SEATTLE — Personal finance professionals live too often in the realm of tools and tactics, optimization and automation. All too frequently, their advice — our advice — is utterly bloodless.
Gaby Dunn, Chanel Reynolds and Vicki Robin are not everyday personal finance practitioners. Ms. Dunn and Ms. Reynolds use vulgarities in the subtitles of their new money books, and Ms. Robin speaks openly of dropping acid, mental illness and the cancer scars on her stomach.
Ms. Dunn, 30, is the author of “Bad With Money.” The book is named after her podcast, which is about financial questions that previous generations might never have faced and has a power-punk theme song encouraging people to “hit your financial fears with a blast of sun.”
Ms. Reynolds, 48, became an expert through the death of her husband, José, and the gut-wrenching period of logistical and financial madness that followed. She describes it all in “What Matters Most.”
At 73, Ms. Robin has achieved advanced guru status now that Penguin has issued an updated edition of her 1992 classic call for a reckoning on overconsumption, our emotional relationship with money and our definition of enough, “Your Money or Your Life.”
“We use our stories to talk to the people and not to their spreadsheets,” Ms. Reynolds told me this week.
It’s why I got them around the same table: so the rest of us could listen in.
RON LIEBER: Vicki, the origin story of Chanel’s book is clear, as it all started when her husband was hit by a van while riding his bike here in Seattle. But how did you and Joe Dominguez, your late partner, come to write a book?
VICKI ROBIN: Joe had retired early from Wall Street, and he and I and a bunch of other people created an intentional community, because that’s what you did back then. It was in northern Wisconsin, Rhinelander. Then we built what we called the ultimate vehicle, a motor home, from the chassis up, that would last 20 years.
People started asking us, “Why do we need to work?” We were free, and they weren’t.
GABY DUNN: People see that and get jealous. “They must be up to something that I couldn’t possibly do.”
ROBIN: So Joe started to explain to people the basic math: reducing spending, increasing savings. At first we taught a couple of friends, and it was 20 people in the basement of a church in Phoenix. Then, four years later, it was 400 people at a whack. We were written up in New Age Journal, and an editor found us.
LIEBER: Chanel, you first encountered Vicki’s book right after college, right?
CHANEL REYNOLDS: I was getting ready to go off in life, and my mom bought me two books. There was yours [gesturing at Ms. Robin], and I read the whole thing and thought, “Oh, my God, I can totally make this mine.”
My relationship to money could be on my own terms and could match my unique approach to what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to wear a lady suit or pantyhose or be vice president of anything. I turned down a full ride at graduate school to be a Green Tortoise bus driver.
The second book was Helen Gurley Brown’s “Having It All.”
LIEBER: Gaby, when did you first think you might be of service to people confused about money?
DUNN: I started my podcast from a place of frustration and desperation and sadness. I knew I regretted a lot of the choices I made in my 20s — doing an unpaid internship, student loans.
I had an audience from YouTube and other writing, but I had no idea if they would care about money. But if it was going on for me, it had to be going on for other people.
With sexuality stuff, I get emails from 16-year-old queer kids in the middle of nowhere who say, “Thanks for speaking so openly, because I can’t.” And so many people can’t talk about their money situations, because their partner will get angry or something else. So I thought, “O.K., I have privilege where I can make a whole podcast and no one will be that mad at me, so I should just do it.”
LIEBER: It’s tempting to frame all of your work through the prism of demographics. Is it a mistake to think about the three of you generationally, as if you’re third-wave personal finance and Chanel is second and Vicki is first?
DUNN: Sometimes when you read first-wave feminist texts, it’s like: “Here we go. This is going to be real bad.” Vicki’s book still feels relevant. I thought it might be yelling or myopic or — I don’t know what I thought it might be. But it takes into account social justice.
ROBIN: I call myself a millennial in a boomer body.
DUNN: There was an acknowledgment that not everyone comes from an upper-middle-class upbringing.
LIEBER: You’re actually a hero to many younger adults, Vicki. When did you figure out that you were being idolized?
ROBIN: I was lying on my back in my living room after my hip replacement and someone sent me an article from CNBC. Then another millennial guy I hired to help me talk millennial told me that I was all over Reddit. And I thought, “What is Reddit?” So I found Reddit and typed my name in.
DUNN: Never type your name into Reddit! Don’t do it. Just don’t.
