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Janet in Trading psychology,

How do I deflect questions about my earnings and net worth?

Dear Moneyologist,

I’m self employed as a writer and editor and people often want to know what I earn exactly, and talk about whether I’m doing well enough financially. This ranges from people assuming I’m a penniless writer (which I’m not) to implying I’m a shameless chancer if I appear to be doing well, that is, when I make an expensive purchase or take an expensive holiday.

I spend half my time in Europe and half in Los Angeles, and in a year I can go from very comfortable to stony broke depending on how work goes. But I’d like to choose who I share this with. How do I deflect probing questions? Some people aren’t easily halted when they start, almost wanting to see invoices. I don’t measure my worth in monetary terms and I don’t like revealing details to people who do.


Dear Anonymous,

Earlier this week, we had the opposite problem: Someone who couldn’t stop talking about his personal wealth and needed a firm talking to by a friend before his 20th high school reunion. I have a feeling that your problem is just as common. People in New York are prone to asking how much you spend on your rent (usually while sizing the place up). For me, it’s (almost) as bad as asking how much you spent on your last face-lift: None of your business. The lesson for all of us is to think twice before asking anyone questions about money.

How to Deflect Questions About Money

Some people don't consider it rude to ask about money. Still, how can you sidestep questions about how much you make? Moneyologist Quentin Fottrell offers tips.

In the U.S., people do ask each other what they do for a living moments after asking your name. That clearly gives an indication of someone’s salary and/or net worth. I’m going to make a broad generalization here, so take it as such. People in Europe tend to hold off asking people what they do for a living, at least in the first five minutes of meeting them. In the U.K. and Ireland, however, people tend to ask other questions, such as where you went to school or college. A school tie can also be a barometer of your wealth or social standing.

You can’t control what people say to you, but you can have a set of pro forma responses (one or two should do it) for all questions related to money. Here’s a test run:

Wow! You must be doing well with your writing if you can spend six months of the year in L.A.?
“I make a living like everyone else.”

It must be hard to make it as a writer. How much would you get for a magazine article?
“It varies.”

Like what?
(Smile and repeat.)

A conversational bookend when absolutely necessary: “I’m not going to answer that.”

Your question relates to other people’s social graces. The more upset and irritated you get by people asking the same intrusive questions might make you feel like this is your problem, but it isn’t. You aren't responsible for other people’s bad manners. (My own bugbear on telling people I’m a journalist: “Are you freelance? Or do you actually work for a company?) Here’s the headline: You set your own boundaries. You aren't responsible for setting other people’s boundaries. Aside from answering probing questions with bland, pro forma answers, there is another lesson that I took years to learn. And it’s a very powerful one, so listen very carefully to what I’m going to tell you. Did you hear that? That’s right. Silence. Using no words at all is a very powerful tool when dealing with pushy people who don’t know how to mind their beeswax. It tells them everything they need to know.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, regifting, or any tricky money issues relating to family and friends? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyologist.