That Viral Money Diary by a Rich Intern Is Good, Actually
It's not the privileged 21-year-old's fault that our society is so maddeningly unequal.
A stock image representing who people imagined the intern to be.
The internet's hottest new viral hate-read has everything: Unacknowledged privilege! A window into the lives of the young and wealthy! A trip to the Hamptons! A wrap that apparently cost $23! The sentence "I get one Brazilian sugaring a month"! Yes, we're talking about "A Week In New York City On $25/Hour And $1k Monthly Allowance," née "A Week In New York City On $25/Hour," the Refinery29 money diary that changed headlines following an internet backlash to the blasé portrait of a callow 21-year-old's posh, parent-financed lifestyle. (In addition to her internship and extra income from babysitting, she gets $1,100 a month from her family, which also pays for her apartment. She has no student debt to pay off, and is covered by her parents' healthcare and phone plans.)
Over the course of the diary, published Sunday, the anonymous young woman goes to her internship, exercises at Equinox, eats a trendily healthy diet of acai bowls and freekeh salads, gets drunk exactly once, goes to her therapist, reveals she spends over $2,000 a month to split a one-bedroom apartment, and candidly discusses her anxiety. It's incredibly boring to the point where it almost resembles an experimental writing project. Nevertheless, it inspired a strong reaction from people who critiqued her spending habits, raged against her evidently undeserved wealth, and mocked the ridiculousness of the original headline—she wasn't living in New York on $25 an hour, she was living on a cushion of inherited wealth:
This kind of anger is certainly righteous. Everyone knows how horrifyingly unequal the world is, but nothing quite drives that idea home like peeking into the life of a beneficiary of that inequality. And that's why we should all be applauding Refinery29 right now.
The female-focused site's Money Diary column has been running since 2016. As the New Yorker pointed out last year, the money habits of the diarists (always women, always anonymous) often inspire strong feelings from commenters, especially negative ones. Nothing is easier than critiquing a stranger's life choices, especially when that stranger is obviously well-off. But Money Diaries are not exclusively about the lifestyles of the rich, and the column has occasionally featured women whose attitudes toward money are far less bubbly than those of everyone's least favorite intern. Others have shown what it's like to try to live a life you obviously can't afford:
It can be shocking to read these diaries because Americans are so unused to talking about money with anyone except maybe—maybe—our partners. Even those of us who are concerned about inequality flinch when it comes to discussing our personal finances. Those who are struggling may feel shame for having low wages or being mired in debt; wealthy people may feel a different kind of shame at how much they can afford to spend. (For the record, since it seems a bit hypocritical not to disclose my own details: I make a bit more than $80,000 a year, and my rent for a two-bedroom in LA that I share with my wife is $2,100 a month.)
This taboo can cause real pain in many ways. We wonder how our friends are able to afford to go out to eat and drink so many nights a week—are they secretly getting stipends from their parents? We suffer silently under mountains of student debt. We try to navigate relationships where one person has more and one has less and both are self-conscious about the gap but unwilling to openly discuss it. In the workplace, we worry that we are being underpaid but don't know how much our coworkers (even those we are friends with) make. Money, or our lack of it, affects every aspect of our lives. We feel it as a thousand invisible strings tugging us now in one direction, now another, but can't escape it. We rarely even mention it. Mostly, we just pretend the strings aren't there.
The much-maligned money diary of the intern shows the perils of breaking that taboo. Yes, the diarist was obviously privileged. Yes, the original headline omitting her parental income was a weird mistake on Refinery29's part. No, it doesn't seem like the writer showed much self-awareness about privilege, with the only mitigating circumstance being her age—how virtuous would a money diary of your 21-year-old self be?
But we should pause a bit before denouncing her with too much bile. Her sheltered, moneyed life is a symptom of this particularly unfair moment of capitalism, not a root cause. Much of the outrage I saw on Twitter was not actually directed at her, but how unattainable her existence was for so many people. Still, it might be worth stepping back and giving her a bit of credit for laying bare her spending habits in a way too few privileged people do. We should encourage a culture where we can be honest about income, wealth, and money in general. We should not struggle in our own private rooms of consumption and shame and occasional panic, but come together to share our common fears and potential solutions. These money diaries, self-obsessed as they can be, might serve as a clumsy first step in that project. That's true even if the diarists don't reveal their names; given the blowback the latest entry got, there are obviously good reasons for anonymity.
Money diaries like this one could well represent a trend of young people—too often portrayed as narcissists who don't live in the real world—being more open about money as part of an effort to combat rampant inequality. If that's the case, we should do everything we can to encourage the sharing of personal finance stories, warts and all.
My dream is that in the midst of this backlash, the intern has considered her place in the world and what she might do with her privilege. I want to believe she's now aware enough to realize how atypical her New York City experience is—and maybe even has gained some empathy toward neighbors who lack the same advantages. But I wonder if the waves of online nastiness over her piece have hardened her, conditioned her to tune out the "haters." That would be a shame. I'd love for her to write another money diary 20 or 30 years from today, when her own children are trying to make their way in the world just as she is now. I hope she'd be doing something better with her wealth than shelling out the future equivalent of $800 a month, plus rent, to facilitate her kids' Hamptons weekends.
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