Last Friday, best-selling author and famed grand marshal of Nemesis Twitter Roxane Gay laid bare her “complicated relationship with money” in Wealthsimple’s recurring feature called “Money Diaries.” If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Refinery29 has a similar and much more popular version of the feature with the same name where young women lay out in excruciating detail their every purchase and expenditure for a week. The series has garnered an innumerable amount of articles, a dedicated comment section, and, on occasion, its own news cycle when a specific diarist manages to rankle readers.
Refinery29’s inaugural diary was launched in January 2016 under the premise that “the first step to getting your financial life in order is tracking what you spend”—exactly two months after Wealthsimple’s first Money Diary featuring the celebrity hairstylist who created Jennifer Aniston’s iconic “Rachel” haircut. And that’s where the two Money Diaries notably diverge: Where Refinery29 runs exhaustive accountings by anonymous diarists, Wealthsimple curates as-told-to interviews of celebrities, from the late Anthony Bourdain to Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, that usually run through an interviewee’s entire life rather than their week.
Gay’s Money Diary, conducted by former editor-in-chief of Splinter News Dodai Stewart, begins with the maxim: “I think the most important thing a woman can ever do for herself is have financial independence. Even if you’re saving five dollars a paycheck. I totally understand the realities of the world, but save five dollars a paycheck. It really, really helps.” Gay then goes on to say she had “never—until five years ago—saved a penny,” that her parents paid her rent until she was 30, and that she went to prep school with the heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune. (A quick Google search reveals that that prep school is none other than Phillips Exeter, where a year’s tuition in 2018 costs a mere $53,000.) Gay’s diary includes astute criticisms of how the public conceptualizes the wealth of famous writers and how “cultural ubiquity is not the same as actual money.” But what the internet at large grabbed on to were the unfortunately numerous tone-deaf lines of thought, including advocating financial independence for women after being subsidized by her parents for majority of her life. At one point, Gay mentions her two assistants, four agents, and entertainment lawyer as a way to imply that “people don’t get just how much [writers are] paying in taxes and commissions before we ever get to pay ourselves.” She then later says she gives her investment broker $3,000 a month: “It just sits, and I watch the money grow up. And it gets a return of about 9%, which is pretty good.” No doubt.
The entire Money Diary provoked a profoundly visceral reaction in me that’s hard to describe. It’s a mix between nausea as I consider the shifting calculus of staying financially afloat and a deep resentment of those who seemingly don’t have to consider whether a splurge on a fancy meal after a terrible week, month, year of constant news will send them into the negatives. It’s the same feeling I get when I see Refinery29’s new Money Diaries–adjacent series “My 6-Figure Paycheck” that, as expected, sits down with one of the 5 percent of women who make six-figures in the United States.* The most recent one? A 21-year-old whose $270,000 includes a $60,000 starting bonus and a $75,000 yearly stock grant. It’s the same feeling that’s evident in the vitriol spewed in the comments of Refinery29’s Money Diaries, mixed with a little misogyny there because rich men are unremarkable but rich women provoke a specific kind of resentment when their lifestyles are seen as unnecessarily frivolous.
In that way, Gay’s Money Diary and the reaction to it are very much the norm. Although they’re branded as a way to break one of, as Refinery29 puts it, “the last taboo facing modern working women,” all they really do is stir the evermore toxic brew of class resentment. While I can single-handedly thank Money Diaries for hitting me over the head repeatedly with the knowledge that almost anyone with any kind of wealth has been subsidized by her parents, that’s about the only real insight these financial confessionals offer. If that was the sole aim, then their purpose has been more than fulfilled—but it’s not. While both Refinery29 and Wealthsimple don’t outright call these advice columns, their framing reveals an underlying notion that the average reader should garner some kind of useful knowledge from learning the inner financial workings of anonymous women or celebrities. Most of these people have money, these columns say, so maybe if you read this, you too can have money.
But because these columns both rely on self-reporting and the willingness of an interview subject, choices are presented as operating in a vacuum that fundamentally removes any utility they’d provide to a broad audience. What exactly is there to be gained from letting an individual ramble about their financial situation and choices without any follow-ups or context besides the basic platitudes of save and invest? Unless, of course, the purpose is not to inform readers but to allow them to be voyeurs into someone else’s life. Which isn’t necessarily an undignified pursuit! The Cut’s “Sex Diaries” is a perfect weekly dose of voyeurism that doesn’t profess to do anything but, as Wesley Yang wrote in 2009, crack “open a window into the changing structure, rhythm, and rhetoric of sex in New York.” These peeks were not prescriptive, and I assume that most Money Diarists don’t intend for their admissions to be. The problem lies not with Gay or with that poor diarist who was a walking assemblage of millennial stereotypes. It lies with publications that tend to push a kind of one-size-fits-all financial advice that was previously the province of celebrity self-help books. By running these voyeuristic looks with the patina of how-to guides, they open up their subjects to disdain when readers find wanting something that was never meant to be advice. My advice? Continue to get your manifestos on feminism, fatness, and sexuality from Gay, but maybe get your money insights from someone who actually knows you.
Correction, Oct. 3, 2018: This piece originally mistakenly referred to the Refinery29 series “My 6-Figure Paycheck” as “My Six-Figure Salary.”