly discussing money to help humans better understand their money behaviors.
By understanding our money behaviors, we all have the opportunity to make better money decisions. This season, we’re going to talk about jobs money can do for us.
Jobs, you might ask? Yes. Money does many jobs for us. Such as helping us with our family, lifestyle, the community, aging, travel, investing, and more.
We have a great lineup of guests for you, so let’s get into it.
In this episode, we’re going to speak with Jennifer Risher, former Microsoft Employee, and author of the memoir “We Need to Talk”. Jennifer spent the first part of her career at Microsoft during the dot com boom. By her 30s, she had money, but not all the answers. In fact, Jennifer talks about how money had a negative impact on her dynamics with her friends, her siblings, and even her children. Through her memoir, she shared her story about the critical role communication and conversation has in demystifying wealth, and normalizing the need to have tough money conversations.
I’m so excited to speak with Jen because she can help us answer the question that we’re asking in this episode: How can we authentically connect to money’s impact on our lives? Jen, welcome to the Wells Fargo About Money podcast.
JENNIFER: Thank you, Michael. Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
MICHAEL: Awesome. So let’s get right into it. So why don’t you tell us your story, and especially why you decided to write a memoir about your relationship with money?
JENNIFER: Yes. Well, you know, when I was 25, I got really lucky. Actually, I was lucky before that, because I was born into a stable family. I had access to a good education, and that led me to in 1991, join Microsoft. And that’s where I met my husband, David. And I also got stock that was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then six years later, when David and I were married and expecting our first child, he took a job at a small, unknown startup that was selling books on the internet called Amazon.com. You know, we were in our early 30s, the company went public. And suddenly we had more money than we could wrap our heads around.
And I want to say upfront, money makes life easier. I’m very fortunate. But wealth surprised me. You know, having a lot of money doesn’t look or feel like what Hollywood sells us. Wealth can be isolating. Eight out of 10 people with wealth grew up middle class or poor.
And yet, we’re not talking to each other about the emotional impact that money can have on our identity, and on our relationships. And I felt that impact as a parent. You know, were we going to spoil our kids? As a sister, how was I going to handle my brother’s resentment? As a friend, people started to look at me differently. And as a daughter, you know, it was painful to feel as though my parents disapproved of what we had. And normally in my life, you know, if I have a problem, I talk to my friends. You know, if I want to figure out should our 16-year-old have a curfew, I talk to everyone I know. I get ideas, I hear advice, but the same doesn’t happen with money.
And I didn’t feel like I could talk about having a lot of it. So I thought, well, I’ll turn to books. But there really were no books. So I ended up writing the book I needed and wanted to read. And I wrote it for the millions of Americans like me, who have more money than they had growing up. Or they have more money than others in their extended families. Or they have more money than their friends. I also wrote the book to get us talking, because it actually doesn’t matter how much you have in your bank account. Talking about money can be uncomfortable. And my goals is to really offer up a catalyst for conversation. I want people to read my story with a spouse, with a parent, with a sibling, with a friend. And I’ve included questions at the end of each chapter that are prompts that will help start conversations.
Because my goal is to move money out of the “taboo” category so that we can connect, and we can learn from each other.
MICHAEL: And you know I love questions, and I love digging into why money’s taboo. That was our first season of the About Money podcast. So this is a great bridge into Season 2. And before we get into those questions, you highlighted something that was an aha moment as I got to know you, which is this idea that, it’s almost like the American Dream is to be better off than, for example, we were as younger people, or than our parents were. But that “better off” somehow does equate to money. That seems to be the target zone here. And what you’re highlighting is there’s so much more to money than just having stuff, or being able to do things you couldn’t do before. It actually can create a lot of negative dynamics, and conflict, in a relationship. Let’s call it differences, than you had before in your relationships. You know, create that disconnection rather than that connection.
What are some of the questions that you feel are most important for us to critically ask ourselves about our relationship with money, just to get started?
JENNIFER: We all have a money story, and our money story starts in our childhood. This is where we develop our habits, our beliefs, and our attitudes towards money. So as adults, I think it’s really important for us to understand our money story, so that we’re aware of how it might be impacting us in the present.
