Money: It’s Terrible
What if women started talking about money the way we talk about everything else? We brought together a group of women from around North America to chat cash.
Girls talk about everything except for money. We’ll talk about this unexcavatable ingrown hair on our bikini lines, about the most comfortable position to peg your boyfriend in, about her late-term abortion and my rhythm method, about therapy, acne, and workplace rivalry. Dieting, smoking, and voting. Siblings, kittens, and cops. (Girls talk about the booty, too, about the way a brother is hangin’, too.) But not about money.
Because money is taboo. What’s more shameful than money? Having it, not having it, being born into it, being born without it. There’s a danger implicit to this silence. bell hooks writes,
“According to More Magazine, American women are expected to control 23 trillion dollars by the end of the decade, which is ‘nearly twice the current amount.’ But what will this control mean if women lack financial literacy? Acquiring money and managing money are not the same actions. Women need to confront the meaning and uses of money on all levels.”
Recognizing that money management is a skill one has to learn, and one that girls aren’t often taught, we had a thought: What if women starting talked about money the way we talk about everything else? What might happen to this last taboo if we assigned it in, as the EIC of this mature magazine once put it to me, “cunt school?”
And so we brought together a group of women from around North America to chat cash. Like the best girl gangs, these women all have different but complementary backgrounds and personalities. Over the course of a week, we communicated via a shared GoogleDoc and e-mail about easy money and hard lessons, about debt, and about how love may go away but a joint checking account doesn’t.
Hannah Black is an artist and writer from London. She is currently a participant in the studio program of the Whitney ISP in New York. She speaks with an infectious rapidity and claims to feel shame, not just with money, but with most everything.
Claudia C. is not going by a last name because she sells drugs. Just on the side, though. This 26 year old’s main gig is as a digital marketing strategist at a “struggling web startup.” She also writes freelance and tweets.
Fiona Duncan is a Canadian-American living between her East Williamsburg apartment and an independent bookshop in NoLiTa New York, where she orders fashion and comics books and loves to man the information desk. She writes and also works odd jobs in the comics biz for pillow-stuffing cash. Up until her 26th birthday two months ago, she had hardly ever thought about money. Now, all she sees is signs.
Iris Greene is an adventurous American who writes so-far-so-free under the name The Sapphic Stripper. She has a boastful PMA and strips because money is independence and money gives her that. She says things like “cash is sexy” or “I get a lady boner after a good night… when the cash won’t fit into your wallet so you have to wrap a rubber band around it.”
Margaret Haines is a 29-year-old artist, filmmaker, director, and graphic designer for New Byzantium in Los Angeles with a striking resemblance to some model you’d know and a profound knowledge of astrology. She is wrapping up production on a feature film that is stunning. She is currently living in Montreal as she works as a visiting Assistant Professor of Art and Photography at Concordia University. She took on more jobs, because debt.
Sandeep Salter is a 25-year-old new mother who lives in Brooklyn Heights with her handsome young husband and works as a Partner and Managing Buyer of McNally Jackson Store, Art/Design Buyer for McNally Jackson Books.
Susan Elizabeth Shepard is a 37-year-old married stripper and writer currently residing in Austin, Texas who describes herself as “Not Good With Money.”
Bramble Trionfo is a 27-year-old director of brand partnerships at VFILES, budding director dabbling in performance art, and consult/madam for extra cash who pays $2040 in rent and utilities to live alone in Little Italy. She’s the type to “check [her] balance on my Bank of America app about 4 times per day.”
Kat Ying is a 29-year-old divorced and single mother, working in community projects and not getting paid at present, since she’s between grants. For the past six months she’s been living and travelling on savings from the sale of a family owned apartment. She pays $645 dollars rent for a two bedroom apartment with a living room and kitchenette in park extension Montreal. Plus utilities and the Internet, it comes to about $800 a month. “Globally speaking,” she says “I got it made.”
When, how, and with whom do we talk about money, if ever?
Iris Greene: I feel like the people who have the hardest time speaking openly about money are the ones who don’t know what the fuck they are doing with it. I find that if one understands the value of a dollar, it’s easier to talk about. But if your parents are still paying your rent, your phone bill and your $200,000 undergraduate degree was something you did not in any way finance, you’ll have a hard time discussing or having an informed opinion about how much is appropriate when tipping after a lap dance, negotiating a salary or contemplating a mortgage.
