In order to understand money, Gaby Dunn made it her full-time job. After writing a viral essay for Splinter titled “Get Rich or Die Vlogging: The Sad Economics of Internet Fame,” which chronicled how holding currency in the attention economy does not always translate into cold hard cash, the journalist, screenwriter and YouTuber parlayed her fascination with money into a popular podcast series, which is now a book, Bad With Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Together, out January 1st 2019.
I discovered Dunn’s work in a slightly more embarrassing way: Thought Catalog. As a textbook millennial of a certain age, I digested the site’s navel-gazey personal essays and arbitrary listicles in between writing umpteen essays for university, eating copious amounts of junk food, and engaging in ill-advised relationships, and Dunn’s insightful musings on toxic friendships and staring at your phone helped me infinitely while navigating the crushing stress of my early twenties.
While I’ve since aged out of the site’s demographic, I’m still a millennial, and like many other people my age, I have a lot of questions about money. Lucky for us, Dunn’s new book tackles the the good, the bad and the ugly of what money means for millennials and is every bit as sage as the splashy opinions she doled out for Thought Catalog so long ago.
We spoke with Dunn about money-related shame and insecurity, and the one foolproof thing all millennials can do to start saving money.
Why do you think the concept of being ‘Bad with Money’ is something that resonates so powerfully with our generation?
People think it says something about your intelligence, so its this thing where nobody wants to feel stupid. To be ‘bad with money’ is like a moratorium on your ability to care for yourself and to exist in the world as its been set up. So we become obsessed with what it says about our self-worth and what it says about our value to society as a whole. The way we view how people contribute to society is through work; what are they contributing to the economy? Everyone’s worth as a human is based on their money, their ability to contribute and all these sorts of things that have to do with money, rather than, you know, just the bare minimum of ‘Are you a person? Cool, then you should be worthy of respect.’ There’s even this thing I write about in the book called the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ which basically says that if you have money, then you must be a good person because you’ve earned it in some way. Which is a small reason why poor people voted for Trump. In their minds they go, ‘Well I’m a good person and one day I’ll be like him. He must be a good person, he must know something I don’t in order to be wealthy.’ Which is rarely the case. It brings up a lot of shame and self-worth issues.
To be ‘bad with money’ is like a moratorium on your ability to care for yourself and to exist in the world as its been set up.
At the beginning of the book, you say that most financial advisors are crap because they shell out this conflicting advice. Why have they been able to fool us for so long?
Well, you’ve got to think there’s a solution, otherwise there’s no hope. People always need hope. But I think a lot of these people preach advice on things they’ve never experienced. They suggest, ‘If you just do this, then you can save money,’ but they started from a place where they were able to put $1000 away a year. Most of the advice is super classist because it stems from the perspective that you’re doing something wrong vs. the system that we have in place is flawed and doesn’t allow for everyone to succeed.
There’s all this negative talk about how the millennials are the worst off generation. What hope to we have?
This generation is really thinking critically and not accepting the status quo the way other generations have. There’s this thing where in past generations, you were supposed to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Oh your boss treats you terribly and you hate your job and you’re going to be there for 50 years? Too bad, that’s the way it is. But more and more, people are like, absolutely not. We will fight for better conditions. We don’t want the bare minimum. I think a lot of younger people are saying no, and older people’s response is to laugh at them. I see it often, young people on Twitter will be like, ‘Look at this job ad.’ This ad is asking for impossible work hours, impossible conditions, and then you’ll see some older person saying ‘You should just be grateful for a job.. It’s tough because its not like conditions have gotten better. I think its just a change of mindset. That’s interesting for me to watch. But the change of mindset needs to translate to policy and all that stuff to actually have some effect in the real world. But young people are running for office, so that’s good.
One of the takeaways of your book is that people need to be transparent about what they earn. How can we move towards a place in society where we can be more transparent in discussions about money when it’s such an intimidating topic to broach?
I still get embarrassed. People still make fun of me [for wanting to be open about money]. But knowledge is power and the more you know, the more you have to work with. For a long time in LA, I didn’t know what my friends did for money. So when I started running out of money, I thought, ‘I’m a piece of shit.’ I had no idea that other friends of mine were doing this, doing that, this is how they made ends meet. I had one friend who started saying, ‘I can’t go out. You can come in and hang with me but I can’t go out right.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god its crazy she said that.’ But why is that crazy?
For a long time in LA, I didn’t know what my friends did for money. So when I started running out of money, I thought, ‘I’m a piece of shit.’
Besides, you know, not drinking Americanos every day, what are some tactics that millennials aren’t doing that they should be to start saving money?
I just don’t think we’re looking into stuff. When I first started on this journey, I used to never open my mail. I didn’t know what the interest was on my savings account. I didn’t know what my bills were. I would just throw my credit card at a bill and say ‘I don’t know.’ Then I went through and printed out all of my expenses for the year and highlighted what came up multiple times. I learned about what day of the month my bills arrive and how much they were for. It took months to go through everything. I just never looked at it, because I thought maybe it would go away. It seems obvious, but if I had to guess, most people my age, if you asked them what the interest is on their student loans, they wouldn’t know. They just pay the monthly amount to try and make it go away. This sounds silly but I went through and realized I was overpaying on parking metres. I would rush into a place for 5 minutes and pay for an hour. In LA, that’s good parking karma. But I realized I could save money by thinking about how long I was going to be spending in a store. I went through the minutiae of my life in order to figure out how savings could work for me and what I could cut for myself. I decided I don’t need Dropbox because I have Google Drive.Instead of these large swath things, like ‘cutting out coffe,’ I went through my personal spending and figured out what I didn’t even notice I was spending on. I had a friend who realized she’d been paying for 2 different gym memberships. If you’re going to talk about cutting things, be really specific to your life.
If you’re going to talk about cutting things, be really specific to your life.
Do you feel like after spending so much time thinking about money, you’ve switched over from being bad with money to good with money?
No. I’m still very bad. I think I just became aware. I now know when everything comes out of my account. There are definitely huge changes in terms of my ability to answer questions like, ‘how much are your student loans?’ With credit cards I realized, the interest on one is too high, I could open a new one. Just little things e I would never have thought about. Before, I just would have had the one credit card for the rest of my life and never thought about it. So I’m not necessarily good with money now, I’m just thinking about it. Pretty crazy that I had to turn it into a full-time job for me to be able to do that.
If there’s one thing you want people to walk away from the book with, what would it be?
That there’s already so much work to do [in terms of your finances], adding your own shame and stigma and embarrassment, conflating it with intelligence, conflating it with self-worth, won’t help. On top of what stress money already causes, just drop it. You don’t need it. But you cannot bury your head in the sand and use embarrassment or shame to stop yourself from bettering the situation. The situation is already shitty. Don’t put self-hatred on top of it.