We Did Good, Billfold

Naoshima, Japan (Photo: Mike Dang)

Sometimes the spaces you need don’t already exist, so you create them for yourself. The Billfold was created because we needed a space to truly, honestly talk about money — not just the smart and sensible things we do to remain financially solvent, but the things that we hide from the world because they feel shameful or embarrassing. These were the most difficult things to talk about, but they were also honest and real, and we needed to have candid conversations about them if we ever really wanted to learn the truth about ourselves and the way we live.

My friends and I could share many deeply personal things with each other: the most humiliating moments of our adolescence; the awful, tragic things we’ve lived through and how they’ve shaped the people we’ve become; our dreams for the future and our fears that we’d never achieve anything worthwhile. But when it came to money, I knew very little of their circumstances. How much money were they earning? Had they, like me, accepted job offers without negotiating because the thought of doing so felt daunting and brazen? Did they have any debt, and did that debt keep them up at night? Were they secretly rich and annoyed I wouldn’t go out sometimes because I didn’t want to spend any money? Or were they helping their parents out with their bills like I was and a little bit ashamed because they wish they didn’t have to?

Logan was the exception. We both fell into the personal finance world by accident because we both needed jobs, working as writers and editors for one of those financial startups that quickly came and went. I had spent years before covering politics and working on documentary shows for various television programs. When Logan and I found each other we talked about money in a way that I had never encountered. We told each other how much we were making. Logan told me how many credit cards she had and the debt balance she carried on each card. I told her about all of the financial obligations I had with my family and how much it weighed on me. She told me how bad she felt whenever she bought drinks after work because she knew she should be trying to pay down her balance instead. I listed off my student loan balances. We told each other that everything would work out somehow. In a way, it was like financial therapy.

We also found the vast majority of the personal finance world boring and unrelatable. Many offered standard, how-to advice with no heart or personality. Others were written in the aspirational “I Retired Before 40 and So Can You” style that’s geared toward a small, specific readership but unattainable for the vast majority of people out there. I never came across anything and thought, “Yes, here are my people! I’ve found them!” Logan and I decided to create the space we needed to find our people. We called it The Billfold. And our people came.

Our people came from all kinds of financial backgrounds and opened up our worldview. Some of our people understood how to navigate our financial system and come out on top, while some of our people told us stories of regret to show us that we all make mistakes and that’s okay. Remember that 28-year-old banker who showed me a chart of how much he earned every year for seven years? Remember the divorced, 42-year-old single mom whose good-for-nothing ex left her with his $48,000 student loan debt? They each led completely different lives but they came to the Billfold because they were our people.

I knew The Billfold was helping to change the conversation when I started getting emails from strangers telling me that they never read any personal finance sites until they found us. An agent reached out to me and asked me if I was interested in writing a book of advice for young people about how to have a healthier relationship with money. I had a few meetings, and then sheepishly told her the site and the supportive community we had built was better than any book I’d ever write.

I have always been super skeptical about finance books and advice from so-called financial gurus because they seem to strategically ignore so much of the actual world we live in (see: class, structural racism, the Horatio Alger myth). Part of this skepticism is because I am a huge believer in the idea that there is no right way to do money, that we all go on our own journeys to figure out what makes sense for us and the lives we want to live. The life I want is probably different than the life that you want, so there’s no reason for the two of us to be approaching money the same way. So many finance books want to tell you that there is actually a right way to be with money, and if you’re not doing it the right way, you are bad with money and need to see the light. I reject this kind of moral superiority!

The thing about money is that there are just a handful of common sense rules we all should be following:

1. Don’t spend more than you earn.
2. Don’t carry a credit card balance.
3. Save for emergencies, or have an emergency plan in case you ever lose your main source of income.
4. Save for retirement and if you work for a company that offers a 401(k), contribute at least up to the company match. And go with index funds.

