We Need to Talk About Money: Seven Stories About Personal Finance

Photo: Jake Slagle

I suppose it’s fitting to begin a piece about personal finance by talking about my own situation: I owe the IRS and the Comptroller of Maryland a substantial part of my tenuous savings. This is the first year I’ve owed more than I’ve expected.

When I first learned how much money I owed, I had a panic attack and vowed to never leave my apartment again. I eventually emerged, sodden and pathetic, from my blanket cocoon. I discovered no one was judging me for my unfortunate situation. One friend admitted that she, too, owed an inordinate, unforeseen amount to the IRS and turned to her parents for help.

This summer, I turned 26, which means—in the good ol’ US-of-A—I’m off my parents’ health insurance. Luckily, I qualify for free coverage. It’s a huge relief. I’m proud of myself for overcoming my anxiety about signing up in the first place. This is the sort of task that feels insurmountable when I’m deep in that generalized anxiety. Again, I have to thank my dad for staying on the phone with me for 45 minutes, while I sat in the foyer of the public library, swearing about the confusing wording on the health care website.

Taxes and health insurance—what could be worse? I also owe about thirty grand in student loans; those I’ve accepted as part of life. My dad (who, I’m realizing, is basically my financial advisor), has been on my case to consolidate those puppies, but, oh my God, I don’t even really know what that means because none of us learned this in school?! Where is the manual?!

I think all of us, on some level, harbor an obsession with money—it shapes our habits, opportunities, social and familial interactions, and futures. Honest discussions about income, rent, budgets, taxes—all that stuff—force us to reckon with our privilege. For so long, conversations about money were considered gauche. With every essay and podcast episode, that taboo is broken down.

1. “‘Life Was Always a Financial Hellscape’: Gaby Dunn’s ‘Bad With Money’ Wants to Break the ‘Secret Shame’ of Money Talk.” (Rachel Kramer Bussel, Salon, August 2016)

“I’ve always felt very comfortable talking about my sex life or my body, but I’ve never been comfortable talking about money and why is that? Why is money the thing I won’t touch when I share everything else? So now I’m a woman with a money podcast. And hopefully there will be 10 more women with 10 more money podcasts and then this becomes a cliché topic too. And then everyone has equal pay.”

Writer, YouTuber and comedian Gaby Dunn is no stranger to getting vulnerable. Nor is she afraid to discuss the truth of internet fame and shitty contracts at big-name companies. In her new podcast, “Bad With Money,” Dunn opens up about her own student loans, former credit card debt, car payments and bad habits. Her guests thus far have included her own parents, a financial psychologist, her boyfriend, her comedy partner, and the acclaimed author Roxane Gay.

2. “Talking to Gaby Dunn About ‘Bad With Money,’ Financial Shame, and Protecting Your Work.” (Meryl Williams, The Billfold, September 2016)

I couldn’t resist including another interview about “Bad With Money.” You can expect Cameron Esposito, Rhea Butcher, Hank Green, Carrie Wade, and other awesome guests on this season of the podcast.

3. “Why So Many Minority Millennials Can’t Get Ahead.” (Mel Jones, The Atlantic, November 2015)

It all adds up to a slice of the racial wealth gap that’s hard to grasp because it’s made up of many smaller inequalities instead of one massive one. It’s not the difference between a silver spoon and a dirt floor—it’s the one between textbook money and a campus job. It’s not the difference between the 1 percent and the destitute—it’s the one between a birthday card from Grandma and paying her hospital bill. The gap in gifts, debts, and inheritances creates a vicious cycle with large ramifications for many black Millennials and their financial future—and when combined with redlining and unequal returns on income and education, the odds are stacked in a terrible way.

Semi-related: “The Urban Poor You Haven’t Noticed: Millennials Who’re Broke, Hungry, But On Trend” by BuzzFeed contributor Gayatri Jayaraman is a shorter piece that explores the lengths her millennial colleagues in Mumbai, India, go to to maintain the facade of financial well-being in the midst of overwhelming living expenses.

4. “Buying Coffee Every Day Isn’t the Reason You’re in Debt.” (Helaine Olen, Slate, May 2016)

I can’t tell you how many how-to-start-budgeting articles I’ve read that encourage me to cut out small expenses, like my morning mocha latte–it’s always my damn latte! Leave my caffeine addiction alone! Then there’s Helaine OlenIn this excerpt from her first book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, Olen debunks the mythical millions I could be making, if I would only forego that daily cup of corporate coffee.

5. “Where Millennials Learn About Money Over Plates of Chocolate Mousse with Ginger Cream.” (Elizabeth Segran, Fast Company, January 2015)

The Society of Grownups believes you, too, can learn to adult.

6. “The Woman You Want to Be is Rich.” (Chelsea Fagan, The Financial Diet, September 2016)

This essay by Chelsea Fagan, the founder of The Financial Diet, really hit home. We can say we just want to be happy, that money isn’t important to us—but the things that make us happy (travel, stability, little luxuries, paying off loans) are dependent on a certain level of wealth.

7. “What Happened When I Finally Made Money.” (Alana Massey, Elle, May 2016)

Prada, Paris and book deals—dreams do come true, and in their wake, Alana Massey commits to transparency.