While I genuinely like my coworkers it is still a workplace and you can only talk about neutral topics without interjecting personal opinions into the mix. You don't have 'freedom of speech' at work.

Anyways, as a result of this, people generally talk about their vacations, travels, home ownership, their family etc. However, let's be honest - all of those activities require money. I find this a very negative thing to bring up at work because it pertains to salary and family history (what your parents aren't together!? UGH) etc. Coming from a very poor family I haven't traveled at all in my life and I don't own anything. Since I am a working professional making a decent living, am married, and have kids I suppose people assume I am financially comfortable and have always been. It is very awkward for me when people ask me 'where I am going for holiday etc.' well nowhere is the answer because I have a crippling student loan debt. This is not something to be said at work! It makes you sound financially irresponsible!

I find all this 'small talk' to be leading up to 'keeping up with the Jones's' since they throw around conversations about 6k+ vacations which I have never had the privilege of partaking on.

How do you handle this? Without this 'small talk' there is no neutral ground for non-work conversations. Makes for a difficult atmosphere!

  • 2
    There's always the weather, sports, celebrity news...
    – Telastyn
    Mar 5, 2015 at 20:32
  • You could say vacationing is just not my thing, even though by looking at me you'd think I obviously have tons of money to toss around! I prefer to read books checked out from the public library.
    – Brandin
    Mar 5, 2015 at 20:39
  • 5
    "crippling student loan debt" is nothing to be embarrassed by. Plenty of people have taken out loans for college and would understand your plight. You might even find that some of your co-workers are or have been in the same situation and would sympathize.
    – cdkMoose
    Mar 5, 2015 at 21:26
  • For topics, I've found music to be a rather neutral topic that everyone has an opinion on and people can talk about forever
    – beng
    Mar 6, 2015 at 3:16
  • 2
    Whatever topic you end up discussing with your colleagues, having a "crippling student loan" does NOT make you financially irresponsible
    – ero
    Mar 6, 2015 at 9:24

6 Answers 6


The truth is the best way to go. But that does not mean you need to share everything.

Where are you going for Holiday? Going to stay home and get some projects done around the house. You do not have to say that you can not afford a trip to some exotic locale.

Have you ever been to X? No I haven't. You do not need to say that you grew up poor and never travelled, or even if you have any desire to go there.

You do not need to keep up with the Jones's, quite frankly many of us are irritated with the Jones's and with the Smith's that expect us to try to keep up with them. Be yourself but try not to be a downer. Friendly is good, poor me is bad.


Generally speaking, when people are spending a lot of money on a vacation and telling you about it, they don't so much want you to say "me too, I also had an expensive vacation." They want you to say "ooh, that sounds amazing, tell me more!" They may also want "I wish I could afford that" or in an environment where everyone is assumed to be able to afford it "I wish I had thought of doing that" or other expressions of approval and envy.

When people tell you things, don't assume they're asking or commenting about you. Ask them more about their topic and express admiration for it if you can. If they flat out ask you things, (where are you going for x, have you ever y, how long have you had your z) then for your own happiness learn to find the positive way to express your choices - that you are going to relax, spend time with your family, enjoy what you have already, and so on. I've lived a very frugal life while working with people who were spending tens of thousands on vacations, buying a Tesla or a Lamborghini, buying second homes in Hawaii and not once did I draw attention to the fact I spent less money than them. Many of them admired my vacation choices (canoeing in the wilderness with my kids, $18/day but that's not the point) as much as I admired theirs. Enjoy and celebrate your choices and relax - your coworkers aren't really paying a lot of attention to yours.

  • 1
    This is a great answer. When someone says something, it's natural to think about how it relates to you, but often what they want to do is tell their own story and share what they care about. If you encourage them and let them talk, they'll appreciate the reassurance. If they're trying to be friendly, then you'll get to bond with them and learn some interesting things about parts of the world you haven't seen. And if they are bragging or trying to make you jealous, they get to think they're succeeding while you're just playing it cool.
    – octern
    Mar 8, 2015 at 21:11
  • Then after you let them talk for a while, you can share your own experiences without it being as much of a direct comparison or competition.
    – octern
    Mar 8, 2015 at 21:13
  • Those are great answers but I guess the reality is I'm not too much interested in learning about these people. I've got my own family so my social 'bar' is full and it's nice to have quiet time away from them =.
    – Kerry
    Mar 14, 2015 at 23:10
  • 2
    You sound like one of my children declining to put their plate in the dishwasher because it is not fun. Almost nobody wants to hear about other people's vacations, especially not work colleagues. You ask, and listen, and nod, because it's polite and it makes people feel appreciated. And that makes work go more smoothly. They don't chat with you as a chance to put you down, but because they think they'll enjoy the chat. You're under no obligation to chat but you should at least know how to do it and why. Mar 15, 2015 at 0:48

People make small talk because they want to form connections and remind each other that they're real people with things in common, so it's understandable that chitchat about things which make you feel quite out of place would be uncomfortable.

