Screenshot: Refinery29

On Tuesday, Refinery29 published an entry in their wildly popular Money Diaries series detailing a week in the life of a 21-year-old intern and college student in New York City whose pricey lifestyle is supplemented by generous assistance from her family.

Originally headlined “A Week in New York City on $25/Hour,” the Money Diary was hardly the financial story of an intern figuring out how to get by. Instead, the expenditures on this particular bit of internet ephemera feel a bit egregious; there’s a $210 Equinox membership and a “Sugared + Bronzed Pass” for $40.76. As an intern, she makes a tidy $25 per hour, but the bulk of her life is paid for by a generous allowance from her parents (who also pay her rent), as well as some extra money from her grandfather (#blessed). This is a reality for many young people living in New York City, residing in apartments that seem a little too nice, but the disingenuousness of this particular entry struck the internet’s nerve. 

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It’s that disingenuousness—signaled by the omission of crucial financial details—that stings. That omission was not intentional, Lindsey Stanberry, the director of Refinery29’s Work & Money vertical, noted. She blamed a headline algorithm for obscuring those numbers in the original title, even though it’s a crucial detail beneficial to the success of these diaries. It also points to the tension between the popularity of the Money Diaries and their stated purpose: to educate and inform millennial women about finances and to chip away at the false notion that talking about money at all is impolite or taboo.

Stanberry appeared on Buzzfeed’s Twitter morning show AM2DM on Wednesday to respond to the criticisms. The column is crowd-sourced, submitted to the editors at the site through a form, then vetted by actual humans who read the submissions.

“People are always desperate for them to show up around lunchtime,” Stanberry said. “We aim to deliver, but we messed up.”

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Shortly after the Money Diary made the internet rounds, Refinery29 changed had played with the headline, changing it multiple times—by Thursday morning it read “A Week in NYC on $25/Hour and $1k Monthly Allowance.” (The byline remains an unironic “You”). “We updated the headline to reflect her additional income after we received so much feedback on Twitter,” Stanberry told Jezebel via email. “We do also regularly run test headlines for performance and platform, which is why there was a headline referencing her parents & grandfather,” she said, in response to the multiple headline changes following the post’s publication.

Refinery29 has been quick to point out that the Money Diaries—a regular and popular feature on the site—is representitive of a diversity of viewpoints. In a highly-detailed post from 2017—three years after launching the feature—Refinery29 provides granular insight into its process. In a comprehensive FAQ section, the site explains: “We are also very considerate of representation and inclusivity in our selections. We try our best to represent the experiences of all women the best we can.” But despite claims of inclusivity, the diarists are not paid—a fact that was corroborated by Refinery29 in an email to Jezebel.

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Plenty of other other websites have done what Refinery29 is trying to do, recognizing that talking about money openly and with candor is essential, especially for women. The Billfold, a site that I co-edited for a year, has been having these same conversations since 2012, but reflecting a greater breadth of experience in its coverage. Similarly, Wealthsimple, an investment management company with a content arm, aims to turn a similar trick, but shoots high and has featured celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Anthony Bourdain speaking candidly and at length about their relationship with money.

Conversations about money and how to spend it have been ongoing for years, but the key difference is the audience. Wealthsimple and The Billfold cast their nets broadly. But Refinery29 relies on unpaid reader-submitted stories. They act as a mirror, reflecting the readership of the site: millennial women.

A kind of financial anthropology is admirable, but those who submit and the women who are reading the results are drawing from the same small pool. With a few exceptions, the result is a monotone voice—one with a lot of money for whom financial woes are simply non-existent. What could and would be more interesting and helpful to read would be a money diary written by a single mother living on $30,000 a year, but that’s never going to happen. In order for that woman to sit down and write a week’s log of her spending, she would have to have the time, and by extension, the money to make up for the time lost, in order to do so. And Refinery29 isn’t offering the money.

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What rings hollow about this feature is not necessarily the format itself, but the muddled messages around them. The stated intention of this exercise is to present an honest and true experience—a safe space for women to speak with candor about their financial situations, without feeling judged. Because women don’t often talk about money, any disclosure that presents itself as honest and “real” attracts attention; the format of the diaries themselves seem to encourage judgment. Carrie Battan tackled this question at The New Yorker in a 2016 piece that observed “Money Diaries was established as a place where millennial women stand before their peers to await harsh judgment.”

But judgment isn’t really the issue because, as Battan notes, a kinder read of the criticism and the lively comments section is that this is just how the internet is. What really matters is the resentment that underscores the commentary. Financially savvy is still gendered and financial investment services like Ellevest and Joy have tailored their approach specifically for women by pandering and condescension, situating young women as dumb consumers who are incapable of comprehending how to manage their money. Through this lens, Refinery29's Money Diaries are merely perpetuating that stereotype because a good Money Diary should be entertaining above all.

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Inevitably, the Money Diaries are being turned into a book, set to publish on September 4. A press release portrays the value of the book not in its exposure to a range of financial circumstances, class awareness or even financial literacy, but in the “highly addictive” experience of peeking into the bank accounts of strangers and dissecting their personal financial decisions.

This marketing tactic runs counter to how the book’s author describes its mission: In a blog post about the book, she wrote “Some might write off Money Diaries as just another viral hit, but it’s so much more than that. We’re starting a kind of revolution at Refinery29, in which women are talking to each other about their financial secrets.”

The book will include all-new Money Diary entries, as well as financial advice from female financial advisors and something called “money challenges” that will supposedly incentivize the reader to save upwards of $500. Bouree Lam, a writer for the Work & Money vertical told Jezebel that diarists included in the book were compensated. It’s a nice touch, for a book that will serve Refinery29's equivocation: Money and financial literacy are feminist issues as long as they’re “highly addictive.”

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