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“Bad With Money” Host Gaby Dunn Is Good With Financial Activism

Comedian and author Gaby Dunn’s podcast dispenses financial advice for millennials, including tips for “dismantling the socioeconomic patriarchy.”

“Bad With Money” Host Gaby Dunn Is Good With Financial Activism
[Photo: courtesy of Panoply]

The idea that it’s gauche to discuss money seems like a conspiracy invented by people who have money to prevent other people from getting any. Gaby Dunn set out to shatter the taboo when she started her podcast, Panoply’s Bad with Money, back in 2016. The podcast began its third season in April, and in the time since the initial launch two years ago, Dunn has set her sights much higher.

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The comedian, YouTube star, TV writer, and author had long been sick of all the shame around talking about money—those draconian social codes that suggest it’s poor form to ask your friend how much her apartment costs, or what his take-home pay is, or whether they have an IRA. She was worried about everything she didn’t know and too embarrassed to find out more.

“I skated by on luck all through my twenties,” Dunn recalls. “I was crying all the time and trying to hide it from everyone. I didn’t understand that, like, I had cash rewards on my credit card, and had no idea whether it was better to pay back my student loans first or pay off my medical debt. And I thought it was too late to start asking questions.”

[Photo: courtesy of Panoply]
She had also reached a point where she’d become internet-famous—first through videos she made with BuzzFeed and through her creative partnership with Allison Raskin as Just Between Us—without being compensated nearly in proportion to her fame. She had a lot of friends in similar positions: YouTube personalities who were working in restaurants where they would sometimes encounter fans who couldn’t understand why one of their faves was still working in a restaurant after they had “made it.” After she quit BuzzFeed and struck out on her own, Dunn eventually wrote an essay on this topic, “Get Rich or Die Vlogging,” and it went viral. The premium podcast network Panoply then reached out, and through their conversations with Dunn, Bad with Money was born.

“People are going through these really horrendous financial struggles, and on top of these struggles, it’s isolating that you can’t talk about it, and on top of that, people think they’re the only ones going through it and that it’s because of some moral or intellectual failure on their part,” Dunn says. “So I was just like, ‘We gotta get rid of all that.'”

Gaby Dunn [Photo: courtesy of Doug Frerichs]
In one segment of the show’s debut episode, Dunn asked strangers on the street to reveal two pieces of personal information: a) their preferred sexual position, and b) how much money they had in the bank. The whole point of this bit was to prove that the ingrained discomfort around disclosing the latter was way heavier than the former. Throughout the rest of the first season, Dunn talked with a range of guests, including a “financial psychologist,” comedians like Cameron Esposito, the author Roxane Gay, her own parents, and her then-boyfriend. (Dunn is a proud bisexual, and the theme of queerness frequently comes up in her work.)

The lure of real talk about money with high-profile guests, combined with Dunn’s infectious personality, proved a winning combination. Bad with Money was an iTunes hit, and Dunn soon got a deal with Atria Books for a Bad with Money book, due in January 2019.

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Part of the appeal of the show is Dunn’s financial outsider status. Hers is a perspective–young, female, queer–that has largely been missing from a big-platform money conversation.

“There are no financial services that really speak to marginalized people,” Dunn says. “Advertisements about retirement are marketed almost exclusively to straight white men, which is ironic since they will die sooner and their wives will need retirement advice more. It’s just not an industry that takes marginalized people into account, largely because they think we don’t have any money–which is not true. Studies have shown women will hold most of the world’s wealth by 2020, I think, so it’s just this very strange thing that we already feel shut out of  it so much that some of us don’t want to participate.”

The more open conversations Dunn did participate in, the more she realized that a lot of the problems she was talking and hearing about weren’t as individualized as the financial industry makes them appear. She gradually found herself becoming less interested in money problems than she was with the root causes behind them.

Not coincidentally, this evolving focus followed the then newly inaugurated Trump administration’s push to reform healthcare, so-called “entitlements,” and the tax code.

“There’s this American ideal of ‘I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, I’ve earned all of this.’ The flipside of that is that people who don’t have a lot of money are intellectually inferior or bad people. They’re spending it on the wrong things. Even the way we try to police SNAP benefits. ‘You’re not allowed to buy candy, you have to buy vegetables. I know better than you, you’re an idiot,'” Dunn says. “It’s become this embarrassing thing where if you know about money, you’re a genius and did everything right, and if you don’t, you’re an idiot and you deserve everything bad. But also, it’s up to your individual family to teach you and if they didn’t, tough noogies. People don’t like to hear that they benefitted from white privilege or that they might not have income inequality but wealth inequality and that those are two separate things.”

In the show’s second season, which launched in March 2017, Dunn broadened out her show’s scope to reflect her new economic interests. Bad with Money abandoned the one-on-one interview structure for a more complex approach, tackling issues like student loans, credit cards, and prosperity gospel from a wealth of different angles in each episode. Dunn, as host, remained narrating her efforts to get a grip on her own financial situation, but the show also focused more on systemic issues and local activism.

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With the midterms coming in November, Dunn wanted the third season to educate younger listeners on what’s at stake in the election. A lot of the ideas in the new batch of shows expand on social justice issues that came up in season two but were not fully explored. Some of the topics she’s delved into already this season include climate change, structural racism, and the idea of a universal basic income–all of which feel a world away from the “Get Rich or Die Vlogging” essay that spawned the show. It’s a reflection of how much Dunn herself has changed.

“I was afraid to open my mail when I first started the podcast,” she says. “There were bills and credit card statements and things I didn’t want to see. And sometimes now people will tell me they had the same problem–until they started listening to the show.”

Maybe after listening to season three, they’ll also go out and vote.

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