How much have you got? Breaking the taboos on money

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On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in July, Rob Campbell, 50, received a Zoom call from his boss at the advertising firm where he worked as a head of strategy. He took it in his bedroom. It wasn’t a good call. His boss was courteous, professional and regretful that, what with coronavirus and everything, Campbell was being made redundant. His five-year-old son was playing just off camera. Fifty is not a good age to be made redundant. But once the shock receded, Campbell did something hardly anyone does when they are made redundant – at least, not before the pandemic. “I’m sort of a loudmouth prick,” he explains. “And I just thought, I’m not going to go quietly.”

He posted a picture of himself on Instagram with a FOR SALE banner over his head. In an extended caption, he announced his dismissal with the fanfare that people usually reserve for new job humblebrags – and explained that he wanted to remove the stigma around redundancy. “Yes it’s shit, but right now it’s happening everywhere & no one should feel embarrassed about it.” He was immediately inundated with messages of support, offers of work and requests for help from those in similar positions.

“I’m genuinely happy it happened to me and not someone else,” he tells me now. “If you’re young, or a woman, or a person of colour, you’re usually penalised the most. I’ve seen that a lot in my career. Companies don’t want us to talk about this. From their point of view, it’s good to have shame surrounding it. But so many people are going through this. The only way we’re going to get through it is being open about it. As much as it might feel as if it’s about you, it’s not about you.”

The disruptions of 2020 have challenged many of our basic stories – and chief among them are the stories that we tell about money, finance, employment and economy. Britain is in the midst of a second lockdown, in queasy anticipation of a double-dip recession: the economy is predicted to contract by as much as 10% with job losses forecast in the millions. Christmas isn’t too far away. In ordinary times, these things feel very precisely about you. Capitalism teaches that our worth as human beings is our employability, our productivity, our bank balance.

I have few money ambitions beyond not having to think about it too much and maybe owning a ping-pong table one day – but there is no more reliable gauge of my ambient mood than the depth of my overdraft at any given moment. I know many people who never check their banking apps for this reason. Think how many of the terms that we apply to the economy – depression, value, health, flow – have their psychological doubles. How could you not take something like redundancy personally?

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Photograph: dibrova/Getty Images/iStockphoto

But the coronavirus and the economic havoc it has unleashed are on such a vast scale, it has disrupted those associations, even exposed the economy as a huge game of bingo, winners and losers pulled out almost at random. You could have run the most successful theatre in Britain and be completely screwed. You could equally have found yourself doing extremely well from doing considerably less. It’s the game, not the players, that has been exposed.

“Personal finances have become a collective issue,” is how the finance writer Alex Holder puts it. “You can’t separate your own personal finances from the global pandemic. No matter where you are, from high earner to low earner, your spending has undergone an overhaul.” She believes that the very fact that it’s so beyond our control has taken some of the “shame and sting” away from financial difficulty. “You as an individual are not at fault.”

Holder is emblematic of a new way of thinking and – crucially – talking about money. In her book Open Up: Why Talking About Money Will Change Your Life, published last year, she argued passionately in favour of having awkward conversations with colleagues and friends, of comparing fees and salaries, of being honest about financial advantages as well as disadvantages. This, she says, serves a dual purpose. It helps relieve some of the mental strain so many of us feel around money. According to the 2018 Money Advice Survey, 51% of people avoided talking to family and friends about debt so as not to worry them, while 32% of young people didn’t feel confident enough to talk to loved ones about finances. But this leads on to the second purpose. The information that you do share can help others in similar – or worse – positions.

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As grim as coronavirus has been, Holder believes it has helped the cause of openness, pointing to Campbell’s post as an example. “I didn’t see people posting about their redundancy on social media six months ago,” she tells me. “I’ve also seen lots of small business owners talking about the grants they’ve received and telling other small business owners where they should be applying. And where people have managed to persuade their landlord to give them a rent reduction, they’ll share it and encourage others to do the same. Meanwhile, we’ve had the Black Lives Matter movement highlighting systemic inequalities and giving us all another reason to talk about pay. Sharing helps you equalise. More transparency helps. It can only be a good thing.”