Or, if I have it my way, [I'd be] alone for a couple more years and then into a trustful, polyamorous three-way partnership with a hot girl with nice tits and an attractive feminist dude.
Fiona Duncan: As kids, I feel like we were taught to keep money talk in the family, which was the home, which was the bedroom, kinship in this culture being what it was. But kinship isn’t that anymore. A few of us may still swing from our parental homes straight into one with a mate, but most of us will spend years on our own. I may spend my life on my own. Or, if I have it my way, alone for a couple more years and then into a trustful, polyamorous three-way partnership with a hot girl with nice tits and an attractive feminist dude. I remember being a young girl and thinking that I could pick any career, regardless of how it paid, because I wouldn’t have to worry about making or managing money; I’d eventually have a boyfriend or husband who did that. And I was raised in a feminist household with two breadwinners. That daydream is probably why I ended up working in independent publishing and writing. Only recently, like two months ago, did it dawn on me that my ideas about money and jobs needed to be updated to fit my love and kinship ideals. So now I’m talking money with everyone, trying to learn from whomever will teach me.
Bramble Trionfo: I actually quite enjoy talking money. I come from a long line of Italian gamblers — we were always talking in dollar signs and I have very fond memories of my father and uncles with rolled up hundreds in their back pockets. Italians don’t like wallets. I talk money with my mother every time we speak, though I could never ask her for any. She worries for my savings because there is none and my financial security because I “lost my man.” I talk raises and salaries with coworkers, though I shouldn’t, I’m just too curious I guess, and I don’t feel uncomfortable with the topic.
How do we manage our money?
Claudia C.: Budgeting is like promising to work out or follow through on a New Year’s resolution for me. I start out with good intentions and stick to the plan for like a week then give up. And bills? *Turns on the Destiny’s Child song and ignores this question like my medical bills*
And bills? *Turns on the Destiny’s Child song and ignores this question like my medical bills*
Kat Ying: When I split with my ex and set up alone with my son, my budget became meticulous, like on an Excel sheet. I was pretty broke for a while, until we sold our apartment. That was good because I had gotten used to living on little, which made it easy to not touch our profit, well not too much. Come to think of it, my first budget was written during a panic attack in the middle of the night when I was about twelve years old. I had figured out how much the average lawyer makes and how much my private school tuition costs and had recently learned how much my mother spends at the grocery store per week. I was doing the math and freaking out about how I would never have enough money to raise a family. My mother tried to console me by telling me that if I had a child I would have a partner…
Sandeep Salter: We have an inbox at home, which we ceremoniously take care of every month. The bills have subsided a little now that our daughter is six months, but while I was pregnant and just after she was born, we were constantly pummeled by bills. The pregnancy and birth cost around $5500. Shocking. Now, paying the bills is less stressful because I know what to expect. You never know what you’ll get with a medical bill.
Margaret Haines: I am into this app called WEAVE that wakes me up every morning reminding me to budget. It is a half fantasy.
Do we have debt? Student? Credit card? Other? Have we ever borrowed or loaned money from friends and/or family?
Susan Elizabeth Shephard: I’ve got credit card and student loan debt that probably — don’t make me look — total around $28,000, which is completely stupid. Debt is such an abstract to me. I wish it had a physical representation in my life, like a pile of garbage in front of the house, or whatever the physical representation of negative cash would be, to make it more real.
Fiona: Moving to New York at 24, without any parental support, I was broke, but I realized that I had this immense privilege because my (cheap Quebec) education was all paid for. I had zero debts. That’s given me a freedom and mobility that I don’t take for granted. I still don’t make much money, not enough to pay for health insurance, but that’s a decision. Unlike so many of my American friends, I haven’t had to make any decisions based on debt. I think about that all the time.
I rarely borrow from friends because they don’t have to love me.
Hannah Black: I have a £2300 overdraft, which I live inside. I owe some money in taxes in a way that is so complicated it’s like the music from Jaws: constant and very, very low in the background of my life. I currently owe my father’s girlfriend £350 but I haven’t paid her back for reasons partly emotional and partly logistical. I often borrow money off my mother. My father is more talented at pretending to be broke. I rarely borrow from friends because they don’t have to love me. I have never had a credit card. I have student debt but it’s less intense in the UK, if you haven’t paid it back by the time you’re 50 they just write it off anyway. I owe money to the college where I did my MFA. I feel like a loser writing this list of terrible failures but then I think of Joseph Roth writing begging letters to Stefan Zweig, the richer and less talented half of their friendship, who always paid up out of guilt for being richer and less talented. I think of how shameless Roth’s letters are, how furious he is with the world for its failure to reward what he knows is his great talent. I think in particular of the wonderful true story of how Zweig, out of his endless guilt, bought Roth a suit jacket, only for Roth to deliberately spill wine all over it at a dinner party; when Zweig complained, Roth turned on him: “Why didn’t you buy me the trousers, too?”
