Whenever you visit the website for the The Financial Diet, you’re greeted by a cheerful banner with a small image in the corner reading: “Reminder: There is no shame in staying in a job simply because you need the paycheck.”
Not exactly aspirational. But in many ways, that line sums up what’s different about The Financial Diet (abbreviated TFD), a booming destination for money advice targeted at women. While its content can be motivating, the mini-media empire is also shockingly candid about the realities of spending, saving and making money in today’s economy. Videos and articles with snappy headlines — “My Banking Nightmare,” “Minimalism Is Just Another Boring Product Wealthy People Can Buy,” “Why ‘Don't Worry About Money, Just Travel’ Is the Worst Advice of All Time” — acknowledge class and other barriers to upward mobility while demystifying how the well-off got that way.
Other outlets and self-help gurus may wave those tougher topics away. Not TFD. Financial stressors and mistakes that could be sources of shame are brought out in the open; instead of talking down to its readers, TFD gets real with them.
That’s largely thanks to founder and CEO Chelsea Fagan, whose own bumpy financial history informs TFD. At 33, she’s on a mission to help many more women attain better financial lives — without excuses or apologies — by making the steps involved in getting there as clear as possible.
“The act of being really transparent and having that level of accountability with other people who are making similar decisions to you and having similar goals — it lifts that stigma” around sensitive money issues, Fagan says. And in that sense, brutal honesty is the only way to go.
When Fagan started TFD as a personal blog in 2014, she simply wanted to hold herself accountable after walking away from a financial meltdown.
Having grown up in a low-income household in a low-income area, then a low-to-middle-income household in the tony D.C. suburb of Annapolis, Maryland — which ironically made her “feel much worse” about her family’s position — Fagan already knew the perils of being relatively poor in the U.S. and wanting more.
“Teenagers can be quite cruel about that kind of thing,” she says. “Being in that environment engendered a lot of anxieties and insecurities and envy about money. And led me to develop a lot of bad habits.”
At 18, Fagan got her first credit card: a Hello Kitty-branded Visa with a $500 limit. What followed is a story familiar to millions of Americans in debt: She maxed out the card, threw it away and defaulted. By the time her debt was in the hands of collection agencies, the amount she owed had ballooned to $4,000. She settled with Visa, but then unpaid traffic violations “led me to get a suspended license, which led me to be arrested. And I got fired from every job I had,” she remembers.
Those years of financial recklessness ended up being formative. While slumming it at a dead-end job at a media company in 2014, she had the idea to use her content creation skills to improve her relationship with money. TFD was just supposed to be a short-term thing — “like when people do a fitness challenge,” she says.
Despite her intentions, TFD quickly grew into a real business. And so Fagan quit her $42,000-a-year media gig to commit to TFD full-time. (“I hated my job. So I didn't need the greatest push off of that cliff,” she notes.) Co-founder and Chief Design Officer Lauren Ver Hage joined the venture, at first designing TFD for free. The internet creators Hank and John Green swooped in with a $5,000 grant.
It was a “struggle” at first, but however limited the operation, Fagan knew she was onto something potentially lucrative when TFD’s YouTube channel added 200,000 subscribers within a week in 2017. It now has about a million.
While YouTube drives revenue, the largest portion of TFD’s business is actually its events: workshops, conferences and classes offered both digitally and in person. A few upcoming Zoom events: a “Student Loan Refinancing Crash Course” presented by SoFi (free), an “Entrepreneur Bootcamp” ($19) and “How to Build a Real Business on YouTube” ($199).
“The relationship we have with our audience is very different from a lot of media companies,” Fagan says. “At the end of the day, they are opening up their wallets to participate in something with us.”
That personal connection extends to Fagan’s quasi-celebrity as she goes about her life in New York City, where she frequently gets stopped in the street by young women to have meaningful conversations about TFD.
“What's really notable is that they're always coming up and saying, like, ‘I was able to pay off my credit card debt,’ or ‘I was able to buy a home,’” she adds. “It's not someone coming up and saying, ‘Oh my God, I love your new outfit’ or whatever.”
Fagan is a new kind of personal finance guru well-suited to the democratized internet era. She’s naturally charismatic but avoids the pretenses of a self-appointed expert. Just as she tries to steer TFD’s audience away from purchases influenced by social perceptions, which can be “exacerbated” by the likes of Instagram and TikTok, she shies away from sharing her personal life on social media.
“I don’t personally aspire to be an influencer. I don’t monetize my own life. I think that’s detrimental to your health,” she says.
Instead, she’s endeared herself to droves of TFD fans — including about 845,000 Instagram followers — with a no-nonsense approach to the psychology of money management.
For instance, Fagan wants to make it much easier for women (so often the target of lifestyle advertising) to be forthcoming about their financial state (even if it doesn’t earn them friends), which she sees as a first step in improving it.
“It's very uncommon for people in a lot of situations to say, ‘That's not in my budget.’ Weddings, birthdays, travel, vacation — all these things put people in debt on a very regular basis,” she says. “The more transparent you can be, the more you can get out ahead of it.”
As CEO, Fagan practices the financial transparency she preaches: TFD employees are aware of her 60% stake in the company and annual salary (“in the realm of about $100,000”). The rest of the staff is paid within a “pretty narrow” range, and most either earn commission or share in profit. “Given what we talk about at TFD and our general position, if everyone at the team wasn't paid really well and had good benefits… No one would be canceled faster than I would be canceled,” she quips.
TFD is still quite small, with a staff of 11. She’s optimistic about the future of her brand, in part because she’s focusing on sustainable, slow growth instead of trying to conquer the media universe overnight. And she can finally relax when it comes to her own pocketbook.
Fagan’s style of radical accountability — for herself and her fans — has worked.