The Taboo Topics of Periods and Personal Finances

My colleague’s cramps & an invitation to speak about a hush-hush topic 

Yesterday afternoon, just before leaving the high school where I work, I stopped and chatted with a young teacher. “Well, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment, so I’d better go,” she said after a couple of minutes. I told her that I hoped she was alright. “Yeah . . .” she said with some uncustomary reserve. And then she continued in a quieter voice, “I’m fine. I just get really bad cramps every month.”

I dashed for a pencil and a small piece of paper. I was all over this. “I used to get severe cramps when I was young,” I told her – without bothering to keep my voice quiet. “It was so bad I’d have to leave my school or my part-time job if I was working. Just agony for about a day or two.” She was no longer in such a rush to leave. I knew she was feeling a rare relief in talking to someone who could relate. She said, “I realized I had to see my doctor about it after I took some prescribed cough medicine that I had left over from a bout with bronchitis – medicine that was filled with narcotics – to dull the pain of my cramps so that I could sleep. It’s that desperate!”

I gave her the paper on which I’d written “Ponstan”. “This is the name of the drug I used,” I said. “It just made the pain disappear completely. It was like, Hallelujah! I would have done a commercial for it.” She thanked me, took the paper, and said she’d definitely ask her doctor about it. Just before she left, I added, “If you ever have a baby, you probably won’t need the meds anymore.” She laughed as she went through the door. “That’s what my mom says!”

Is that too much information? When I was a student and even a young adult, I would no more talk about this subject than jump out of a window and fly. But the times have changed. I have been absolutely dumbfounded by the openness of many of my female students through my career – “Miss, I have to go now! I’m having my period and my pads are in my locker!” – and I think it’s a good thing. For too long, it was an oppressively hush-hush topic, and those of us who suffered with it suffered in silence. Over the years, I’ve been happy to challenge my own silence by evangelizing Ponstan the few times when there has been an open door.

OK, so what does this have to do with personal finance? 

  1. Personal finances and personal debt in particular are hush-hush topics. We hear about finances through the news, but the stats and interest rates and economic projections are all faceless. Almost never do people have frank and open discussions about their personal debts, expenses, or savings. Most people manage or mismanage their money in complete isolation from everyone else. Most of us have no idea how our neighbours are doing financially – or even some of our family members. Personal finances are shrouded in silence – in “privacy”. It is considered rude, inappropriate, un-classy to talk about such a personal matter.
  2. People who suffer financially generally do so in silence. Everyone has bills to pay and most people have debt of some kind, but not everyone is stressed – cramped – in their financial life. Those who are can feel very alone. There’s a pride and a shame and an uncertainty about how to go about bringing up the topic. And doesn’t everyone deal with these things? Is my situation really so bad? Without direction or a compass, the ever-present stress is endured in a fog of self-doubt.
  3. It often takes a jolt – a wake-up moment – to shake the suffering debtor out of silence. My colleague’s experience of resorting to narcotics made her wake up to the severity of her situation. All sorts of things can wake up the debtor: job loss, big and unexpected expenses, a maxed-out credit card, a rise in interest rates . . . Suddenly, what had always been suffer-able in silence makes us yell, “Ouch!”

The “Ouch!” moment: time to speak

The “Ouch!” moment is the open door – the moment to speak. And there is a way to do it:

  • Let this person know, “I feel your pain.” Acknowledge his/her stress.
  • Share your solution concisely and with hope. And then let it go. He or she might not respond right away or at all in the moment, and that’s OK. Don’t make the mistake of lecturing.
  • Respond to specific questions or issues this person raises. Don’t offer every bit of financial wisdom you might have. Keep it focused on the individual’s immediate concerns.
  • Offer a clear next step. Chances are, this person is operating in a fog. Clarity is probably welcome (as long as you’re not being bossy).

I’ve responded to two different money “ouches” in the past week. I can’t give any details about these incidents, but I can say that they weren’t unlike my conversation with my young colleague. A sensitive topic and an open door. Empathy, hope, specifics, and a suggested next step. Brief but powerful conversations. Then, a letting go. And a laugh.

I love it that Brian from Debt Discipline recently volunteered to share his debt story at a local library. I’m thinking of copying him. I hope that some day, we’re all as comfortable talking about our personal finances as my students are talking about their periods. It’s not a shameful topic. No one needs to be in a fog. No one needs to suffer in isolated silence.

Have you ever had the opportunity to respond to someone’s financial “Ouch!” moment? Has anyone ever responded to yours in a really helpful way? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of Matt_Weibo

22 comments on “The Taboo Topics of Periods and Personal Finances

  1. Please copy me, please copy me! Not to raise the stakes, but I’ve just pitched an idea to speak at our High School to parents and students. The event will be scheduled soon, before the end of the school year.

    I have had the opportunity to respond a few times. I always lead with our failures, it helps let the person know we’ve made mistakes too. I gently give them a push in the right direction or lead them to some information that might help their situation.

    1. Brian, I say it takes a real man to comment on a post like this! (I was afraid I’d alienate all of the men out there with this analogy.) How fabulous that you’re going to speak at your kids’ high school! How do they feel about that? I will actually be speaking in a math class at my school tomorrow – by invitation of the teacher. That’s different from a big talk with parents as well as students, but it’s a start.

