Nov. 27, 2012 at 2:08 PM ET
NEW YORK - Walk into any American conversation, and there are two volatile issues that could make it explode at any moment: race and money.
Combine the two, and spontaneous combustion is guaranteed.
Which is why no one ever talks about it. But given the rapidly rising number of interracial marriages in this country, perhaps it is time to discuss how coming from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds can sometimes lead to disparate attitudes toward money and security.
After all, one in 10 American marriages is now interracial, an all-time high. That is up 28 percent since 2000, according to Census figures, and translates to 5.4 million couples nationwide. That number looks primed to spike even higher, given that 18 percent of unmarried, opposite-sex couples identify as interracial.
So how do our unique backgrounds shape our understanding of money? On the subject, there is perhaps no better person to talk to than Carmen Wong Ulrich. The personal finance expert was famously satirized on the television comedy series "30 Rock" as Carmen Chao, a TV personality of indeterminate ethnicity who skipped effortlessly between multiple languages.
In real life, Ulrich is the author of books including "Generation Debt" and "The Real Cost of Living." She had her own personal finance show on CNBC, and was raised by a Latina mom and a Chinese stepfather. She also married a white guy from Michigan; they have since split.
While many old stereotypes are wrongheaded, cultural backgrounds do tend to shape our attitudes toward money and security -- and it would serve most marriages well to understand where our partners are coming from, Ulrich said.
"People have very strong cultural and ethnic beliefs that we all carry with us, and a lot of those can have to do with money," she said. "For instance, I was raised as a Latina, where family is everything, and there's no thinking twice about it. I once gave my sister an apartment full of furniture, but my ex was appalled. He couldn't believe that I wanted to give away all that stuff for nothing."
Communities of color talk about money a lot, added Ulrich. "Within the majority culture, you have the option not to talk about it until it becomes an issue. Now, with so many interracial marriages, it's become an issue."
Every individual is different, of course. Suggesting that all members of a particular group have similar attitudes toward money is patently silly. But look broadly at the retirement saving numbers, as some major studies have, and trends begin to emerge. Understanding those trends can help us chart a course forward -- especially within a marriage, where compromises already need to be struck every single day.
For instance, the ING Retirement Research Institute recently looked at the average retirement savings of different minority groups. What it discovered: Cultural attitudes sometimes feed in to those numbers. For instance, while the savings of Hispanics were relatively low (an average of $54,000 in retirement plans), that was partially explained by underlying cultural attributes.
"Hispanics feel less prepared for retirement than other groups," said Fabian Gonzalez, vice president of multicultural sales for ING U.S. "To some extent that reflects the priorities of the Hispanic community, such as living with an extended family and taking care of elderly relatives, or sacrificing one's own wealth in order to give greater opportunities to one's children."
The Great Recession may have also exacerbated our different experiences of money, since it seems to have affected some pockets of American society more than others. A study by Ariel Investments and Aon Hewitt, "401(k) Plans In Living Color," surveyed the retirement savings of 2.4 million employees at 60 large organizations. It found that 8.8 percent of African-Americans had to take hardship withdrawals from their 401(k)s as the recession hit full-force in 2010, compared with 1.7 percent of whites and 1.2 percent of Asians.
Experts say that one's background is only one part of a much larger picture. Even if spouses enter into a marriage carrying their own cultural attitudes toward money, they are often trumped by other factors that are even more deeply entrenched.
"I've come across many marriages with spouses from different cultural backgrounds, and I've noticed that isn't the biggest factor in differing attitudes towards money," said Ann Minnium, an adviser with Concierge Financial Planning in Scotch Plains, N.J. "More often it's upbringing. People who come from a family that had to watch every penny are often that way themselves."
To understand how cultural background can shape one's money views, I need look no farther than my own marriage. My wife is of Haitian heritage, I am a white Canadian, and we are making it work in the multiethnic stew that is Brooklyn, N.Y.
Early in our relationship, we had divvied up the bill paying; she would take care of some, I would tend to others, and I never thought twice about it. But in a premarital counseling session, I discovered this was a major source of stress for her. Since she had grown up in rural Haiti, one of the poorest nations on Earth, she had absorbed the notion that wealth and long-term security were never guaranteed. It could all go away at any moment.
The juggling of bills brought up those fears that we might not have enough, every single month. Understanding where she was coming from, I simply took over the monthly bill-paying and paperwork, and she tries to put those deeply harbored financial fears out of her mind.
"It shouldn't be about Me versus You," Ulrich said. "It's about how much respect you have for each other's culture, and about where you can find common ground. Respect the culture enough to talk it through."
Copyright 2013 Thomson Reuters.