The ways in which we millennials spend our money is a hot topic these days. Past-it pundits love to spout off about our reckless spendthrift ways. It’s easy PR for businesses: all it needs to do is drop a press release claiming that we’re spending too much on frivolities such as eating food or breathing and BANG! Instant Twitter outrage.
The different ways in which we drain our bank accounts has such traffic-driving power that the ‘money diary’ has become a staple on sites such as the Guardian, ipaper and Refinery29.
We love to read them. We love to judge the people who write them. Have you ever read the comments on Facebook when the Guardian posts one? Some of them are so abrasive they could give you a blister on your brain.
If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I have prior experience in airing my financial dirty laundry in public. I was at a point in my life where my money situation was far from ideal. I realised that I had to do something differently. So I decided to challenge all the received wisdom I had around money. I did a lot of research. I tried and tested all sorts of tips and techniques.
In the process, I came to see that there are two dominant views about money that seem to exist in the world.
Both of these views have an element of truth to them. But they’re so simplistic it’s like comparing a stick drawing to a documentary.
The first dominant view is: ‘It’s easy, just spend less than you earn, stupid!’. This is the view that leads people to post judgey comments on the money diaries of people who are poor. Commenters pick at the person’s tiny ‘indulgences’, such as the odd bottle of wine or even turning on the heating. ‘Why are you saying you’re struggling when you can just walk everywhere and entertain yourself by looking out of the window?’
The second dominant view: ‘The more you earn, the easier it is to manage your money.’ This is the one that leads people to post judgey comments on the money diaries of people who are well-off. Commenters bristle at any suggestion that cutting back or saving is an effort. ‘I too could save £1500 a month for a house deposit if it was as easy as cutting out caviar and pedicures!’
I have come to see managing money as a bit like sport or athletics. Part of it is skill and hard work. Most of us could run a 5k if we learn how to do it by training. But how easy we’ll find it, and how fast we’ll go depends largely on your circumstances. Mo Farah wins medals because of the skills he’s developed through training and hard work, but also because of his circumstances, such as his genes and having access to world-class coaching.
I think it’s a similar story with money: It’s a balance of skills and circumstances. Sometimes an imbalance, if circumstances are particularly tough. Someone on benefits needs to develop serious skills to manage on a small amount of money. They need to work far, far, harder than most to make it last, in far tougher circumstances. Someone on £100k will find it so much easier. But if they don’t have the skill to manage their money, or if they can’t be bothered to think about it, it doesn’t mean they’ll still effortlessly glide through in a life of luxury. Think about celebrities: they go bankrupt all the time! Lady Gaga, Meatloaf. Boris Becker. At least one member of every pop band you loved in the 90s. Even Marilyn Monroe was in debt when she died.
Why does this matter? I’m not trying to apologise for privileged people or make you feel sorry for them. What I’m saying is that our response to other people’s money diaries tells us a lot about our own perceptions of money. It also says a lot about who we are as people. And I’m worried that the attention we spend on money diaries is bad for our financial and emotional health. Here’s why:
They bring out the worst in us
Money is an emotive topic. Some moan about how poorer people spend their money because of fear. Prejudiced people invent stories about how poor people would be fine if only they cut out their feckless spending, because they can’t face up to the idea that they could have bad luck and find themselves vulnerable because of it.
We bitch about the rich because we’re jealous and their wealth makes us feel insecure about our own worth. We think their money gives us a free pass to be mean, ignoring the fact they’re just as human as we are. The woman on a £69k salary whose money diary was published yesterday didn’t moan or complain about her circumstances, yet she was dragged across Twitter, mocked in the Daily Mail and has apparently had to delete her social media profiles. Does she deserve that?
They solidify simplistic money myths
If you truly believe that having a higher income will instantly make your life easier in and of itself, this could lead to behaviour that doesn’t help you. I know I secretly harboured a belief that once my income reached a certain level, then I’d be able to pay off my debt and live the life I wanted without having to worry or think about it very much. This serene state never arrived. It’s easy for your expectations to grow with your salary. If you want healthy finances, you need to think clearly and put in the work to manage your money, no matter what your take-home pay is.
They lack context
Money diaries are popular because we get a glimpse of something that we never usually see. Talking about money is still a bit taboo. The thing is: they are only ever a glimpse. They might look like warts-and-all accounts, but they still lack a lot of context and detail. Your financial health is intimately linked to everything from your family and your education to your physical health and personality. This means that the figures on your paycheck will mean something different to you than they might to your neighbour, or your mum.
They encourage comparison
Comparing yourself to others will only make you feel one of two things: shitty or smugly superior. Neither is good. And because of the lack of context, you’ll only be comparing based on your perception, not out of any objective reality.
The comments encourage a social norm whereby we are only ‘allowed’ to talk about how we manage our money if we are at the very bottom of the barrel – i.e. needy because of circumstances that are perceived to be 100% out of our own control. Otherwise, we are fair game to be shamed.
This is, quite frankly, bollocks. Yes, people who whinge when they seem to have a lot of good things in their lives can be tedious. But being honest and open about the struggles you face in life, about anything, is an important way to overcome those struggles and heal. You’re allowed to be sad or stressed or worried, even if your troubles are never going to reach Number 1 in the Billboard Chart of Woes. You’d never say ‘at least you don’t have cancer’ to someone who expresses the view that it’s annoying and a bit painful to have a broken leg. Suppressing and repressing your own and other people’s experiences through shame is a fast track to a breakdown. Take it from someone who used to relentlessly judge themselves for every non-positive, non-productive thought or feeling.
They close our minds to what we can learn
The £69k saving-for-a-deposit article got lots of flack because people got hung up on the fact she was cutting back on luxuries. The behaviours she described were sensible and were some of the things that helped me sort out my own finances, despite the fact I was on a much smaller salary. Things like asking yourself ‘do I actually need this?’, looking at your regular monthly expenses and cutting out the excess, taking action to monitor how much you spend in certain areas. It’s not rocket science but it works.
They make us miss the wood for the trees
Why are we so pissed off about somebody on a high salary saving for a house deposit when the real problem is that home ownership is a distant dream for those of us on average wages? We’ve had eight different housing ministers in eight years; it’s obvious this is not seen as an important position. And most of our elected politicians don’t give a shit about the issues that affect our finances. They’re too busy staring at themselves in the mirror (Boris Johnson), scratching their balls (David Davis), filibustering (Philip Davies), looking at porn on their work computers (Damian Green) or ignoring their Opposition duties in favour of throwing pop concerts (Jeremy Corbyn).
Let’s resist the lure of clickbaity money diaries. Let’s ignore the the latest Daily Mail columnist who blames our struggles on how we buy too many luxurious feather dusters. Let’s live and let live; and lobby those who have the cache to make a genuine difference to our fortunes in life.