Before she was the host of a podcast about personal finance, and now the author of a book about it, Gaby Dunn was a writer and comedian who struggled with money the same way as anyone else—and she still hasn’t figured out all of it. “I’m in a fight with Bank of America right now,” she said in a recent phone call, describing the hassle of closing a joint bank account with her parents. “I learned that it never ends.”
In her latest book, Bad with Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Together, out now, the writer, comedian, and host of the mega-popular podcast Bad with Money communicates personal finance in a way that’s accessible, and doesn’t chastise the reader for not starting a retirement fund in utero like some other financial guru might. A YouTube star for her series with Allison Raskin, Just Between Us, Dunn had gotten flack from fans about accepting a brand deal a few years ago, and set out to deconstruct the flagrant lack of transparency when it comes to how we talk about money. In the book, Dunn seamlessly oscillates between the personal and pragmatic, sharing her stories of her own upbringing that influenced her outlook on finance well into adulthood, all while breaking down the flawed power structures that benefit some more than others, and teaching us the difference between a 401(k) and a Roth I.R.A.—in a way that doesn’t make you want to scream into a pillow.
In our interview, Dunn talked in depth about the stigma surrounding personal finance, contending with oppressive power structures, and when it really does make sense to spend on self-care.
Vanity Fair: O.K., I’ll bite: what is money, and how do I know if I have any?
Gaby Dunn: [Laughs] Money is a thing we made up. From what I understand, we invented it so that we can exchange it for goods and services. I was actually always interested in the actual amount it costs to make a dollar, or five dollars, and so on, because it only has the meaning that we’ve ascribed to it. But a one-dollar bill and a five-dollar bill are made of the same materials. None of it makes any sense, and then next thing you know, you become one of those performance artists that’s just setting dollar bills on fire to show that the economy doesn’t mean anything. But I’m not quite there yet.
Was there one specific financial moment that made you want to start demystifying personal finance. If so, what was it?
Yes. I had this dual life experience where I was getting shit from fans online for a brand deal. It wasn’t anything to do with the brand itself. It was more like, “Ugh, she’s doing another brand deal.” People were just kind of being snotty about me doing one video for money, even though I’ve done 200 for free before that. But those comments were rolling in at the same time as I was literally looking through my car for quarters. I just felt like no one understood the reality of anyone else’s life. I realized that there isn’t any transparency; no one is talking about money truthfully. We like to show off this new bag, or that dinner we went to, but no one wants to show the ugly parts. And I just realized that someone has to be transparent about this type of stuff. That was the moment that made me want to do the podcast.
Do you think that’s why the podcast and this book is so accessible, because it’s coming from a writer and a comedian who works in an industry that’s notoriously hard to gain notoriety in?
Good question. I think it’s also the fact that many finance gurus have lost touch with reality, and I haven’t made enough money to do that yet. But I look forward to losing touch with reality [Laughs]. And the thing about me being in entertainment is that no one in entertainment talks about where their money is coming from. When I moved out to L.A., I constantly compared myself to people my age. I would be like, “Look at this person who’s my age who made a film already,” and then would find out their dad runs CBS. We just don’t have any transparency.
I’m not an expert, but I don’t think knowing how to find the slope of a line helps with getting out of like, say, medical debt. Do you think we should put an effort into teaching finance at a rudimentary educational level?
I would love if financial literacy was taught in schools. I’ve heard stories about teenagers going to educational board meetings and town halls, requesting financial-literacy courses. I think a lot of times, schools will listen if a group of kids get together and propose why they need to learn about personal finance. There’s some people who say teaching financial literacy isn’t enough to overcome systemic problems, but I think you can do both.
I want to talk about that catch-22 that is wanting to dismantle the system, but having to participate within it out of necessity. What are some ways we can work to repair it, but also keep our heads above water?
I think this is second nature for any marginalized person; this isn’t news to them. If you’re black, brown, queer, trans, living with disability, etc., you’re working within a system that doesn’t cater to you, which just makes life even harder. Obviously, voting and being aware is important: be mindful of where your news is coming from and which people you’re following on Twitter, for example. Even if you think something doesn’t matter to you, take a closer look, because it does affect you in one way or another. You need to pay attention to things that might affect the cost of your health care or your ability to get your student loans forgiven. You’re already taking a major step, just by not burying your head in the sand and being cognizant of these things. A lot of it is just avoidance we shouldn’t be doing. We should pay attention to candidates who are talking about this stuff—candidates who know that the system is damaged and doesn’t serve everyone fairly. And if no one is doing it, why don’t you do it?
I also think it is the responsibility of the privileged to take into account what we can do systemically for those who can’t. For example: a lot of low-income people can’t take off from work to protest, so it is the job of the middle class—who can—to go out in the streets for everybody else. It’s a trickle-down effect.
There can be an emotional angle to spending—like spending to feel in control of something, when we don’t feel in control in other parts of our lives. But sometimes we spend money on things that are for self-care. Where do we draw the line?
Oh, that’s tough. I think you just have to make sure it’s stuff that actually matters to you. You have to cut yourself off by asking, “Is this actually benefiting me?” I talk about the mania in spending in the book. I’ll have moments where I’m like, “Now I love plants!” And then it’s like, “Do I love plants, or am I just buying 700 plants?” The one thing that I do like and buy is nice coffee. That’s the one thing that’s consistent. But if all of a sudden I’m like, “Now I love throw pillows!,” I know to check myself. I think you just have to figure out what benefits you and remains consistent.
This interview has been condensed for clarity. Bad with Money is available for purchase here.
Photography: Doug Frerichs
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