Annie Joines Prentice knows when the neighbors are trying to figure out how much money she has spent on her house, even though they never actually ask her. They speak in a code that’s familiar to anyone who has danced around the subject of money.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh wow, that sounds expensive.’ Or, ‘Oh, were you expecting that?’” said Ms. Prentice, who bought a 3,000-square-foot house near West Palm Beach, Fla., in August that she likens to the 1986 movie, “The Money Pit.” “There are lots of people fishing for information, but they’re a little afraid to just come right out just say: ‘Did y’all just buy this house and you’re dumping a bunch of money in it?’”
Ms. Prentice, 49, an elementary schoolteacher who is in a graduate program studying special education, initially met their questions with equally veiled responses, because she had long ago learned the rules of talking about the costs of home improvement — the chief rule being: Don’t talk about it.
Everyone might know that a new kitchen costs a fortune, but not many are comfortable showing the receipts. Try to get a ballpark figure from friends or neighbors, and you may find yourself wandering through conversations built on euphemisms, with things like “it wasn’t that bad,” (code for “it was not a much as you’re thinking”), or “we did a lot of it ourselves” (roughly translating to “I paid my brother, cousin and best friend in beer to take down this wall”). Find yourself on the receiving end of the questions and you might feel flustered, perhaps offended. You might even find yourself rounding down on those final numbers to make the project — and yourself — seem more palatable.
“You know how Emily Post says never talk about politics, money or religion? This falls into that,” said Alessandra Wood, the vice president of style at Modsy, an online design company.
Or, as Rachel Sherman, the author of “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” put it, “When you say, ‘How much does it cost to do a kitchen?’ you are in some sense saying, ‘How much money do you have?’”
And we all know that question is a big no-no.
Sure, there’s a natural curiosity when you walk into a friend’s newly minted bathroom and wonder how they could afford it. But if you want to redo your own bathroom, and want to get some back-of-the-envelope numbers about how much the project will cost, you may discover that few people are willing to dish. The purchase price for a house might be a number easily retrieved on Zillow, but that new bathroom is a mystery until you actually set out to do it.
Three years ago, Wendy Zeilstra was trying to price a new kitchen for her house in Montclair, N.J., and found herself reading tea leaves. The architects she interviewed told her most homeowners budget six figures for such projects, a number well beyond what she and her husband, Paul Calame, 46, who works in logistics, had hoped for.
Originally from the Netherlands, Ms. Zeilstra, 43, a stay-at-home parent, was used to speaking bluntly about how much things cost. “We’re Dutch, we’re direct,” she said. Americans, she quickly learned, were anything but. “It was kind of a maze, if you tried to navigate the maze by asking questions.”
She found herself at the mercy of contractor estimates, figuring out costs based on what workers would tell her they’d charge. She eventually landed on Ikea cabinets and quartz countertops, keeping the budget under $55,000, including labor and architectural fees.
Ms. Zeilstra said she is happy to share what she’s learned and how much she’s spent. But so far, only one person has directly asked her about it, and he was a neighbor who flips houses for a living. “I’m very proud of the kitchen,” she said. “We worked for it. It’s not like we robbed a bank.”
Dr. Sherman, chairwoman of the sociology department at the New School for Social Research, argues that these conversations make people uncomfortable because they’re really conversations about income inequality. If you can afford quartzite countertops and custom cabinets at a time when millions of Americans live in poverty, your splurge brings inequity into focus. And if you walk into a friend’s house and ogle a kitchen that costs more than your annual salary, you may be made acutely aware of a class divide.
“Class inequality is hiding in plain sight because we don’t talk about it,” Dr. Sherman said. Asking a person how much they spent on a renovation “is broadly construed as inappropriate, which is fortunate for capitalism because it means that these kinds of inequalities can continue to proliferate.”
On the flip side, your answers about how much you spent, or how you came up with the funds, may reveal the limits of your finances, especially if the person asking the questions would easily spend two or three times as much. “There is shame associated with having debt,” Dr. Sherman said. “We live in a society that deeply shames people for being poor.”
Our general discomfort with money may explain why we sometimes lie to ourselves, and in some cases even our partners, about it. Lisa Gilmore, an interior designer in St. Petersburg, Fla., had a client who once hid the cost of a dining room chandelier from her husband. To avoid admitting that the handblown glass and brass chandelier cost $15,000, the client asked Ms. Gilmore to bill her $5,000 and she would pay the balance out of a separate, personal account. The chandelier “was a nonnegotiable for her and she didn’t want to deal with the argument,” Ms. Gilmore said. “Even with their spouses, they don’t want to tell.”
Since Ms. Prentice, in West Palm Beach, started working on her house of endless fixes, her perspective about money has changed. Where she once bristled at questions, worried that someone would tell her she’d overspent, she now sees opportunity. “At this point, it’s almost comical because so many things have popped up wrong with this house,” she said.
She is renovating the kitchen, laundry room and a bathroom. She also recently encapsulated the foundation, a waterproofing project that she didn’t even know existed until a few months ago. When she got a waterproofing bid for $39,000, she had nothing to compare it to. Was this a great deal or a grift? In an effort to compare notes, she started talking directly to other homeowners who’d had similar work done. How much did they spend? What was the square footage? What was included in the job?
“There is a tipping point where you’re spending so much money,” she said. “I just want to make sure that I’m spending it in the right places.”
Perhaps, with enough information, she might actually get an answer.