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When Money Was A Dirty Word

A father reads the newspaper with his wife and two daughters, circa 1950. i

Fifty years ago, parents didn't talk about finances with their children. Parents didn't even talk about money with each other. Now it seems it's all people talk about. FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty hide caption

toggle caption FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty
A father reads the newspaper with his wife and two daughters, circa 1950.

Fifty years ago, parents didn't talk about finances with their children. Parents didn't even talk about money with each other. Now it seems it's all people talk about.

FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty

There was a time when Americans didn't talk about money.

It's true. Money went unmentioned in polite conversation. Hard to believe, because money is all people talk about now. Bailouts, mortgage-backed securities, cramdowns, liquidity, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Citi and on and on. The U.S. obsession with money is everywhere you turn.

Tap on the radio first thing in the morning, and there's talk of futures trading and how the Tokyo Stock Exchange fared overnight. Watch daytime news on CNN and you can't avoid the vacillating Dow Jones industrial average in the corner of your screen. A score of international leaders met in Washington recently to discuss — money.

"We never talked about money in our family when I was growing up," says Deena Katz, 58, professor of personal finance at Texas Tech University. Katz says she only got interested in money and investments when her father died and her mother needed help in financial matters.

William S. Rukeyser, the founding editor of Money magazine, says that a half-century ago, people avoided talking not only about money but also about sex or serious illnesses. Since the 1960s, "when we all became postgraduates of sex," he says, all three subjects have become fair game for parlor conversation.

To be sure, the upper crust has long whispered of wealth at country clubs and Upper East Side cocktail parties. And magazines for the rich such as Fortune and Forbes were around for much of the 20th century. But it wasn't until the 1970s that most middle-class Americans began throwing "money" around — the word, not the currency.

Family incomes were spiraling (up 85 percent from 1952 to 1972, adjusted for inflation), and Americans suddenly had more money to spend. And more money to fret about — tax strategies for corporate workers, and individual retirement accounts for self-employed individuals.

And then came the big shift: Large U.S. corporations moved from defined benefit, or pension, plans to defined contribution plans. Up until then, Katz says, you worked for a company for 30 years, then you got a gold watch and a fixed retirement income. You knew exactly how much you would be receiving for the rest of your life. You had no say in how the money was invested.

In 1978, Congress opened the door for 401(k) plans, and employees began participating in retirement accounts that received their — and their employers' — contributions. Soon everyone was seeking financial advice. "We were responsible for our own financial future," says Katz.

As markets rose or fell, employees' nest eggs expanded or shriveled. "People recognized they have to care more about their money than their advisers do," Katz says. "They realized that nothing is for sure anymore."

This was the rise of the baby boom generation — and young upwardly mobile professionals, known as yuppies.

Perhaps the first person on TV to make talking about money cool was Louis Rukeyser — William's brother — whose show Wall $treet Week debuted on PBS stations in 1970. Louis Rukeyser was the great demystifier. Using punny humor and wry examples, he explained the arcane world of finance, with its foggy phrases such as "selling short" and "buying on margin," to the newly empowered personal investor.

In 1972, William Rukeyser followed in his brother's footsteps with the launch of Money magazine — an offshoot of Time. "The name 'Money' was thought by some to be incredibly crass and startling," William Rukeyser, 69, says today. In fact, when one staff member said she would be embarrassed to be caught reading a magazine called Money on the subway, Rukeyser suggested she hide it behind a copy of a lewd magazine.

In 1982, the national newspaper USA Today appeared on newsstands with its four color-coded sections: News, Sports, Life and Money. Also in the early 1980s, Financial News Network was born and eventually was available on more than 3,000 cable systems, with a potential audience of 35 million households. The Consumer News and Business Channel, CNBC, was launched in 1989. Today, Magazines.com offers subscriptions to more than 180 business and finance magazines.

Money magazine boomed in the 1980s as the stock market skyrocketed. "I have made a career of trying to talk about financial matters to people in the plain language they deserve," says Rukeyser, who also was an editor at Fortune for a while.

When it comes to talking about one's own money, Rukeyser believes his brother had it right with his Friday night show. "Once a week is plenty often enough to consider your investments," he says. "There is nothing more dangerous than watching the stock market every hour of every day and thinking you need to do something. That's a guaranteed route to poverty."

Going a step further, Katz suggests thinking about your investments only once a quarter or once a year. And she doesn't see the need for so much money talk. "There is a lot of financial information available," she says. "But information is not knowledge or judgment or empathy."

Investing should be boring, she adds. You should invest in solid enterprises and only make changes if there are changes in your life — like children or retirement. "You only have one life," she says. "You don't want to spend it obsessing about money."

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