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Mind your money manners


Sylvia Pennington

There's lots of ways to get it wrong with money when you're eating out with others.

There's lots of ways to get it wrong with money when you're eating out with others. Photo: Rebecca Hallas

Along with religion and politics, money used to be a topic nice folk never talked about, particularly at the dinner table. But has this changed to reflect the zeitgeist of the share-it-all-with-strangers social media age? Has it become acceptable to ask someone what they make, hold out your hand when you're getting hitched, or whinge loudly about the latest fee hike at little Sienna's private school?

Or are the rules about money and manners much as they ever were?

What do you think? Add your comments below

They mostly are, says etiquette expert Anna Musson, founder of The Good Manners Company. ''Money has always been a taboo topic of conversation, and the well-mannered will always refrain from asking impertinent questions such as, 'Wow, that's nice, what did you pay for that?','' Musson says. ''It's right up there with asking if someone has had plastic surgery or Botox - you just don't do it.''

We canvassed the experts for tips on discussing and handling the folding stuff - and dealing with others whose money etiquette is less than impeccable.

1. You must be raking it in!

When it comes to salaries, the rule is clear - never ask and don't tell, business etiquette consultant Danielle Di-Masi says. As well as putting the person on the spot, the answer may leave you feeling disgruntled.

Finding out a friend or acquaintance is raking in the big bucks can disturb the equilibrium of your relationship and spark jealousy, resentment and inadequacy.

''There are so many opportunities for people to get offended, think of you differently and have expectations, once they know what you make,'' Di-Masi says.

If someone is impolite enough to ask, deflect the inquiry by telling them you earn enough to be comfortable. ''It's not a great answer, but it says 'That's all I need to tell you','' she says. ''It's no one else's business what you make and what you do with it … I'm still amazed people ask this.''

2. Breaking bread

There's lots of ways to get it wrong with money when you're eating out with others, Musson says. Chief among them is pulling out a calculator after dinner and announcing that your share of the bill is $21.75, exclusive of tip. The best way of managing the awkward end-of-evening whip-round is to appoint a host for the occasion. Their job includes advising other attendees of the approximate cost in advance, so no one is left scrambling through change pockets or feeling resentful they didn't hoe into the shiraz more heavily.

''If you can't afford that, don't go,'' Musson says. ''Don't just have a salad, don't drink and ask to pay less.''

And if you're feeling flush and want to shout the table, remember the better part of generosity is discretion. Declaring loudly, 'Dinner's on me - hope you all enjoyed it!' looks like a shameless grab for kudos and takes the shine off a magnanimous gesture. Slope off and settle the tab discreetly towards the end of the meal, Musson says. ''It's much nicer for people to work out that you quietly paid.''

3. Nice place!

Despite our obsession with property, questions about what someone paid for their home, or what it's now worth, can veer onto delicate ground. It's less contentious than talking about salaries, though, Di-Masi says, because there's a plethora of information available on suburbs and values.

Saying you ''bought it for x and it's now worth y'' is an acceptable response if asked, she says, as is talking in ranges.

''You can tell them you don't have an up-to-date value, but you believe it is in the vicinity of x.''

Those itching to learn whether friends or family are sitting on a gold mine should ask themselves why they need to know,

Di-Masi says - or satisfy their curiosity subtly by looking it up on RPData or

4. Pass the hat for My Big Fat Wedding

Asking guests for money on your big day? It's become more commonplace but remains bad form, unless it's part of your ethnic culture, Musson says.

Her sanctions cover wishing wells and their even tackier offshoot - the wedding invite with bank account number helpfully included.

''The whole idea of giving gifts at a wedding was to furnish young people with things they didn't have,'' Musson says.

''People are getting married later and later, but there's a mentality that we don't want to miss out on free stuff. It's not how it was intended.

''If you've been married before or already have everything, say 'No gifts please' and that's that. Don't ask for cash.''

Equally vulgar is the notion guests should chip in for the honeymoon.

Some couples provide travel agents' details and a cost breakdown, to enable guests to choose whether to treat a honeymoon candlelit dinner on the beach, a portion of the airfares or a couple of elephant rides.

''If you don't have sufficient funds to cover the overseas extravaganza you have in mind, go to Byron Bay, go to the Central Coast,'' Musson says.

If you've been asked for the folding stuff and feel you can't refuse, present it in a card, not via direct deposit, she adds.

5. The Golden Years

Do I have enough? How much have you got? And how are the Joneses affording to swan off on yet another luxury cruise? Superannuation and how to manage it is much on the minds of the over-55s, as the prospect of several decades of self-funded retirement looms large for the baby-boomer cohort.

But while they may ask themselves the first question, the latter ones are way off limits for the current crop of superannuants, Starts at Sixty website publisher Rebecca Wilson says. Talking self-managed super funds versus industry funds or swapping sharemarket tips is fine, but questions and disclosures about personal circumstances remain taboo, even among close friends.

''This generation is very much of the view that you never talk about money outside the family,'' Wilson says.

''Between private walls, one on one, is about as far as it goes.''

6. Moaning into the Moet

Feel like moaning about your three sets of private school fees, the ruinous cost of low-profile tyres for your European coupe, or the above-market rate the au pair had the temerity to demand? Just don't, says David Rankin, director of personal budgeting service Sort My Money, who sees many clients who have fallen into difficulty trying to keep up with big-talking, cash-splashing friends.

''It's tacky and can make people hate you,'' Rankin says. Australians are a humble bunch in the main, and the tall poppy syndrome remains alive and well - especially when we're forced to listen to humblebrag gripes.

