9 Wall Street Expressions You Can Use Every Day


Colorful Wall Street expressions grace any good banker, trader, or analyst's regular day. While each group has its own specific idioms, as a former investment banker, I can attest to the many banker sayings out there. Barring some of the naughtier expressions, there are quite a few witty terms that anyone can use to express everyday life situations or make for some clever cocktail party conversation. (See also: One Simple Way to Improve Every Conversation)

1. Do You Have Bandwidth?

In banking, bandwidth is a nerdy way of asking if someone has the capacity to take on more work. If you are already pulling multiple all-nighters, you likely do not have any additional bandwidth to take on a new client team.

In other walks of life, bandwidth gets stretched too thin when you take on too many commitments. When you can't dedicate time to something beyond what you already have on your plate, you are out of bandwidth. (See also: How to Stop Over-Committing)

Example: "Sorry I can't clean the house, honey. I just don't have the bandwidth to work, wait on you, take care of the kids, make a gourmet dinner, and clean."

2. Taking Part in a Beauty Pageant / Bake-Off

A beauty pageant is when a bunch of banks compete for business to get hired. It's analogous to them all getting dressed up and trying to look their best to win first place. Or it can be thought of as a baking contest to see who puts out the best stuff (usually in the form of fluff marketing materials) to win the business.

Like banking, real life beauty contests and bake-offs crop up all of the time. Whether it's competing for a job, landing a part, or shopping around for the best quotes, life is full of such competition.

Example: "Getting hired for this job is turning into a real beauty contest, given there are hundreds of qualified people all applying for the same position."

3. Save It for Your Back Pocket

When bankers require back pocket work, they want some extra data on hand, just in case the mountain of materials they are already showing to a client is not enough. Big users of the "back pocket" are often nervous types, who like to over-prepare. Most back pocket items never get used or seen by a client, despite the hours of work that go into them.

Not to be confused with deep pockets, a back pocket is simply backup. It's often just overkill, but on those rare instances when deployed, the back pocket can prove useful.

Example: "I'm bringing extra juice boxes and lollipops to the store, just to have in my back pocket if my three-year-old decides to throw a tantrum."

4. Putting in Facetime

In banking, facetime means to physically stay in the office, usually very late, so that others see you working. It's often used as a protective tactic to look busier than you are. For junior bankers, this means staying later than your team leader or staffer (the person that assigns work to everyone). Leaving earlier and not putting in facetime will only signal you are not busy enough. This means more work can get dumped on you, which can mean even later nights and weekends.

In our everyday lives, we all put in facetime to some degree. You make sure to look busy or prove how busy you are by the hours spent doing something, or when you come and go from work, events, or gatherings. However, facetime doesn't always equate to quality work or being truly busy. (See also: Move from "Busy" to "Getting Things Done")

Example: "I put in some serious face time at the gym today; however, I didn't burn many calories."

5. To Have a Fire Drill

Fire drills were part of everyday life in investment banking. It's a last minute analysis, meeting, or promise to a client that will make the whole team run around like crazy in order to meet a very short deadline.

When I left Wall Street, I did not leave fire drills behind. If you have kids, the mornings can feel like fire drills when you have to get yourself and a bunch of little bodies out the door in time. Last minute plans, surprises, and procrastination can also cause fire drills.

Example: "This morning turned into a big fire drill when I learned my mother-in-law was planning to make a surprise visit this afternoon."

6. Collecting Tombstones

When a banking team successfully completes a deal (merger, IPO, etc.), tombstones, or deal mementos, are usually given out. They come in the form of small lucite statues, and bankers often display shelves of their tombstones over the years, akin to hunters hanging up their many kills.

In real life, tombstones can come in the form of athletes collecting trophies to something more boisterous as that neighbor showing off his fancy new car. Tombstones can be a way of taking pride and providing motivation from past victories, or sometimes they are just bragging pieces.

Example: "Her hundreds of pairs of shoes are displayed like tombstones up there in her closet, which she shows off to all of her friends."

7. Scrub the Numbers

In banker lingo, this means some poor junior person is going to be up all night rebuilding a financial model or running some other scenario and making sure there are no mistakes with the numbers.

For everyday use, scrubbing the numbers is a good way of saying to check all details. From your own personal budget to itemized quotes, make sure the numbers are scrubbed so you are not miscalculating or getting ripped off. (See also: Financial Spring Cleaning)

Example: "I need to make sure this contractor really scrubbed the numbers in this estimate, since I don't want any hidden costs popping up."

8. Don't Spin Your Wheels

Like a car's tires that are stuck in the mud and go nowhere when you hit the gas, spinning your wheels means you spend way too much time trying to solve something or come up with an analysis. Bankers can find themselves spinning their wheels, as they often don't like to ask for help or admit defeat.

In real life, giving proper time and effort to solving problems can be a good thing. However, if you're stubborn or refuse help, you can also end up just spinning your wheels, which means you burn up precious time and energy.

Example: "Don't spin your wheels trying to figure out how to assemble the new furniture. Please just read the directions and be done with it."

9. I'll Circle Back / Touch Base / Reach Out

This is a simple way to just say that you will be communicating with someone. Circle back implies that you will get some answers before getting back to someone, while touch base is more of a checking-in action. Reach out usually means a first-time call or asking something of someone.

While all of these expressions mean the same thing, you can use them in everyday life, although your friends may think you sound like a robot.

Example: "I'll circle back once I know my schedule and can touch base with the restaurant to see what's available. I'll also reach out to a few other friends who may want to join us."

Feel free to share some of your other good Wall Street idioms and how they can apply to everyday life.

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