So we should ask ourselves, you know, how did we feel about money in our household when we were growing up? What was the feeling around spending? Around saving? Around giving? What are our earliest money memories? You know, what messages did we hear from our mother? Our father? Did our family have more or less than other families around us? And when we know and understand our money story, we can be more aware of why we feel the way we do about money. And this can help us be more conscious and more intentional with how we react, and how we handle our money.
And yes, I also want to encourage us to get a little uncomfortable and have money conversations with family members and friends. Because when we avoid talking, we create a distance in our relationships.
MICHAEL: So I think within this podcast, Jen, I do reveal some personal facts about myself. And I know you did that in your memoir. So just to live in that space of being authentic, and who we are, and I’ll share with you, you know, as you’re walking through that, and for our listeners, you mentioned mothers and fathers, I will say my father, you know, wasn’t really there when I was growing up at all.
My parents were divorced when I was very young. So I didn’t get any money messages from him. They were mostly delivered through my mother if that makes sense. And my mother, you know, gave me a lot of money messages. And mostly in the zone of, you know, spending is a negative thing. We definitely grew up financially struggling and a lot of challenges there.
So that is interesting to really reflect on and think about where we’re coming from. And to your point, it creates a frame for, you know, where we are, and where we’re going. So I appreciate you sharing that with us, and kind of opening our minds to those ideas as we move into the next question.
Tell us a bit about — or maybe give us some tangible examples of how you feel money can get in the way of our relationships with others, and how, you know, again, having the courage to have these conversations can help. What are your thoughts there?
JENNIFER: Yes. Let me share some stories. So a story that will kind of illustrate how talking about money and getting a little uncomfortable can lead us to a sense of relief and connection, and a chance to learn. So I’ll start with a story about me and a friend.
And this friend is middle class, and she told me how she and her husband drove the same car for many, many, many years. And she said, you know, when that thing finally broke down, I bought an Audi Q5. She’d always wanted that car. She was thrilled about the car, very excited. But then she was going to go visit her sister. And as she imagined driving up in the car, she started to worry about being judged. In her mind, she heard her sister saying, “Ooh, aren’t we fancy?”
And then, in her mind, she started to justify the car. Well, it was used. It wasn’t that expensive. So even before she saw her sister, she was making assumptions and telling herself stories. What if she’d actually talked to her sister? You know, when we don’t talk about something, it tends to loom large, and start to take on a life of its own. And often our silence gives money a lot of power.
Another story. So this is me and my brother. I have a brother who’s two years younger than me. And when he graduated from college, he went into the Peace Corps, and then he got a master’s in Spanish, and became a high school Spanish teacher. And it was around this time, this was many years ago, when he wanted to buy a house. And my husband and I offered him $20,000 towards his down payment, but he refused our gift.
He said he wanted to live within his own means. And this hurt my feelings. You know, at the time, I felt like, you know, he’s looking down at us, or looking down at our money, but I didn’t say anything. Then, you know, several years later when he was getting married, David and I again sent a check as a wedding gift, and this time he accepted.
And a couple years after that, when his first child was born, we again sent money. And he and his wife thanked us. And we began to send money every year. And over the course of many years, he stopped acknowledging our gifts.
So I’d write a check in December, and I’d hear silence. And it was like the money was disappearing into a void. And I began to feel resentful. And I felt taken for granted. But I didn’t say anything. Instead, I told myself stories. Oh, he’s embarrassed. Or he thinks we have so much money that it doesn’t matter. And then, and I’m not proud to admit this, but just a couple years ago, I just didn’t send a check.
And when my brother and I were communicating over email at the end of one of his notes, he said, wondering if a certain year-end check is just late in the mail. Is it? And I read that, and I was shocked and angry. And I was like, oh my goodness, we need to talk. And I have to say I was writing a book about this, and it still wasn’t comfortable. I still had to really sit down and think through what I was feeling, what I wanted to say.
You know, we don’t haven practice talking about money, but we got on the phone and I, you know, told my brother, you know, my feelings are really hurt that you haven’t thanked us for our gifts. And he apologized right away. You know, he said he hadn’t realized, and in fact he thought it was easier for me if he didn’t make a big deal of the money.
