When she started her podcast, Bad With Money, in 2016, Gaby Dunn went to a coffee shop and asked patrons what their favourite sex positions were. She got a variety of answers from people happy to chat, including the barista. Then she asked everyone how much money they had in their bank accounts. She was met with a lot more resistance—money is deeply personal, after all.
She went about challenging this social hangup with her podcast, and with her subsequent memoir-cum-self-help book, Bad with Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Together, coming out in the new year. When a certain generation of experts claim millennials are increasingly “deciding” to freelance, it might be time to turn elsewhere for financial advice.
Dunn isn’t a financial expert in the traditional sense. She’s someone who freely admits to being bad with money (if the title didn’t make that clear). A journalist, novelist, YouTuber, podcaster, and former BuzzFeed writer and performer, she exemplifies a lot of what makes personal finances so hard to manage for anyone born after 1980(ish). In short, millennials have been sold the realities of our parents—affordable education followed by stable employment and comfortable retirement—despite the fact that all three of those things have become fantasies for many of us, and have gotten farther out of reach for those who were already marginalized beyond such goals.
Dunn has built up her online brand while jumping from job to job, contract to contract, freelance gig to freelance gig, and she’s done so while saddled with a ton of student debt. So she’s learned a few things about money, often by fucking up. And with a background in journalism, she’s cobbled together enough experts to fill in the blanks that her own 20-something experience has left open.
Dunn’s is a holistic approach to personal finance, and a few pages in it becomes clear that this is the only sane way to treat any relationship with money. Your student debt, for example, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t manage it without also looking at the city you live, your healthcare needs, your family supports, or your relationship status—are you dating or married to someone who makes significantly more or less than you? It matters! (and especially so for Dunn, a queer woman who navigates layers of gendered social norms around money and relationships.)
She covers a lot of ground throughout. In one chapter, she methodically lays out strategies for establishing good credit, or climbing back from bad credit. This includes how to shop for the credit card that best suits your needs (and why you would want one at all), as well as how to avoid making a bad situation worse when the option to accrue insurmountable debt is so enticingly available.
Then in another chapter, she movingly explores how her own bipolar II went untreated for years, how it affected her financial choices, and how mental health stigma dramatically impacts the resources we have available to deal with everything from insignificant spending habits to major financial crises. Dunn is well known for her frankness and nothing-is-off-limits approach to topics like sex and relationships, mental health, politics, and money, making the new revelation of her bipolar diagnosis in the book all the more powerful. Society doesn’t invite us to open up about mental health; it punishes us for it. Dunn didn’t owe it to anyone to share this, but I’m grateful she did. Money management is meaningless without these details, and we’re all better off for her openness and vulnerability in the face of that kind of stigma.
These issues certainly aren’t limited to millennials, but Dunn’s approach undeniably speaks to a generation caught between outdated boomer visions of success and the harsh realities of a world that increasingly makes basic financial survival a luxury only a few are entitled to. The gig economy is a scam, unpaid internships are abusive, the erosion of unions verges on criminal, and the privatization of virtually every public service is a dangerous race to the bottom. This is our collective wheelhouse now, and that’s what Dunn faces head on in Bad With Money.
VICE spoke with Dunn about her upcoming book and the financial realities of our times.
VICE: What made you choose to launch the Bad With Money podcast?
Gaby Dunn: I was experiencing, as usual, money problems, but I didn't feel like there was anyone I could talk to about it. It's weird, because a lot of my work prior to this was in the sex and sexuality space, and that kind of thing was seen as taboo, but it's actually cool to be a sex person. I felt like I couldn't talk to anyone or let on at all that I was having any sort of money problems.
I was in my car, looking for quarters, basically crying, and we had just done a brand deal on our YouTube channel for like $5,000, which my comedy partner and I split, and I was getting a lot of negative comments like, "We're just going to watch a commercial now?" I wrote an article that was called "Get Rich or Die Vlogging" that was about the disconnect between YouTubers and their fanbases, where it's assumed that everyone who's working in internet content creation is wealthy. That article went viral, did really well, and so I was like, "OK, there's something here about transparency. Nobody is talking in exact amounts. Nobody is talking about money. Everyone feels like shit about this." It would be more appropriate for me to go on Twitter and just type a screed about anal sex than it would be to be like, "Here's what's in my bank account." And I was like, "That's seriously messed up."
I'm sure you ended up finding the same terrible financial advice as the rest of us from boomers who come from a totally different perspective.
When did it click for you that the advice you needed wasn't really there? Wasn't matching your own financial situation?
It's easier for me to see stuff like that because I am queer, so a lot of the commercials that you see that show retirement are a straight couple, that are old and white, and they're golfing. Just things that were not in my sphere of reality. Or, "You're going to need this amount of money for child care," and it's like, "Yeah, but how does the baby even get here?" [laughs].
