Author Gaby Dunn on being "Bad With Money"

Millennials aren't the only generation that needs help getting real when it comes to personal finance

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 19, 2019 10:00AM (EST)

Gaby Dunn (Doug Frerichs)
Gaby Dunn (Doug Frerichs)

Gaby Dunn knows all about her generation's unfair reputation. That they're lazy and they waste their money on frivolous things. On her podcast, "Bad with Money," she confronts the myths and misperceptions about millennials, offers sound real world advice, and explores her own relationship with her finances. Now in her new book, "Bad with Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Together," she proves a wise guide to developing a healthier relationship with your money, no matter what your age.

As she told Mary Elizabeth Williams during a recent "Salon Talks," "Money is going to be everywhere. You're going to have to deal with money. Don't add shame and embarrassment and anxiety on top of it."

Historically there's a lot of shame and secrecy and taboo around money, but the weight of the conversation has in the past few years geared towards millennials and how, as you put it in the opening of the book, "If you just didn't buy that avocado toast or that latte, you could have a house." There does seem to be so much more finger pointing and shaming and judgment around your generation. I would love for you to take a minute to tell us why that's all just a load of horses__t.

I think we're being judged based on old metrics. We graduated college into a terrible job market, into a housing crisis, into rising healthcare costs. People are fighting for a higher minimum wage. We were not set up to succeed. Also, student loans were astronomical during that time. We graduated with more student loans than Boomers and Gen-X had. I think we were just sort of a perfect storm of failure.

This thing also that comes up a lot is that millennials are only talked about in the sense of middle class or upper middle class or upper class millennials. We think of these people who are taking selfies and like you said, eating avocado toast and drinking lattes and wasting money.

Sandra Bland, who passed away in police custody, was 28 years old, squarely a millennial. We don't think of police brutality as a millennial issue, but it actually is. Most millennials work service industry or retail jobs, but we don't think of the minimum wage as a squarely millennial issue, which it is. It has a top down effect on policy where our stuff is seen as frivolous, like, "Oh, you want to get student loan forgiveness for this thing that you did to yourself," but in reality, a lot of the GoFundMe's that I see for medical issues are by millennials. I think we need to broaden our idea of what millennials care about, which is, I think, seen as very frivolous and it actually isn't.

It is so important to talk about how the deck is really differently stacked. When I hear Boomers say, "When I was 28 I owned a home," good for you. That world, that planet, doesn't exist anymore.

My mom's college tuition was $50, you know what I mean? I had $40,000 in loans when I graduated.

Which is considered conservative.

Yeah. I say in the book I feel like it's the neck tattoo of the financial world. You're 18 years old and they encourage you or tug on your emotions to take out so much money in loans, and you just want to go to school, so you don't think about what you're doing. Then you graduate and you're like, "Wait, what? I have to pay back $60,000? In my mind, I hadn't even heard of $60,000." That seemed insurmountable to me.

I could talk about this with you all day long and far into the night as a parent of a student who is a freshman in college. You talk a lot about college and student loans in the book, and it so important to be talking about this right now. This is an issue that is affecting every generation, because the Boomers are paying for their kids. Gen-Xers like me are roped into this for our kids. millennials are now entering the workforce with this debt that seems crazy. I know what your award letter looks like where it's, "Your award is your parents can take out unlimited loans."

I say in the book that you have to know the difference between an award letter and a grant. A financial aid package is set up to specifically be hard to comprehend and hard to read. Also, a lot of these kids, their parents are immigrants, so they may be the first kid going to college. I can barely understand the FAFSA information. I can't imagine if English wasn't my first language. How would I ever interpret any of this?

It is peddled to you as, "This is the dream." Why wouldn't you want this? It's the same with houses. It's the same with a lot of the other trappings of what success looks like is like, "Of course you want this for yourself, and you deserve this for yourself. You deserve the $20,000 bat mitzvah." Can we talk about that a little, about how we get sucked in?

My parents are notoriously also bad with money. I talk about that a lot in the book, where they took out a lot of loans for things just because they didn't want to say no and they wanted to have stuff. They never let me in on any of this. I grew to be very anxious because as I got into middle school I started to be like, "Where is this money coming from?" Every so often it was this whiplash of like they would spend lavishly and then the next day be like, "Oh, you can't do this. You can't go on this school trip or whatever." And I'd be like, "But yesterday we ... Are we rich or are we poor? What's happening?"

