At a time when income inequality is a huge problem, our country’s economic system is broken, and money is still a taboo subject even among those closest to us, this engaging, introspective memoir is essential reading: a catalyst for conversation that demystifies wealth and inspires us to connect. We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth gives voice to an experience millions share, but no one discusses: what it's like to be rich.
Bookclubz Founder Anna Ford interviewed author Jen Risher about her deeply personal memoir, what inspired her to share her story, and the conversation she aims to spark.
Anna: When did you decide to write this book and what was the process like for you?
Jen: I am very lucky. When I was in my early thirties, a fantasy came true – and wealth surprised me. I had many questions. But I was too embarrassed to talk to friends or my parents. So, I searched for information in books. But the only books about wealth were sociological studies, offering data on “the rich.” There were no personal, human stories about having new money. What were other people doing with their wealth? How did they feel about it? Were they giving to family? How were they thinking about philanthropy? How did they handle a friend’s jealousy or a sibling’s resentment? Was I the only one feeling so alone?
It may be nearly impossible to imagine wealth as a challenge that needs to be overcome. And I want to say upfront that money makes life easier. No one needs to shed tears over my situation. But wealth can be isolating.
At first, writing was a form of therapy – a way to make sense of a reality that isn’t what we see in movies and on TV. I enjoyed the process. Writing is a puzzle. I had to figure out how to talk about my experiences in a compelling way and how to discuss money in a way that wasn’t off-putting or offensive. It took fourteen years to put all the pieces together and find a publisher willing to take a risk on a risky subject.
Anna: What motivated you to courageously share so much of your personal story (with intimate details) to spark a national conversation? Did you fear any backlash?
Jen: Income inequality is a huge problem. So many people are suffering right now. We need systemic change at a governmental level. I should pay more taxes. No one in our country should be without healthcare, housing, education or food.
Yes, I anticipated backlash. Money is an emotional subject. But I believe it’s incredibly important to shine a light on reality and start conversations that aren’t being had. Our collective view of wealth and the wealthy is very narrow and incomplete. We see the Kardashians and The Real Housewives. We know about the parents who illegally tried to get their unqualified children into top schools. But most people with wealth are more ordinary than the stereotypes: 8 out of 10 grew up middle class or poor. “They” are you. And they are hidden in plain sight. If we examined our relationship with money, I believe we could bridge divides. Everyone has a money story.
I’m also offering up my story to help the millions of Americans like me, who are new to money and surprised by the impact wealth has on identity, relationships, and sense of place in the world. We’re not talking with each other because money is a taboo subject – but it doesn’t have to be.
Anna: What impact do you hope your memoir will have?
Jen: I hope the book becomes a catalyst for conversation that helps family members and friends connect and address awkward money situations. I want to invite people to get uncomfortable and to use the book as a starting place for conversation.
It may sound far-reaching, but conversations could help us fight income inequality. When a large an influential segment of our population feels isolated and estranged, they probably aren’t at their most empathetic or generous. I’m hoping to shake up the status quo and move us out of an “us versus them” mindset. When it comes to our basic human needs, fears and desires, we are all 99% the same.
Anna: Why is Book Club a great place to talk about money and wealth?
Jen: When we don’t talk about something, it tends to loom large and take on a life of its own. Our silence around money ends up giving money a lot of power. Talking can help put money in its place – as a tool, not as something bigger than us. I’d love people to read the book with a partner, a parent, a close friend, and with their book club.
Most book clubs share a sense of trust and camaraderie. An open, honest discussion about money could bring the group closer and help members learn from each other. Talking would likely foster understanding and reveal how much everyone has in common. Often, when we don’t talk about money, it’s not money itself that we’re avoiding, but the emotions behind the money. And these emotions are universal. We all have “money shame” and “money guilt.”
Anna: Do you have any advice for leading a book club discussion on this book? Can you suggest one or two conversation starters?
Jen: I’ve included questions at the end of every chapter that can serve as conversation starters. Each person could come to book club having chosen one question to discuss or questions could be selected and answered by the group. Members could challenge themselves to share a personal money story or early money memory. When did you earn money for the first time? Do you remember saving or spending for the first time? What were your feelings around those events? For extra credit, share an awkward money situation. Anyone with parents, a partner, siblings or friends can likely think of an uncomfortable money moment or ongoing issue.
Before talking, acknowledge that money is uncomfortable to discuss. Most of us don’t have practice discussing how we feel about money. Set ground rules to create a safe space. Nothing said in book club leaves the group and comments should be supportive.
Anna: What supplemental content would you recommend to enhance the reading experience? Any podcasts or new articles that are relevant to this topic?
Jen: Here are two articles that could further the conversation:
The September 11th wealth matters column in The New York Times: Four Questions to Help Demystify Your Relationship with Money.
The September 23rd datebook interview in The San Francisco Chronicle: In ‘We Need to Talk’ Jennifer Risher starts a candid conversation about wealth.
The September 22nd Crazy Money Podcast with Paul Ollinger with guest, Jennifer Risher: Talking About Wealth.
Anna: Can you tell us a bit more about your book club, was it a support system for you while you wrote?
Jen: I’ve been part of my current book club for six years. They’ve supported me through rejections and applauded my successes. Honestly, I haven’t yet shared the specifics of my story and we haven’t discussed money as group. Even for me, talking about money isn’t easy. Now that We Need to Talk has been published and I’m talking more about money with the press and at virtual bookstore events, I’m looking forward to discussing the book with my book club. Talking about money might feel uncomfortable initially, but I bet the conversation will deepen our understanding and friendship.