This article originally appeared on VICE US.
In October, a Brooklyn-based 23-year-old YouTuber named Lexie Lombard posted a video titled "What I Spend in a Week in NYC as a 23 Year Old." In contrast to Lombard's other videos, which focus on the frivolity of being young and relatively free in New York City, this one attempted to address something new: money.
The flow of money is obvious in Lombard's uploads like "Manhattan Apartment Tour NYC" and "Why I Only Drink Bougie Water," but in this video, it's directly acknowledged. "I haven't seen any from a lifestyle like mine," Lombard says in its preface. Over 12 minutes, she logs each purchase, from $30 on a birthday gift to a $31 dinner to a $50 cross-Brooklyn Uber. In total, she spends $550 for the week—a number that's surprising to her, though it's one that she admits might be lower than usual as a result of the self-consciousness of filming.
On YouTube, sharing what one spends isn't a completely new premise, but since October, it's been trending among the YouTubers in Lombard's circle. Primarily, these are young women who focus on "lifestyle content," and apart from these videos, they don't really talk about money, though they spend it freely and often carelessly.
In the United States, money has moved from a taboo topic to something we're increasingly encouraged to discuss, with money talk now seen as having benefits including getting better financial advice. For women in particular, talking about money comes with a sense of political action: the wage gap can't be narrowed without knowing what it is. Calling money the "last taboo facing modern working women" is the thrust behind Refinery29's popular Money Diaries, where women tally their spending.
When it comes to lifestyle influencers on YouTubers, the whole point of talking about money feels perverted due to the glaring omission of what influencers make. Even though you get access to their lives, you're not getting the big picture. It can seem like YouTubers are simply showing off how recklessly they can spend on unspecified but large salaries, and the curated performance of people holding back for the camera's sake makes the exercise seem even more pointless. While many lifestyle influencers might have started out with some level of relatability, the specifics of their spending can give a sense of how unrelatable they've actually become.
Since Lombard's video, Morgan Yates did a version about spending in Los Angeles as a 24-year-old, sponsored by Express, and Michelle Reed posted a video on spending in New York City as a 21-year-old. Those were followed by similar videos from NYC-based Natalie Barbu, Boston-based Brooke Miccio, and LA-based Kenzie Elizabeth. Tiny channels have hopped on the trend, as have much larger channels, from the LA lifestyle of MissTiffanyMa (1.9 million subscribers) to the spending of Seattle's KrazyRayRay (3.6 million subscribers). Several have cited Lombard's video as inspiration for their own.
The videos range from restrained to extravagant. Reed's video, for example, prompted comments of surprise at how little she spent, and people thanked her for the inspiration. On the other hand, Los Angeles YouTuber Remi Cruz, who is known on the platform as MissRemiAshten, was heavily critiqued for a $3,557 weekly total that included two $250 personal training sessions (on top of a $240 a month gym membership) and a $250 blow-out for the Frozen 2 premiere.
These videos give us a peek at what these YouTubers spend, and for people who have never tallied up their own weekly totals, the results of doing so can be edifying, revealing iced coffee orders that add up or a tendency to splurge on bad days. For people who didn't realize New York and LA were expensive cities, the response might be: you'll pay what for a coffee?
What we don't know, however, is what they earn, what's given to them, and what's borrowed. There's no Glassdoor equivalent for influencers, though the analytics tracker SocialBlade certainly tries to estimate YouTubers' incomes. As a result, spending $550, or even $300, in a week doesn't mean much when there's no context as to how that affects them. How much does $550 hurt, especially for people who have meals provided via HelloFresh subscription and beauty products through free PR packages? In many, key information like what they spend on rent is pointedly missing.
Both Money Diaries and CNBC's Millennial Money operate on a similar premise, but those at least offer context like titles that state the participant's salary or hourly pay. Money Diaries makes space for rent, subscriptions, loans, health insurance, and savings, though they don't always disclose income streams from parents and partners. CNBC's series has a practical bent: after breaking down a person's spending, finance experts offer tips on how people can better manage their money.
Without that context, videos like Lombard's and Cruz's can feel like a self-satisfying spew of purchases. While they're supposed to depict what it's like to live in a specific city at a certain age, they only really depict life for a certain income bracket. Viewers pointed out that Cruz's title, "What I Spend In A Week in LA as a 24 Year Old," would be more accurate if it said "wealthy 24-year-old who gets a bunch of stuff for free." Instead of useful transparency, talking about money becomes another way for influencers to show it off.
Lifestyle YouTubers gained fanbases who saw them like an online peer or a friend; compared to real celebrities, they felt relatable. As they've grown bigger, the tenuous balance between relatability and aspiration has shifted. As they racked up brand trips, goodies, and high profile sponsorships, YouTubers have approached the realm of the unattainable as well. With Lombard suggesting that $550 in a week is modest compared to usual and Cruz spending $519 in a single day, what these videos make clear is that their lifestyles are no longer relatable for many viewers.
Instead of bringing viewers closer to them, these videos can make influencers seem just as out of touch as standard celebrities. At the end of these videos, several YouTubers show legitimate surprise by the amount they've spent, but that's coupled with little worry. For many viewers living without the padding of being a lifestyle influencer, it's unlikely that money can flow so freely, and spending more money than expected can have real consequences.
There are times viewers want their YouTube viewing to be relatable, and times that the whole point is aspiration, like Christmas hauls from people who are clearly millionaires and watching Jeffree Star do his makeup in a private jet. By eroding the line between the two, "What I Spend in a Week" skips the good parts of either.
It's not that YouTubers must provide their tax returns to be qualified to talk about money, but if they were to tell us how much they actually earn, then the conversation might have more meaning. Until that happens, the shallow discussions about money presented via monetized and sponsored YouTube video are just another way for influencers to shamelessly make money. Who can really relate to that?