I mean … that’s basically it! Number one is pretty much key. You figure everything else out as you figure out who you are and the kind of life you want to live. No book can tell you what those things are.

I recently took a 10-day trip to Japan with a close group of friends. I was able to use credit card points I had saved up to cover the cost of my flight but still spent about $2,500 on various excursions across the country. Most books about money would probably describe this trip as a frivolous expense, or suggest I do it on a much smaller budget. Suze Orman probably would have told me I couldn’t afford to go to Japan, most likely because (as you are all aware because I show you my balance every month) I still owe about $20,000 in student loans. But guess what, I went anyway! Sure, I could have thrown that $2,500 at my student loan balance and made a dent, but I am 35, I am healthy, and I have the privilege of time to see the world and be changed by it. This trip ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. That’s invaluable, and I have no regrets about spending the money to do it.

I am not the kind of extreme saver who forgoes vacations and washes tin foil for reuse. Those people exist and I do not fault them for wanting to live their lives that way if they find that lifestyle fulfilling! It’s here that I’ll also say that I’ve talked to people who have read books that they’ve found super helpful because it resonated with them and fit the lives they want to have. I’ve met people who love Suze Orman and have attended Dave Ramsey seminars and have genuinely had their lives changed by Vicki Robin.

The Billfold showed us an incredible spectrum of how we each do money — the wide range of our struggles and successes. It was this incredible place where people who figured out how to make things work shared stories alongside those who were having trouble keeping it together. And we were here for all of them (and politely endured the handful of mansplainers and “you should have studied STEM” comments).

One of the best conversations I had about money was with Helaine Olen after reading her book, Pound Foolish in 2013. I think it helped provide some empathy for so many of us who have had such a difficult time getting ahead after the financial crisis — that we can’t just fix our lives by giving up lattes at Starbucks. Wage stagnation is real. The student debt crisis is real. The health care crisis is real. The number one reason families go bankrupt in the U.S. is not because they’re spendthrifts who’ve spent all of their money — the number one reason is unpaid medical bills. No amount of giving up lattes is going to keep a family out of bankruptcy if their health insurance doesn’t cover a medical emergency. And don’t even get me started on avocado toast.

The last thing I wanted to mention is that the Billfold was originally brought up on the premise that I was good at money, Logan was bad at money, and people would learn a lot by listening to how I do things and relating to, like, Logan spending too much at the bar. But the reality is that Logan was never bad at money. Or more precisely, her poor spending habits was not due to the fact that she was inherently bad at money. Logan, as we came to learn as we talked about it more and more, was depressed. She spent money to make herself feel better. But then she’d feel depressed about spending money she didn’t have and having to ask her parents for help. And it became difficult to break free from that cycle. Once she began addressing her depression, she began addressing all these other things: her job, her money, her relationships, and got to a better place. No book was ever going to tell her that depression was her issue. They would have just told her to stop spending so much at the bar.

Logan and I are a little bit older and wiser now. I asked her if she could give a little update and she wrote: “I have a good job that I like. I don’t drink anymore. I am in an excellent relationship. I’m happy. Financially, I’m in a good place: Through a combination of the generosity of my parents, the structure of a payment plan, increasingly better-paying jobs, and the influence of my very financially-responsible boyfriend, I’m making my last debt payment this month, am building an emergency fund, and am contributing to retirement funds.”

As for me, give me another two years and those student loans will be gone and I’ll be debt-free. I have a healthy six figures in my retirement account. My career in journalism is going strong and I get to regularly work with some of the most talented journalists in the world — some of whom have written for this very site. I still help out my parents with their bills, and they still go out dancing late at night.

Remember all those years ago when Logan and I met and we told each other that everything would work out somehow?

And now the Billfold has come to an end, but it’s leaving an incredible legacy in all of you. If I were to ever write a book, it would basically be called something like, Don’t Spend More Than You Earn, Figure Out What Your Best Life Is, and Then LIVE IT. I’ll be rooting for you, always.