Why do we get so mad when others show their financial privilege?


There are so many targets for our rage, and all we have to do is pick one. Tuesday’s subject didn’t even get a name. She was an anonymous 21-year-old marketing intern, the latest to bare her soul and her spending habits for Refinery29’s popular franchise, Money Diaries.

The daily column allows readers to peek at a single week of spending in a person’s life. Subjects range in age, industry, income and lifestyle. At the top of each piece, the person traditionally breaks down their earnings, bills and other demographic information in a straightforward, bulleted format. In this particular diary, that basic info had eyeballs popping right away. The intern makes $25 per hour from her summer gig, with an additional $200 to $480 per month earned from baby-sitting. Admirable! Then come the parental disclosures.

The intern’s parents give her $2,100 a month for rent and $800 for allowance, and cover her tuition, health insurance, phone bill and entertainment accounts. Her grandfather also gives her another $300 a month for allowance. Crunching numbers, that means this lucky lady earns a minimum of $3,439 per month, and her family provides at least an additional $3,200 in living costs.

While the format is such that she delivers those numbers sans context or emotion, there is still room for the writer’s voice to pop through regarding her privilege: “#Blessed,” she writes, in parentheses, when disclosing the gifts from her family.

The ensuing reaction in the comments section and on Twitter was so furious you’d think this blithe 21-year-old had just stood on the world stage and declared herself to believe Vladimir Putin over the American intelligence community. No lesser luminaries than bestselling author Roxane Gay and Pultizer-winning critic Emily Nussbaum weighed in.

Over 1,000 comments gathered beneath the story on Refinery29, and there was coverage on a morning show, in MarketWatch and all the way over in Australia.

Why do we care so much about how a privileged person spends her money? A significant proportion of young people receive financial help from their parents. Why this girl?

Well, we care and we react and we scream because it’s infuriating. This modern-day Marie Antoinette’s life reads like a parody of privilege, with her waxing membership and life-hack apps. The few times she expresses financial concern, it’s over the cost of ride-sharing apps — not over a medical emergency or rent increase or whether she can afford food at all. Even that fretting is irritating; she will survive if a friend doesn’t pay their share of a $33 car ride. Her parents’ wealth means she doesn’t have to worry about such matters.

While wages decline, health care costs rise and student debt balloons, this girl is fine and will likely always be fine. Her combined “income” from work and gifts places her in the top 10% of earners in the United States, and she hasn’t even graduated yet. For much of the population, her privilege — on full display in this Refinery29 story — is unfathomable.

Other commenters complained the subject’s diary wasn’t “real” enough, that it didn’t reflect “real life” or real experience. Yet it’s likely the intern’s experience is analogous to that of many of her peers — one in four millennials who are fully employed receive financial assistance from their parents, according to CNBC. Readers seemed to suggest that a subject must be struggling and carefully budgeting every paycheck to be real.

That’s not what Refinery29’s franchise is about, though. A Money Diary is a glimpse into someone’s life and spending, an experience that is riveting for its rarity. The subjects aren’t exhibiting themselves as beacons of budgeting; they’re just offering the minutiae of their purchases. The diaries are fascinating because the numbers are stark and the editorial judgment is absent.

Until we readers rush in. It’s brutally painful to peek behind the curtain and glimpse a life that we might never have, and which we don’t believe she appreciates. But what do we actually want from this subject, this 21-year-old intern? We want her to apologize for her wealth, or at least acknowledge it more routinely and with a fuller throat. We want her to work a little harder at her internship, since she demonstrates multiple times in her diary that her attitude toward her privilege translates to her attitude toward her work ethic. We want her to stop taking that money from her kind grandfather, or at least donate it. Or something.

But then we’d lose her as an object of scorn. The nameless marketing intern is a more practical recipient of our rage than, say, the wildly privileged and wealthy family occupying the White House. It’s easier to be angry at this young person than at the politicians who pass yet more tax cuts for the wealthy, or who refuse to create a livable wage; easier, still, than suing or boycotting companies that refuse to pay their interns, thus assuring that the most successful people in the future work force will always come from wealth. This person is a more straightforward target.

Is this rage helpful? Money Diaries offer us financial transparency, and the result is we become overwhelmed with anger.

“Money Diaries offer us financial transparency, and the result is we become overwhelmed with anger. “

The oversized reaction can be fruitful, but only if it leads to further discussion. It’s good if it leads to more critical reading on the subject of inequality. It’s constructive if it leads us to call our senators, if it calls attention to poverty legislation. It’s much easier to scream on Twitter than it is to challenge the circumstances allowing and encouraging wealth disparity. The ensuing conversation is worthwhile if it encourages readers to forgive themselves. There’s a reason why you’ve never received an invitation to hang out with your girlfriends in the Hamptons and dine with a private chef. It’s not because you’re uncool. It’s because you were born un-rich.