I'd take ReallyTiredOfThisGame's answer a step further: be honest, but then make a remark that others will identify with and appreciate. For example:

Where are you going for holiday?

  • Nowhere, I'm going to spend more time with my family.
  • I'm not doing anything special, it's nice to just enjoy sleeping in and relaxing.

I just bought a new house, the market's great right now, you thinking about moving?

  • I'm happy for you, but I want to put more money away for my children's education.
  • No, I have a great relationship with my neighbors.

Reasonable people will hear answers like this and think, "Wow, aubz is smart, I love that stuff too! Those are great priorities to have, maybe I should focus on them more..."

Additionally, there's nothing to be ashamed about for having been poor when you were younger. If anything, people will respect you for working hard to get where you are today. And it's not at all uncommon to have huge amounts of student loan debt (in the USA at least), and plenty of people are managing it more poorly than you are. There's no need to talk about it if it makes you feel uncomfortable, just remind yourself that there's nothing wrong with it and if they knew, most people wouldn't look down on you for it.


Being a good listener goes further than having interesting topics to talk about. You only need a small amount of things in common to start a conversation. At that point it's not your ability to tell a story, but rather your ability to ask intelligent follow-up questions about theirs, which makes you a good conversationalist. Don't feel pressure to tell elaborate stories about yourself.

It sounds to me like finances (and thus travel & home ownership) is the main area where you don't feel like you have much in common to talk about. But that still leaves general family topics (e.g. children), sports, news, etc as conversation-starters.


It's interesting to look at questions like this, not so much because of the question on the face of it (which I think has been well answered by a number of the others), but by the underlying subtext. I'm going to quote some of the question back to you:

  • Coming from a very poor family I haven't traveled at all in my life and I don't own anything

  • I am a working professional making a decent living, am married, and have kids I suppose people assume I am financially comfortable

  • nowhere is the answer because I have a crippling student loan debt

  • they throw around conversations about 6k+ vacations which I have never had the privilege of partaking on

You and I know these people fall into 2 groups:

  • People who are paying for this via credit, haven't learned from the last few years and are heading for bankruptcy
  • People who CAN actually afford 6k+ holidays either by financial acumen or by having money

I won't mention the second group (enjoy your holiday!), dealing with what to tell the first group is covered elsewhere.

The thing to me is not the dealing with them, but the effect they have on you. Looking at the story you tell I can see things have been hard, and you have been doing the right thing by paying things off instead of mucking about having a good time.

BUT I think the reason for this question is deeper, the issue is more about looking at these people and thinking "what if they're right, and my family and I are wasting our lives doing nothing but paying debt?"

My answer to this is two fold, you are RIGHT to be focusing on the debt, but I think something else needs to be done.

Spending 10-20 years working hard, and doing without is missing quality time with your family, now I'm not saying "screw it, get the AMEX card out!", but I think there are 2 ways to go:

  1. The Dave Ramesey kinda thing: - Get "sick and tired of being sick and tired", get the whole family involved, take on as much work as you can (extra jobs, selling things etc), BUT set a realistic window (say 2 years) and throw EVERYTHING at the debt (I don't care if the student debt is at a low rate, you need to get rid of it asap). This becomes like a marathon run, as hard as it may feel for a while as you get closer to the goal you can keep pushing yourself to the finish as you know there is one. Once that's done you can relax and use the decent living to go on holidays etc that you can AFFORD, and will enjoy all the more due to the effort.
  2. Prioritise: - Realise that you can't keep on the death march for 10-20 years, start putting some money away (even if it slows down the overall finish), and take quality time with the family. An adventure can be 100 miles by bus and camping in a tent, do what you can pay for, but prioritise the family time, you'll have lots to talk about to the co-workers, and probably do better at work (so get the chance to earn more and pay things off better).

In 40 years time, you'll remember the family adventures, not the debt.

Either of these suggestions will give you something positive, and allow you to answer the co-workers without feeling bad.


Why not being honest and tell them that you never could afford this or that because of your background. As this is nothing they can blame you on, in my opinion, you have no disadvantages in telling them the truth. It will just show them, that you are honest.

I always have been like this and never had any troubles. People here and there understand my situation. Might differ from country to country though.

  • 1
    In the US a lot of people like to think of ourselves as a "classless" society, and it makes them uncomfortable to talk about big differences in background like this. It's not wrong and it's not necessarily something they'd hold against you, but it wouldn't support the goal of having a pleasant conversation that leads to smoother relationships. This can vary in different parts of the country and different professions, of course.
    – octern
    Mar 8, 2015 at 21:19

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