My bat mitzvah, I didn't have any idea. I asked them last year when I was writing the book, "How did you cover that? Because it was a pretty lavish party for a 13 year-old." And they said they took out a $20,000 loan. When I was 13, I think if they had told me that I would've said, "Don't do that." I had no concept that they were spending that much money because parents don't talk to their kids about this kind of thing. I wonder if they had been honest with me if I would've told them, "Oh, I don't need this."

As you've said, this stuff is intentionally confusing. Money is intentionally confusing. I'll be honest, I got to your chapter about investing and thought, "I can't handle this." It's a lot of information to take in. It feels overwhelming. It feels intimidating.

You talk about this culture of secrecy around it where it seems like everybody else is doing okay and everybody's got a handle on it, when in fact nobody does. Unless you're really from a family of accountants.

Even friends of mine that have parents that were accountants, they didn't necessarily talk to their kids about their jobs. It didn't translate to the kid knowing anything because it's very rare that a kid cares what their parents' job is.

We never talked about it. We never discussed how I was going to pay for school. In high school and college I had jobs, but nobody ever said, "This is what you should be saving. You should save some money from this job." In my mind, I was like, "I have this job so I can spend money," but how are you supposed to know differently? I don't think anyone in my group of friends ever said the words "savings account." I don't think anyone said "retirement." Because how do you talk to a 22 year-old about retirement? How do you say, "Hey, you'll need this when you're older?"

I have a retirement fund now. That's the biggest change that's happened in the last three years, that I actually have a retirement account. And that I would say is maybe one of the only changes after three years of researching this book.

The book is relatable, not aspirational. I still get into credit card debt and have to get out of it. I still just make mistakes. I'm still on the phone with my student loan provider because they told me I hadn't paid and then I actually had paid. I was on the phone with them for half-an-hour. I was doing press for this book while fighting with my student loan company, and I was like, "It never ends."

Talk about aspirational versus relatable. You talk a lot about the fad diet budgeting, which is a trap I've fallen into. I think many of us have. It's like, "If I can just get the right app or if I can just figure out the right system. If I can break the code and stick to it in a disciplined way, then I will understand money." You talk about how that can also be in illusion.

Yeah, because it doesn't last. Suze Orman talks about that a lot. Whether I agree with her on everything or not, she talks about how it's a fad diet to budget. My girlfriend is obsessed with You Need a Budget, the app. She's become a weird evangelical about it. Some of these apps do help. I use Digit. There's some that are pretty useful. Generally, it doesn't account for things that come up.

I think you have to go into that kind of thing accounting for things that come up. I would beat myself up for not sticking to the budget that I had made. Something would come up and I would have to take money out of savings. My car broke down. Mostly it's my car. Then I would beat myself up. My therapist, who's a genius, said, "What do you think you've saved that money for?" I said, "I saved it to save it." She was like, "No, you saved it so that when stuff happens, you are not in debt. You can actually pay for it. Then start over. You just start over." You can always start over. It's okay.

When that car breaks down, when inevitably somebody's going to get married.

Appendectomy, whatever. Stuff you can't control.

And that is a built in part of your financial life. You can't just assume that life is going to be like food and rent and car and that's it, because no, there's always going to be something that breaks.

A lot of it happens at the same time. All around the same time, the student loan thing happened and I was concerned that that was going to be a problem. Right around the same time, I had to pay taxes. Everything happened at once, and I was like, "No, of course, this is exactly right. This makes sense."

There's all this shame around money. Then in the deeper spiral of shame of money, there's all of the shame around mental health issues. You are really transparent about that as well. There are two factors. One is the way that your mental health can affect your financial life and your spending, and also budgeting for and understanding that for many of us, we have to figure out how to pay for our mental health.

I had a lot of stuff go wrong where I was undiagnosed bipolar and just didn't factor that into why I was bad with money. Then it sort of made sense eight years later. After eight years of mistakes, it started to make sense as to the ups and the downs about manic spending and then depressive spending, which is both. Depressive spending is like, "I'm sad, so I deserve these sneakers," and then manic spending is like, "I'll get all the sneakers!" You're doing the same sort of behaviors, your just reasoning for it is different. Then being medicated, world of difference.

I think a lot of people, just anxiety will make them spend more money at the bar because they're socially anxious or whatever. There are so many reasons that you should look into as to why you're like this that are maybe a little bit out of your control. I just had a girl write to me and she said, "I just started making more money. Should I get a therapist or should I start saving?" I was like, "Oh my God. That's the million dollar question," pun intended. I said therapy, because I don't know that you could safely start saving unless your mind is working correctly. My therapist said most people that come see her want to talk about money stuff and have a lot of stress related to money.

