Gaby Dunn is bad with money, and she wants everyone to know it.
The 29-year-old writer, YouTube
star and actress started a podcast called “Bad With Money” in 2016 to address what she refers to as the last remaining taboo: finances. “Being bad with money is still seen as an intellectual, moral, and personal failure,” she said. “It’s so judged.”
Case in point: on the first episode of the podcast, Dunn asks a series of strangers on the street to tell her two things: their favorite sex position and how much money is in their bank account right now. While many spouted out answers to the first question without hesitation, most declined to answer the second query.
“Sex is cool; money is not cool,” she explained. “It’s not something I feel comfortable talking about either — even with my friends.”
But Dunn is trying to change that, starting by exploring her own experiences with money for listeners, delving into what she learned from her parents’ financial habits and how she handles her finances today. She also discusses the role money plays in politics, the food system, cryptocurrencies and stocks.
Bad With Money is now entering its third season and Dunn is working on a book on the topic of finances.
MarketWatch spoke with Dunn about what she’s learned from the show and what needs to change to break the ongoing taboos around what’s in our wallets.
MarketWatch: Could you talk a bit about the origins of the podcast? What interests you about people’s relationship to money?
Gaby Dunn: I felt like there was a lot of shame around money. I wrote this piece for Fusion on the misunderstandings people had about YouTubers and money, and the reaction showed a lot of people didn’t know the truth. I saw friends of mine struggling and thought there was such a disconnect between looking for quarters in your car so you can pay for rent while people think you’re famous and successful.
That is when I realized money was a thing people just didn’t talk about. I never looked into it personally, and I didn’t know how to bring it up with my friends. I had wanted to do a podcast for some time and thought, “Something I’ve never talked about before is money.” So we said, “Let’s poke the wound — let’s do something you’re actually embarrassed about.”
“I had wanted to do a podcast for some time and thought, “Something I’ve never talked about before is money.” So we said, “Let’s poke the wound — let’s do something you’re actually embarrassed about.”
MW: Why do you think people are so uncomfortable talking about money?
Dunn: If you aren’t good at money you’re deemed a failure. Being bad with money is seen as an intellectual, moral, and personal failure. We’ve come a long way in terms of sex and sexuality where it’s less stigmatized. But money is outside the realm of even a topic of conversation I can have among my peers. It became more personal and people feel like it says something about them, especially because it’s something they can control, it’s something they should have been better at, but it’s something nobody taught us anything about and somehow we are supposed to know about it.
I always say, how are we supposed to know this stuff? Is there a day in elementary school I missed? When it comes to finance, either your parents took the initiative to teach you or they didn’t. It’s just so much work and it feels so crushing and overwhelming to learn about money.
When I meet with my accountant, I record our conversations so I can go back over them. Now when I listen to some of my conversations from when I first met with my accountant, it’s embarrassing. I don’t know anything. But in order to get better, I had to stop being scared of saying “I don’t know what I’m doing.” You can pretend that you know it all and nod and say, “Of course,” but everyone is doing that and nobody is learning anything.
MW: Do you think personal-finance classes should be taught in school?
Dunn: Personal-finance classes are definitely needed and definitely helpful, but we should also be looking at the systematic barriers to financial success. I have heard some people say pushing personal-finance classes reinforces the idea that it’s your fault if you can’t make it. Economic mobility is nearly impossible now for many people.
So it is two-fold: you do need baseline information about finances. But you also need to be learning about the stuff you could influence by voting. You could say, “I want wealthier people to be taxed more,” “I have problems with the student loans system,” and “How can we advocate for forgiveness programs?” You need to be creating personal responsibility and systemic change at the same time.
MW: You talked a lot in the first episode about how parents’ relationship to money affects how their kids see money. Is there anything you wish your parents had done differently? What will you do if you ever have kids?
Dunn: Just being honest with your kids is huge. It gave me whiplash as a child to think one minute we can have whatever we want and my parents were indulging us and saying, “It’s fine,” and then all of a sudden out of nowhere they would tighten the budget and say we had no money.
A lot of young people are kept in the dark and I talked to a lot of young people who said their parents would want their help around the house or with babysitting, or ask them to get a job to help out, but when their kid asked why they wouldn’t tell them. Just be honest with them, say you can’t afford a babysitter. Kids understand, and sheltering them does nothing to benefit them and their understanding of money.
MW: How do you think the Trump administration is affecting how you look at finances?
Dunn: I think there needs to be more intersectionality. People need to talk to each other. Often we are only thinking about one person our age, and we have to not be complacent and fight and march.
We need to talk to one another more. Money is a huge emotional burden — taking it upon yourself, and pretending your life is one way when it’s not and not talking to your neighbors is how they keep us down. It’s a trick — it’s a scam. Nobody actually knocks on their neighbor’s door and says, “Who’s your accountant?” I feel like there’s an insidious thing where we are kept apart from each other when we blame each other for economic failings. That keeps the status quo.
MW: What do you think is the most taboo money topic still?
Dunn: Savings is still the most taboo. For a long time, I didn’t fully understand what savings was for and had to find out from random people in my life. My therapist said savings is for if you have an emergency. My girlfriend was the one to tell me I could divide savings up among different needs. Then I was embarrassed for not having one.
There is a nebulous idea that you have to have savings, but nobody tells you how to do it or what it’s for. It’s such an overwhelming amount of information, and there is no one right answer.
“In order to get better, I had to stop being scared of saying ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ You can pretend that you know it all and nod and say, ‘Of course,’ but everyone is doing that and nobody is learning anything.’
MW: Do you think millennials see money differently than other generations?
Dunn: It’s tough because millennials are adults now. It’s hard to lump an entire generation together because millennials are such a large group and have such a wide range of financial experiences. There is a focus on upper-middle class millennials, but there are a lot of experiences in the age group.
For example, there is a huge focus on student loan forgiveness but what would also be helpful is raising minimum wage because many of us work in the service industry — but you never hear about that. We have to get rid of the stigma and just advocate for ourselves as grown-ass adults.
MW: What has freelancing taught you about money?
Dunn: I think it made me more shameless. Asking for money from employers used to cause me shame, but then I read something I will never forget: “Poor people are not ashamed to talk about money — they have to talk about it all day, rich people are the ones who don’t want to talk about money.”
That’s what freelancing made me think of: the amount of sad emails I sent to publications saying, “I need this money.” It taught me that it does not behoove you to seem too cool. You can’t let it slide.
It took a full year for a brand to pay me. And you have to do it, you have to email and ask for money. And I felt like I looked desperate and tacky and poor, but then something flipped and I thought, ‘I shouldn’t be embarrassed — they should be embarrassed they aren’t paying me!’ That was an important lesson: to advocate for yourself.
“There are usually two things going on: there are actual money problems and there’s shame about the money problems. And if you can eliminate shame, you’ve eliminated half the problem.”
MW: What’s the most important money tip you have gleaned from the podcast?
Dunn: Ask questions. What’s the worst that could happen? That you look stupid? Usually, 12 other people around you also don’t know the answer.
There are usually two things going on: there are actual money problems and there’s shame about the money problems. And if you can eliminate shame, you’ve eliminated half the problem. So talk to your friends, talk to your family, ask Facebook
, talk to everybody!
MW: Would you say you’re still bad with money?
Dunn: Yes, I am still 100% really bad. I still cry about money all the time, but I am certainly better than I was when I started.
This interview has been edited for style and space.