ROBIN: Well, I didn’t have you around to tell me. Some of it was snarky and negative.
LIEBER: Chanel, did you worry about how hard it might be to make the idea of preparing for death palatable to people of all ages?
REYNOLDS: I could be their mother, daughter, sister or co-worker. I could be them.
LIEBER: Hence the book. And its profane subtitle, which echoes the name of your website. In the book, you call out the “tighty whitey sanitized language” that gets in the way of raw honesty in this realm. But why excrement?
REYNOLDS: I was standing by the foot of my husband’s bed in the intensive care unit, and I turned to my friend when I still couldn’t get into my husband’s phone, and remembered that the will was drafted but not signed and I didn’t know if the life insurance had been on autopay and I hoped nothing bounced and didn’t know if he had disability insurance or not. And I just said, “Oh, my God, I don’t have my shit together at all.”
And if that was happening to me, what was going on with everyone else in the I.C.U.? It was like the camera zoomed in and pulled out at the same time: We were all so screwed, and none of us had any idea.
LIEBER: Gaby, you write about what you call the three buzzkill musketeers of getting better at money: shame, embarrassment and anxiety. Does talking bluntly about our money stories and failures dispense with those feelings, or put us at a bigger risk of experiencing them more acutely?
DUNN: I’m still very bad with money. It’s about relatability. I was just going over my taxes with my accountant, and I was crying. But at least I’ve made crying about taxes my brand.
I record my accountant so I can listen back. I Google words, and I’m thinking really hard, and it’s just not coming, and I’m crying because I guess the conclusion is just that I’m an idiot.
REYNOLDS: You know that systems of oppression are set up against you in all these other ways, but this is the one you buy into in many ways. This is the one you listen to.
DUNN: My comedy partner tells me that I talk to myself worse than I’d talk to a friend.
LIEBER: Chanel, you write about everything from sobbing and snot to drunk grief sex. But you don’t share the actual size of your life insurance payout or the amount you lost when you had to sell your house. Why not?
REYNOLDS: This stuff is hard whether you have none thousand dollars or five hundred thousand. People feel the same level of frustration, fragility and vulnerability. Someone dies or you lose someone, and it’s not a Lifetime movie. You don’t heroically grieve and then get hot and marry up.
So the part where I had to get daring and wanted to say too much and push myself to say it all was in being truthful about what really happens — what the hospital system looks like and then the death and dying system and the funeral system and then the banks and insurance. They are all set up like this crazy cattle chute system to confuse you and take your money. It’s devastating and takes forever, and it’s additional punishment when you’re already operating at half-mast.
LIEBER: I think “How much is enough?” is one of the great cosmic questions of this or any age. Vicki, you and I have spoken about it before. What does “enough” mean to you right now?
ROBIN: For me, community is the currency that is the missing piece in all of this. We’re all cast out on our own, so our shame comes from not talking and our anxiety comes from not sharing. Building these bonds in my community on Whidbey Island has taken years. It’s about being a good actor. If I had to choose between money and loving relationships, at the level of enough, I’d choose loving relationships.
LIEBER: On the continuum of beating the system and blowing it up, you three seem to land more toward revolution. What is one money problem you’d get rid of if you were in charge of the world?
DUNN: Medical debt. We’re a first-world country, and people should not be dying who couldn’t afford to see a doctor.
REYNOLDS: Can I add one? Instead of screaming at the weather, I want to dress for the rain. I want actual paid leave for destabilizing big life events, positive and negative.
ROBIN: No access to unsecured debt starting 10 years from now, and we nozzle it down so people can adapt before then.
LIEBER: Wait, you want to get rid of all credits cards? Just, gone?
ROBIN: Don’t let banks make that a profit center. When I was young, we saved up for things, she says in her older lady voice!
LIEBER: And in the meantime, your best tips for not being taken in by the personal finance industrial complex as it exists today?
ROBIN: I buy with cash.
DUNN: I open my mail now, so that is pretty huge.
LIEBER: How long did that take you?
DUNN: Oh, years. I used to think that if it was important, they’d find me. I was avoidant. I just know what is happening now.
REYNOLDS: I’ve restructured my financial life based on my priorities. I no longer feel financially vulnerable to external situations. I’m certainly not bomb proof, but I know what happens if something happens. For a single parent with a strong ability for catastrophic thinking, I sleep well at night.