Gaby Dunn on Millennials and Personal Finance

Alicia Menendez sits down with Gaby Dunn, author of “Bad with Money,” to discuss millennials and the stigma surrounding personal finances.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And we continue to examine the correlation between inequality and stress right now as we turn to the generation that’s on track to suffer from the worst income inequality in recent memory, and that’s millennials. Our next guest says they view the state of their bank balance as an intellectual moral and personal failing. Like many in the gig economy, Gaby Dunn wears several hats, comedian, activist, YouTuber, podcaster, and now author. And her new book, “Bad with Money”, tackles the stigma surrounding personal finances. She told our Alicia Menendez that talking about money is now a greater taboo than talking about sex was.

ALICIA MENENDEZ: Gaby, thank you so much for joining us.

GABY DUNN, AUTHOR, BAD WITH MONEY: Thank you for having me.

MENENDEZ: I loved the opening line of your book. It was, “Here’s the big secret About money, no one knows anything.” What do you mean?

DUNN: That’s what I learned. I mean, a lot of financial gurus will come at you with specifics as if they can predict the future, as if they know exactly what each person should do, even though in my experience, everyone that I’ve talked to has individual extenuating circumstances. And so it’s just not accounted for. You know, I think a lot of people were talking a big game and then the housing crisis happened. And I don’t think a lot of people were giving protections or saying to people, hey, be a little wary of this because they just couldn’t predict it. But then they go on and still talk about like money as if they are very confident. But they’re confident guessers.

MENENDEZ: If no one knows anything about money, what did you think you could add to the conversation?

DUNN: I wanted to be relatable rather than aspirational. And I wanted to make people feel like there’s no shame in talking about it and there’s no stigma. I always say, like, I’m lucky in that my family is not going to disown me for talking about it. My friends — you know, like my friends are going to be OK. I’m still going to be alive. That’s my metric for talking about something shameful like I’ll still live, I’ll still have a home, I’ll still have my dog. Everything will be OK. So but for some people, that’s not the case. So I feel like if I can talk about something and I can be the person who can take on the embarrassment, then I wanted to do that. And it’s helped a lot of people feel better about their own situations, even though they can’t personally talk about it.

MENENDEZ: Let’s talk about that shame on your podcast, Bad with Money. You open going into a coffee shop with two questions. What were those two questions?

DUNN: That was my favorite. It was, I went in and asked people, what’s your favorite sex position? Everyone was happy to answer it. And then I said, OK, second question, how much money is in your bank account? Everyone was like, no. One girl answered but everyone was like, “No, no, no, that’s personal, I can’t talk about that.”

MENENDEZ: And what did that tell you?

DUNN: That sex is cool and money is uncool. People are like — you know, I think there’s a lot of work in the sex positivity space and there still needs to be more and I certainly do stuff there, too, on my YouTube channel. But I realize that like my real secret was my money situation. And people would always come to me and say, wow, you’re so brave for talking about your sexuality, you’re so brave for talking about sex positivity. And I knew — like I felt a pit in my stomach and I knew in my heart that I was actually not brave because I was not talking about the real problem in my life, the real thing that made me feel insecure and made me cry all the time which was money. So I felt like that was the last taboo.

MENENDEZ: Generally, where do you think that that shame and taboo around money come from?

DUNN: People see money as an intellectual, moral, and personal failing. They don’t see it as this ubiquitous thing that has to be in your life. They see it as like this personal thing that says something about their self-worth and it says something about their intelligence. And people judge. I mean people love to judge. Even people in worse financial situations will like laugh at and judge and give unsolicited advice to people in, you know, a little bit lower situation. As soon as I started the podcast, I got a ton of e-mails mostly from men being like, “Oh, here’s what I would do if I was you”, “Here’s how I would be a billionaire if I was you.” And I’ll be like, right, but like are you? Like, are you doing these studies? And they’d be like, “No, but here’s what you should do.”

MENENDEZ: I want you to read a part of the book for me, one of my favorite parts of the book.

DUNN: Sure.

MENENDEZ: Let’s see if I have what page it’s on, it’s about your bipolar diagnosis.

