What's in Your Wallet?

I was having drinks with two friends recently when the unthinkable happened: one of us revealed how much money she made.

The three of us -- a teacher, a freelance writer and a social service agency worker -- had been talking about the difficulties of trying to save for a new furnace or a trip somewhere above 75 degrees on our modest incomes. One thing led to another and before I knew it, my teacher pal whipped out her figurative wallet, announcing her annual salary with the nonchalance of someone sharing the next day's weather forecast.

"I hope it's OK to talk about this," she said tentatively.

It wasn't just OK, it was helpful. My social service friend and I eagerly chimed in with our own earnings, and the floodgates opened. Soon we were swapping tips on everything from negotiating pay raises to saving for retirement to earning a little extra income on the side.

VIDEO: How to Discuss Salary at Work
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Maybe today's hard-knock-life mentality is what prompted us to open up about our financial realities. Or maybe the fact that none of us are giving Suze Orman a run for her money took the taboo out of this once-verboten topic.

I wondered if other friends and colleagues in bars around the country were also opening up about what was in their respective wallets. But according to a recent Glassdoor.com survey, they aren't. In fact, 17 percent of the 2,300 survey respondents said they won't even talk about their income with their family, significant other or BFF, up from 11 percent in 2008.

Likewise, my own unscientific probe of professionals currently working turned up dozens of comments along the lines of "I'm making a good living when so many others aren't -- I don't want to flaunt that" and "I'd sooner talk colonoscopies in a five-star restaurant."

But a couple of unconventional souls said that, yes, they were indeed talking salary with their peers, and they were doing it often. I asked them to explain why. Here's what they had to say.

Look Who's Talking

Danny Kofke of Hoschton, Ga., has nothing to hide. He's a schoolteacher and so are many of his friends, meaning they can guess one another's pay grade by the years each of them has been on the job.

Kofke, who supports a family of four on a little less than $40,000 a year, is also happy to share his salary information with those outside his profession. In fact, he self-published a guidebook on getting by on a teacher's salary.

"I know a lot of people guard their financial information," said Kofke, who's been teaching for 10 years. "But I like being open about mine to hopefully show others how [my family and I] live a 'wealthy' life on a moderate income."

Daniel Packer of Washington, D.C., who publishes a personal finance blog, is in a similar situation. Having recently graduated from college, he and his friends "have no problem talking about salaries, benefits and compensation from work."

Besides, said Packer, who works as a systems analyst and makes roughly $50,000 a year, it's easy to guess what your fellow entry-level workers make.

"If you work for a big accounting firm, you make over $60,000," he explained. "If you have a technical degree, you make $50,000 to $55,000. And if you have a liberal arts degree, you are either jobless or make under $40,000."

That said, Kofke and Packer agreed that if they made more money themselves, they'd be less inclined to be as upfront about their salary with their peers.

"There are a lot of people hurting right now. I would not want others to think I was bragging or trying to make them feel bad," Kofke said.

And Packer admits that talking salary is "definitely a more sensitive topic" to broach with friends who are looking for work or clearly make less, such as those who are temping, waiting tables or in graduate school.

Obviously, the advantage of sharing salary with friends and colleagues is seeing whether you're being adequately compensated and swapping tips on salary negotiation, benefit packages and spending and saving habits.

The Upside of Transparency

Among Packer's friends, "401(k) matching is always a hot topic, and those who know more are always willing to help those who know less," he said. "Recently I helped a friend decide how much to put into her flexible spending account. If we had kept our mouths shut about our financial situations, she would have missed out on that."

But it's not just those on the lower end of the pay spectrum giving one another a leg up.

Tiffani Murray, a thirtysomething from Atlanta who makes $125,000 to $150,000 a year, is a firm believer in being open about her salary with "people who are all over the map in terms of ranges." As a result, she's been both giver and recipient of countless pieces of advice on salary negotiations and supplemental income.

"I would never suggest we take our salaries and wear them on a T-shirt," said Murray, a technology manager in the HR division of a consumer products company. "But I think that the stigma around sharing how much we make is dwindling with each new generation of the workforce."

The Moonlighting Effect

Like many workers today, Murray maintains a number of side projects. In fact, 20 to 25 percent of her annual income comes from her freelance writing and Web ventures. "One of the reasons I think people are becoming less guarded about salary is that more and more people are augmenting their income with money made from hobbies or passions," she said. "Salary may be one part of your portfolio, but there are now different [income] streams for many people out there, particularly in an economy where the standard 'job' is not as stable."

I know that after reading this, many of you will continue to shake your head in horror at the idea of comparing pay stubs with friends and colleagues outside your company. But I'd like to reiterate that Murray comfortably clears six figures a year and isn't shy about swapping negotiation and business tips with her pals. That's definitely the kind of friend with whom we could all stand to talk salary.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see Anti9to5Guide.com.

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