What’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done for money? What’s the easiest?
Hannah: When I was 20 I worked in a toiletries and cosmetics factory for a week. There were posters all around the shop floor saying things like “MORE PRODUCTIVITY = MORE PROFIT = MORE PAY” and other nightmarish things. I had never before seen grown adults with all their attention fixed on the second hand of a clock, bodies thrumming with the intensity of the coming break bell which came on the exact second of break time and never a second before, grown adults almost running out of the door for a break or — even better — the end of the day. There were doctors and engineers from Iraq who couldn’t get any other kind of job and also local kids who also couldn’t get any other kind of job. Initially because I was studying at a fancy university they thought I would be really good at my work so they put me on a super-complicated production line folding up little boxes with face powder inside. I was terrible at it and couldn’t keep up with the line. They gradually demoted me over the course of the week until I was just funneling bath salts into jars, which was an OK job because you could talk to other people and they let you listen to the radio. At the end of the week I went to the supervisor and said, “I’m not coming back.” He looked at me and said, “your kind never stay,” which always sounds like he was racist when I tell it but he meant “your kind” as in the bourgie kind who go to university and don’t necessarily absolutely have to be here. For months after, I was disgusted by anything factory-made, which is most things. I couldn’t believe that everything had to be made in a factory, that everything was imbued with wasted time and the worst kind of livid, raw boredom. It was like being injected with Marx, except that most people don’t need Marx to know that most work is fucking bullshit.
It was like being injected with Marx, except that most people don’t need Marx to know that most work is fucking bullshit.
Claudia: The hardest thing I ever did for money was wait tables at Cheesecake Factory. Waiting tables is a shit job as it is, but working for a corporate restaurant is the fucking worst. Pointless rules, tests, uniform checks, basically an endless stream of arbitrary bullshit combined with being treated like shit for too little money. The easiest thing I ever did for money was run a brothel. All I had to do was handle money and tell the girls to line up when clients came in. Plus since I was booking the appointments girls would slide me extra cash on the side to make sure they got priority booking. Oh yeah, selling drugs is pretty easy, too.
Kat: Hardest thing I ever did for money? Can I have more than one? I stayed in a controlling relationship with my parents so they would keep paying my tuition. Dividing the family patrimony during my divorce. Actually, that was so hard I gave up and stopped trying to fight for it. I felt like everyone was telling me to stand up for what I deserved, but I couldn’t do it. In the end things fell in a fair place without the fight. But that sucked. I guess, job wise, I worked for a telemarketing scam for one morning.
Are there any serious emotional decisions we’ve made for financial reasons you can’t quite admit?
Bramble: I did not grow up wealthy, but I didn’t want for anything either. My father passed away suddenly when I was 16. On his actual deathbed, when we were attempting to say our goodbyes, he said three things to me: “Look after your mother, look out for your brother, and please marry a man with money.” As shallow as that sounds, it’s really not. He was old-fashioned. He wanted me to have security and stability and be able to pursue my insane fantasies and manic career choices while still having a belly full of rigatoni. My most recent ex had no money, and was in a great deal of debt. I loved him more than I have ever loved anyone, but there was a nagging reminder of what my father said to me, regularly. So now, in a sick way, a partner with financial stability is something extremely important to me. I am, in an odd way, honoring my father.
I stayed in a relationship (live-in, long term, first love) for longer than I think I would have were it not for the money. Not because I was financially dependent on the man when I decided I wanted to leave, but because I felt indebted to him.
Fiona: I stayed in a relationship (live-in, long term, first love) for longer than I think I would have were it not for the money. Not because I was financially dependent on the man when I decided I wanted to leave, but because I felt indebted to him: he supported me years earlier, through a move and life in Berlin, plus some. He made way more than me. He shared his income because we lived like a married couple. We even had a shared bank account in Berlin. We used to talk about how one day I’d be out of school and buying him things. When I started to feel itchy in the relationship, we talked about why I wanted to leave, why I wanted to stay. We were the type of couple who talked about everything. The only thing I never vocalized, not to him, not to my closest female friends, was that I felt extraordinarily guilty leaving before paying back this imagined debt.