I certainly don’t remember hearing these sorts of conversations when the last financial crisis hit in 2008. I say “last”. The Great Recession doesn’t feel like some done-and-dusted historical event, more like a permanent state of affairs, compounded by a decade of Osbornian austerity, digital-era disruption, Brexit, general misrule and irritating articles about millennials and avocados.

For Holder’s generation, coming of financial age after the 2008 crash, often entering the workplace with tens of thousands of pounds of student debt, coronavirus is merely the latest in a series of financial shocks. The radical leftward shift of young people’s politics is widely noted. David Graeber’s Debt has become required reading for a generation. Debts, he argues, are “systems of coercion” that reduce the products of human cooperation – “creativity, devotion, love and trust” – into numbers. “In doing so, they make it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations.”

But the conversation around money has changed in more quotidian ways, too. Figures like Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert have championed individuals against the might of huge financial corporations. There’s an increased willingness to call out companies that don’t pay fairly, on social media. There’s much more conversation around the mental health implications of money. Itemised spending diaries on sites such as Refinery29 and Vice have become a thriving internet subgenre. There are finance apps like Monzo and Plum, which pitch themselves to young people with their emoji-rich interfaces – but also strive to convey an understanding of the difficulties many find with budgeting and spending. And there’s less shame attached to asking for money, too, and a whole series of platforms that help individuals monetise themselves in creative (Patreon, Substack) or perhaps not-so-creative (OnlyFans) ways. Meanwhile, financial advice is no longer exclusively aimed at middle-aged white men with property portfolios.

Ashley Agwuncha, a pharmacist by day, set up the Instagram personal finance platform @MoneyMedics (aka Millennial Money Management) with her brother Nicholas and sister-in-law Eve in 2018, as they all felt excluded from the mainstream money conversation. “We couldn’t relate to the guidance and advice that people were receiving,” she says. “We all come from poorer neighbourhoods. Our parents didn’t teach us about money. We want to make money, but we also want to live our best lives. And there was a lot of negative commentary about millennials eating avocado toast that we wanted to counter, too.”

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Since the pandemic hit, she has been busy posting on such subjects as “Post-Lockdown Budgeting Tips”, “5 Apps to Level Up Your Finances” and “What Can You Do Now To Close the Ethnicity Pay Gap?” – as well as offering detailed advice on how to take advantage of government job creation schemes.

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“As awful as this pandemic has been, it has turned a lot of things on its head where it comes to money,” she says. “People are realising that there are other ways to make money. There’s a lot of creativity that’s been unleashed. It really doesn’t matter how much you’re making, even if it’s £1,000 a month. It’s about forming good habits around growing your money.”

She also points to Black Lives Matter as instigating positive changes in the middle of the first lockdown. It prompted her to create a directory of British black-owned businesses – and reinforced for her the importance of breaking money taboos. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing what you’re earning,” she says. “What’s important is the intention behind it. Are you sharing it in the hope you can uplift others? Or are you looking to make other people feel bad? There are a lot of inequalities being unearthed now that people are sharing this information. People are realising that by not talking about money, they are not helping. Talking about money freely – getting people more comfortable with negotiating. Companies are realising that they have to be more fair, and that’s solely as a result of people talking about them.”

If we look at how we were spending before, it seems ridiculous

James Coursier, who offers financial “coaching” via his site, the Money Paradox, also comes from a working-class background. The advice he gives is informed by his friends’ and family’s struggles. “One thing that always seems tremendously unfair is that if you have money to begin with, you have far greater access to financial advice and help than someone who doesn’t have money – and therefore is in greater need of financial advice.”

He argues that it’s not nearly as hard as many people imagine to become financially free – not rich, but simply in a position where money anxieties cease to prey upon you. But in practice, most people don’t bother. “One reason is that money is a taboo,” he says. “Most people don’t talk about it. And because they don’t talk about it, they don’t learn about it. But if you think about it, if you want to be good at anything, you need to spend time thinking about it, talking about it, cultivating good habits. You don’t just get good at something overnight. It’s a process. But because most people won’t engage in the subject of money, it holds them back.”

