When comedian Maria Bamford was writing her memoir, she wanted to pack it with as many financial details about herself as possible. “As a Minnesotan, I am ashamed to admit that I love money. I love a fair exchange of goods and services, and I love full disclosure,” she said in a commencement speech quoted on NPR’s “Planet Money,” as part of an interview in which she delved into details about her philosophy that we should all get more comfortable talking about one of the most awkward subjects ever.
Sure enough, when I caught her comedy show in Pittsburgh recently, she was trying out new material that included asking audience members if anyone had had trouble getting paid recently. The folks in the front rows seemed reticent, to her visible disappointment — and mine.
Unfortunately, Bamford’s book, “Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult,” doesn’t contain as many numbers as she’d like. In that NPR discussion, the host disclosed that “Maria says her publisher would not let her put more finances in the book because they thought it was boring,” adding, “that’s just a wrong call, in my opinion.” It still contains roughly 100% more disclosure about earnings and personal wealth than any other memoir I’ve ever read. Bamford writes of her belief in the Debtors Anonymous principle of open-book accounting, the practice of sharing business information with any interested party. As she is her own business, at one point in the book, she breaks down a month’s worth of business earnings and expenditures.
Bamford is one of a growing number of people advocating for radical transparency around money. It’s heartening to see that talking about what we earn — and don’t — is perhaps on track to being normalized in a new way. The more we talk, the less shame, stigma and taboo can cling to issues around finances. I speak to you from the intersection of a couple of crucial areas that are in dire need of more financial transparency: As a female freelancer, I am still statistically paid less than my male counterparts (but how would I know? Very few outlets publish the rates they pay any of us). As a self-employed writer, I am often required to chase payments from outlets I write for, who treat my repeated follow-ups requesting payment as an annoyance — as if the published byline itself ought to be its own reward. (I’ve never attempted to buy groceries by showing a cashier my byline, but I’m pretty sure I know how that’ll go.)
I’ve found a kindred spirit in Bamford, and more recently, the author Stephanie Land, who has written and talked about money, albeit in a very different light than Bamford (who’s spoken about inheriting generational wealth, and estimates her net worth at $3.5 million). Land’s first book, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” was a New York Times best seller that became an acclaimed Netflix series, leading many to assume she’d successfully written her way out of poverty. But as she explains in her new book, “Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education,” and in interviews, it’s not that simple.
As one profile of the author recounts, Land had nearly $50,000 in student loans and about $16,000 of credit card debt when she got the first payment for “Maid.” And earning the money from her book made her children ineligible for state subsidized health insurance, so she had to pay for it herself: “I had years of not being able to make ends meet to make up for,” she said.
She also speaks pointedly (and, to this writer, very refreshingly) in interviews about the classist trap of being a working writer: She found that many people seem to think creative people should somehow be above talking about money. “They really don’t teach the business of writing, period,” she said on The Maris Review podcast. “Money, I got the sense, cheapened the writing in some way. But I couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t want to make money at writing. Like, isn’t that supposed to be the dream? You find a way to turn your hobby into a career?”
As Land said to the Montana Free Press: “College does not teach the business of writing. I had no idea. So much of being a writer is administrative work. You are your own business, you’re your own brand. You are your accountant and your tax person and your health insurance. Hounding people to pay you, it’s just maddening. Money is almost not even talked about, it’s like a dirty word.” Preach, sister.
Hailing from a very different sector of the entertainment world, Stacy Snyder from the fifth season of Netflix’s “Love is Blind” made headlines and stirred up a lot of feelings when she rejected her fiancé at the altar, partly over his lack of disclosure of his precarious finances. Izzy Zapata told Snyder only days before their reality-TV wedding that he had bad credit and was unable to get a credit card, and his description of his job made her unsure of how he actually earned money, she said in an interview. “I was like, ‘How much do you make a month if you’re 1099 and 100% commission?’ And he couldn’t answer the question. And he didn’t have benefits. It was like, ‘If you get hit by a bus tomorrow, I am responsible for all of that and your medical bills.’ I was completely freaked out, and I felt very blindsided. I felt like I was about to go into debt because he didn’t have stability in his career or his finances.”
Unsurprisingly, Snyder’s pragmatic reaction was dragged online for being unromantic, when in reality finances are one of the top reasons married couples fight or divorce. Is it awkward or potentially tense to insist on a candid financial discussion with a partner with whom you’re considering marriage, or even cohabitation? Yes, but it’s also essential, no matter how many movies and books and TV shows peddle the fantasy that love is all you need, and that bringing money talk into it cheapens the fantasy. For a lot of women, I’m betting, the real fantasy includes understanding your partner’s financial literacy before you say, “I do.”
I wasn’t a huge fan of Snyder on the show — she took a hypocritical stance, telling Izzy that while she wanted to split domestic spending 50/50, the man in a heterosexual relationship should always pay for dinner; she came off like a mean girl toward other women in the cast. But regardless, insisting on financial clarity before saying, “I do,” is a good-faith effort to ensure a romance works out in the long haul.
Taken together, these examples point toward a cultural move toward insisting on more transparency around money: How much we have, how much we make and how to manage our often-outsized feelings around it. As Bamford told Conan O’Brien, money “is such an emotional topic. I find people get so mad or so embarrassed or so ashamed … the emotions don’t match the numerics.”
Another emerging conversation around finances is the surge of interest in nepo babies. The most prominent examples may be children of celebrities or entertainment industry insiders who seem to magically end up with choice gigs (just today I learned two of the three “Please Don’t Destroy” guys on “SNL” are sons of “SNL” producers), but the nepo baby effect isn’t limited to the famous. “Nearly one in three Americans is hired by a parent’s employer in the earliest years of their careers. And the biggest benefits go to those raised by higher earners,” a Harvard study reported earlier this year. The more we get this stuff out in the open, the more we puncture the noxious but longstanding idea that everyone in the US is starting out on equal financial footing and that anyone can just make it if they try hard enough.
There has also been a recent surge in high-profile union success stories, from the United Auto Workers deal to the resolution of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes. One recurrent topic was how many people in the entertainment industry are working paycheck-to-paycheck; even if someone is working as a writer on a successful show, it often doesn’t mean they’re making all that much money due to long lag times between work periods.
But those wins aren’t necessarily an indicator that collective bargaining is really booming, The Guardian points out: “Labor in the US is still facing significant obstacles and challenges in transforming the popular culture shift into gains against a backdrop of decades of union decline, worsening wealth inequality, and broken labor laws.” The struggle to generate lasting collective bargaining is ongoing.
Meanwhile, some states are rolling out laws requiring salary transparency in job listings, which is one way to help women achieve pay equity. Unfortunately, it’s also leading some companies that are unhappy about it to lower the amount they’re offering to prospective hires. And in a far more chilling development, the GOP has been fomenting a pushback against no-fault divorce, a thinly-veiled attempt to roll back women’s autonomy, particularly the financial kind.
These are some of the growing pains in a culture where money is one of the last taboos — but the conversation doesn’t seem likely to go back on mute. As a writer, I sure hope it doesn’t.