So it made sense, you know, given how we had grown up. And then, you know, we started to talk to each other. And as we talked as two people who love and trust each other, we put money in its place. Not as something bigger than us, but as a tool. And then, once we were talking and connected as two human beings, money became a tool that we could easily talk about.
So you know, he said, I don’t need this money, but I really appreciate it. And you know, I’d never ask. And I said, I don’t care what you’re doing with the money, but I want to know. What are you doing with it? I want to be part of your life.
Another story. A quick story. A good ride of mine told me, this is a year after the fact, she said, Jen, you know I almost didn’t invite your family to join ours at the circus. And I remember going with them to the circus. And I was like really? Why? And she said, yes. I agonized for weeks. I was really worried that you would only want to sit in front row seats and our family just can’t afford that.
And I felt terrible. I hated to think of her worrying about the finances. Our friendship meant more to me than front row seats. Didn’t she know that? But I was so glad she said something. You know, the fact that she trusted me enough to talk about money really made me feel closer to her. And it also made me more aware of my own privilege, and how out of touch I could be.
MICHAEL: So Jen, when we think about these examples, these stories, certain things come into my mind, which is that some of us have tried to talk about money. And I do remember on occasion, I have brought it up. I really have. I’ve been active, and I will tell you until I got a PhD in cognitive psychology, and until I had that structure of how to talk about it, the conversations didn’t go super well.
They felt full of conflict, emotion. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and how those experiences — you know, for the listeners you are hearing you and saying, sure Jen, like, I get it. I’d love to have those conversations, but I tried and they’re too disruptive. What would you tell those human beings?
JENNIFER: It’s not easy, and it’s, you know — until we kind of get used to it and practice it, it’s going to get easier. And so I do have a framework that you can use. So let’s say you have an ongoing money concern that’s been hanging over your head with your uncle or with a sister. Or let’s say you face that awkward money moment. Maybe a friend wants to go to a very expensive restaurant that just doesn’t fit your budget.
MICHAEL: Oh. Totally. It happens all the time. Listeners tell us that. It’s happened to me, Jen. I’m sure it’s happened to you.
MICHAEL: Even based on values. You — even if it’s not based on financial ability.
JENNIFER: Or your sister says, “You’re remodeling again? Can you really afford that?”
I hear a voice in my head. One of my family members looked at what we were doing and said, cha-ching! is what they said. You know, like the register. I’m like, what? No!
JENNIFER: Or your daughter buys an expensive handbag that doesn’t fit her budget or your values.
MICHAEL: Yes, yes, yes.
JENNIFER: Or your in-laws give financial gifts to your spouse’s siblings’ families, but not to yours.
MICHAEL: Hear these things all the time.
JENNIFER: These are all issues that come up. And what do we usually do? We avoid them. We don’t talk about them. Well, I want to help us lean into these conversations. So how do I go about it?
Five steps. First step I think is really getting clear about how we’re feeling. Money brings up all kinds of emotions. It could be anxiety, guilt, intimidation, resentment, jealousy. I mean there’s — it’s so loaded with emotion. So I think the first step is to figure out what emotion is coming up for me. And let’s take that example of the friend and wanting to go to these expensive restaurants; that just don’t feel right to you. What’s coming up? Are you resentful? Are you — well, actually you feel kind of ashamed.
You should be able to afford that. You have a good job. You know, why — you’re like, I’m feeling a little ashamed about this. OK. Understand that about yourself. Understand that feeling. Know that feeling. So get clear about your feeling.
Number 2, schedule a mutually convenient time to talk. A time that’s sort of emotionally neutral where you can meet with your friend and have this conversation.
Three, and I think this is the key one. This is the most important, acknowledge the discomfort. We don’t have experience talking about money. It’s going to be uncomfortable. So say that. Acknowledge it up front. Give yourself and your friend permission to fumble around, to get it wrong. It’s going to get messy. But if you acknowledge that up front, it creates a safe space to have the conversation.
Then four, listen and ask questions. So I think you give yourself permission to talk for five minutes, uninterrupted. You let your friend talk uninterrupted. And you really don’t know what’s going to come up. Because we avoid these things, we do tell ourselves stories. We do make assumptions. Let’s say, in the example of, you know, your friend wanting to go to these expensive restaurants, you tell her, you know, I really just can’t afford it. I feel ashamed about it, but I can’t afford it. Who knows what she’s going to say?
