I’ve written before about my obsession with Refinery29’s ‘Money Diaries’ series and I genuinely look forward to reading the latest one every Wednesday. If I’m honest, however, I only pay close attention to the ones where the writer is earning close to – but ideally less than – my own salary. Reading the financial comings-and-goings of someone on far more money than you is like reading a ‘My Day On A Plate’ feature by someone who breakfasts on hot water and lemon and a kale smoothie – very easy to dismiss as unrelatable and unachievable.
This week’s Money Diary from a freelance writer in London caused something of a stir, generating over 170 comments on the site (which doesn’t seem huge but normally the feature doesn’t get anything like as much BTL engagement), and a lot of Twitter chatter.
Absolutely totally obsessed with this woman – has £1 in her account but spent £70 on coke on NYE and takes several Ubers a night https://t.co/OPz8m4eVVX
— Helen Nianias (@helennianias) January 17, 2018
as both an anxious person and someone raised by a first generation immigrant I’ve no idea how any of you managed to read that “Money Diary” piece until the end, I lasted seven paragraphs
— Marie Le Conte (@youngvulgarian) January 17, 2018
That Refinery29 money diary is a good example of how when you have literally zero money, spending ££ on shit can be justified with “but I’m so poor, why does it matter anyway?”.
— Rachel McGrath (@RachelMcGrath) January 17, 2018
I sent the link to DB – who’s never knowingly walked away from a yellow-stickered supermarket reduction – with the message “maybe take a Valium before you read this”, fully aware what his take on it would be. And I’ll admit, I judge the person too. A bit. However, fun as it is to read, eyes wide while muttering, “oh my God, babe, just make a sandwich at home and stay in tonight”, there’s something a little bit grubby about poring over every last pound spent by someone you’ve never met. Especially when that person is on a truly woeful salary and lives in London – Europe’s most expensive city in which to rent a home. Yes, she doesn’t have to spend quite as much money as she does on Ubers and booze, but even the most frugal person on the planet would struggle in any city in the South East on fourteen grand a year. I can completely understand getting to the “fuck it” point. It’s recklessness born of fear – the cold, nagging ache of money troubles can be temporarily eased by buying a nice thing. And people who say, “well, why live in London then?” are missing the point – like it or not, it’s where most media and creative jobs are based.
There’s also, I think, a slight bit of gender prejudice here – an unspoken idea that women are financially more responsible than men, so when women exhibit somewhat hedonistic tendencies, it’s far more of a talking point than it is when men do it. You only have to look at the comments underneath an article on, say, beauty products, to see what I mean. “Why are you spending money and putting all that crap on your face?” is the gist of it. “You only really need soap, water and plenty of sleep.” Does anyone head to the sport section and start asking men why they spend so much on Arsenal season tickets? I bloody think not.
Now, I’ve had my moments of being judgemental of how other people spend their money, but I’m learning to have a word with myself every time I realise I’m doing it. Not least because I’ve bought three Bella Freud jumpers in the last year alone (though admittedly only ever when there’s a sale on). And while they’re gorgeous and comfortable and warm and go with everything, they’re not exactly an essential. But I’m also very aware of how privileged I am. For the job I do, I’m not on bad money (it’s not spectacular but it’s better than a lot of content writing jobs I see advertised), I can afford to live in Hove, with a dog, in a flat owned by DB’s family. There’s a huge amount of good fortune there.
One of the realities of being under 30 in 2018 is that being in a couple halves your financial headaches. (In some ways, anyway. It also has the potential to double them.) Being able to split the cost of rent, bills, council tax and food shopping makes life a hell of a lot nicer. So if you’re single or not at the living-together stage, you’re immediately at a disadvantage, inasmuch as two incomes are better than one.
The other thing that struck me about this money diary is the grim reality of freelancing. Much as I appreciate my full-time, office-based writing gig, I doubt it will shock you to know that I don’t want to write about kitchens forever. Eventually, I want to be paid to write about a far wider, more exciting range of topics. Which in all likelihood will mean going freelance, at least some of the time. As I live with a self-employed musician, I witness daily how tough it is being your own boss, having to fight for each job, do your own taxes, and not having the luxuries of paid holiday or a company pension plan. It’s not a new quandary, deciding whether to chase what really fulfils you vs. having financial security, but with the rise of the gig economy, it’s becoming an ever bigger, broader question.
I follow a few full-time freelance writers and journalists on social media, and while I know that people only ever upload the edited highlights of their lives, some of them do give the impression of living pretty glamorous lifestyles. Obviously I know deep down that the designer bag might be an EBay find, the fancy crockery might have been tracked down in a charity shop, and the Diptyque candle was probably a gift from a well-to-do family member, but it doesn’t look that way at first glance. It would be helpful for both young people and aspiring freelancers to get a bit more of an insight into what it takes to make a living when you’re self-employed. And as “influencer” becomes an ever-more legitimate job title, I suspect we are approaching the day that bloggers, YouTubers and content creators will have to be more open about what they do for their money.
We need more transparency about pay across all industries, but in particular the creative industries and the media, because that’s where a lot of the problems with working for free and unpaid internships are. It’s immensely frustrating that one of our biggest exports – arts and culture – is fraught with demands on people to provide what they do for free. How on earth did we get to the point where you can want a band to play at your venue but you don’t want to pay them? How did we get to the point where you can need some content for your website but you’re not prepared to compensate the qualified, talented writer you ask to provide it? This idea that creative pursuits don’t require work and therefore don’t need to be paid for is absurd.
On the one hand, we live in a world where we’re defined by our careers and that if you’re just doing a job to pay the bills, you’re failing on some level. But on the other, when people do pursue passions, such as music, writing, fashion and art, we expect them to do it for the love of it alone. And that doesn’t pay the rent.