Revolution on the Installment Plan

The moral hazards of the money diary

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When then twenty-six-year-old Elle Hunt was asked to keep a money diary for the Guardian last year, the purpose was to dispel the common belief that millennials are spendthrifts. They, too, the thinking goes, could enjoy the delights of home ownership and flush 401(k)s, if only they would stop wasting money on avocado toast and turmeric lattes.

For four weeks, London-based Hunt documented every pound spent, from her daily commute to a £181 cut-and-color to over a hundred pounds on bar tabs. She ate out for lunch almost every day, and she often went out of her way to get the better, and more expensive, coffee near her workplace. She was single, with no children or dependents, living with a roommate in one of the most expensive cities in the world, a city with an acute housing crisis where over twenty-two thousand homes sit empty because they were bought for investment and not occupancy. She had savings, but with buying property beyond her reach, it was more of a rainy-day fund than a means for executing a life plan.

The diary went viral, and the condemnation was swift. A reader told Hunt she was “wasting her life,” another added that she was bringing “shame” upon her family. The audience was publicly aghast that she would spend one hundred quid on a Taylor Swift concert ticket; after all, there are so many bands and artists who need financial support. Others focused on her salary—somewhere around £40,000 for a media job—and called her a “poor little rich girl.” Many—many—used the opportunity to tell the world how frugal they are—“I read it whilst eating my homemade wrap for lunch”—the frugality somehow implying virtue. Even the financial expert brought in to comment in the original article dunked on her vices. When you’re spending so much on coffee while complaining about runaway housing prices in urban areas, he wrote, “you’re starting to lose a bit of the moral argument.”

Love is love, polyamory is trending, everyone is sex positive, and Midwestern churches are flying rainbow flags. All our indignation has found a new target in the genre of financial disclosure.

Hunt’s was hardly the only money diary to go viral this way. There was the New York City intern whose rent is paid by her parents, an Instagram influencer earning $604,000 a year, a Toronto couple with almost $500,000 in debt, and a Scot on the dole. No matter the income level or the employment status, each expense was suspect. “[H]ere’s a tip to save money.dont buy coffee and sugar when you have less than a tenner” an anonymous account scolded the Scot. Several readers expressed horror that the steeply indebted couple still ate sushi. If a money diarist mentioned buying a top at H&M, a commenter found cause to mention sweatshops. If another line-itemed a stop at McDonald’s, someone was there to say veganism is the only ethical choice.

Not even sex diaries inspire as much moralizing as the money diary (nor are they even close to being as popular or viral-friendly). These days all romantic and sexual relations are understood to be about power, and they are discussed in the language of health: if you date a notably younger or older person, you’ve “got issues”; if you are in a committed relationship with a partner of the same age, economic and educational background, and salary, you’re “healthy.” Tales of promiscuity and lust inspire mild reactions like “get therapy.” Love is love, polyamory is trending, everyone is sex positive, and Midwestern churches are flying rainbow flags. All our indignation has found a new target in the genre of financial disclosure.

Prosperity is Personal

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as the financial industry underwent deregulation, and as consumer protections from credit card companies, banks, and short-term lenders were stripped away, the idea of personal financial responsibility as a coping mechanism took hold. Everyone was trying to fleece you, banks added fees for speaking to a teller or using your debit card outside of the country or asking for a paper statement or putting money in your account or taking money out of your account or closing your account. And the high priests of personal finance materialized in clouds of smoke, offering a prosperity gospel of discipline and attentiveness, if only you paid them on the installment plan.

The 1990s saw the rise of Suze Orman, Vicki Robin, and Dave Ramsey, gurus who built self-help empires of books, TV and radio shows, financial planning and counseling, all with the same message: document and account for everything. Any excess or frivolity was waste. Why throw away $3.50 on a cup of coffee when you could shove it in a Roth IRA and retire a millionaire forty years later? Meanwhile, interest rates were stagnant, so if you wanted your savings to grow you’d have to funnel it into investments, where a bunch of finance bros could do whatever they wanted with it. We all remember what happened after that.

But for all their financial expertise, most of these wizards still recommend buying property amid a manifest housing crisis. They advocate for “smart” investments while Wall Street bilks small-scale investors. And you don’t see any of them testifying in front of Congress against the lax regulation of short-term lending operations. But if you find yourself in a spiral of debt because you needed some cash when your car broke down a week before the end of the month, they’ll say it’s your fault for agreeing to the terms laid out in a payday loan. That those are the only terms under which the economically disadvantaged can find credit is not up for consideration. If you were not outright lied to, it is your responsibility, they’ll explain, to live up to your obligations. If you call into one of their many syndicated radio shows asking for advice, they’ll grill you on personal expenses, not on how your insurance company left you in a pile of medical debt despite your coverage. (And really, if you signed an agreement with an insurance company, you’re probably to blame for not researching your options thoroughly.) In a recent episode on his YouTube channel, Ramsey rebuked a caller for living outside his means by supporting his orphaned niece and elderly mother. He urged him to reconsider that support.