      1. LOL. With a wife, daughter and growing up with two sisters I’m all too familiar with the topic. I’m super excited about the high school event. The thought of the possible impact I may have on some young financial lives is incredible. I feel very blessed for the opportunity. Good luck on your speaking event! Let us know how it goes.

        1. There – that’s what I was hoping. That men would be cool with it because . . . well, they’re grown-ups. I spoke to the math class this morning. I didn’t prepare a formal talk, and I think I should have. It was impossible for me to tell if they were taking it in. The math teacher and I were certainly eager to get the point across. And maybe that in itself was something worthwhile. Here were two teachers who were admitting they had made mistakes with money and who wished they had done better. I’m going to guess they had never seen anything like that before. I hope to have other opportunities to speak to classes, and next time, I’ll prepare more in advance in an effort to make it more teen-friendly. I wish you all the best with your talk at the high school, Brian.

  2. When I first read the title of this post, I wondered what punctuation had to do with personal finances. 🙂

    Despite the fact that I list our debts on my blog each month, I’m still inhibited about discussing debt in “real life”. I’m confident I’ll feel better about doing so, once the debt is more under control, though.

    1. Sorry to catch you off guard with that topic : ) (I really did wonder whether or not I was crossing a line.) I think you’re right, Amy. Once you feel like you’re really conquering your debts, you might actually WANT to talk about it IRL. I hope that day comes soon.

  3. Ruth, love your tips at the end for broaching the subject gingerly when you get a chance. So true both about periods and about PF. I still hesitate about talking about money in real life too. One day I pray I won’t be so freaked out about it.

    1. I think you will be a very powerful speaker when the time comes, Laurie – whether it’s in a public speaking venue, a small group setting, or a one-on-one talk. I don’t think you’ll need to force it. It will come about naturally exactly when it should, and you’ll handle it with all of the frank, wise, encouraging words that you share online.

  4. Ouch, painful post! I, too, was one of the unfortunate 2 days each month sufferers. Couldn’t go to school. Couldn’t go to work. Pain and barfing galore. My cure was birth control pills. Nothing helped until a doctor prescribed them when I was 19. Changed my life! I always found people way more comfortable talking about that topic than about money. What a funny world!

    1. I actually suggested birth control pills to my colleague, but she said she didn’t want to take a pill every day for something she suffers from 2 days per month. I get that – but I also get why you went that route. ANYTHING to get rid of the pain. And “barfing galore”. (Poor you!)

  5. Your advice is spot on! If any of the information/help you’re providing to the person in need is going to get through and make a difference, you have to meet them where they’re at in that moment. Great post!

    1. And there is always the chance that it won’t get through. It can be hard to accept that possibility without getting irritated by it. “Meet them where they’re at in that moment.” Absolutely true! Thanks, Amanda.

  6. ha ha, when I was a teenager I never even told my mom I started my period because I was so embarrassed. I think after a while she just assumed I had and we never talked about it. Now I couldn’t give a poop, although it’s not like I talk about it over dinner or something. Anyway, when I started my PF blog, I never even told my best friend. I was, again, embarrassed I was having “money problems.” But, I’m glad I eventually “came out” because I found that people appreciated it more, and I had nothing to be ashamed of.

    1. I think most of us start opening up to money talk online – because it’s safe – way before we talk about it with people face-to-face. I bet when you “came out”, you found that you weren’t alone in your money problems. It’s like a dirty little secret so many people feel ashamed to discuss. You’ve probably had the effect of bringing many people out of that silence, Tonya.

    1. I’ve really noticed a surprising range in people’s desire to “talk solutions”. You might think it would be a no-brainer. “I’ve got a problem, so I want to figure out a solution.” But it’s not like that. Denial and fear play a huge role in persuading people – even those in financial pain – not to seek solutions.

  7. Hah, I love this. Especially because you dashed right off for the pen and paper. My favorite thing about you is that you’re so brave about reaching out to and opening up to other people! When you hear that someone’s having a problem, you always try to lend an ear and give advice if you have it, even though that hasn’t always been totally easy for you. (I remember when you went to see Debt Debs a couple of years ago!) I have my period routine down at this point (usually two days where I take Advil every five or six hours) but when I was a teenager and it was coming irregularly and staying for weeks sometimes (!) it was miserable. I’m so glad I eventually grew out of that rough early stage.

    1. Thank you C! (Or can I call you Catherine now since you’re “out” at Young Adult Money?) That’s a very kind comment. Sometimes, I think I’m a little too eager to offer “help” – or unsolicited advice. I try to be careful to get an accurate sense of a person’s willingness to hear it first, and not to offer where it’s not wanted. I really would like to do as Brian has done and volunteer to speak about debt reduction at a local library. That would be taking things to a new level, but I’m excited at the thought of going there : )

  8. I’m very grateful that I have reasonably painless periods >_< I know not everyone can say that.

    You're so right about suffering (financially) in silence. Ask me how I know…

    I've been pleasantly surprised when talking about cars and housing with previous coworkers, how willing they were to open up about how much they paid for their cars, if they still owed on their cars, how much CC debt they had… in many cases if you can get the conversation started it all grows from there, even if you don't start with hard numbers.

    1. I have found the same to be true, NZ. I myself have become more comfortable talking about pf matters, and I think that comfort spreads as we engage with others. And if it goes nowhere, I’m comfortable with that too : ) I’m glad you’re talking with former colleagues about these things – and cracking that stubborn taboo as you do.

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