The real reason why we're so obsessed with how other people spend their money

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ByMarianne Eloise
Originally Published: 

I am not a millionaire. I probably never will be one. I also fundamentally disagree with wealth-hoarding. But on most nights, you can catch me watching semi-informative YouTube videos by 29-year-old millionaire Graham Stephan talking about his real estate investments. Stephan lives an extraordinarily frugal lifestyle while his money stacks up, untouched, and I find that endlessly fascinating. Maybe it’s because I hope the wealth is contagious — that by absorbing Stephan’s advice through osmosis, I’ll somehow become wealthy. On the other end of the scale, I read Refinery29’s Money Diaries obsessively; the more careless the narrator’s spending, the better. I love reading about people who spend all of their money on Ubers and takeout — it makes me feel as if, while I’ll probably never be rich, I at least have enough control over my spending to lay some claim to financial responsibility.

I’ve always been obsessed with money, both my own and other people’s. Even when I earned less than $5 an hour at a fast food place, I would diligently record my income and expenses, carefully noting where I could improve. Growing up poor gave me both an obsession with money and the drive to work hard, and as a result, my finances are in decent shape. I have always unabashedly asked my friends how much they earn and how much they spend on items like clothes, all the while gleefully devouring tales of celebrities buying extravagant homes I could never afford.

My obsession with other people’s financial situations always felt a bit lascivious, dirty even, like watching porn in the morning. The only moral issue behind this feeling, though, is a social construct. Like many, I was raised to believe that it was rude to discuss money openly. As millennials and Gen Z shed taboos around other topics, stigma around money is on the way out, too. “Pop finance” is becoming more and more common with copycat “Money Diaries,” YouTube series and Instagram accounts dedicated to finance appearing.

I’m part of a huge cohort of people thirsty for people’s spending habits. For us, the more salacious the info, the better. One Money Diary that went viral featured a woman on £14k ($18k) shamelessly admitting her Coke, takeout, and Uber habit and then confessing that the diary was a “nasty shock,” upon publication. But what’s behind this type of voyeurism? Is it as simple as being nosy in general, or does our increased interest in money indicate something deeper — a shift in culture?

One theory is that millennials have less financial security than other generations, so it makes sense that we might seek comfort in the stories of others who are struggling with money. The uptick in money content could also be due to “economic issues like the wage gap, income inequality, and wage stagnation,” making people feel financially vulnerable, says Kristin Wong, author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. “It feels good to read about other people's finances because if they're similar to ours, we feel less alone.” And if they've reached a major milestone, like paying off a student loan or buying a home (without the help of a wealthy family member) you feel like maybe you can do that, too, she adds.

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While this transparency is necessary, our interest is indeed partly voyeuristic, Wong says. With wages and money being such a taboo for so long, reading about other people’s finances feels like we’re peeking through their curtains. But it’s happening, for better or worse. One recent example of this newfound transparency, in my industry, is the “Real Media Salaries” spreadsheet that began circulating with journalists around November 12. As The Washington Post reports, it contains the salary — as well as job title, company, race, age, and gender information — of editors and writers all over the country. The list was apparently compiled to help journalists level up, and use whatever information they could to assert their worth and demand compensation appropriate for their experience. While the list wasn’t fact-checked and likely contains some inaccurate stats, the spreadsheet is a bold action toward pay equity.

Emily Egan, a marketing manager at personal finance company The Financial Gym, believes that we like reading about other people’s finances because, “we are desperate to understand how our financial health compares to those around us.” But unlike other things, financial health is mostly invisible, meaning that we can’t see how someone’s finances are by looking at them. “To compare, we have to have honest and for most, uncomfortable conversations with people about money. Money is the ultimate taboo conversation. We're more comfortable getting physically naked with somebody than financially naked,” she asserts.

As money talk has become less taboo, many millennials feel more comfortable admitting that we’re entranced by transparency about money. “Our most financially fit clients talk about money without any shame,” she says.

“It’s important that personal finance stories continue to be published and consumed because it normalizes talking more transparently about finances,” says Wong, adding that researchers believe financial transparency is necessary to close the financial gap. “Talking about money has been taboo for a long time, and I think we're starting to realize that the taboo has kept regular people from learning how money works. And that only reinforces wealth inequality.”

Outside of gossip, the new-ish rise of easily accessible financial advice shows, such as Mad Money or The Profit, that we are committed to learning about finances. Traditionally, financial content and advice has been reserved for those that actually need wealth management, while ordinary people struggle to get the guidance they need. For millennials, that advice has often come in the form of well-meaning but condescending tips on cutting out avocado toast or ditching to-go coffees. Now, the experts I speak to all agree that the rise of relatable, accessible money advice that’s jargon-free and takes cultural and societal barriers into account means that financial advice is, for the most part, for everyone.

We're more comfortable getting physically naked with somebody than financially naked,” she asserts.

Status Money, a budget tracker which calls itself “the social network for finances,” encourages transparency by aggregating user data to show you how well you’re doing compared to your peers. It works just like social media: After opting in and creating a profile, you can ask questions, get advice, and see how everyone else spends their money.

“People tend to encourage and support those who are struggling financially or doing worse than themselves,” says CEO and co-founder Majd Maksad, based on what he’s observed. “Anyone who’s been in debt knows it can be incredibly isolating, so connecting with others and working together is very powerful.” He wanted to make financial advice and transparency accessible, as he realized the problem isn’t that people don’t want advice, “it’s that financial advisors cost thousands of dollars a year,” so they set out to build a free platform that would enable people to see how they’re doing and privately get advice.

So, I suspect that our obsession with financial content and other people’s filthy money secrets goes much deeper than judging someone for spending $200 a week on Ubers, and it’s more meaningful than the voyeurism that drives us to watch reality TV or stalk on Instagram. Talking about money, seeking out accessible financial advice, and being honest and transparent about our finances could enable us to take our own money seriously and tackle our issues from a point of deeper understanding.

The benefit of reading about other people’s finances is twofold: one, it’s fun. It feels subversive and sneaky in the best way. Two, it’s useful. Beyond the enjoyment we may personally get out of it, breaking taboos and stigmas around finances empowers ordinary people to have financial literacy — and just like with sex or health — that transparency is always a positive thing.