Every day, around lunchtime, I put a few keystrokes into my browser and spend a week in someone else’s life. These avatars share my gender and loosely defined age group, but more often than not, that’s pretty much all we have in common. The woman in question might be a millionaire putting her child through private school, or a tech employee living out of their car in Silicon Valley. Usually, her circumstances are less extreme, though no less exotic when held up against my own day-to-day: a librarian in West Virginia; a summer associate at a major law firm; an uncomfortable number of people who are my age, but married and/or homeowners. And I have access to some of the most intimate details of her life, right down to how much she has socked away in their 401(k).
These women are not the victims of some sort of mass hacking incident, nor are they public figures subject to the scrutiny of a particularly nosy interviewer. Rather, they’re just a few of the voluntary participants in Refinery29’s Money Diaries, a crowdsourced blog series turned de facto social experiment turned, as of this week, book. The premise is simple: Millennial women, a demographic that doubles as Refinery29’s core readership, share a week’s worth of everyday spending under the cover of anonymity, plus a few macro figures like rent, debt, and insurance costs to give the smaller expenditures some context.
The results are both easily replicable and unbelievably addictive. Onlookers are invited to groan with jealousy at a Belgian project manager’s student loan budget ($0, because “higher education is heavily subsidized by the government”) or a Salt Lake City researcher’s rent ($1,670—split four ways). Alternatively, they can — and do — pick apart the work-life balance of a San Diego lawyer (“My first reaction was to say damn, she must be miserable”) or the relationship of a New York City freelancer (“Your boyfriend sounds mad unsupportive”). And as exacting as the Diaries’ commentariat can be, the series shows no signs of cutting off their supply of ammunition. In the two and a half years since the Diaries’ launch in early 2016, the franchise has published more than 500 entries.
“We all think we’re the most exciting character in the story of our lives, right?” Lindsey Stanberry speculates. As the director of Refinery29’s Work & Money vertical, Stanberry oversees Money Diaries and is the credited author of the book, which blends Diaries with follow-up interviews, group surveys, and more straightforward financial advice on what goes into buying a home or how to ask for a raise. (The subtitle is Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Your Finances … and Everyone Else’s.) When editor Jessica Chou first pitched the concept, Stanberry was hesitant, worrying that an open call would yield a bland list of numbers and little else. But thanks to the combination of human beings’ natural impulse to talk about themselves with the all-encompassing nature of money, the Diaries panned out rather differently than Stanberry first predicted. “They’re not doing my original fear, which was that they would just go through their day and be like, ‘I spent $5 on coffee and $20 at the grocery store buying these 10 products,’” Stanberry explains of the diarists. “They talk about their dating lives and their relationships with their parents and their bad bosses.”
Once the urge to disclose has been turned on, it’s hard to shut back off. Because diarists are already letting their peers in on how much they make and what they do with those earnings, they tend to apply the same spirit of candor to the rest of their routines — even the parts that aren’t explicitly linked to their wallets. “I’ve been in New York for a little over a year now and haven’t really found a close group of friends to do things with,” one data analyst vents by way of explaining her splurge on Bumble Premium. “Moving out here has been a lonely experience.” A copywriter in Kuala Lumpur segues abruptly from a chicken burger lunch to grief: “I get reminded that a prepaid phone number I own will be terminated if I don’t top up the credit. … The phone number belonged to my late father, who passed away a few months ago. … Maybe someday I’ll be able to let it go, but that day is not today.” An accountant includes a tense post-Bachelorette conversation with her live-in boyfriend about her “worry that our relationship is a dead end.” With Money Diaries, the content is sometimes more relatable than even what the most prying of eyes bargained for.
The weekly diary is a time-honored tradition for digital media outlets always on the hunt for cheap and easy material. Two of the most popular are run under the auspices of New York magazine: the Grub Street Diet, part of the namesake food blog, and Sex Diaries. The Grub Street Diet tracks everything its subject, typically a famous person only occasionally connected to the hospitality industry, eats and drinks; Sex Diaries tracks everything its anonymous subject … you know. Yet Money Diaries manages to up the ante on its predecessors; it’s more comprehensive than a dietary log (though diarists do itemize every meal prep, grocery run, and sad desk salad) while, in its own way, just as intimate as documenting one’s sexual escapades (though diarists do frequently allude to theirs in the form of emoticons or references to “fun times”).
