By Allana Akhtar
March 13, 2019

Gaby Dunn once walked past her coworker’s open savings account, pointed and said, “Oh, I have that, too.”

“What?” the coworker responded.

“Credit card debt,” Dunn said, mistaking her coworker’s lofty savings for her own less-than-favorable financial situation.

At 27, Dunn was saddled with $32,000 of debt. She made countless mistakes with her finances to get to that point: the first time she looked at her student loan debt was 10 years after taking out her first loan. She once used all the money in her bank account to take an impromptu trip to Europe, where she vacationed entirely on credit. She bought exorbitant gifts, like a plane ticket and a $400 watch, for her significant others when she sensed they were losing interest.

But instead of continuing down the same path, Dunn made a radical move: She started a personal finance podcast. “Bad With Money” breaks down basic financial topics for people who never formally learned about money management or investing—and in just three years, the podcast has been downloaded 4 million times. Dunn received a $150,000 advance for her accompanying book, Bad with Money, and has been featured in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and on the Today show.

Her podcast gives advice from the perspective of someone who was (and sometimes still is) bad with money. She talks openly about how her dad’s addiction to gambling and alcohol and her mom’s propensity to overspend impacted her own money habits.

“If I hadn’t started the show I don’t know if I would’ve ever gotten my shit together,” Dunn tells MONEY. “I had to turn this basic thing of adulthood into my full-time job before I even became competent.”

The Gaby Dunn approach

Despite being unabashedly “bad with money,” Dunn is now as recognizable as other well-respected financial experts. Her success has scored her roundtable interviews with best-selling personal finance author Vicki Robin, brought Sallie Krawcheck from Ellevest on her show, and led to a sit down with Farnoosh Torabi on her popular podcast “So Money.” Dunn’s season four trailer even teases an interview with Suze Orman.

Yet Dunn’s approach to talking about personal finance diverges from tradition. In her book, Dunn criticizes financial gurus who shame individuals for spending $4 on coffee and advocate living off the bare minimum. “The gurus can provide a path, but you can’t live your whole life doing everything these megarich preachers tell you to do,” she writes. “While you scrounge, they fly private. Keep that in mind.”

From Dunn’s perspective, there is no “right” way to budget, and she doesn’t offer a one-and-done solution to magically fix your finances. She keeps things simple, and tells her audience to first become aware of where their money is going by regularly checking their bank accounts and monitoring their bills.

In her podcast’s second and third seasons, Dunn explores basic financial systems — banking, health insurance, student loan debt — and exposes their flaws. She discusses how much harder it is for black people to achieve economic mobility and how single women couldn’t open up their own credit card until the 1970s.

“I’m very concerned with marrying this sort of normative financial literacy advice…and also acceptance of this being the life we are supposed to have. It shouldn’t be this hard for us,” Dunn says on her podcast. “That being said: Sure, have a budget. It’s hard to think about fighting the system when you’re hungry because you haven’t been able to buy food.”

An unlikely path

For all her success, Dunn says talking about money was the last thing she thought she’d be doing. She became a journalist after graduating, picking up bylines at The Boston Globe and Buzzfeed. She began creating video content in 2013, going on to produce the popular YouTube show Just Between Us with her friend Allison Raskin.

As more viewers tuned into her show on YouTube, fans would chide her for featuring ads or sponsored products to make money — not knowing that Dunn was barely paying rent by making mostly free videos all day. The disconnect between her fans’ perception of her finances and her reality inspired her viral post, Get Rich or Die Vlogging: The Sad Economics of Internet Fame.

Hoda Kotb, Jenna Bush Hager, Terry Crews, Lynette Khalfani-Cox and Gaby Dunn on Tuesday, January 8, 2019.
Nathan Congleton/NBC—Getty Images

The issues she began hashing out in her article later became the subject of her podcast, specifically, her desire to destigmatize discussions about money.

“I just thought I can’t deal with the secrecy about this anymore,” Dunn tells MONEY. “If everybody is acting this way and being so snobbish to people about money, then there must be a lot of other people crying alone in their cars right next to me crying alone in my car.”

Through talking about her own mistakes, Dunn hopes to lessen the shame people feel asking basic financial questions. In her first season, Dunn found that strangers on the street are more willing to talk about their sex lives than reveal what’s in their bank accounts. Yet even as she took ownership over her mistakes, Dunn says she still received patronizing emails addressed to “honey,” continuing to make her feel ashamed at her lack of financial knowledge.

An inclusive approach

The shame many people, especially women, feel around money is institutional, Dunn says. Krawcheck and the writer Helaine Olen told Dunn that the metaphors and jargon used to talk about personal finance are often male-centric. Olen, for instance, took a quiz on saving for retirement and got a question asking her about college basketball.

By keeping the language complicated, those without access to financial literacy education — who are often women and minorities — have a harder time understanding financial topics like investing, which ultimately keeps money out of their hands. “Subconsciously, the way people talk about money is almost a wink-wink boys’ club,” Dunn says. “The language is purposefully confusing because people love to be smug about money. It’s all done in this way to keep it very ‘straight white man.’”

Dunn’s inclusive approach gives her a broad appeal. “I like how she talks about structural inequalities and how that leads to financial inequality,” says activist and “Bad with Money” listener Amber Richardson. “I appreciate that she centers queer people and people of color, because I’m from both of those communities.”

This rejection of traditional personal finance advice comes at a time when many people are using social media to call out broad financial guidelines. Last year, MarketWatch published an article suggesting people have twice their income saved by the age of 35 (MONEY has offered similar advice). People on Twitter scoffed at the idea: “do any of you know real people? just curious,” said one user.

Now, Dunn says underrepresented people have a platform to talk about how much you “should” have saved may not be possible for every person — and they shouldn’t be shamed for that. “The big thing that’s happening with young people and with personal finance is [they are calling out] the stuff that’s like, ‘You have to do this or you’re a bad person,’ or ‘The reason you don’t have money is because you don’t understand how it works,’” Dunn says. “The kids I talk to say, ‘We understand how it works, we just don’t like it.’”

Dunn says she speaks directly to women, minorities and young people because they have been left out of the traditional audience. Statistically, she says, most people are a type of minority; keeping a huge segment of the population isolated seems “insidious” to her — and her fans take notice: “The people you see on Forbes magazine, I can’t really relate to them,” says 20-year-old Danielle Medina, a fan of the podcast and longtime follower of Dunn’s YouTube channel. “I can relate to Gaby better. She didn’t come from money, she worked for it, and she’s part of the LGBTQ community.”

Gaby admits she’s still not “good” with money, but neither are most people — which makes her someone they can count on to tell the truth.

“The idea of being a financial guru now is so weirdly inaccurate,” Dunn says. “No, I’m just a person who pops up and goes ‘But, why?’”

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