Some empirical researchers have noted that getting respondents to talk about money can be difficult because money (in the form of income and wealth) is often deemed a private matter and, in the UK at least, discussing money issues in public is not ‘the done thing’. There is a coyness over wage or salary levels and in this study our awareness of this potential source of embarrassment led us to provide respondents with a list of income bands on which they merely had to tick the broad category of personal income which approximated most closely to their own. In other words, partners did not have to speak (publicly) of actual income or wealth. Yet when we began to talk about money management and their own relationship to money we found that almost everyone had a great deal to say. There was no reserve at all. Indeed, their narratives took off into quite reflexive onto­logical accounts of the self and it almost seemed as if in enquiring about relationships with money we were able to tap into strong biographical storylines remarkably easily. Moreover, relationships with money could often appear as defining features of the couple relationship (as exempli­fied by the appropriateness of sameness of approach or, paradoxically, as exemplified by the satisfactoriness of completely different approaches).

Most notably, almost every partner, when it came to the money section of the schedule, laughed when they were asked the first question which was simply ‘Can you tell me about your relationship with money?’ We cannot be sure what the laughter meant for everyone of course. It was possibly slight embarrassment, but as people then usually moved with enthusiasm into their story it seemed as if it was more like a kind of shared cultural knowingness about the territory they were entering. Respondents seemed to be remarkably open about their relationships with money even if a few were cagey or vague about how many accounts they might have, or even in a few instances about the number of properties they might own.

We began to feel that asking people about their relationships with money was a direct (but unsuspected) route into asking them about the kind of person they were and how they managed going about their relationships in and with the world more generally (Sonnenberg, 2008). Here are two typical responses:

Interviewer: How would you describe your personal approach to

money and finances?

Louise (105b): Fairly sensible financially. I think, probably fairly – I know I spend over my means and, but it, I know this sounds silly but despite doing that it’s a fairly, it’s fairly sensible as I generally […], you know I’d never get myself into ridiculous debt and I understand how finances work and generally quite good at shifting money around to sort of make it, make life feel fairly, fairly stable. I’ve always had to, well since I was eighteen, I’ve looked after myself financially and, have needed to, […] to give myself a secure home life and any times, and there are times I’ve had to bor­row money off my dad but when you get a loan off my dad it’s not like any other normal parent, if you get a loan off my dad, you also get a legal document saying when you’ll pay it back and how you’ll pay it back and with what so and so, so it’s never, money’s never just been, sort of handed to me, I’ve always had to work very hard for what I’ve got.

Interviewer: How would you describe your personal approach to

money and finances?

Ivan (211b): Okay I’ve not got a very sensible approach to money

and finances [laughter] although I think I’m getting

a handle on it as the years go by. I’ve never been moti­vated by earning money and I suppose that’s due to the fact that although I was sort of, wasn’t spoiled as a child at all I never, options were never closed off to me, as I was growing up so, you know, my parents could afford to send me to university which was great, I mean I went to university before we had, you had to pay for fees and that sort of thing so I was lucky there, but yes, so university was a possibility and so I think what I’m trying to say is I’m, I’ve been relatively privileged grow­ing up but also knowing the fact that my parents don’t earn vast amounts of money and compared to friends’ parents, so I know that, so I’ve known that they’d had to be sensible and be frugal but Dad’s quite tight as well so, so that’s good. So I’ve, I think basically, had I grown up and sort of been completely spoilt, or had I grown up and been underprivileged entirely, I might have been more motivated to either sustain the lifestyle I’d become accustomed to or to do complete reversal and actually make some money, I don’t know.

We will explore these two quotations in more detail below, but we highlight them here to demonstrate how our respondents would typi­cally move quickly into a dense story about themselves, their family backgrounds, their current relationships and also accounts of personal change and struggle. These responses took us instantly onto the ter­rain of emotions, morality and complex personal/familial and cultural meanings of money. Hardly anyone gave us a ‘factual’ kind of response to this question or, where their stories were anchored by factual detail (e. g. keeping spreadsheets or checking receipts), the descriptions of these activities were laced with moral evaluations (e. g. ‘I’m not totally anal’) or with explanations about why such practices had developed. We came quickly to the conclusion that is already evident in studies of material culture, that money, like possessions or the home, speaks vol­umes about how people manage relationships and identities.