Maybe she’ll say, oh! I had no idea. It’s on me. I want to go to this place; it’s really awesome. On me. Or maybe she says I don’t care where we eat. I just want to spend time with you. Let’s go get a burger. Or maybe she says thank you so much for saying something. I’m in so much debt. I can’t afford those restaurants either. So you will be surprised by what might come up in these conversations.
And hopefully you’ll feel a sense of relief on the other side, and Number 5 is just feel that gratitude and appreciation for your friend. You’ve just gone through something together. You’ve had this, you know, difficult conversation, and hopefully you feel more connected. And from my experience, you likely will feel more connected.
MICHAEL: So some people ask, Jen, and I’d like you to address this. Our listeners ask this question. So let’s say I go through that five-step process. And the conversation really doesn’t go well at all. And now my friend and I realize we just aren’t meant to hang out together in this way, be together in this way, and you could even translate that into a family member. What does that look like in your mind?
Can you describe that to us? Because that is the most — I would say from listeners’ standpoint, what they fear the most. Is that that will damage the relationship irrevocably. Does that make sense, Jen?
JENNIFER: It does, and I — you know, it is true. It’s tricky. And I think it’s often fear that keeps us from having those conversations, a fear of hurting someone’s feelings, or a fear of rejection, or fear we’re not going to measure up, or we’ll sound unknowledgeable. You know, there is a lot of fear that keeps us from having those conversations.
And I think, you know, as important as it is to understand our own emotions and kind of go into that conversation with that understanding, I think you also have to be aware of where your friend or your uncle or your sister, where they are.
MICHAEL: Or yourself, where you’re at.
JENNIFER: Where you are too. Yes! And maybe it’s not going to work with everybody, you know? Or maybe some people just aren’t ready to have these difficult conversations, or uncomfortable conversations. From my experience, often it does work, and there’s, like, this new sense of intimacy. I mean, I think in a way that it’s the most intimate conversation we can have.
What I really care about in the end, is having a relationship with you, and having a connection. Because you know what? Money doesn’t make us happy. What really makes us happy is our relationships with other people, and the quality of those relationships.
So ultimately, if you can get that across to whoever’s, you know — whoever you’re talking to,
I think people can realize that, and feel that themselves.
MICHAEL: So within this framework, you offered some really great concrete steps to kick off these types of conversations, which is really fantastic. And I know our listeners will benefit from that. Can you also offer up from your perspective, where you feel like human beings should start, though?
Are there safer places in general? Safer topics than others? What’s your thought there?
JENNIFER: That’s an interesting question. I think we start, you know, by sharing something about ourselves and seeing how the other person reacts, you know. Saying ooh, you know, that’s funny. I was really triggered there, because I grew up with my money story was frugality is Number 1. And it was really hard for me to buy that. I’m feeling that right now. Share that with someone. See how they react. That’s a kind of testing of the waters.
MICHAEL: Because if they say I have no clue what you’re talking about, you know, what are you saying? Then it gives you an indication that they’re starting from a very different lens, whereas if they then start sharing their story with you and say I totally get it, you know, regardless of where they came from, and that they share a perspective of either someone they know or their own story, then you know, OK. We have some common ground here. I love that idea, Jen. OK.
JENNIFER: I mean, maybe the person I share this with is someone who’s a big spender and they love to spend, and buying gifts is their love language, and — but that’s an interesting conversation that we can have and learn from each other. So in my experience, too, open that door and be a little vulnerable, and people will do the same.
MICHAEL: So within that framework, I will tell you, Jen — I’m going to share something with you. We’ll practice here together. And it is around gift-giving. I will tell you, I do not like receiving gifts. And therefore I don’t really give them, because they make me feel badly. Because I grew up where gifts, what they did is, they were a representation of actually not being able to have food on the table.
So you know, my mother was really into gift-giving. That was a very cultural passion point for her, from the family that she came from. And she was willing to make real essential sacrifices in order to give gifts to others. And I know, Mom, if you’re listening — she still does that, Jen. And so for me, I don’t like that experience. And so to your point, I’m very open and honest with people about that, including my wife, Rachel, and my daughter, Amelia, who really enjoy the gift-giving process.