Are you aware of yourself as part of a certain socio-economic class? If/how do you find socializing outside of that class?
Sandeep: I suppose I am and have grown up upper middle class and have always been very comfortable mixing in different socio-economic circles. My family is very big and runs the gamut. In many ways though the traditional socio-economic brackets tend not to be self-evident in the people I socialize with because the people I interact with, for the most part, are part of a creative class that operates through such a different currency of values and behavior, in that someone could be poor or rich, but act relatively the same, hang out in the same places, eat and drink the same, and enjoy the perks of the supporting lifestyle (that being the art community). It’s hard to tell who is footing the bill and who’s making the most of free drinks, gallery dinners, and sample sales. Of course, no one talks about money.
Iris: In my line of work, the most generous people are those who have less. The biggest assholes in strip clubs are the under-thirties with black Amex cards. They usually have really delusional fantasies that they don’t want to pay for.
The biggest assholes in strip clubs are the under-thirties with black Amex cards. They usually have really delusional fantasies that they don’t want to pay for.
Fiona: Coming from Canada to New York, I became aware of class and money in a way I’d never been before. Class disparity in Canada is far less extreme. There’s poverty and wealth, but our spectrum is short compared to the States, and it’s not so visibly racialized. I feel uncomfortable around certain kinds of wealth, though it’s not the wealth in itself that makes me uncomfortable. It’s how people associate with it. Doing fashion journalism in New York for the first year here, I was surrounded by thoughtless wealth. That was poison. I still feel a burning in my chest thinking about the conversations I had with absolutely clueless born-into-money rich kids. I’m also suspicious of anyone who has a lot of money because of what it takes to make lots of money — I don’t believe that great wealth can be accrued without moral compromise. Show me one example!
Is money gendered?
Claudia: Because money is power, it is hard not to find it gendered. I don’t think patriarchy would crumble if women made more than men, but I do think the playing field would be a tiny bit more even. Also, I’m not sure whether men and women relate to money differently, but I will point out that women and men are marketed to differently on the assumption that men and women spend differently.
Sandeep: I don’t think that money is gendered, and I find it a very strange and general assumption. Nor do I find that women are any less educated about money than men. Money is an effective agent in reinforcing gender roles, in the subjugating of one gender below another. But that has nothing to do with money itself as a concretized and tangible agreement of value. It has rather everything to do with the perversion or abuse of exchange. Individuals are gendered. Money is an idea bestowed upon an object. How money is used by the different genders is totally situational.
When you realize how powerless a man becomes when faced with a naked woman, the rest of why things are the way they are in this patriarchal society start to make a lot more sense.
Fiona: Perhaps, in the abstract, money is a pure object or idea exchange, but the American capitalist valuing of individuality and competition are gendered; institutions are gendered; the family unit is gendered — that’s all money. Lean In exists for a reason, and I loathe it for that same reason: Our society values and retributes work that is patriarchal, and unless you are born into money and live outside industry, you will be forced to work through these patriarchal systems. You might see “women’s work” devalued. I’’m getting so emotional right now I have to stop typing: What a woman!
Iris:Part of why I’m writing what I’m writing is so that more women are inspired to get naked for money. More smart women should be doing it so they can have more personal time to pursue projects about which they are really passionate. If I wasn’t stripping there is no way I’d have the time I need to write. Plus, when you realize how powerless a man becomes when faced with a naked woman, the rest of why things are the way they are in this patriarchal society start to make a lot more sense.
What’s left? What do you want to talk about?
Susan: Nothing. It makes me nervous. Can we talk about that? Money is terrible. But actually: Do you know anyone who is “good” with money? Honestly I feel a lot of my “badness” with it comes from not being taught shit about it by my dad and my mom until they divorced, whereas my husband, as soon as he got his bar mitzvah money, was taught by his dad about how to handle it, plan, et cetera, and I’m sort of pissed I didn’t get that.
Margaret: Everything. I want to talk about how I can do everything I want to do, and not feel upset by money. I want a lesson. I want it to be clear. I want a nice person to do this. Not the scared voice that comes up when I think about money. A clear. nice. person.
This panel was conducted by Fiona Duncan.