The concerns of my peers and friends weren't being brought up. I had a really good conversation with a reporter named Nona Aronowitz in the book, where she's like, "Millennials are seen as upper-middle-class millennials who care about student loan debt or getting enough days off at their start-up job, but millennials are mostly service industry workers.” The data shows that. The minimum wage is actually a millennial issue, but we never think about it that way. We're really getting shat on, being like, "You killed diamonds. You killed napkins. You killed whatever. And you only care about your avocado toast and your selfies." Nobody has a 9-to-5—and if they do, 5-to-midnight is other side jobs. I couldn't imagine this idea of being entitled or lazy, because that's not what I've seen. Everyone is fully panicked and scrambling.
Doing this interview now is one of my side hustles, so yeah.
[Laughs] Hey, congrats! That's the thing. Everyone is just making it work.
I understand that a lot of your fanbase is younger, or Gen Z. Is it hard to talk to that audience about finances from a millennial perspective?
They're certainly not going to listen to boomers. And I would love it if I, at 30 right now, am out of touch, that they're all 19 and super woke and social justice oriented and not taking any of this bullshit. And questioning everything, and not bringing shame upon themselves or feeling stressed or anxious because of things that are out of their control. Because that means things are better. Statistics are showing that more and more young people identify as queer, or identify as somewhere on the gender binary that isn't one way or the other, or that they're more critical of systemic issues.
The rules of how you're supposed to behave at your job—a lot of those rules are, “Let your boss abuse you.” And we stood by those so intensely because we were all scrambling for jobs. "How to do your job" is basically “debase yourself." Gen Z is like, "Absolutely not!" Bravo. They're not accepting basic level bullshit. Everything gets taken away and it's like, "You're so entitled." I always get nervous. "You're so entitled to healthcare. You're so entitled to housing. You're so entitled to food and water and air." Where are we stopping? I've largely seen Gen Z be like, "No, we reject this."
You get into your personal story with money a lot, in a way that I don't really see elsewhere. In a way that's relatable. On the one hand, I say this as somebody who's a similar age, who's a journalist, who does a lot of freelancing, who's also bisexual, who writes about LGBTQ issues—
Hey! This is the book for you! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, it speaks specifically to me. But on the other hand, I suspect that that's an approach that works for a lot of people. How important is it to be autobiographical in the way that you talk about money?
A lot of finance media comes from this place of aspiration. I want to come from a place of relatability. When I worked as a journalist, the easiest way to get a source to open up to you is to start with a thing that you did that was similar. I sound like a cop, but you go, "I want to ask you about this embarrassing thing, because this happened to me," and then that makes the other person start sharing too. And whether you're lying or not—now I sound like a sociopath—it helps people feel like they can listen to you or they can share.
I don't think people want to hear from someone who is in an ivory tower. Why would you want to? I think people want to hear from someone who's currently in the weeds. I spent yesterday fighting on the phone with Bank of America. I'm here, talking to you as a "money expert," and I'm like, "Please give me back my $15, PayPal." I'm not good! But I would rather hear from that person than someone who I'm like, "Are you lying to me, and do you live on a yacht?"
Obviously the book isn't out yet, but what kind of feedback has the podcast gotten?
Some people think that the whole podcast is a victim mentality. It's like, "If you behaved like me, then this wouldn't happen." That's unhelpful.
I think people see money as Wolf of Wall Street or something, where it's a power thing, or you're supposed to act smug and haughty about it, and be like, "I'm better than everyone." And then my show's just, "Everything sucks." Then they're like, "Well, that's not fun. That's not dancing around in cocaine, making our secretaries do races," or whatever the hell they did in that movie. And yeah, it's not that fun.
Going back to your point about being a sex writer. You mention in the book going into a coffee shop and asking people about their sex lives, which they're more willing to talk about than their bank balances. After doing this for a while, how easy is it for you talk about your own financial history the way that you do?
You get defensive, you get embarrassed. I still cry about stuff. I still have a really adverse reaction to people asking me about it, which is kind of weird, because I've basically made this the forward-facing thing that I'm doing.
But there's no consequences for me. I'm embarrassed. Fine. But I'm not going to lose my job. My family will still love me. Nothing bad is going to happen from me talking about this, and I feel the same way about queer stuff. If I have the ability to talk about this stuff without there being dire consequences on my life, then I'm the one who should do it. The book is a lot about erasing the embarrassment and the stigma and the shame that comes from talking about money, which is so baked into society and ourselves. I'm also still feeling all of that.
You asked about feedback, and I definitely get emails—I have to say from almost exclusively men—either being like, "I'll save you, little princess," or, "You're a fucking idiot." The reason that other people, and largely marginalized people, don't talk about stuff like that is because they don't want to get yelled at by those guys.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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