And they’re trying to get me there, Jen. It’s not working. I’m just going to be honest with you. But I’m trying, because I know — you know, it’s not a light switch. I’ve turned it off. And so that makes other people feel uncomfortable, to your point. And so I recognize that about myself.
JENNIFER: Well, I think it’s interesting that you understand that money story. You get your money story. You’re aware of it, which is a big step forward. It’s very hard to override our money stories. Even if we’re aware of it, it’s hard to change. But the fact that you’re aware of it is awesome. And even better, that your wife and daughter are too. Because then it’s not constantly creating some distance between you.
They can kind of laugh it off, or say there it is again. And you can kind of connect over it in a way that because you all understand what’s going on — they might not like it, but they understand it. And I think that’s again, a key to why, you know, understanding our own money stories and sharing it with the people we’re closest to is so important.
MICHAEL: And to that end, I love this as a closing point, and then I want to ask you one final question, Jen. Which you’ve described, but I want to dig a little bit deeper into it. But before we get there, I just want to say, I do like that idea of acceptance too.
So sharing our money stories, and going through some of the conversations and the process you highlighted, it’s not about necessarily changing ourselves or other people. It’s just about awareness, and not making assumptions, to your point. Not sitting in silence.
JENNIFER: I love that word, “acceptance,” you know? Acceptance for ourselves and for our family members, and for each other. It’s key. I think it can become something so big when we don’t talk about it, and kind of start to control us. When we can connect as people, then we can put money in its place, yes. As a tool.
MICHAEL: And that’s our primary focus of Season 2, you know, is to move beyond money silence, move beyond money taboos. You’re helping us do that here today, and to acceptance, using money as a tool. To get the jobs done that we want it to get done. Let’s come to common ground with our family, ourselves, on what those jobs are, and let’s do it! Let’s use money as a tool. So thank you for that, Jen.
So my final question for you is, you know, you shared some of your stories around why you’re passionate about this topic. But there must be something really intrinsic to your desire to write a book. I mean, that’s not an easy thing to do, Jen. I’m a writer, you know, a dorky academic writer. But to write a whole book, a whole narrative, telling your personal story, that’s like next-level stuff, Jen. So what really drove you to do this?
JENNIFER: I was just so shocked that no one talks about the issues that come up. The emotional impact of wealth. No one’s talking about it, but we’re all feeling it. And so because we learn from each other’s stories, I wanted to share mine to help other people understand their own, and to think about their own stories.
So it really was the desire, well, to connect with other people. And to connect through story, and to help others, you know, validate their experiences and demystify wealth, and find connections of their own with family, with friends. And ultimately — it may sound far-reaching you know, I think talking can help us shake up the status quo, and start closing divides.
MICHAEL: And that last idea, I think is really the focus of, you know, I would say my professional and personal life is, you know, by normalizing, to your point, money talk, suddenly you take away all the, let’s say, asymmetric information.
Where some people have their information and some don’t. And now, suddenly everyone has the same information about money, to your point, demystifications. Then we all have the knowledge, the information to make decisions that are right for us. So hopefully we can all make that happen.
And I encourage our listeners to do that as well by talking about money now! Right, Jen?
JENNIFER: Right. Michael, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
MICHAEL: Thank you for being on this episode of About Money, Jen.
JENNIFER: Thank you.
MICHAEL: Wow. As you can tell, we were very lucky to have Jennifer Risher share her story with us, and offer us her perspectives on how we can challenge ourselves to improve our relationships with the people closest to us, and put money in its place, as a tool to get us and them to where we want to go. Not an end in and of itself. Jen, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us today. We’re truly humbled and grateful for all that you do.
That’s it for this episode of the About Money podcast. Please email us with the topics that you would like us to address at: AboutMoney@wellsfargo.com. And if you really liked the episode, share it with family, friends, and anyone who listens to podcasts. About Money is produced by Wells Fargo. You can learn more about ways to work with us at wellsfargo.com/AboutMoney. I’m Michael Liersch, asking you to talk about money today.
The views expressed by Jennifer Risher are her own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Wells Fargo & Company or its affiliates.
This information is provided for educational and illustrative purposes only.
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