The money diaries: how salacious stories of overdrafts replaced sex advice for millennials

A form of confessional journalism that provides an excruciatingly detailed look at people’s spending habits.

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Breakfast for two, £32. Uber, £26. Cocaine, £70. Takeaway, £29.30. More Ubers, £25. I am staring at my screen, stress pulsing through me with each sum I read. But this isn’t a guilty glance at my own bank account – it’s a total stranger’s weekly spend, published for the world to see.

She’s a 26-year-old freelance writer living a credit-powered party life in London, on £300 a week. And she was my first taste of a “money diary”: a form of confessional journalism that provides an excruciatingly detailed look at people’s spending habits.

Published on Refinery29, an edgy US digital platform for young women, it’s one of more than 500 first-person anonymous accounts by women, breaking down how much they spend each day of the week – a popular series that has been running since January 2016. The women’s situations and lifestyles vary, from the Bedfordshire-based single mum with twins on £20,000 to the financial director on a joint salary of £950,000 in Los Angeles (who spends £132.64 on sushi of a weeknight). But all are somehow fascinating. Through their expenditure, they expose dating woes, work worries, diets and dysfunctional relationships. One woman pays her boyfriend back for half of every minor thing he spends despite him earning triple her £9,000 salary; another pays all her student partner’s expenses, even lending him her credit card.

I’m not the only one who’s hooked – the Guardian, the i newspaper and the Vice UK website have begun delving into the nation’s wallets to run similar journals. Thanks to these, we’re now learning how young metropolitan men go about their spending (lots of Lucozade and skipping train fares, apparently), as well as pensioners and couples with children.

Yet it’s the entries by millennials, particularly wealthy ones, which get the most attention. Elizabeth Anderson, the i newspaper’s money editor who launched their “How I Live On” diary series in June, observes a bigger response (more “clicks and shares”) to diaries of people who are “earning what other people deem to be a too-high salary. And people judge what they’re spending their money on.” Lindsey Stanberry, who runs Refinery29’s series, also noticed this phenomenon. “While users continually asked for more Money Diaries of women making lower salaries, more readers click on Money Diaries featuring higher salaries,” she wrote in July.

But judgement rather than aspiration lies behind this phenomenon. Published on the same day last month, two money diaries in separate publications went viral – with readers on Twitter and in the websites’ comment sections deriding the women who wrote them.

Refinery29’s 21-year-old marketing intern, whose parents were paying for her New York rent, bills and education, was condemned for her extreme privilege. The i newspaper’s 29-year-old Londoner, earning £70,000 as a project manager, was mocked for saving up for a house (fewer taxis, cheaper drinks on holiday, and cancelling a £150-a-month gym membership were hardly seen as slumming it). The MailOnline reported on the backlash, and the woman’s picture and name were removed from the article.

“The format intrinsically invites judgement,” says a 26-year-old friend of mine who is an avid money diary reader. “Because someone is laying their life bare in incredible detail, you’re almost expected to nit-pick about their decisions.” How we judge people’s financial situations says more about us than them, however. Millennials are a financially precarious generation, yet characterised as profligate Class A avocado abusers in the mainstream press. No wonder we’re curious about what our peers are spending.

“It is reassuring to see how people fritter their cash away,” says Matthew, 31, who searches for a new money diary to read every day. “It’s normalising. Money is one of the few things you can’t discuss so these diaries bridge that gap.”

He describes such articles as “a little bit like porn”. With sex no longer a taboo among the socially liberal younger generation, money has taken over as a focus for voyeurism. The agony aunt column advising on people’s sex lives has been supplanted by salacious stories of slipping into an overdraft or the allure of budgeting.

Monzo, a smartphone-only bank that tells you what you’re spending in real time, owes its success to millennials. The three-year-old British start-up, on course to value at $1.5bn, says half its users are under 30, and a further quarter under 40. My lucky few friends with Monzo cards (until three months ago, there was a waiting list) proudly show me how the app keeps track of what they’re spending in different categories (food, travel, etc). The US business magazine Inc wrote in 2017 that if Monzo were a boyfriend, it “would treat you as an equal, buy your mom flowers, and always give you a call before you fell asleep”. Apps such as the chummily-named You Need A Budget are also cropping up to meet millennial demand for smart budgeting.

Holidays with my group of friends now include a new guest, Splitwise, an app that tracks who spends what and who owes whom, providing a running a total. The app market data provider App Annie identifies finance as one of the top two app categories poised for massive growth (by last August, it had already counted 200 billion financial app sessions globally).

Budgeting has always been a necessity, but millennials have made a lifestyle of it. “It used to be that people were a bit ashamed to say they couldn’t go for a drink because of money,” says Anderson. “Whereas now they are quite proud to say they’re saving.” But as the money diary boom reveals, how we judge them for it has yet to change. 

Anoosh Chakelian is a senior writer for newstatesman.com

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?