The most lurid corner of the Internet is not a new dating app or a
fetish site. It’s not an alt-right forum or a bitcoin marketplace, nor
is it some channel of the deep Web where novel, illicit substances are
heavily trafficked. It is Money
Diaries, a column, from the life-style site Refinery29, in which anonymous young professional women document
every penny they earn and spend in a week—on Uber rides, lattes,
birthday gifts, impulse-buy candy bars at the Walgreens register. Like
I said: thrilling stuff.

Money Diaries launched in January of 2016, premised on the idea that
“the first step to getting your financial life in order is tracking what
you spend.” By encouraging young women to record their expenditures, and
to discuss their finances frankly, Refinery29 could, the theory goes,
help young women become savvier about money. The first woman to brave
the experiment was a twenty-seven-year-old Brooklynite making sixty-five thousand
dollars a year in an undisclosed “creative industry.” Her entry was
candid and funny: she ordered buffalo wings and a large pizza for
herself late at night ($28.74); bought beauty products online, to
compensate for being unhappy at work ($59); ordered a copy of a
novel on Amazon ($10.66); and dabbled in cocaine (gratis). “I don’t
know how much drugs are supposed to cost, but I heard coke is pricey,”
she wrote. “I just did a line because it was offered, and I was drunk.
The alcohol was free, too.”

In the world of the Money Diaries, she quickly learned, no amount of
honesty goes unpunished. In the comments section, Refinery29 readers
quickly established themselves as financial, and moral, adjudicators. “I
live and work in chealsea [sic] and I wouldn’t dare waste like this,”
one wrote, with palpable condescension. “Esp on that salary. Try
reevaluating doll :).” Another took issue with her literary splurge:
“Pro tip. Go to the library for books. That one was decent but not worth
a buy!” A third found her health regimen insufficient: “Yum, a diet of
pizza, pastries, alcohol and buffalo wings (and a lil cocaine) with no
time spent exercising . . . no wonder this young woman seems exhausted
and unmotivated.” A commenter identifying herself as the diarist eventually waded into the comments to
defend herself, or at least her recreational drug use. She’d grown up
incredibly sheltered, she wrote, and had been compensating in adulthood,
hence the cocaine (which, by the way, she’s only tried three times).

Thus Money Diaries was established as a place where millennial women
stand before their peers to await harsh judgment. To be fair, there are
plenty of genuinely absurd details in the diarists’ spending habits. One
woman making two hundred and forty thousand dollars a year as an
attorney described getting a bikini wax as a way to “wake up”; another
making a hundred and eight thousand dollars a year in the oil industry
shells out a hundred and forty-five dollars to groom her dog. But it’s often the most mundane entries that garner the most
heated criticism. One woman who makes a hundred and twenty thousand
dollars a year in media noted that her boyfriend picked up the bill
for several outings. “50’s AF,” one commenter wrote. Women who pay for
their boyfriends, such as a tech-industry worker with a salary of a
hundred and forty-five thousand dollars (plus a thirty-thousand-dollar bonus), are equally scolded. “WHYYYY WOULD YOU EVER LET THE BOYFRIEND GET OFF RENT-FREE BEFORE YOU ARE MARRIED? . . . Women be trippin!” A Fordham student had virtually no
income, and mostly subsisted on contributions from her parents.
Naturally, this enraged the commenters—but so did plenty else about her
spending habits. “Damn she eats carbs every meal,” one wrote.

Read enough of these entries and their related comments, which often run
into the hundreds, and an unspoken code becomes apparent. Money Diaries
initially featured mainly affluent women from cities such as New York
and Los Angeles, but it soon began sprinkling in entries from women
earning less, and in smaller towns and cities. A woman who makes six
figures is treated more harshly than a woman who earns less—unless it’s
too much less, in which case she is suspected to be a freeloader.
(“Glad you’re making it on $32k in the city but it doesn’t quite add
up,” one commenter wrote to a twenty-four-year-old writer.) Entries from
people who live in New York receive the most scrutiny, as do those from
women working in finance and tech. Women in stable relationships are
treated more harshly, while women from small or rural towns are revered,
particularly if they live modestly and get to bed early.

The kindest comments I’ve seen were in response to a woman living in
Juneau, Alaska, who raises her own chickens, cans her own vegetables,
and, during her weeklong period of journaling, walked to pick up takeout
during a blizzard. “I would love to hear more like this!” one commenter
replied. “Best diary yet!” another gushed. If the series is to be
believed, we would like young women not merely to get their financial
lives in order but to enter an enlightened state of ascetic living.
Meanwhile, the diarists themselves, whether affluent and urban or not,
add caveats and justifications for any irrational-seeming purchases, as
if to beg the commenters in advance for forgiveness. The woman who
ordered takeout emphasizes that she didn’t waste the leftovers. The
waxed lawyer insists that she spends four hundred to five hundred
dollars a month on charity, and “more toward the end of the year.”

This might all seem like an ongoing experiment in stereotypical female
cruelty, demonstrating how harshly women judge each other, and
underscoring the complex tangle of Schadenfreude and resentment with
which women sometimes regard one another’s careers. Or it might seem
like just another batshit comments section. Money Diaries is careful to
include women with large student-loan bills to pay down and parents’
mortgages to contribute to, but the column still seems to exist largely
in a comfortable urban bubble. It’s easy to treat young people’s
financial decisions as entertainment when they’re still on their
parents’ cell-phone plans. And yet it seems, to me, that there are real
anxieties detectable in these diaries and comments, ones that are
specific to a young female demographic. Millennial women have
experienced a minor cultural revolution and a major economic panic
within their young life spans. We’re now, in theory, encouraged to dress
how we please, sleep with whomever we want, choose to have children or
not, wear makeup or go barefaced, demand raises and take maternity
leave, and speak out about sexual harassment and assault. At the same
time, we are products of the Great Recession, instilled with deep-seated
financial panic and also acutely attuned to notions of privilege.
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.

The Money Diaries ecosystem is now robust enough that Refinery29
sometimes publishes special features. One survey asked women whom they
confide in about financial matters, while another highlighted a woman
who’d managed to eat at eleven restaurants free of charge. A recent post
asked fifteen previous diarists to explain what they’d learned from
logging their finances for a week. Most were self-critical, admitting
that the diary had underscored all of the frivolous purchases that they
should have been avoiding. A few, however, managed to come out of the
experience with a sense of satisfaction. “Doing this diary helped me
realize I have so much to be grateful for, and that I have accomplished
a lot financially, professionally, and personally in my 30 years,” a
Chicagoan making fifty-six thousand dollars a year wrote. Not even the
Money Diaries commenters were up to the task of criticizing her.



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