DUNN: Oh, yes, that was — that’s my favorite chapter. So this is what I wrote here. When I was manic, I wanted to spend all my money because life was a breeze and who cared about social constructs like money? When I was down, I desperately needed material things to make me feel better. No matter what state I was in, I convinced myself not to look at my finances or try to sort out my bank accounts or plan for the future because it was too stressful and I was too fragile right now.

MENENDEZ: Why did you want to write about this?

DUNN: I felt like it would have been a disservice not to explain the eight years of bad decisions because I didn’t realize — you know I was undiagnosed for a long time. So I didn’t realize that my mania or my depression was contributing to my finances, and I think a lot of people don’t. I think a lot of people go undiagnosed. So I would associate like sadness with needing to buy something. And then I would also, when I was manic, make all these plans and be like, I’m going to go to grad school in Japan so I need to buy a book about Japanese culture. I never read that book. Like within two days, I would be like, what? I don’t want to go to grad school in Japan. And so I think — I thought it would help people to understand how mental health contributes to finances. And maybe once they know that, they can step back and take a look at what they need to do. In that situation, I talked to a bipolar expert named Julie Fast who gives advice about freezing your credit cards when you feel manic, or only dealing in cash, or, you know, having a buddy who can say, “Hey, you’re being kind of manic. Like are you sure you want to spend this money?” I just felt like it would have left out a huge part of my story if I didn’t mention what was contributing.

MENENDEZ: You write about how much of our attitudes about money come from our family and from the money script that we grew up with. What was yours?

DUNN: My parents were big spenders and big into experiences. My dad was an addict and an alcoholic growing up. So my mom talks about how she would not understand where money was disappearing to. She was a divorce and child custody attorney. And so she would make some money and was more of the breadwinner. My dad worked in construction. She would be confused as to where the money was going. And she admits she was pretty naive about it. And then they also, like, just didn’t want to say no to things. So like my mom would, you know, I say in the book my mom would do a lot of her work for free. And I asked her about it. And then she said, “Well, there were children who needed my help.” And I said, yes, there were children who needed your help living in your home as well. They talk about how they didn’t really think ahead about a lot of things. They don’t have a retirement. They spent $20,000 on my Bat Mitzvah, which is like mind-blowing. So they just wanted things — but it would be feast or famine and I had a lot of whiplash where they would say, you know, today they would buy a bunch of stuff and then tomorrow, they would be like, “We’re poor.” And I, as a kid, was like, which is it? So I would get some money for something I would be working on and then I would immediately spend it in this way of, like, oh, well, I don’t know, I could die tomorrow and I don’t know, you know, when — like I just can’t have it. I can’t have it in my possession.

MENENDEZ: And so how do you break that cycle?

DUNN: Just knowing about it. Like sitting down and writing out what you learned from your family, and then writing out if it serves you anymore if it’s something good. One of my friends, their parents were accountants or their parents opened bank accounts for them when they were 15, so like interest compounded. Depending on your family, like a lot of my friends had really good situations. Then I talked to some people, like a lot of young people in Gen Z who their parents are Millennials or Gen X. And they are terrified because their parents are dodging calls from Sallie Mae or have a bunch of student loans. And so they’re learning like maybe I shouldn’t go to an expensive college, maybe I shouldn’t take out student loans because their anxiety about money like seeps into the whole household.

MENENDEZ: U.S. student loan debt reached nearly $1.5 trillion last year. Where do you place that in this larger societal conversation About money?

DUNN: I think it causes almost no economic mobility, which is true right now in America. And it keeps people in the class that they’re in. So even though people want to get a better education, this American dream of getting this nice education and then going off into the workforce with like a great degree, they’re not finding that they can get jobs based on that, and then they’re in $40,000, $80,000 of debt. So they’re starting out their financial life in a deficit. But I see a lot of younger people opting for community college or — which is a great resource. Or opting to maybe not even go to school based on what they want to do. Like a young girl, I spoke to, wants to be a photographer. So she was like, “I could get a job at a wedding photography place and buildup my Instagram. And I wouldn’t have to spend money on college.”

MENENDEZ: What is the millennial myth?

