Published January 7, 2021|5 min read
Gaby Dunn has a good handle on her finances these days, but it wasn’t always that way. Dunn, who uses the pronouns she/they, is the host and author of “Bad with Money,” a podcast about money and social justice.
We caught up with Dunn, who’s living in Los Angeles, about the lessons she learned from being bad with money and her advice on talking money with partners, family and friends.
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This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
I was working in online media in Los Angeles and wasn’t making any money. But I was a visible face and “internet famous.” The fans and friends assumed that meant I was rich. But in reality, I was paying off medical debt, student loans, and credit card debt. I put up a good front, but I was always stressed and struggling with money.
The kick-off moment for the podcast was truly after I’d done a brand deal on my YouTube channel for like $5,000. The comments were all people upset that I’d “sold out,” meaning making a little money off the free videos I’d been providing for their entertainment for years. I was alternating between looking at those hateful comments, and scrounging through my car for quarters so I could afford to do my laundry.
I started crying. I felt broken. There were a lot of stories beyond that of me feeling ignorant about money issues that it seemed like everyone else knew. Like I’d missed a day in school and that’s when everyone learned about taxes and salaries and investments. And there was no media that I felt spoke to my beginner level with real-world application, so I started “Bad With Money” to showcase my journey to financial literacy while also keeping in mind the social justice and real world aspects to money inequality.
I asked basic questions: What is a stock? How do you find a good accountant? I didn’t care about sounding stupid. I didn’t care about how it made me look not to know these things in my late 20s. I just sought after the information. I think a big part of this comes down to shame and stigma. You feel badly about your money situation because it’s life-threatening and scary, but you also feel badly about yourself because you’re judging yourself on top of everything tangible that’s happening. I started focusing just on what was in front of me, and what I could change and stopped letting the bad feelings around that rule the day.
Then, I spent days going through my bank accounts, my student loan accounts, debts, everything. I personally went through it all with a highlighter and wrote down what everything was and what accounts it was in and all my logins. Just things I had avoided for years and years of my life until it became dire. I made it a point to get ahead of myself. And I cried the entire time.
How hard everything still is. I’ve literally studied this for years and it’s still so difficult and sometimes issues come up that I still don’t understand. I’ve made this my job and I still don’t know every single term, so I can’t imagine how stressful money remains for the average person.
It’s not 100% your fault. There are so many other systemic reasons why you may be in the position you’re in. There is no shame in looking into services to help yourself. There’s no shame in asking for help from institutions or family or friends. There is no shame in admitting you don’t know. That’s the only way to start.
It’s important because everyone believes it’s a meritocracy or that their failures are entirely their fault. We have this terrible “pull yourself by your bootstraps” American Dream mentality that is only true for a very select portion of the population. And this rose-colored glasses mentality is harmful for marginalized people, low-income people, disabled people, all kinds of people who have never been accounted for or spoken to by financial media. And it’s who I try to center in my financial work. If we get real and say real numbers, real life stories, real life failures, everyone can start working on themselves with reasonable expectations and feeling like they’re not alone.
Come at it from a place of love. You are a team. There’s no sense in hiding debt or salaries from each other, especially if you’re married. Don’t judge each other. Don’t focus on the past. Just work together for the future.
This one, to me, is trickier than even a partner because it’s so steeped in family cycles. Because people come from different generations and those generations have very distinct differences when talking about money. Grandparents might be critical of overt spending because of the Great Depression, or Boomers may spend more but find talking about money to be taboo. Gen Z is more open to not only talking about money, but also about the social justice implications of capitalism. So with family, you’re coming at it from many more points of view than you’re likely to with a partner. So I think listening is a big part of it.
How willing I now am to engage with real numbers and how much more willing I am to ask questions and to annoy people or look stupid to make sure I understand exactly what’s going on with my money.
Tons. I moved to a bigger apartment that I didn’t need and wasted a bunch of money on rent. I forgot recently to take money out of a paycheck for taxes and then owed a bunch of surprise taxes. I constantly make mistakes, but I don’t beat myself up and I move on.
Student loans. The idea that everyone who wants a higher education needs to take out massive loans at the age of 18 needs to be reexamined and maybe cast aside.
You’re not alone and you’re no deficit. This stuff is hard on purpose.
Image: Nastia Kobzarenko
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