Talking about money – the rich insight we gain when people narrate the story of their own financial data

Welcome to the second blog from our ‘On balance’ series, the place to come for project highlights and where Real Accounts meets the real world.

While people often say they’re not good at talking about money, the people taking part in Real Accounts are in fact great at telling the story of their lived experience of money matters. They know what they’re doing to manage, and what might help them to have better control and confidence. They’re experts in understanding their financial challenges.

Brenda* and I have settled in for a chat, markers and paper at the ready. The plan is to draw a visual representation of how she and her partner jointly plan and manage their finances. But the markers and paper have been commandeered by her three-year-old child who has squirmed into her lap, an email is pinging in the background, and her partner has popped in to double check that it really is his turn to walk the impatiently waiting dog.

Chuckling as she takes it all in and turns to the task at hand, Brenda sighs. “We’re not very good at talking about money.” She says there’s never any time, and really, how could they even start to squeeze in the time to talk about money with so many demands swirling around them? There’s always some other, more immediate priority.

In the Real Accounts project, we’re asking our participants to reflect on their finances from within that whirlwind. We’re using an app designed for us by Moneyhub to get a clear picture of every transaction into and out of each household. The real-time behavioural data from this platform is an excellent conversation starter.

However, there’s a risk that we make assumptions based on people’s transaction data. Making space for them to tell us what’s happening is key.

What we’re learning is that although people might say they don’t talk about money, or are bad with money, they actually have smart strategies for managing difficult contexts and are articulate about their challenges and opportunities.

For example, we noticed that Anya regularly transfers money to her teenage daughter. What looks like pocket money, is actually evidence of mother-daughter teamwork. Anya tells us that her daughter is in charge of getting the groceries, and keeps an eye on how much they’re spending on food. “She’s a kind of money manager… she prevents us from overspending.”

Where the digital balance sheet suggests one story, our households sometimes tell us another. For instance, we’re noticing some participants have more transactions going in and out than we would expect, and we’ve struggled to explain what’s going on.

Their stories are revealing the complex picture of how people support each other even when they don’t live together. Some people become ‘Hubs’. Think of these as financial air traffic controllers for a group of individuals or households all experiencing financial uncertainty. Need a loan? Don’t have the account details for someone you need to make a payment to? A bit short on a bill this month? Despite their own incomes and costs being unpredictable, Hubs support people with gifts, informal loans, and moving money when it’s challenging for others to do so. This means that some of the money we see going into and out of their accounts relates to other households beyond their own.

To learn more about how we combine transaction data and in-depth interviews to understand people better, read Hayley’s Research spotlight, When is income not income?

*All names are pseudonyms

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