Then we go out into the real world and we're not talking about that.

Isolating. If you have relationship problems ,you'll talk to your friends. If you have money problems, you don't talk to your friends.

You, very famously, went out into the world and asked strangers about sex. No problem, right?

I went to a coffee shop and I asked strangers, "What's your favorite sex position?" and everyone was happy to tell me. Then I said, "Okay, second question. How much money is in your bank account?" and everyone was like, "No." Absolutely not. That was the idea of Sam Dingman, who was my producer on the podcast. I was like, "No, come on." Then we did it and I said, "Oh my. You were right. This is bananas."

Because there is all of the shame and there is all of the secrecy. You don't talk about it too much in this book, but I love to talk about this with you now, the way that that plays out for women differently.

Big time. Yes.

We've seen it over the past couple of years. We saw what happened at the BBC. We saw what happened in the Michelle Williams movie. What happens when there's all of this secrecy around what other people are getting paid?

I had one job where we all went out to dinner and it was like eight of us, and we were a little drunk, and people started being like, "Let's just say our salaries." This is the CEO of this company's nightmare. Everyone just started saying their salaries, and everyone lost their minds. It was like, "What? What?" People were yelling at each other. Everyone was friends, but we were mostly mad at the people at the top. Couldn't believe it. A lot of the guys had higher salaries and we were like, "How did you do that?" And they were like, "Oh, I just asked."

We were like, "You just asked?" The other problem is that a lot of advice for women is "Just ask." They don't take into account that when women do that we are seen as bossy, we are seen as entitled, we are seen as a problem, versus like when men do that, they're smart and strong and that kind of thing.

You have to ask each other. I had a really great instance where a friend of mine and I were both speaking at a conference. She DMed me on Twitter to say, "What are you getting paid to speak at this conference?" I told her, and she said, "Okay, I'm getting half that." I said, "So go to them, drop my name. Say 'Gaby told me that she's getting paid this. I want the same rate as Gaby'" and it worked. We have to share with each other. I was like, "All right, they'll be mad at me. Who cares?" Fine. I was like, "Tell them I told you what I was getting."

I think if more of us are doing that, especially women saying, "This is what I'm asking for," we're all moving forward at the same pace in some way. But it is terrifying. When you're in the gig economy, if someone comes to you with a figure and you say, "I need more," they will say, "We'll get somebody else," and they will and they can.

Yeah. Sometimes I just overshoot it. I'm like I say a higher number and then they go, "Oh, sorry. We can only do this," and I'm like, "That's what I wanted in the first place."

It's tough, right? Because it's also this pervasive misogyny of, "Well, a guy might do a better job." What? Are you out of your mind? I don't know. It's like specifically also for marginalized people of any kind.

I talk about it in the book. A lot of times for people of color or for LGBTQ people like myself, when we work at a job, we are doing that job and then we are also doing the job of professional minority. We have to behave a certain way and not ask for too much and whatever so that people don't go, "Oh, that gay person is annoying" or "That woman is a problem" or whatever.

Then also, we're often asked, "Hey, can you lead the diversity initiative? Hey, can you do this extra work? Hey, can you read over this script and make sure it's not racist?" All these things that the average white guy who works there isn't asked to do.

Because you're the sole voice of an entire population.

Right. You don't get paid for that unpaid labor.

I think people need to know why we're all like Kurt Russell, because that feels really an important thing to say that I had not thought of myself as Kurt Russell ever in my life until you made me see the Kurt Russell in myself, Gaby. Tell me why.

One, I love Kurt Russell. Also yeah, the last chapter of the book is called "We Are All Kurt Russell." I really hope he contacts me. One of my favorite movies is John Carpenter's "The Thing." So I talk about in The Thing, the alien shapeshifts into the other people, so you don't know who to trust. So nobody trusts each other and everyone goes nuts and nobody communicates with each other and it ends up with everyone dying.

Money is the alien and we are Kurt Russell. We need to talk to each other and trust each other and not let this paranoia take over. With money, one of the biggest problems is the way we feel about it. It's so pervasive. Money is going to be everywhere. You're going to have to deal with money. Don't add shame and embarrassment and anxiety on top of it, because it just has to be part of life. It can't be this shapeshifting alien that makes you paranoid and takes over everything, because then nothing gets solved. You just firebomb each other.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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