Today, a group of Money Diary readers shares an interesting experiment: They wrote Money Diaries for four weeks, not for publication — but for each other.
For many R29 readers, Money Diaries are a form of voyeurism (and for some, self-assessment). For one group of friends, who all identify as female, writing Money Diaries was about more than tracking their daily spending — it also became a unique exercise in bonding.
Five women* from the experiment shared their thoughts with Refinery29: from why they did it, to how it worked and what they learned from the experience of keeping detailed spending diaries and sharing them with friends.
The women are all friends or friends of friends, from online and IRL. They are all in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties (with one exception, an undergrad student in her late teens). They work in a range of industries, including law, healthcare, tech, publishing, and sports. And while they had some inclination about each other’s salary disparities and spending habits, they knew very little about major expenses or how much savings each other had (which to be honest, isn’t so strange at all). They decided to write Money Diaries for four weeks together.
“I've been a loyal reader ever since a Canadian friend told me about Money Diaries last year, though I'll admit that sometimes I'm only there to read the comments,” says Sofia, who initially came up with the idea for the exercise. While she’s never followed a budget before, she wanted to start keeping track of her expenses due to her upcoming wedding. Sofia sent out a request on Twitter to gauge interest, and found herself a group that was interested to write Money Diaries together for longer than the usual week-long duration (they came to the decision that one week wasn’t enough to accurately capture a person’s long-term spending habits).
For four weeks, each member of the group kept a Google spreadsheet tab of her expenses and diary entries under a pseudonym. The spreadsheet was shared only among the group’s members. While they knew roughly who was participating, they did not know which spreadsheet belonged to whom (though for some in the group, they eventually could guess).
“I definitely didn’t have a sense of how my friends spent money day to day, even if I had a ballpark idea of their salaries (either because they told me, or a guess based on industry/city) and of what types of things they spent money on,” said Zelda, who works in the tech industry in New York.
The format they used was largely similar to R29’s Money Diaries. “Because the whole group is very food-interested, it was structured around meals more than anything” said Cindy, a lawyer in Chicago. And since they were friends who knew each other’s interests, there was a lot of sharing beyond basic notes about spending.
“Quite a few of the entries would actually end with "$0" but would consist of a long description of what was or wasn't happening at work, getting frantic calls from one's parents, or (in the case of a few of our culinarily blessed participants) the most amazing half-recipes for what we were currently cooking,” explained Cindy.
Though Money Diaries served as a primer for both relating to each other and talking about food and shopping, it also opened up the conversation to more serious money topics. Before the four-week Money Diary exercise, the friends say they only occasionally talked about their salaries, benefits, and the “existential dread” of retirement planning.
“It was certainly not to the detailed level that we went into in this spreadsheet,” Cindy explained. Outside of this group of friends, the women said they only spoke about their finances with spouses, parents, and roommates out of necessity. They rarely dove into topics like investments or debt repayments, IRL.
“I’m not shy about talking about money, but I understand it can make a lot of other people uncomfortable, so I hold back mostly for others' sake,” says Sofia. “With my close friends, we'll talk about how much we put into 401(k)s, stress over bonuses/raises, or whether we think we're being underpaid.”
One particlar point of interest for the group was the idea of having similar “lifestyles or lifestyle goals.” Part of the fun was finding out precisely what friends were buying, from jeans to hydrogel eye patches and donkey milk face masks.
“My favorite anecdote from these Money Diaries is the groupthink nature of it,” said Cindy. “Two of the participants were doing Whole30, so there was quite a bit of gawking about what they were eating and how they were cooking it. Another incident last round was one of us was shopping a sale at Levi's, which made all of us look up the sale at Levi's.”
Cindy says this aspect of the exercise often had a direct impact on their spending, in that group-thinking sometimes led to group-buying: “Ironically, sometimes the group Money Diaries enabled impulse spending, because I'm easily influenced by friends' opinions and endorsements. Our entries were always very interactive — if someone mentioned they bought a skincare product, without fail someone else would ask for a review. Sometimes [the] Money Diaries felt more like a recommendations list than a spending log.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, what they learned from the exercise went far beyond money: from their mutual obsessions with food, to regional differences in restaurants and expenses, to how each other’s work week routines really went down. “I loved reading the level of mundane detail that I think usually one can only get from roommates or close IRL friends, like what kind of habits/routines one had: Costco runs, dance classes, cute dates, or the recurring characters in their lives — a friend who always took over an hour to eat; a work crush; a study abroad student's racist Australian classmate,” said Nina, a woman in the group who works in publishing.
“I loved hearing about how everyone else spent their time and money,” said Zelda. “For people who live in either my city or cities I visit, it was a great way to get recommendations for cool places to shop/eat/spend time. It was also a very intimate way to get a sense of everyone else’s daily activities, which I think is something I’ve been struggling to incorporate into my friendships as an adult.”
Being open with finances isn't for every friendship, but this group admitted that the discomfort was minimal for them, a fact they attribute to coming of age in the era of oversharing. “The idea of sharing extremely personal information wasn't new or even unusual to us,” said Cindy. “I never self-censored money I actually spent, but there were moments where knowing I had to write a Money Diary entry on something made me rethink whether I needed to make an Amazon purchase.”
Nina echoed Cindy’s sentiments that oversharing is a big part of the appeal: “I grew up oversharing on the Internet — and in fact met many of the Money Diaries girls on LiveJournal in the first place — so it was a nice return to the days of long-form blogging. I was more forthcoming about my spending and general daily activities because of the somewhat anonymous/online nature of the diaries.”
Many of the participants felt that doing Money Diaries with friends was a way to hold each other accountable — something they say they would have never achieved alone. Several of the women who participated said that keeping, and sharing, a Money Diary not only brought them closer — but also pushed them to think about their money in a way they hadn’t before.
“There were so many times I had something in an online cart and even had payment information typed out but I couldn't bring myself to pull the trigger because I didn't want to put it on my Money Diary. If I had to explain to 10+ girlfriends why I want something that I absolutely don't need every time I'm about to make a purchase, I'd have a lot less clutter in my apartment,” said Sofia.
A few in the group reported that it made them reflect on expensive meals they had for birthdays and celebrations, and whether that was “a sustainable mode of socialization.” (One member lamented: “I didn't realize how many $40 dinners I was eating per week.”) Some saw others giving a chunk of their income to charities, and became inspired to incorporate this into their budgets as well.
Ultimately, keeping Money Diaries for each other turned out not to be about the money at all. “Part of the joy in this exercise ended up being the support network that developed outside of the financial part," Nina said. "One of our participants was in the middle of a job hunt and would sometimes mention being mentally exhausted or frustrated, and all the participants sent her messages of support; some even suggested networking ideas.”
“What I liked most about the exercise was being able to follow the lives of my friends — to see what they ate, what they'd recommend from their purchases, and what activities they did for fun," said Sofia. "Every Monday I looked forward to everyone's weekend money diaries, and we'd all often have long comment threads reacting to each others' lives."
The women in the group had different takeaways from the the four week exercise: one felt that it helped her be more open, another felt that it eased the reservations she had talking about money. Perhaps one important thing to keep in mind is how the internet, and anonymity, helps us face uncomfortable topics with a community.
“The online/written nature of Money Diaries helped me be more open about what I was spending and erased some of the reservations I previously held about talking about money,” reflected Nina. “Although I do think the inherent awkwardness remains, I'm not sure how easy it would be without the Internet to act as a buffer.”
* Names in this piece have been changed.
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