''Australians still don't like people to get ahead of themselves,'' Rankin says.

So if your Toorak home and string of investment properties are going stratospheric, you've just booked Christmas at Aspen and you're spending this year's bonus on a new Beemer, you're best to enjoy the ride on your own, Rankin says. ''If, however, your one-bedroom unit has turned out to be a dog of a buy, depending on your embarrassment threshold, feel free to share the gory details - they would be well-received at any suburban dinner party.''


Cash and silver frames

Asking for money on your wedding day? Why not, says former model and online retail shop owner Tessa White (pictured above), 37, who did so when she and husband Marcus tied the knot in 2002.

Both Brits living in Australia, they travelled to the UK for their big day. The couple had shared a home for six years prior so household items were not required; nor were they anxious to return to Sydney with cases bulging with cutlery and glassware.

White says she would have done the same, had they married locally: ''Really, we did have everything - the only thing we needed was a bigger TV.''

Guests were sent a poem with their invite, requesting monetary gifts and most responded with a cheque or £20 or £50, although some gave as little as £10. A few older folk ignored the suggestion and bought silver photo frames, while a couple of guests gave nothing at all.

''We were shocked when we opened a card and it was just a card but at the same time we couldn't really take offence,'' White says.

Funds received were put towards the renovation and decoration of their Mosman home.

When in Rome ... 

It'd be a dull old place if we were all the same…

The world may be getting smaller but money manners still vary hugely between countries and cultures, New York based international etiquette consultant Lyudmila Bloch says.

While Westerners tiptoe around the topic, asking someone's salary or what they're worth are uncontroversial inquiries for Chinese people.

''They love and enjoy success and what it brings, they love to negotiate and bargain, it's part of their culture,'' Bloch says.

''They have no awkwardness talking about money like we do.''

Similarly, the practice of eating out as a group and splitting the bill is not the norm outside Australia and a handful of other Western nations.

In countries such as Russia the suggestion would cause offence, Bloch says - unless the gathering were a student one.

''In many European countries, it's considered an absolute no-no…

''You'll not invite a person out if you can't afford it… if you're inviting people out, the inviter pays.''


  • The taboo or not about discussing money, property, debt etc does seem to depend on the culture. I know when working on projects in the past there were quite a number of Chinese project members and they had no problem in asking the most personal questions about income, debt, current payments etc etc. Their questions were regarded as very intrusive so I had to take them aside and explain that these inquiries were regarded as rude, they were most apologetic.

    Date and time
    March 26, 2014, 6:19AM
    • Well, that is completely a question of the point of view Australian-Anglosaxon uptightness or Chinese lack of inhibition. Naturally everyone thinks he/she is only displaying only 'common sense'. However, I have the impression, (no scientific trials done here) that due to their communication about these things the Chinese usually get the better deal.

      Date and time
      March 26, 2014, 10:45AM
  • Totally disagree. Money should be discussed. We need to better educate ourselves about money.

    Date and time
    March 26, 2014, 8:49AM
    • Completely agree. Having finally knuckled down to understand my personal finances in my late-20s, I found myself quietly asking a few friends of the same age about how they managed theirs. I was amazed at how little we all *really* knew. So together we started learning, and compared notes & budgets & recommendations. So wonderful to feel empowered, rather than ashamed.

      Date and time
      March 26, 2014, 5:07PM
  • Barry's advice. Only eat once with those who quibble about the bill.

    Date and time
    March 26, 2014, 9:23AM
    • If any of the overindulged offspring of my nieces and nephews had the temerity to ask for actual currency they would be put in their place. That's what trust funds are for. I have seen it done in films, and once at the Theatre. It was not the light opera I was expecting, it was a musical about a man on a roof, but I recall there was money involved. I have always found that when approached for actual cash, it is usually appropriate to remind the person that my charitable works are carefully chosen for me, and, if they are family, I assure them that they are in my thoughts, and possibly my will.

      Great Aunt Maude
      Date and time
      March 26, 2014, 9:50AM
      • I am a follower of maintaining details about my finances as a matter between me, the accountant and the tax office. When asked about the value my home I simply reply with "I don't know."

        Like @comment, I've also had what I felt were intrusive questions on my fiances but I say I don't discuss such matters outside of my family and leave it at that. If others are perplexed by that approach it's their problem.

        As for splitting the bill, I keep a mental note of my costs, round it up to the next $5 and place the amount in the kitty. I have been asked to contribute more to cover drinks but I remind them I am a non-drinker. Obviously I am not invited out very often :)

        Basically, I don't care what others have or what they do with their money.

        Date and time
        March 26, 2014, 9:52AM
        • Completely agree. I soon learnt to stop going out with people who would guzzle drinks all night then would expect everyone else to help cover the bill. When I go out for dinner, I pay for my meal and drinks and a bit for tips. If you want Penfolds and Cray, better make sure you have the money to pay for it as I sure as hell won't be.

          Date and time
          March 26, 2014, 7:31PM
      • "Some couples provide travel agents' details " - very topical for me. My nephew (whom I rarely see) is getting married in 3 weeks and they have done the same with their wedding invites. I was genuinely shocked and have been putting off contributing.

        Date and time
        March 26, 2014, 10:13AM
        • We did the wishing well thing.

          It's interesting seeing what people give - seeing who's cheap, and seeing who's too uppity to help you out with what you actually want and need, which is cash...

          Date and time
          March 26, 2014, 10:22AM

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