Ever wondered how it’s possible to live on an intern’s salary in New York City? Refinery29 tried to answer that question in a recent instalment of their Money Diaries series, this one about a 21-year-old who works in marketing for an HR company. The story received swift backlash on social media from users calling out the fact that the intern in question is in-fact living on much more than her reported $25/hour salary. In addition to her wage, the anonymous woman says that she receives a monthly family allowance of $1,100, free rent and a whole lot of privilege—all of which were omitted from the original title and framing of the article. (The headline has since been adjusted from “A Week In New York City On $25/Hour” to “A Week In New York City On $25/Hour and $1K Monthly Allowance.”)
Family’s support, not her salary, is how this writer actually affords a swanky Equinox gym membership at $210 per month, acai bowls and a luxe weekend in the Hamptons with her girlfriends. That silver spoon was quickly pointed out by Twitter users, and some people went as far as suggesting the article shouldn’t have been written in the first place.
YOU SHOULD NOT BE WRITING ABOUT MONEY pic.twitter.com/kt8Rjsn6oM
— tessa b (@tessabahoosh) July 17, 2018
I disagree. There needs to be space in discussions about money for people who have it, because the reality is that financial privilege like this exists. Getting that out in the open can help all of us better understand how much it *really* costs to live a certain lifestyle. That’s a point Elite Daily’s senior news editor Alexandra Svokos made clear in a Twitter thread defending the article.
Money Diaries, which has existed for literally years, is not an advice column or a piece of objective reporting, nor does it pretend to be. As stated at the start of each entry, it's one woman's account of her spending
— Alexandra Svokos (@asvokos) July 17, 2018
Additionally, it is an *ongoing* series, so this one entry is one of dozens, all of which represent different tax brackets, privileges, barriers, locales, industries, etc. To not have someone privileged talk about how they spend would be to ignore that privilege exists
— Alexandra Svokos (@asvokos) July 17, 2018
Others didn’t take as much issue with the intern’s spending habits or sources of income, but how it was all framed. Readers showed up to find out how someone managed their money in an expensive city on a reasonable salary—and they weren’t expecting the answer to be “extra family money.”
You also come to find out they get an additional $1100/month from their parents and grandpa as "allowance" money, and that their schooling, health insurance, cell phone, and streaming services are also all covered by their parents.
— Abbey Gingras (@abbeygingras) July 17, 2018
Kylie Jenner was the subject of a related debate last week when Forbes described the youngest member of the Kardashian-Jenner empire as a “self-made” almost-billionaire. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s pretty inspiring that a 20-year-old woman is on track to be the youngest billionaire ever, but casting someone who has built an audience (and income) since the age of 12 on a popular reality TV show and is a member of an extremely wealthy, business-savvy family as “self-made” is… pardon the pun… rich. The fact that she didn’t exactly start at the bottom doesn’t mean her wealth isn’t worth discussing, but the context is critical.
In the case of Refinery29’s Money Diaries entry, that context means not just saying that this intern lives on a $25/hr wage a $1,100 monthly allowance, but adding up the dollar value of the rest of her freebies. Her total income is actually much higher when you include the money for her phone bill, Netflix, Spotify and Amazon accounts, rent and health insurance. Instead of saying that she pays $0 for these expenses, these aspects of her lifestyle should be accounted for in her overall income to paint a fuller picture of how much money it actually requires to live the way she does.
While the numbers don’t add up to a full picture of this intern’s financial situation, it doesn’t mean that this story shouldn’t have been written. Reading about how this New York intern affords her worry-free lifestyle—and in the process, displaying how she thinks about money—is essential to our discussions about money and spending. Rather than just assuming that people making the same salary should all be able to afford generally the same lifestyle, this piece helps show how that is not always the case—a helpful reminder for those of us trying to keep up with the internet or coworker Joneses.
I remember entering the workforce a few years ago as a digital marketer (i.e. the most junior person on my team) in a marketing agency—an amazing role to start my career, but not exactly making the big bucks. Most of my coworkers earned close to my salary, so I was absolutely baffled by how some of them had cars, dogs and apartments with appliances from this century (the simple things!), while I made do with my 1970s stove and got around on public transportation. I would have loved to upgrade, but I knew my lifestyle was all I could afford at the time. That said, it didn’t make me any less tempted to try to shoehorn those luxuries into a budget that realistically, couldn’t support it. I never found out the details of their finances , but as my own income grew and I eventually acquired those things, I started to realize that it would have meant spending my entire paycheque to swing it on that salary. I sucked it up, but it was a frequent frustration when I had to opt out of activities and purchases that seemed like no big deal to my coworkers.
READ: What the heck is a TFSA?
I was reminded of that feeling as I read about the marketing intern’s Hamptons weekend and her frequent Lyft trips. While her privilege isn’t clearly stated in the headline, her eazy-breezy attitude towards these types of purchases shows exactly what it’s like to be starting out your career—in one of the most expensive cities in the world—when money is an afterthought. And, as cringeworthy as it is to read, unless we make space for these kinds of articles and conversations, examination of financial privilege can be swept under the rug in conversations that start and stop at “I make $25/hour.”
Transparency about money isn’t just useful when it comes from one particular demographic, or a certain income level. Real clarity around how much a lifestyle costs, and how someone can afford it, is helpful because it completes the picture—instead of just seeing the IG posts of bougie trips, upscale lunches and exclusive gym classes. Refinery29’s story was worth writing, but a quick #blessed in the intro isn’t nearly enough to acknowledge how the subject is truly affording her lifestyle: privilege.