It’s been more than year and a half since we first started publishing Money Diaries on Refinery29. The first diarist, a graphic designer making $65,000 in Brooklyn, NY, bought avocado toast, stressed about her job, and shocked us when she wrote about doing coke on a date. Over 200 diaries later, we’ve built a loyal audience of over 200,000 monthly readers (and so many commenters). Today, on the last day of Money Diaries Month, we wanted to pause and reflect on what makes this series so popular and to introduce you to the team behind the phenomenon.
When we launched Money Diaries in the beginning of 2016, our hope was that it would encourage people to start talking about their money in real life. Jessica Chou, an editor at Refinery29, came up with the initial idea after an awkward conversation at a dinner party: When her then-boyfriend, who made six figures, started talking about his salary, the tone in the room changed. We all sit around wondering how people afford their Instagram-worthy lifestyles, Chou pointed out, but for many of us, it’s still weird to share intimate money details with friends.
We weren’t just looking to talk about our wages, though. It was time to change the conversation around women and money. We were frustrated by the negative stereotypes about how millennial women manage their finances. Money Diaries has helped normalize these discussions, or at least offered some kind of reference point. It’s a relief to see how our peers across the country are spending their paychecks, even if it’s just to learn that someone else is also susceptible to impulse purchases at Walgreens.
And clearly, you agree, which is why we receive hundreds of submissions and the comment section has developed a language of its own. While the comments can sometimes get a little out of hand (can we stop being so judgmental about women who let their boyfriends buy dinner?), we love when you cheer on the OP (“original poster” for you Money Diary newbies) or share your own experiences. Since we launched our online submission form at the beginning of 2017, we’ve received over 600 submissions, and we’ve published 88 diaries to date. That’s just a 14% rate — and that’s skewing high because we published 31 diaries in July. Tomorrow, August 1, we'll go back to three per week.
Surely, everyone has their own reasons for liking Money Diaries. It might partly be voyeurism, but it seems to us that it’s something more: Perhaps what makes this series such an appealing read is that it’s about how other people spend money. It allows us to think about money without all the stresses of confronting our own finances. No one is perfect with money. But talking about money makes us smarter, stronger, and more powerful. It really can take away the taboo — and the shame, guilt, and fear. That’s one of the goals of Money Diaries — to make women more confident about their finances, no matter how much they make or what they spend it on. And of course, to have a little fun.
We’re ending our Money Diaries Month with a submission guide FAQ. We often get questions about this, and since we’re asking you to talk about money — it seems only fair to share our process. We appreciate all your feedback. (And if you’ve enjoyed Money Diaries Month, and want it to come back at some point, send us a line too.) You can always reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Though, moving forward, we’ll only accept diaries that come via the form!)
We don’t have a formula, but here’s a peek inside our process. We think ALL women should try a money diary from time to time, because ultimately, it should help you become more mindful of your spending — and you don’t have to publish it for all of Refinery29’s readership to see.
How do you pick money diaries?
We don’t use algorithms or anything automated to pull out Money Diaries, but we do have a mental checklist of sorts. While no diary needs to meet all these criteria, it is great to see some areas covered.
Here’s some insight into our process:
This is literally anything that catches our eye and makes us sit up. Diarists shouldn’t feel like they have to try unreasonably hard to entertain us or our readers. However, details are what make a diary!
For example: Some diarists have in-depth skincare routines, while others shop at discount grocery stores. Living on a boat? We're into it! Don’t have a very active social life? Bring it on! Car trouble? Yes! Also: all the food details, whether you cook or eat out.
As part of Money Diaries Month, we had a themed-week of diaries focused on interns. There are just as many people who decried them as who enjoyed them — whether they were currently an intern or they had never interned.
We want to encourage people of all income levels to submit Money Diaries, and we do publish a range. We worry that diarists with high incomes may feel they must come off as perfect and always frugal in order to avoid criticism. It will come as no surprise that mean-spirited comments tend to impact the honesty, tone, and expenditures of submissions.
We also aim for a range when it comes to occupations, because diaries from people in the same industry tend to have highly similar diaries — even if they are in different geographical areas. They eat many of the same things, shop at many of the same places, and spend very similarly. And that can get a little boring.
It was great to see someone working in retail and counseling (and kicking ass at all of it). We loved learning about an entrepreneur’s life. It was interested to read what doctors and nurses experience in the same field. (And, yes, this consultant sounded badass.)
To us, Money Diarists don’t need to be likable, but we need to believe they’re reflecting a true experience. Diarists who are more genuine — whether upbeat or pessimistic, peaceful or troubled, confident about their finances or insecure — are the ones we, and we believe our readers, respond to most.
On the same note, we also expect discussion around a diarist to be respectful. This is a real person, with real feelings: Debasing, demeaning, and attacking with vitriolic comments — even ones said in an ostensibly “polite” way — really do encourage people to present cookie-cutter versions of themselves, and we find that much less engaging.
We’ve included recreational drug use since the beginning, because it is a real thing that people pay to do, plain and simple. We don’t give more weight to these diaries, but we also won’t edit these details out.
We also believe that Money Diaries don’t happen in an apolitical bubble, so we appreciate details about political and religious activities. It all goes to show that women are not one-dimensional; we don’t spend all our time shopping and going for blowouts (though we like to do that sometimes, too).
This really does matter to us: We get many submissions with incomplete sentences or bullet points with no details that make a diary an interesting read. When we decide to publish a Money Diary, it goes through an editing process where it is formatted and edited for concision, clarity, and grammar, and to see if it adheres to Refinery29’s editorial standards (how people talk about food and body image, for example). The truth is that diaries that are incomplete, or confusing, are less likely to be published.
We’ve actually made a few recent modifications on the submission form to improve the process: Our team has increased the character limit to 1,000 characters to give people more space to explain themselves and provide more accurate details. We’re also working to add category explanations on the submission form to clarify how we are defining what goes into which spending category (i.e. how you determine if those drinks at a bar fall under "Food & Drink" or "Entertainment").
We like diaries that are conversational in tone, so please don’t feel like you have to sound like a robot or write a treatise! (Please DON’T write a treatise…) We often email the diarists directly to request more information.
The vast majority of our submissions come from diarists on the coasts and in major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Our recent Hawaii Money Diary was such a treat to see and read, as was Florida. An Alaska diary from a few months back is still one of our favorites, and a great Money Diary from elsewhere in the world can also be fascinating because of the differences in culture and cost of living compared with the U.S. — particularly when it comes to expenditures like students loans and healthcare.
Submissions are anonymous, and we only know so much about our diarists.
The vast majority of our submissions come from women in their 20s and 30s. The goal is to feature diaries by millennial women, as we feel this demographic often gets forgotten or unfairly criticized in discussions about money and personal finance.
For the most part, the race and ethnicities of our Money Diarists are as much a mystery to us as it is to all of you. We don’t ask for race or ethnicity on the submission form, and whether someone chooses to explicitly include that information in their diary is a personal decision. We try to represent the experiences of women of all ethnicities as best we can from the submissions we get.
We do ask for gender on the submission form. Most of our submissions come from cis women, but we are interested in hearing from people of all genders. The more diversity we get, the more options we’ll have to choose from, so please keep them coming.
We think about season, weather, holidays, and current events when selecting diaries. What does that mean? When it’s winter, we might lean toward any entry with details about winter activities. Another example: If diarists write about seeing a really popular movie, it’s nice to publish that diary when the movie is still out. Or, if people are gathering to watch the Senate healthcare vote on C-Span and drinking with their friends, we prefer to have those diaries featured when that moment still feels relatively recent.