“It’s still so uncomfortable to even talk with our friends or our partners about money,” Stanberry says. And Money Diaries offers, no questions asked, something most people wouldn’t feel comfortable requesting even from their closest confidants. “It’s a chance to open somebody’s pocket book and look at the receipts. It’s really fascinating, even though, oftentimes, it can be very mundane.”
Stanberry isn’t wrong about that last part, but mundanity is, paradoxically, a cornerstone of Money Diaries’ appeal. “So often when we’re talking about money, especially on a ‘to the masses’ scale, you don’t necessarily get down to the nitty-gritty of the everyday financial choices you have to be making,” observes Erin Lowry, a personal finance expert who targets younger audiences under the name Broke Millennial. Those choices extend beyond the macro of how to structure your mortgage or budget for childcare and into the micro of how many impulse coffees a person grabs on the way into or out of the office — and Money Diaries covers both. Lowry first took notice of Money Diaries as one of the precious few pieces of personal finance media to break through to her non-money-nerd friend circle. “Money Diaries is a very rare crossover where you don’t have to be interested in personal finance as either a hobby or a career to want to consume that content,” she says. “It offers a little bit of a voyeuristic look into someone else’s life.”
That look comes directly from Refinery29’s submissions box, into which aspiring diarists upload a complete week’s worth of spending, plus the big-picture figures included at the top of every post: job title, industry, paycheck amount and frequency, loan payments, other monthly expenses. The itemized expenses aren’t fact-checked, but editors do cross-reference diarists’ emails and LinkedIn to ensure they’re real people who have the jobs they say they have. (This doesn’t stop commenters from occasionally accusing some controversial Diaries of being fabrications.) Per Stanberry, the raw copy is minimally edited, but mostly presented as-is: “Sometimes we’ll clean it up so it’s a little more concise, very much the way you would clean up an interview of ‘ums’ and ‘uhs.’ But all language and stuff is them. They come up with their funny phrasing and tics.”
The secret to Money Diaries’ success seems to lie in its contradictory mix of the salacious and the banal. Submissions let hungry readers in on incredibly personal details: how much they make, how much student debt they pay, how much they live on their own income versus their parents’ or their partner’s. They go to spin class, make overnight oats, accrue points on their Starbucks app, and binge Netflix shows. Sometimes, the sheer ordinariness of a diary is part of what makes it unusual, even exotic. When was the last time someone in your life detailed every single part of their daily routine, right down to their commute time? Because money touches everything — food, housing, leisure time, transportation — diarists essentially have to. Not that the editors have to do much persuading. “They often reveal details that are at risk of being too revealing,” Stanberry says. “We had one diarist who provided first names of everyone in her life. Slow down!”
But the Diaries themselves are only half the equation. Even among comments sections’ already established reputation for harsh judgement and hair-trigger irascibility, Money Diaries is infamous for its nitpicking. “Money Diaries [is] established as a place where millennial women stand before their peers to await harsh judgment,” Carrie Battan wrote for the New Yorker late last year. “Money — the ‘last taboo facing modern working women,’ as Refinery29 puts it, and a locus of profound pressure and anxiety — may be the last arena in which we’re allowed to judge one another openly.” I’ve seen commenters armchair diagnose a diarist with an eating disorder or close read the state of their relationship on the strength of a few asides. Stanberry recalls one incident where commenters zeroed in on the dietary habits of a South Carolina diarist supporting both herself and her husband on a salary of $38,500: “She was really struggling to make things work, and she ate a lot of fast food. And the commenters gave her a really hard time about how much fast food she was consuming.”
The top-voted comment on virtually every diary expresses a sentiment similar to this one: “I’m getting tired of these comments where people are judging OP because parents pay for things or they spend their money differently then [sic] you would. Just Stop.” Stanberry and her colleagues do monitor the comments and moderate them for outright abusive content, but for the most part, they’ve become an entity unto themselves. “They created their own community, which is wonderful and a little terrifying,” Stanberry says. In a sense, the comments are even more revealing about young women’s financial habits and mind-sets than the diaries themselves. Under the unspoken logic of the commenters, getting too much assistance from others is bad, but so is resorting to cheap, easy meals when you’re assisting someone else. Relatability is prized (not a Diary goes by without some variation on a “Girl, I feel you”) but so is aspiration: Stanberry says the highest-earning diarists are routinely the highest-performing ones, traffic-wise.