As governmental protections for the financial industry grew stronger at consumers’ expense, the gurus supplied a new answer for those who were budgeting and disciplining and saving and investing yet still floundering in a system designed for floundering: your mindset is to blame. This was the era of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, which arrived in 2006, just as the first signs of the impending collapse began to appear, to tell us that prosperity and health and love were attainable if we thought about our desires in the right way. Thinking in the wrong way would bring bankruptcy and cancer. Though Orman never preached The Secret, she was Secret-adjacent, showing up on Oprah and other Secret-peddling shows. She still borrows its language. “The biggest thing holding you back from building wealth,” she recently lectured Americans on a cable news program in a shiny jacket, “is you. . . . You are your own financial obstacle.”

Even after the revelations of manipulation, corruption, and criminal activity on the part of mortgage brokers, banks, and investment firms, there was plenty of moral condemnation of individual homeowners for agreeing to terms they could not “honor.” There were mass evictions and a recession and a growing homelessness problem; at the same time there was mounting public suspicion that the real villains were borrowers who took out impossible loans. When U.S. News and World Report asked “Who to Blame for the Financial Crisis,” they listed “homeowners” first. (Media consultants were suspiciously missing from the list.) The crackerjack New York Times opinion pages wrote that assisting underwater homeowners “rewards irresponsibility.” And today this moral creep can still be found on investment websites that contend “homebuyers . . . were definitely not completely innocent.” At the same time, these arguments are being rehashed for the student debt crisis, often explicitly in the language of morality.

Why throw away $3.50 on a cup of coffee when you could shove it in a 401(k) and retire a millionaire forty years later?

All the while, the cage has gotten smaller and better reinforced, and the human behavior within that cage has been subjected to a more exacting moral gaze. This has long been true for food stamp recipients who are monitored for “wasting” government “handouts” on soda and booze, or for single mothers on welfare who might be too slutty. But now that monitoring has spread to those asking not for assistance but merely sympathy. This moral-financial surveillance now extends to the humble domain of the freelance writer.

Penny for Her Thoughts

After the economic crash, after movements like Occupy brought anti-capitalist discourse into the mainstream, millennials got a bevy of electronic whazzits to help them with cage maintenance. Apps like Mint, Digit, SmartyPig, Stockpile, Tiller, GoodBudget, Personal Capital, Stash, and Acorns automated the budget and savings recommendations that Orman and her ilk had preached for twenty years. Podcasts and websites like Side Hustle, The Minimalists, Money Girl, Modernfrugality.com, NerdWallet.com, and TheBillfold.com promised to “demystify” personal finance and “remove the taboo” of talking about money.

Though many of these apps and sites distance themselves from the more established financial gurus like Orman, usually by permitting users and readers to go on vacation or buy avocado toast when they have student loan debt to pay, the framework is much the same. The money diaries amount to drills from Orman’s notebooks brought into the public: most of her books recommend facing expenses directly and documenting them. What’s more, the money diary genre, alongside financial confessions and disclosures, was founded on investment websites before quickly relocating to millennial media, largely unaltered.

NerdWallet’s “How Do You Do Money?” series and The Billfold’s “Doing Money” interviewed young individuals about how much they make and how it’s budgeted and allocated in their daily lives. Many of the interviewees were dealing with student debt, almost all were gainfully employed with steady work, and many had long-term financial goals and plans to reach those goals. A couple of the interview subjects, like Cait Flanders, had gotten themselves out of tens of thousands of dollars in debt through strict discipline and now became experts, using their personal stories to “help” others overcome debt in the same way. For their moral rectitude, they were rewarded with book deals.

The tone of these interviews is chatty, and the subjects all display good behavior. They are quick to call themselves “lucky” or “acknowledge privilege” if they are helped through a financial jam by family. Their goals are to diligently build savings, to amass a “fuck-off fund” or a down payment for a home, or to dutifully pay down their debt (almost only ever accrued through student loans, medical issues, or during times of unemployment). The comments under the interviews are, for the most part, supportive and commiserating.

