About That Money Diary: Why We Love To Judge The Way Women Spend

Yes, we know you've got opinions on last week's entry. Here's to all the haters.

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You probably read or heard about a Money Diary published at Refinery29 last week – submitted by a New York City-based 21-year-old debt-free college student who makes $25 an hour at an internship while collecting an $1,100 monthly allowance (as well as $2,100 for rent) from her family. The furor that erupted over the entry revealed much about how we talk about privilege and economic inequality. It’s also the most extreme example of a trend we already noticed; the backlash that pops up whenever women talk frankly about money.
While it caught many of us at Refinery29 by surprise (this is not the first diary of a privileged woman we’ve published), the intense reactions to the piece reminded us why conversations around money remain so taboo. It was there from the first time we published a Money Diary back in January 2016 that featured a 27-year-old designer who earned $65,000. The diarist complained about her job, went on a Tinder date, had avocado toast at brunch, and did cocaine. The diary got 20 comments, most of them judgemental. One commenter was more upset about the diarist buying books (“get a library card!”) than doing recreational drugs. From that very first diary it was clear to us: Few subjects create more agita or judgment than how someone spends (or doesn’t spend) their money.
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It also raised questions: When are women allowed to celebrate their wealth? Is it sexist the way we criticize women for their spending habits? Or when they accept help from family? And why is talking about money so fucking awkward?
Since that first diary, we’ve published nearly 500 weekly accounts of how women spend their hard-earned money (or in some cases, other people’s hard-earned money). But these diaries cover so much more than just grocery bills and rent checks. Diarists open up, in their own words, about their relationships, their jobs, their mental health, and the things they value (from cat food to coffee to bridesmaids dresses). It’s both fascinating and mundane. On the whole, diaries are rarely shocking but are often achingly relatable. Our 21-year-old intern with an allowance was an outlier in many regards.

Number of Money Diaries Published By Salary Bracket

When we started the series, we wanted Money Diaries to be a place where women could share their financial stories without judgment. As the notorious comments section proves, the reality is very different. It doesn’t matter if you make $17,000 or $170,000 — the commenters will find something to judge and something to celebrate.
On the one side: commenters were furious about the diet of a case manager in South Carolina making $38,500. She was struggling as the sole breadwinner while her husband was unemployed due to his immigration status, but commenters chose to focus on her decision to eat McDonald’s five times in one week.“Girl, cook at home! Even if you're going to have chicken nuggets and fries, it's so much cheaper to do at home.”
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While users continually asked for more Money Diaries of women making lower salaries, more readers click on Money Diaries featuring higher salaries.

On the opposite end of the spectrum: commenters were supportive of the 31-year-old architect starting her own business in San Francisco. The diary detailed her ups and downs living on the $17,500 in savings she had stashed away before striking out on her own. “‘I love this. Starting your own firm is so gutsy.”
While the commenters have countless opinions about the diarists, they also have strong opinions about the kinds of diaries that we choose to publish. From the very beginning, there was outcry that we didn’t feature enough income diversity. In an early diary from a 30-year-old architect making $100,000, one comment read: “It would be nice to see some more realistic salaries.” We followed up days later with a diary from an AmeriCorps volunteer in Boston making $14,000. The commenters loved her, despite the fact that she was receiving significant parental support. But that diary also had 10,000 fewer readers than the Brooklyn architect with the six-figure salary. And that’s a big thing we’ve noticed time and again when we publish diaries: While users continually asked for more Money Diaries of women making lower salaries, more readers click on Money Diaries featuring higher salaries.

Median Visits to Money Diaries by Salary Bracket

We know this data, and yet we still publish a range of diaries from different incomes from women living around the world. That’s really important to us. But we also understand that people want to read about how high-earners spend their money. We get it: It’s the same reason why millions tune into Real Housewives or Keeping Up With The Kardashians. And Money Diaries get even more granular, because these women share the receipts for that $45 salad or $40.28 on lip gloss. This is a chance to not only see how the other half lives but how they spend.
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Some might wonder why women submit diaries and open themselves up to this kind of criticism? You have to be a near perfect human to not face any backlash in the comments. (We joke at Refinery29 that you have to be self-made, make a good salary, but not too good. You can’t be too young, receive any parental support, rely on a man, or buy too many coffees. Bonus points if you are good to your pets.)
But, we’ve come to think, women arguably read, write, comment, and lurk in Money Diaries because they can’t have these conversations anywhere else. Money remains an emotionally fraught territory – triggering anger, jealousy, inadequacy, resentment, pride, gratitude, and self-pity in a split-second. Money Diaries, and its notorious comments section, provides a platform where women can overshare, vent, judge, and maybe even achieve catharsis. It’s often a difficult conversation, but an absolutely worthy one.
And that’s why this series is so crucial. That’s why we’re so grateful to the women who continue to submit their own Money Diaries, who open up their lives to our readers and give us a peek into how women really live. That’s why we plan on publishing the series — with diaries from women from all walks of life — for as long as we can. We are also grateful to the commenters, who keep us on our toes, demand more, and are actively influencing this awkward dialogue.
The truth is, we are living in a time of drastic economic inequality: The top 1% of American families make more than 25 times what families in the bottom 99% do. So much so that is why we are seeing the rise of socialism among Millennial political candidates and voters. Next week, Refinery29 is doing a deep dive into the topic of greed with a special series. Who gets to be greedy, and for what? How does it influence young women? And where does greed get us — financially, socially, and politically?
These are pertinent questions to explore, and because these are real people sharing their real experiences — Money Diaries comes up with some messy answers.
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