The Money Taboo Antidote:

The Counter-Intuitive Power of the Group

In today's sex-positive and gender-expansive culture, one topic is still taboo: money.

Most of our parents told us not to talk about money with others. Ask yourself, how often did mom and dad discuss their finances without it sounding like Doomsday? How often have you shared what you spend and what you make with your friends?

Many believe that money matters tend to muddy good relationships. Money woes are ranked as one of the top ten reasons why marriages fail, according to HuffPost. CNBC reports that our collective credit card debt, as of 2020, has hit $416.13 billion.

Now imagine how different the world might be if we talked about our money with the same attention that pop psychology encourages us to discuss our feelings.

Nearly two and half years ago, while I was conducting field research for a client in Nairobi, I stumbled upon the unsuspecting power of the Chama that modeled a new, group-centric way of handling finances.

A "chama" is an informal group made up of friends and/or family members who pool their money to buy or invest in bulk. Self-created and self-directed, a chama, which translates to "merry-go-round", governs not only Kenya's unbanked and its informal economy, but it also reflects Kenyan's rich cultural tapestry. As an anthropologist by training, I prepped my entire career for this new world of behaviors and habits.

More than learning about how chamas were formed, and more than discovering how each chama operated under its own principles — including how much money each person owes each week or who handles the books — I was shocked to witness the benefits of talking about money matters with a trusted and intentional community.

In a well-run chama, for example, people learn to meet their weekly or monthly cash lot. Everyone is expected to pay the same amount of money each week or month. They openly discuss their spending needs in front of the group. They learn how to budget, set goals, and ask for support as a group. Safe to share their woes and life-stressors with its members, the chama becomes a weekly touchstone. It is habit-forming bonding that lifts their weary spirits. While it goes without saying there are some poorly run chamas, at its best, a chama can supply a bounty of balanced advice, curb impulses, generate accountability, and, for our purposes, inoculate its members against the money taboo's influence.

If money is the central force in our lives, as American philosopher Jacob Needleman puts it, in a chama we learn how to work with this force as a unit. Rather than endure it as individuals, a chama depends on the wisdom of the group. When money is tied to clear goals, every penny is given a task, by talking it out with people you trust. While it is nearly impossible to imagine a chama-like system in the US, it doesn't mean we can't put its wisdom to good use to support psychological well-being and inform our tech.

If tech can help us share our troubles with money, we might feel a closer connection to a life force that oftentimes overwhelms us. For example, chamas can teach us about how to design not only for individuals, but for better relational dynamics between family members, friends, and business partners. Fintech can design non-judgy outlets to talk about tough financial challenges by harnessing the power of AI and virtual humans. Another possibility depends on reimagining how social apps can leverage the group's superpower — accountability — and make money social.

As Fintech looks to its next ten years, it might wonder what's next. How about this for an answer: help design a new social infrastructure for Americans to talk about money with people they trust.

Designing for the group might very well be the antidote to our chronic debt problem, at the personal and national level, and, inadvertently, curb our loneliness epidemic.

Kenya's chamas prove it is not only possible to leverage the power of the group, but it might be the gold standard for positive money behaviors.

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