The veneer was already thin, but the facade of Refinery29’s money column didn’t fully crack until the middle of January 2018 when the women’s site posted an article, the subject of which would forever be dubbed “Money Diary Girl”. The piece was part of its Money Diary series, “tackling what might be the last taboo facing modern working women: money”, which asked women from different walks of life and with different incomes to record their spending for a week. It purported to be a useful column to help women gain a better understanding of the reality of finance.
This particular diary followed a freelance writer living in London on £14,400 (“if I take no holiday and pay no tax”). The first entry was for New Year’s Eve, and the writer has only £33 left in her bank account. She proceeds to use her credit card to spend hundreds of pounds on cocaine, Ubers and rounds of drinks for her friends – seemingly aware of the financial pit she is building for herself, but pushing through with a relentless “Yolo” attitude anyway. The rest of the week she spends money on brunches, takeaways and more Ubers – until she recognises that she is so broke that will have to move back in with her mother.
The article went viral for a number of reasons – most obviously, the sheer chaos of this anonymous woman’s lifestyle. But it also triggered a conversation about the value of money diaries for readers. Sure, there was something intriguing about a true picture of how millennial women spend their money, but many found it difficult to see the point of watching this writer’s self-destruction – other than scaring readers into getting a pension or attracting voyeuristic clicks for Refinery29.
A few months later, the series became the subject of another viral debate after its US site published a piece titled “A Week in New York City on $25/Hour”, which was later amended to note that the author, a 21-year-old marketing intern, received from her parents $2,100 per month in rent, college tuition payments, and money for her phone bill and health insurance, as well as a $1,100 per month allowance. “You should not be talking about money,” one viral tweet read.
In the years since, millennial money management advice – as a content theme and as a service – has boomed. Budgeting influencers, money guides, and investment apps are now part of the average young person’s mainstream. These popular businesses, content verticals, social media stars, podcasts, apps and entrepreneurs target millennials they believe to be clueless and cash-strapped, but not so badly off that they don’t have a fair amount of disposable income to play with. They all suggest that there’s a “taboo” and “secrecy” around money – which they are bravely breaking. But are millennials genuinely now controlling their money better than before, or are they merely in thrall to an illusion that tells them they could be?
Ostensibly, the millennial money management trend should be a welcome contribution to rebalancing generational economic inequality. We have long known that millennials are economically worse off than their older counterparts, due to converging factors such as inflation alongside wage stagnation, worsening pension options, the rise of precarious work, and countless issues with housing. Money is, as these sites won’t let you forget, a taboo – so it’s understandable that someone should be attempting to talk about it.
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It’s true that five years ago, money was much harder to talk about. But as this content trend has grown, breaking taboos has become the genre’s only selling point. It remains the hook of the Refinery29 Money Diary series and is listed in the marketing for nearly every millennial money management site – where simply mentioning the subject is apparently enough to make that site or influencer groundbreaking or radical.
The “taboo” sell is now often used as a flimsy justification to argue that any woman, of any level of wealth, who tells her money story is doing something valid and worthwhile. In response to the viral Money Diary from the woman living off her parents’ financial support, the director of work and money at Refinery29, Lindsey Stanberry, published a blog defending the series. “The furore that erupted over the entry revealed much about how we talk about privilege and economic inequality,” she wrote. “It’s also the most extreme example of a trend we already noticed, something that pops up whenever women talk frankly about money… When are women allowed to celebrate their wealth? Is it sexist the way we criticise women for their spending habits?”
Though some sites and influencers have tried to address the systemic economic problems facing millennials, and offer useful solutions, many others are or were run by people unburdened by these problems themselves.
However, one of the earliest examples of the trend appeared to avoid this fate: the blog-turned-media-company The Financial Diet, founded by Chelsea Fagan in 2014, was heralded as a place that actually did provide women with realistic budgeting advice and ways to save money that worked for nearly any kind of income. Fagan was a vocal anti-capitalist advocate from the very beginning of The Financial Diet – a rarity among these influencers – and dedicated much of her time to campaigning and advocating for not just quick fixes, but structural changes to the way in which the Western world distributes wealth. Far from a rich girl searching for a USP, Fagan seemed normal.
But though her beginnings were humble (and her politics may remain radical), Fagan herself has now reached the final form that many of these money influencers eventually take: a wealthy lifestyle blogger, aided by financial support from her husband, posting photographs of her lavish Manhattan apartment and of trips to Paris and Spain. Fagan, ironically, wrote about this phenomenon in a blog post titled “The Woman You Want To Be Is Rich” in 2016: “Scratch the surface of your favourite star blogger, and there is a very good chance you will find the smiling banker husband just out of frame.”
Almost inevitably, as these businesses grow and formerly broke influencers begin to accumulate wealth, their function becomes less as a mentor to their followers and more as someone with an aspirational lifestyle. But the lives these money influencers lead are often completely out of reach, even for the wealthier women who read their advice. And regardless of whether The Financial Diet continues to offer low-income money tips, Fagan will be one of these influencers.
