Still from The Wolf of Wall Street

the grim fascination with ‘money diaries’

They say as much about society as they do about the participants.

by Jake Hall
24 July 2018, 9:24am

Still from The Wolf of Wall Street

Last week, two very different money diaries have gone viral. If you’re as nosy as I am, you’ll be familiar with the concept: every week, willing participants painstakingly document their every expenditure and collate the results into diaries that tell us as much about the participant as they do about modern society.

The first diary comes courtesy of a 29-year-old project manager based in London, whose annual salary rounds out at nearly £70,000. Considering the national average is around £27,000, this should be an exorbitant amount -- champagne for breakfast and monthly holidays, right? Well, no. She’s currently saving to put down a deposit on a house, and therefore puts aside £1500 per month to save for the £60,000 she needs to get on the property ladder. Even with this deposit, she admits she’ll likely have to scale down her expectations and aim for a one-bed property in Bethnal Green, not the two-bed she had dreamed of.

What follows on makes for pretty depressing reading. Despite earning more than double the national average, she admits moving into a cheaper shared house to cut back her monthly expenses, as well as allowing herself meat only as a weekend treat -- throughout the week, she lives on chickpeas and lentils. Plenty of people have taken the piss out of the diary’s tone, which essentially makes a high-flying project manager sound like Oliver Twist. But even more readers were shocked by just how much money you actually need to get on the property ladder without sacrificing basic quality of life, especially in London.

The second diary comes to us from America, and a 21-year-old marketing intern in New York. The whole thing reads as a dystopian millennial satire; not only do her parents pay her rent, phone bill and even her bloody Netflix account, she happily justifies spending $23 on a goats cheese and avocado wrap but begrudges her later meal at a “ridiculously overpriced” restaurant -- in which she seemingly pays $45 for a full meal, starters and drinks. At her friend’s house, she wakes up hungover and scrounges a tub of yoghurt before later puking it up. She searches podcasts on “how to live your best life".

“I do eat quite a lot of avocado on toast, but I get 4-6 avocados for £1 from my local market and buy reduced supermarket bread at the end of the day. That makes each slice about 13p, or 15p if I add lime and chilli."

In a nutshell, this diary represents the media-demonised millennial -- the privileged intern coasting through city life on her parents’ money. Stories like these exemplify the stereotypical view that millennials are irresponsible morons who blow their savings on avocado toast, but why do we so rarely see stories like the first? Of millennials working tirelessly but being bludgeoned by inflation and the cruel fiscal abyss of the property market?

“I do eat quite a lot of avocado on toast, but I get 4-6 avocados for £1 from my local market and buy reduced supermarket bread at the end of the day,” says London-based Phoebe Patey-Ferguson. “That makes each slice about 13p, or 15p if I add lime and chilli -- that’s about affordable on my wage.” Like plenty of young creatives, Phoebe moved to London for a career in the arts. She lives on a canal boat and is studying for a funded PhD, yet still struggles despite working a job on the side. Without her boat, she says she’d have no chance of surviving in the overpriced metropolis: “If I had to pay rent in London, there’s no way I would be able to run arts events or cope with my zero-hour lecturing contracts. I feel very lucky that I can afford those extra limes at the moment!”

Phoebe’s story highlights another problem: London is still treated as Britain’s only cultural epicentre, which helps landlords justify steady hikes in rent. Mortgage costs are rising, an increase which is now spreading to commuter towns. Basic living costs are outpacing the growth rate of wages, and zero-hour contracts are facilitating a new, more precarious economy which fucks over far too many of us. Factor in exorbitant tuition fees and the fact that our London-centric mentality is killing creativity in other towns and cities, and you have a much more accurate picture of modern life for young creatives.

Emily Hearne resisted the pressure to move to London, instead setting up a life for herself in Sheffield. “I have found it quite hard since leaving uni,” she says candidly. “There’s huge pressure when you’re ‘academic’ to graduate and take a grad scheme in London. This absolutely wasn’t what I wanted to do -- I feel like you can be a ‘success’ without doing that.”

As a result, Emily describes a dilemma: do what she actually wanted to do in return for a stable or low income, or take a job she didn’t want to earn a decent salary. She has surpassed these barriers and says she’s happy and “comfortable, money-wise”, yet describes the ‘life goals’ older generations took for granted -- owning a car, having a mortgage -- as “wildly unachievable” before the age of 30. I ask whether she thinks today’s generation gets a bad rep for its spending habits, to which she replies: “Spending £1 a week on avocados is not the problem. My council tax is over £80 a month, train tickets and bus fares to commute to work are constantly going up, and jobs are unstable and competitive. Oh, and I can’t remember the last time I drank Prosecco!”

"I’d say that the misconceptions around ‘millennial spending’ come from a generation who aren’t able to hold themselves accountable for the financial issues we see in the world around us. They’d rather blame someone else.”

Evidently, there are real issues to be addressed; austerity is one, the automatic classism of a London-centric economy is another. I would know -- as a working class kid, I moved here for an internship and ended up suffering a full-scale breakdown after working for three months with no days off. I balanced my placement with an evening bar job and a weekend retail job just to survive. These stories rarely get told, because working class kids rarely overcome these obstacles to actually work in the media. Our struggles either go untold, are overshadowed by stereotypical stories of privileged millennials.

More generally, the financial realities of most young millennials are rarely depicted. Even the word has become contentious -- “I hate that word!” says Birmingham-based Raja. “I think it’s been used as a muzzle, and a tool to belittle our worldview.” But why could that be? “Well, I’d say that the misconceptions around ‘millennial spending’ come from a generation who aren’t able to hold themselves accountable for the financial issues we see in the world around us. They’d rather blame someone else.”

It’s true that the privileges older generations enjoyed -- stable housing market, no tuition fees -- are rarely signposted in the articles describing us as coddled. There’s little acknowledgement that working-class millennials exist, and even less discussion as to why young people increasingly suffer with mental health problems. I mean, it could be rising instability, the continued institutional discrimination that plagues minorities (especially people of colour) and that elusive pay gap, (spoiler: it does exist!) but these are subjects less likely to be mouthed off about in tabloid comment pieces.

Sure, the stereotypes aren’t all wrong: there is truth to reports that say we spend money on packaged sandwiches, or brunch, or holidays -- but the rhetoric of ‘generation rent’, at least according to the people I spoke to, is: we’re fucked anyway, so why not enjoy it? Ariel, a London-based student who contacted me via Twitter, concludes that we may spend more money on streaming services and taxis, but that these expenditures are usually only listed in “less scornful” reports. Raja confirms that he spends money frequently on travel, whereas Birmingham-based Lacey admits that she treats herself to the odd brunch -- “but it’s far from our real lifestyle!” Instead, she trawls supermarkets for own-brand bargains and buys cosmetics at market stalls to save money. When things get really tough, her housemate freezes out-of-date sandwiches and paninis from the café she works in.

These stories, as well as the viral money diaries, show us that societal ideas of how young people actually spend their money are wildly misguided. It’s easier to zoom in on an outdated, privileged stereotype than it is to face the truth: that we’re struggling to achieve basic quality of life, and that not even a £70,000 salary can comfortably guarantee you a mortgage in 21st-century London. As for the rest of the country? Who the fuck knows -- the media is guarded by so many financial obstacles that working-class kids nationwide rarely get to tell their own stories on their own terms. For now, we’ll just have to make do with the occasional viral money diary.

generation rent
money diaries