There are also times when the schadenfreude seeps out of Money Diaries’ comments and into the internet at large. Even total novices caught some of the blowback from “A Week in New York City on $25/Hour,” the saga of a college student and intern who gets $1,100 a month in cash from various family members, goes on rosé-soaked weekend trips to the Hamptons, and whose parents pay more than $2,000 for just half of a one-bedroom apartment — on top of the aforementioned allowance. The response was visceral, immediate, and almost uniformly negative towards the intern and occasionally Refinery29 itself, possibly because, as Slate pointed out, the diary is practically a laundry list of millennial clichés. Within just a few days, the backlash triggered a tidal wave of thinkpieces, an official response from Stanberry, and a revised headline. (The diary is now advertised as “A Week in New York City on $25/Hour and $1K Monthly Allowance.”) As both a regular reader of Money Diaries and someone who attended college in New York City myself, the post struck me as eyeroll-inducing yet not unusual. But the diary struck a nerve, in part by embodying some of the uglier stereotypes surrounding young women: entitled, vapid, and oblivious.
“It is unfortunate, if and when stuff goes viral that subscribes to a negative stereotype of how women spend their money,” Lowry says. “It just reinforces people’s negative thought process and their ideas that women shouldn’t be in charge of money or can’t properly handle money, when certainly that’s not the case.” There’s an undeniably gendered component to the conversations around the diaries as well as the diaries themselves. Stanberry positions the Diaries as something of a corrective to male ownership of the financial sphere (“Men had always dominated the conversation around how we talk about money”), but they also feed into an intense culture of evaluation and assessment with a complicated history in women’s media, or just womanhood in general. Magazines have long sold a contradictory mix of superiority and inadequacy disguised as diet or outfit advice; Money Diaries removes the open prescription while adapting the genre for the crowdsourcing age.
Add in the usual generational gripes about millennials being flighty, irresponsible, and somehow responsible for the crushing economic burden they’ve inherited, and you’ve got a recipe for an internet firestorm. “It’s not coincidental that young women were the subjects of all these stories,” Jia Tolentino observed in the second(!) New Yorker piece to take Money Diaries as its subject, this time alongside Kylie Jenner and a reviled New York Times real estate column. “Young women, who are constantly asked to present themselves as likable, tend to be hyper-aware of what other people think about them. And in this era of world-historical inequality—and in this country, which is psychologically addicted to the idea of bootstrapping—it is not ‘cool’ to be blindly privileged, to have lived your life on the soft velvet cushion of family wealth.” So women conceal or downplay that wealth in their daily lives, then get passed around the internet when they disclose it sans identifying details.
But the intern diary was only one chapter of a series that’s best understood in the aggregate, and Lowry acknowledges that, at the end of the day, the Diaries have “done a great job of trying to pull in different perspectives, different walks of life.” There are definite biases to the submission pool, which tend to reflect Refinery29’s readership — urban, college educated, and middle class. Stanberry says she’d like to see more diaries from LGBTQ people, from non-city dwellers, from single women. (The book may source more than a fifth of its diaries from Los Angeles alone, but it also pointedly follows a woman making $26,300 with one taking in nearly 10 times that.) The overall variety is still impressive, though for readers like me who fit squarely into a Money Diaries archetype, the overrepresentation is strangely appealing. The only thing more fascinating than holding your life up against that of someone halfway across the world is comparing notes with someone who lives just five miles away.
I’ve often thought about what my own Money Diary might read like. I’d never submit one, of course; “Occupation: TV Critic, Location: Los Angeles” makes things a little too obvious. (“5:30 a.m. — I get up tragically early to do an interview for Canadian public radio. 7:00 a.m. — Because I’m already awake, I decide to double down on the masochism and head to spin class…”) Months of daily consumption have taught me the chipper tone diarists and commenters seem to expect from one another, and I sometimes find my internal monologue slipping into it while I sheepishly pick up yet another Sweetgreen salad because I was too lazy to pre-cook my own lunch. As much as I’d like to say Money Diaries has made me more conscious of my spending, it’s mostly made me more conscious of my lifestyle and how it might look to someone else. Stanberry is right: We’re all the star of our own stories. The difference is that, as a Money Diary, a wider range of people’s stories can finally have an audience. That audience might talk back, and what it says isn’t always friendly. To more than 500 diarists and counting, though, it’s worth the risk.