These interviews fit within a broader trend of documenting all productivity online, where writers hashtag their #amwriting word counts for the day, gym rats post their reps, and eating disorder vamps count their caloric intake and output. The motivation for such self-presentation lies somewhere between accountability, humblebragging, and outright fabrication. Nevertheless, the gratuitous logging of monetary goings-on for the internet’s gold-star approval, without taking into account that financial standing has more to do with a family’s generational wealth, recalls the behavior of mutants with good genes, an ascetic nature, and probably a lot of fire in their natal charts, who claim their weight and muscle mass is the result of paleo dieting and self-discipline. Research has shown for years that weight is not a simple equation of how many calories you consume and how many you burn, and that our food supply in America is vastly poisonous, but we still listen to these dolts telling us their thinness proves their moral worth.

All Power to the Demoralized

When the financial confessionals became popular, and other sites, first and foremost women’s media like Refinery29, Grazia Daily, Man Repeller, among others, learned to copy the format, they simplified the discussion even further. They stopped exclusively profiling spreadsheet fetishists and turned their focus from savings to consumption. Millennials were now making money as creative consultants and Instagram influencers, and audiences wanted to know how they spent their cash. Of course, no one in the more recent practice of financial revelation appears concerned with the moral implications of their earning and spending, so the polite commentary soon gave way to outrage. Fed by this anger, publishers began to choose the most outlandish and least class-aware of the subjects; rare is the diarist who keeps her cage nice and tidy, and the more privileged among them sometimes live in cages so large and cozy they could be mistaken for the Biodome. Stripped of the earlier “I’m just doing my best” veneer, these confessions became flashpoints, with every purchase and revenue source held up for inspection and judgment by the crowd.

Many have pointed to the gender imbalance of this moral conflagration. It’s misogyny, they have argued. It’s true that most of the diarists who have come under attack have been women, but most of the diarists have been women, and most of the commenters doing the attacking are also women. The majority of sites running these diaries are targeted at women. It’s true that women’s shopping habits have long been demonized, as explained in Bruce Robbins’s The Beneficiary. Either as an expression of vanity or frivolity, everything women purchase has at one time or another been considered suspect. What’s overlooked is how much more the language of the money diary is about generation rather than gender. For every report about younger generations who face harder economic realities than their predecessors, there are three op-eds calling them lazy and entitled.

That much of this indignation for the millennials writing these diaries comes from other millennials shouldn’t be a surprise. Who better to dictate the rules of moral behavior than a peer seeking a framework of justification for their status and choices? It’s what many of the objections come down to: money is scarce, and there is an ideal way to allocate it. Spending or earning blindly is the equivalent of watering a golf course during a drought. Everyone who leaves a comment is suggesting that they have figured out the perfect distribution of funds, before learning they may not fare so well against the very best boys and girls.

Trying to justify spending as self-care stopped being acceptable in 2017, after an unnamed person quoted Audre Lorde on their way to getting highlights at the salon.

Can we ascertain the rules of the moral universe these money diaries create, based on commonplace complaints? It’s possible to cobble something out of the mess. To begin with, inheriting money is immoral. Everyone who receives support from their family for anything other than averting peril and does not beg forgiveness for such an infraction, is canceled. Earning it is of course better, unless it seems disproportionate to what you deserve, which is also a problem. There is a moral cap on how much you should make and how well you treat others along the way, unless you are Beyoncé, in which case you are above reproach. Spending money is, of course, not okay, but it’s especially terrible if you waste it on fast food, at Walmart, on sweatshop-sourced clothing, or on anything stereotypically millennial, like hot yoga. Luxury items are only acceptable if you are debt-free and otherwise set politically and financially against economic inequality; trying to justify spending as self-care stopped being acceptable in 2017, after an unnamed person quoted Audre Lorde on their way to getting highlights at the salon. Cars destroy the environment, even public transportation is excessive, so only bicycles are acceptable. If you use Uber or Lyft, you are personally sending taxi drivers into bankruptcy and suicide; if you use Seamless, you are a layabout who should plan her day better. And then there is the Godwin’s law of the money diary comment section: sooner or later, someone will post that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” which both condemns and absolves all parties.

The money diary, however moralizing and deficient, may come to symbolize this moment’s most accidental and self-honest critique. If millennials do roll out the guillotines, as all the cutesy jokes on Twitter suggest, the last one left alive will have to reach up and pull the blade down on herself. For a generation that claims the greatest number of critics of capitalism—mostly those who romanticize and misread Marx, who wanted to turn the world into a factory—it sure does unquestioningly share its value system.

Jessa Crispin is the author of The Dead Ladies Project and she can be found at jessacrispin.com.

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