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MP Dunleavey

Women in Red

How our money secrets can cost us

Silence may have once been golden, but with new financial wrinkles and complications, it carries a high price. Here's why openness is a much better idea.

[Related content: debt, budgeting, income, spending, MP Dunleavey]
By MP Dunleavey
MSN Money

Editor's note: Join columnist MP Dunleavey and a group of women as they seek to strip away the myths around money, liberate themselves from debt and find financial sanity. Follow the continuing quest of the Women in Red every other Wednesday in Dunleavey's column on MSN Money.

It's time to come clean.

From the shady dealings on Wall Street to the stupefying amount of easy credit consumed on Main Street, the financial deception and delusion of the past decade have been toxic to us all.

How did things get so out of control, at every level?

Here's a radical thought: The biggest villain in the Great Unraveling of 2008 wasn't a bunch of rogue investment banks or even a tidal wave of greedy consumers.

It was silence.

  • Watch the video to the right for more money tips from MP Dunleavey.

Our collective silence governed what we borrowed, what we spent and how much we owed, and it enabled people to delude themselves, for years, that "somehow it would all work out."

In order for things to start working again, that silence has to end.

The rules we follow

Why don't we talk about money?

Keeping quiet about finances is not the norm in every country, but in the U.S., the taboos against discussing money run deep.

We think about money all the time, yet it's considered crude to mention your financial state or inquire about someone else's. And despite some regional differences about what's acceptable to air in public, it's amazing how many of us stick to these unspoken rules:

  • Never reveal your income or ask anyone else about theirs.

  • Don't discuss what you spend (unless it was a bargain).

  • Don't seek advice about financial decisions.

  • Don't tell anyone how much money you save or have saved.

  • Keep the contents of your portfolio or retirement account secret.

  • Above all, never tell the truth about how much you owe.

To some degree, these taboos are in place to protect people's privacy (and their egos). But the old-fashioned etiquette that prevents open discourse about money has backfired in the worst possible way.

Money is just too complicated now for anyone to keep mum about their questions, problems, mistakes or intentions.

"In our grandparents' day, you had a paycheck, a mortgage, maybe some life insurance, but there weren't too many other moving parts," says financial planner Sheryl Garrett, the founder of the Garrett Planning Network.

Within our lifetimes, she says, working Americans have seen innovations such as the 401k plan, the rise of mutual funds -- thousands to choose from -- and so many types of credit that the somewhat primitive financial sectors of our brains can barely keep up. (See "4 money lessons from Fred Flintstone.")

Video: MSN Money columnist on living 'poor' and loving it

Silence keeps you stuck

Given the massive alterations to the financial landscape and the taboo against discussing any of it openly (because of pride or the fear of looking foolish?), is it any surprise that millions of homeowners signed up for mortgages they didn't understand and couldn't afford?

Is it really so astonishing that we have become a nation carrying a staggering amount of personal debt, given that we weren't supposed to mention that we had any debt at all?

Silence can be financially devastating because it leads to isolation, says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist in New York.

"Isolation is really destructive to finances in particular," Clayman says. "When you don't talk about money, it's hard to see that one issue is connected to another. Then the problem perpetuates itself.

"There may be things you could do differently, different information and solutions you could access, but you don't know about them because you're not discussing the problem."

Continued: Full disclosure works

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