In 2018, women are supposed to be empowered and confident about dealing with financial matters. I’ve heard, so many times, that we’re not meant to believe in the rhetoric that women are naturally “bad” at maths or money management. We should be taking control, educating ourselves, learning and growing like a portfolio of stock. Knowledge, I’ve been told, is key. Financial advice is everywhere and it’s time for me to wise up and take some.
I am a reasonably competent mathematician. I check my bank balance every day. I have three different savings accounts – two of these are investment accounts, because I’ve read that women are too cautious with their money, and bigger risks will lead to better returns. I haven’t been in my overdraft since 2013. I know what APR means and my bills get paid on time. I have a credit card and I don’t owe any money on it – but I know it’s useful to have one and use it cautiously, in order to maintain your credit score. Mine is, according to Experian, excellent.
I know I sound utterly insufferable. My finances have not always been this straightforward. Between 2012 and, er, birth, my money situation was a mess. In my head, it still is. I only check my bank balance almost obsessively now, because there was a three-year period when I couldn’t look at all. Practically, I think I’m handling my money as well as anyone in my position could be expected to. Emotionally, I am convinced that I am not in control, that everything I’ve worked so hard to fix could break at any moment and that I’m always about a fortnight away from having to live in a tent on the beach.
Money is often described as “the last taboo” and the internet is trying to break it with series and interviews about what people earn, and how they spend their money. I compulsively read Refinery29’s Money Diaries series. This week, social media became fascinated and aerated by a woman in Grazia, who earned a substantial salary, lived with her mum and dad, and still required handouts to make it to the end of the month. Everyone was furious and confused. What could she possibly be doing with that money? Didn’t we have a right to know?
The culture that exists around money is exactly like diet culture. Unhelpful, unsolicited advice abounds. There is an assumption that anyone who is getting it wrong is ignorant and stupid
I wasn’t surprised by the outrage the piece generated, but I was confused by the lack of empathy and understanding for the big spender. As individuals, we’re made to feel that money is a moral issue. If we don’t make enough, or if we spend too much, we haven’t just failed ourselves – we’ve opened ourselves up to the judgement of everyone. The culture that exists around money is exactly like diet culture. Unhelpful, unsolicited advice abounds. There is an assumption that anyone who is getting it wrong is ignorant and stupid. If we’re not acting correctly, it’s because the gatekeepers of the ideal standard simply aren’t screaming loud enough. Food and money are emotionally loaded issues for absolutely everyone. It’s absurd that we think of both of these things as simple maths problems that could be solved easily if only we poor, fat fools were better at adding and subtracting.
I am very defensive about the way I spend my money – partly because my mum used to hate spending money, would always buy the cheapest version of everything and would shout at me for spending all of my Saturday pub washing-up money on Faith platforms that I could barely stagger out of the house in. Mum grew up with parents who had been through the Second World War, and she was a teenager during the three-day week – a period where times were so tough that if mushrooms grew through a gap in your bathroom floor you might try to make a casserole out of them. Mum instilled in me a sense that the rainiest day might be right around the corner. I wanted everything Mum seemed to stand against – the glamour and excitement of stuff. Also, I longed to celebrate my hard work with something tangible. I didn’t spend eight hours on my feet smelling of old gravy to put my £20 towards “the future”, whatever that might be. Still, the sense that I was playing fast and loose with fate never left me. If a financial disaster arises, I will deserve it because of all the times that I spent £50 on something I didn’t need, on ASOS.
Our purses are woven from our emotional histories. One teenager might be comfortable with taking on a lot of student debt, because it’s an “investment” in their future, and investment is a concept they grew up with. Another could not countenance the idea of taking on a loan and owing more money than their parents made in a year. If your family ran their own business, you might be comfortable with a life of ebb and flow, feast or famine – or you might stay in the same misery-making job for 10 years, because the idea of not having a regular income makes you paralysed with terror. Ever since I became a freelance writer, my sense of money became even more complicated and conflated with my sense of self. If I have cash, it’s because I’m working lots and doing well. If I don’t, it doesn’t just mean I can’t go out for dinner. In my head, it’s proof of my failure as a human being. Money is troubling and toxic for me, even though I am trying so hard to do all the right things. With that level of noise in my head, I’m not able to listen to someone saying, “Yeah, but have you thought about switching your energy provider?”
We have a huge problem with money in the UK. The Living Wage has just been increased, but many households are seriously struggling, as living costs escalate. Credit-card debt is at a 20-year high. We have a housing crisis. It sometimes feels as though we have an everything crisis. The system is broken and our strange, scared, judgemental attitude to money clearly isn’t fixing it. Perhaps we should try applying empathy before offering advice. Maybe we need to ask why it is that we do what we do, before we put pressure on ourselves to change our behaviour and getting frustrated when we fail. Money doesn’t need to be private – but we all have private, complicated reasons for the way we use it. Unless we try to judge less and understand more, we’ll only ever become more frightened and controlled by it.