Coursier has noticed during coronavirus that more people are engaging in the subject of money, often for the first time. However, he doesn’t see the money taboo lifting soon – indeed, he warns that the wildly different effects of coronavirus on our finances are just as likely to entrench them. While many are facing harsh financial setbacks, many people I speak to admit – often sheepishly, with lots of qualification – that their financial situation changed for the better. Even Holder, who spends a lot of her time talking about money, says she has had a wake-up call. “You look at how you were spending before and it seems ridiculous. Like, why did I think I needed a new top for a meeting? Was I really spending that much on my hair each month?” One friend, who says she never checked her bank account, now says she does so religiously. “It’s sort of addictive, once you get into it.”

Indeed, when the first lockdown was imposed in March, you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief– and I don’t think it was entirely to do with the virus itself. For many, this was an extremely welcome chance to stop spending, break bad habits, jam a big stick into the spokes of the capitalist carousel and catch our breath for a moment. We – or at least, some of us – wore sweatpants and baked banana bread. Our children drew pictures and climbed trees. We went out for government-mandated walks passing pizza chains that we weren’t spending £32 at and wondered why we ever used to do that. We clapped the NHS and cooked for relatives and noticed the seasons and perhaps even began to imagine a world that was more than a series of cold-blooded calculations. It felt a little like a holiday. A holiday taken in the full knowledge that you left the back door open. But a holiday all the same. It helped that the weather was extremely pleasant.

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Back then, I kept a close eye on the UK Reddit personal finance board – which was full of tales of people emerging from the lockdown with their finances in a much better state, thank you very much. “Like a lot of people here, I have financially benefited from the work from home,” said one user. “I moved back up north from London, cutting living expenses but maintaining my London salary. Our financial position hasn’t changed, but the financial stress seems to have gone.” Commuting – the thousands of pounds that many of us pay each year simply to do our jobs – represented the biggest saving. But many said they simply didn’t enjoy spending any more – “I’d rather tuck it away into investments and watch it grow.”

Lucy Orange, 40, from Derbyshire, works in an administrative role for the NHS. Her story is typical. When lockdown began, she and her partner both started working from home and watched their outgoings go down to almost zero. “Spending money on anything other than food felt odd and took more consideration than before,” she says. She didn’t buy a single item of clothing – “Where exactly am I going to wear it?” – and being in her house all the time made her think more about general household purchases. She also started the business she had always wanted to start. “Overall, it’s been a blessing for our money,” she says. “I feel like it’s been a reset in outlook. A good time to consider what I really need. What will bring me happiness and add value to my life?”

The mood during the second lockdown is – like the weather – much bleaker than it was before. The appalling dance of openings and reopenings appears to have damaged businesses and spread the virus. The tier system has inflamed tensions between regional and central government. The government’s generosity isn’t going to last forever. Meanwhile, there are millions who have fallen through the cracks of the various support schemes.

Rachel Flower of ExcludedUK – a pressure group set up on behalf of these individuals – feels her members have been deliberately ignored. “Over time, we’ve just sunk deeper and deeper into financial hardship,” she tells me. “People have racked up debt on credit cards. They borrowed from friends and family. They’ve had to sell their homes, move back in with parents. We’ve got evictions starting to kick in this month. There is so much shame and guilt that goes along with that. People feel like they’ve done something wrong. And we’ve seen a distinct lack of sympathy from friends and family members.” Does she feel people are talking about these issues more? “Yes – but only out of desperation.”

Will coronavirus mark the ultimate triumph of predatory capitalism? Will we sink further into misery and mistrust? Or will that brief glimpse of a more communitarian, more sustainable way of doing things that we had in the spring help us to imagine a world where creativity, devotion, love and trust are valued in and of themselves?

Ah, who knows. But I would hazard that talking about these things more – actually being open about how we’re spending, saving and earning – is more likely to help the second cause than the first one. As Agwuncha puts it: “Money, food, shelter: you need these three things. But of the three, money is spoken about the least. There’s a lot of shame about it. But there shouldn’t be any shame in talking about something that’s an inherent need in your life.”