Some topics are just not discussed in polite company. Sex, politics, religion, and money are usually deemed inappropriate subjects at the office water cooler or around the dinner table. Though these conversational taboos have their place, silence isn’t always golden.

According to Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, founder of KBK Wealth Connection and author of Breaking Money Silence®, money is the most awkward conversation topic of all. Kingsbury asserts that 44% of Americans say their personal financial situation is the most difficult topic to discuss with loved ones, ranking above death, politics, and religion in its unpleasantness.

Many people would rather suffer in silence than discuss a personal financial predicament and endure the shame associated with having financial problems or making bad financial decisions. People like to be seen as responsible and successful. In American culture, money plays a big part not only in how we see ourselves but in how we want others to see us both in our personal and professional lives.

Often money silence isn’t broken until risk of foreclosure, wage garnishment, utilities being turned off, repossession or the impending death of a loved one is imminent.

The fear of bad money decisions being exposed is akin to the fear an adolescent feels after banging up his parents’ car. He’s scared. He can’t bear the shame or the angry reaction he’s sure the truth will cause. A wise parent, however, is not afraid to capitalize on a banged-up bumper or expensive speeding ticket to teach responsible driving habits. In the same way, discussing financial matters, even bad financial decisions and unhappy financial predicaments, can open the door to financial literacy.

Financial literacy is having the knowledge necessary to make informed financial decisions. It means understanding how taxes work, and how to manage a budget, pay bills and save for the unexpected. It also means preparing for long-term goals like paying for college and investing and planning for retirement, as well as knowing how to buy a home and even how to avoid financial scams. Financial wellness is the ability to make healthy financial decisions. People who are financially literate are more likely to be financially well.

Unfortunately, a study by the FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) Foundation estimated that nearly two-thirds of Americans couldn’t pass a basic financial literacy test. The prognosis isn’t good. The study revealed that Americans have low levels of financial literacy and difficulty applying financial decision-making skills to real-life situations. It appears most Americans don’t rate very high on the financial wellness spectrum, which means there are probably lots of financial predicaments not being talked about.

Talking About Money in Marriage

Money is a tricky topic to broach in any relationship, but in marriage, money silence can be especially detrimental. Before walking down the aisle, couples should discuss how their parents handled money when they were growing up and how they managed their own finances as adults, as well as expectations for how finances will be handled in their marriage. Understanding financial behaviors can help identify any issues lurking in the shadows. An insignificant amount of debt to one person may seem massive to another.

Once you are married communicating about money is essential. If one spouse is making even small financial decisions without talking to the other, it can easily become a source of contention.

I had a client who had accumulated what seemed to him an insignificant amount of credit card debt to help cover expenses when his wife took time off work to be home with the kids. He had not informed her of the debt because he did not want her to worry. He felt it was manageable and had already paid off a large portion when she discovered the debt. To her, the debt seemed massive, and the fact that he had not informed her escalated her concerns. Instead of discussing the situation early on and working together to resolve the issue together, he kept silent. A relatively small amount of debt had become a big issue.

Overcoming Money Silence with Parents

Many people are reluctant to discuss financial matters such as estate planning with aging parents and relatives, but these matters need to be discussed. They just need to be discussed delicately.

It is best to set aside a low-stress time to meet. Avoid talking about money during holidays or a big event like an upcoming wedding. Be clear about your goals. Prepare talking points, stay on track, and get rid of distractions like television and cell phones.

Parents and older relatives want to feel like they have choices in matters like estate planning and end of life decisions. Let them know your goal is to understand their wishes so that everyone can be prepared. Be careful not to pile on other issues or concerns.

During the conversation ask follow-up questions to make sure things are well-defined, and no one is making wrong assumptions. Respect one another and accept that not everybody may agree with your opinions. If things become particularly heated, take a break and revisit the conversation. Sometimes people need a minute to collect their thoughts and mull things over. At the end of the conversation summarize what you’ve discussed and ask your parents or relatives to repeat their wishes.

Still no progress? A financial advisor can help provide information and resources to help families discuss important financial issues.