October 9, 2018 / 10:30 AM / 8 days ago

Your Money: When strangers spill their financial secrets

NEW YORK (Reuters) - One recent Monday night in New York City, seven strangers sat around a dinner table sharing the biggest money secrets of their lives.

One hundred dollar notes are seen in this photo illustration. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

Part dinner, part group therapy, part financial planning, this gathering, aptly named “Comfort Circle,” is the brainchild of New York City financial behaviorist Jacquette Timmons.

“I got the idea from a conversation I had with a client, who never shared her money concerns with friends because she was more comfortable talking about literally anything else – even sex,” said Timmons, 52, author of “Financial Intimacy: How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Your Money and Your Mate.”

Her idea was to host intimate dinners as a way of giving people safe space to have the conversations they would not normally have with the people who are closest to them.

One poll by the bank Northwestern Mutual found that money was the most uncomfortable subject of all to broach – outranking sex, and even death.

September's Comfort Circle was at Stella 34, an Italian trattoria tucked away on the sixth floor of the flagship Macy’s department store in midtown Manhattan. The cost was $150. Anyone could sign up on Timmons’ website (here), although the size of the dinner parties is capped at around 12 participants. So far, the 15 confabs since 2017 have taken place in Timmons’ home base of New York City. Most of the participants have been women.

Over dishes like roasted Brussels sprouts, beef ragu and eggplant parmigiana, the money challenges, and emotions invariably entangled with them, come tumbling out.

One of those in attendance: Gilmanda Atkinson, 36, from Nutley, New Jersey. Atkinson signed up to network with other women entrepreneurs, and get some guidance for her budding side project combining life coaching with her business expertise as a project manager.

“I was amazed at how open people were, to talk about their deep personal situations with strangers,” Atkinson said. “In the Latino community I grew up in, you don’t see that very often. And women, in particular, tend to be afraid to speak up. We elevated each other.”

Although money has a reputation as a dry subject, Timmons has seen one consistent byproduct at the Comfort Circles: Tears.

“I don’t think anybody comes to the table thinking they are going to cry, but during the conversation something just bubbles up for them,” she said. “Maybe it is something they haven’t fully processed, or even shared with anyone else. It’s an opportunity for release.”

Each dinner has a different theme to get the conversation flowing. September’s topic: “How To Finish the Year Stronger.” Among the money issues that came up were everything from how to secure a book deal, to crafting a will and appointing executors, to launching a new business idea.

The subject of the next one, to be held in late October, is “Cravings.” In other words, which cravings you are repressing, which you are expressing, and what those cravings – financial or otherwise - are saying about you.

What Timmons finds most fascinating, after two years of Comfort Circles: The lasting bonds that are created. Afterward, Timmons sends around a spreadsheet with everyone’s contact information, as a kind of instant networking circle.

After winding up at Stella 34 with Italian desserts and coffee, participants vow to stay in touch and support each other’s ventures.

“I’m totally blown away by how quickly bonds are formed,” Timmons said. “Sometimes it’s easier to share more with a stranger, than the person who is closest to you.”

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Matthew Lewis

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