Right across the “money content” industry, this problem arises: women who are making far more than the average national wage tell genuinely struggling women how investing and saving may bring financial salvation. We have to ask how much is to be gained from our loudest voices on money being almost entirely wealthy women. In a piece for the Guardian last year on rich millennials speaking for “Generation Rent”, writer Rachel Connolly wrote: “It is a trope that all millennials struggle financially, but one not borne out by data: wages may be low in many sectors but, for a substantial minority, a large inheritance will plug the gap… Elitism in the media industry has led to the strange phenomenon of mainly upper- and upper-middle-class millennials acting as dubious spokespeople for the impact of problems from which they are largely insulated.”
Some of the influencers in the millennial money management world have tried to tackle this phenomenon, but it’s hard to find concrete examples that both offer practical advice to less well-off millennials and dissect the structural financial challenges they face – even in book publishing. A new book from the Sunday Times bestselling author Otegha Uwagba, We Need To Talk About Money, appears in its cover and marketing to be an interrogation of the financial systems that dominate our lives. But it is really more of an overview of zeitgeisty cultural debates from the past ten years (such as the discourse surrounding the concept of the “girlboss”) as well as a personal account of Uwagba’s own relationship with her finances (such as her experience of being a student on a scholarship at a private school, her time living with a socialite who appeared regularly in Tatler, and, eventually, the process of becoming a homeowner). Laura Whateley’s Money: A User’s Guide (2018) is arguably the only popular example of a millennial money book that manages to blend systemic economic issues with financial advice. But even so, much of its advice requires the reader to have significant savings and income – never mind a consistent salary.
This is where most millennial money management guidance falls down: the advice may be sound, but it’s next to impossible for most young people to follow it. A clear example of this paradox is The Break, a site and popular Instagram account run by influencer Patricia Bright, which is also one of the more useful money management resources. It largely posts infographics with budgeting breakdowns and charts (explaining things such as the average daily and annual cost of having a child or the savings needed for a house deposit), as well as summaries of government policies after each Budget and inspirational quotes from financial leaders on their best advice for younger generations.
But inherent in many of these posts – which can be heavy with jargon, and are apparently written for the financially very literate – is the presumption that the average follower will have significantly more income than the typical millennial. A recent post from the account showed how to break down your money if your monthly take-home pay is £3,200 – the equivalent of over £50,000 annually before tax.
Ultimately, this content does serve some women: namely, other relatively wealthy millennials. “There is a significant minority of people for whom there are things they can do to improve the way they manage their finances,” explains David Sturrock, a senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, “and it’s quite plausible that it could have quite a big impact on their finances and their overall well-being.
“But while that is the case for many people, [that] there are things they can do to marginally improve their situation,” he says, “I don’t think that this alone is going to compensate over time for these big economic trends which are really substantial changes in the prospects of younger generations.”
Even when it is well-intentioned, much of this content addresses only the tiniest symptoms of the enormous systemic problems with which millennials are burdened. For younger people suffering from financial precarity, trying to work around the system is rarely going to lead to long-term stability. Much of the time, these money management services offer advice that simply boils down to recommending saving.
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Though this is not inherently wrong or bad advice, it is unlikely that saving alone will enable millennials to gain the financial security that their parents and grandparents had. “I don’t want to suggest that it’s not possible that by saving more someone can make an improvement to their situation, but it comes at the cost of having less for the present day,” Sturrock says. “And due to the wider situation that younger generations are in, they may not have the additional amounts of income compared to their predecessors which they could use to build up their wealth.”
This industry could be campaigning for policy changes around housing, better pension options for young people on low incomes, and improved advice about investment (according to Sturrock). Instead, its solutions are oversimplified in order to appear more feasible and attention-grabbing. Buying a book or following an Instagram account with tips on investing is fruitless when you have very little money in your bank account to work with, but consuming this type of content can give readers a sense of “doing something” even when their financial status remains unchanged.
Despite it being increasingly obvious that money management sources are probably helping only a small number of millennials, it’s unlikely that this trend will end any time soon. “There has been a shift in recent decades in savings and pension policies to individuals being responsible for making their own choices,” Sturrock says. He explains that fewer securities are in place for millennials in the long term, with pensions, for example, having been cut back to only provide the basics. “The decisions individuals make do matter. A lot more is put in their hands, it’s much more consequential,” he says.
With so little security in place, millennials have to seek out these external resources. And when all they get from those resources is shallow advice, what options do they actually have?
The millennial money management industry ultimately provides the same things as most lifestyle content: an aspirational goal, an escape, and masochistic voyeurism, allowing the broke to live the lives of the wealthy. But the consequences of giving a generation only the illusion of control over their finances will be seen in years to come, when millions of women are left wondering why they haven’t become wealthy too.
[see also: “We are close to becoming robots”: Anne Helen Petersen on millennial burnout]