DUNN: The millennial myth is this idea that the Millennial generation is a monolith. I mean I think the depiction we see most often is like a white upper-middle-class person holding an iPhone, taking a selfie, eating avocado toast at their start-up job. And like maybe that start-up doesn’t have health insurance. And that is so not the entire Millennial generation. Like there is this thing where Millennial — a generation is seen as the rich people in that generation and it’s not — and then poor people are just poor. So, for instance, like a 25-year-old Latin X, like mother of two working a minimum wage job in East Texas, that’s a Millennial. But nobody would put that Millennial on a Time Magazine cover, for instance. Millennials are working hospitality, retail, and service industry more often than not. That makes the minimum wage a Millennial issue. Like there are these things that we only talk about student loans as a Millennial issue, which they are. But there is — there are other Millennials out there who have different concerns. And so when we only talk about one type of Millennial, it has a trickle down to policy and so we’re ignoring one group.

MENENDEZ: You use these stats in your book, 2016 Pew Research found that 25 percent of Americans made money on a digital earning platform like Airbnb or Lyft. Thirty-seven percent said it filled gaps in their employment. So on, so forth. In your experience, what is the reality of being a part of that gig economy?

DUNN: There is a statistic that shows — that I found in the book that in the past, like in the ’90s and ’80s, if you were doing a side hustle or something in the gig economy, you were saving up for something, a trip or some gift or special thing. Now, the people that are in the gig economy are using it as their main income. So that’s huge. I mean, that makes most people freelancers. More than half of young people will be freelancers by 2020. So that’s like people cobbling together an income whereas like they don’t have the steady income and the pension and stuff of the past. And in my experience, I do — I still do a lot of freelance type stuff. I mean I work as a writer. So like if I’m in a writer’s room, that’s a short time. That’s not a job that I would have for more than three months. Selling merch or doing — really, or doing — like I do like platforms where you can like make videos for fans for a certain amount every video. So like I’m even cobbling together an income from multiple places.

MENENDEZ: Right. I mean you have a large social media presence. And at the same time, there have been moments in your life when you’re like trying to find quarters in your car so that you can pay for things.

DUNN: That was what kicked off the podcast, was I had some branded Deals that came through, and they’re not a lot of money at the time and they’re still kind of not. And so I would split that with my comedy partner. Not everyone has a partner on their YouTube channel so they would make the whole money, but I would make half. And then it would be like comments because of the brand deals and because people didn’t understand social media, they would say, oh, you’re a rich girl now. I wanted to defend myself on every comment but I couldn’t. And so I asked some questions. Like even — they had no idea. Like I wrote back to one girl and said, how do you think I’m making money? She said YouTube pays you a salary. Every week, YouTube pays you a salary for your videos. And I was like, what? Do you think I’m an employee of YouTube? I make pennies on each ad.

MENENDEZ: I think one of the challenges of these platforms is the monetization component. But then the other part is that it can be femoral. I mean Vine was a thing.

DUNN: Gone.

MENENDEZ: Now, it’s gone.

DUNN: I like to tell young people when they say, “I want to be a YouTuber” or “I want to be an Instagram influencer.” I would go, no, you want to be a photographer or you want to be a model or you want to be a video editor or you want to be a producer or a director. That’s what you have to say because those platforms are not going to be there. So YouTuber, not a job. Like Instagram influencer, not a job. You need to say that you are a job that you could do anywhere. And a lot of them don’t realize that until I say that.

MENENDEZ: I’m sure there is someone who is watching who says, this person says, no one knows anything about money. She’s bad with money herself.

DUNN: Yes.

MENENDEZ: She’s a YouTuber and podcaster. Why am I listening to her? Tell me about how to be good with money.

DUNN: I think you want someone who is in the trenches who relates to you, who understands, like, that the reality of life, like the realities that come up. Of course, like, you have a savings and then there’s a car breaking down and you’re like, oh. Or like a girl came to me and said, should I — I’m making money now, should I start a savings account or should I go to therapy? And me as someone who has had mental health breakdowns, who has spent all their money in a mental health break down, I mean that’s something that I can answer from experience. You know, I took a year, I researched this book. So I like to say that I’ve cut a year off of what you need to do to learn. Read the book. You have won a year of your life.

MENENDEZ: Gaby, thank you so much.

DUNN: Thank you for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and Dr. Sanjay Gupta about healthcare. Alicia Menendez speaks with Gaby Dunn, author of “Bad with Money,” about millennials and the stigma surrounding personal finances.