Gaby Dunn Promotes Financial Literacy by Admitting She Was Bad With Money

“Did you know GoFundMe donations qualify as a personal gift and are not charity so you can't write them off on your taxes?” Gaby Dunn, activist, actress and New York Times best-selling author, asked me rhetorically during our Skype conversation. “It’s garbaaage,” she sang.

Millennials contribute roughly 33% of donations on crowdfunding sites, and Dunn’s latest work, a personal finance self-help book that brings together simple advice and raw, personal anecdotes from her own life, is full of such nuggets for them, presented in her lively, humorous and frank style.

She wrote Bad With Money because she felt that most financial advice available assumes a certain level of knowledge, background and ability that few possess. 

There are people who agree with her. Last year, when retirement experts said you should have twice your salary saved by age 35 in a MarketWatch article, millennials, who have lesser money to spend than previous generations, balked and took to Twitter armed with internet memes. 

“Its heart is in the right place,” said Dunn about the controversial guideline. “You should be thinking about the future. I was 28, and I had never looked at my bank account. That's not okay. But it did show a huge blindspot in terms of the disconnect between financial advice and the reality of people's lives now.” 

Her honesty about her own financial struggles and how intimidated she felt by the financial system as a young, creative person is probably more valuable than her advice to her readers. Her book carries an empowering message about the importance of financial education and taking control of your life. While she doesn't claim to be an expert, she aims to demystify concepts like the stock market. "I think they built it up to seem scarier than it is to keep people out, but it's not that intense. So we have drop the fear of it first. I call. I ask a ton of questions. I start at the very beginning. I don't even worry about looking dumb," she said.

In a culture where discussing money and money problems is seen as gauche or even rude, Dunn is encouraging young people who worry about money constantly like she used to, to shrug off their shame and embarrassment and find ways to make things better for themselves.

"There's so much judgement and shaming involved," said Dunn who believes the silence on the subject of money hurts Americans. “You take it personally if you can't make ends meet, like it's a moral, intellectual and personal failing. You are a bad person,” she said. “My friends whose parents were helping them never told me so I compared myself to them. But I wasn't getting parental help so if I had known that I would have probably not been as hard on myself.”

In 2015, an article she wrote about scraping by despite her Internet fame as a BuzzFeed personality, Get Rich or Die Vloggin, went viral. It led to a successful podcast, also called Bad With Money, about understanding personal finance and the role money plays in society. In its three seasons, Dunn has spoken with journalists, politicians, authors, celebrities and activists.

In the book, she focuses on her own life and financial mistakes, like going to an out-of-state liberal arts college that saddled her with debt and not starting a savings account while she was there. Importantly, she also devotes chapters to the things that influence spending habits, like family history (your "money script") and mental health. When someone asked her if they should use extra money for therapy or to start saving, she replied "therapy." "I feel like if you're brain's not right, your savings could get depleted at any second. Cause that's what happened to me," she said. She discovered she has bipolar disorder eight years ago, which dramatically improved her finances. Other topics the book delves into include health insurance, the gig economy, banking options, investing and retirement planning.

I asked her what the first step should be for someone who wants a financial makeover. "Go through your bank statements," she replied, without missing a beat. "I highlighted things that showed up too much for my liking. It was painful, it took three days and I cried the whole time. But you have to do it because you can't start from a place where you don't even know what you're doing."

Credit: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster.
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