Growing up broke creates surprising attachments, even decades after the immediate threat of bankruptcies and bill collectors has faded. Growing up broke means I embrace sources of financial knowledge out of sync with my values. Embrace is too gentle: I cling to them like life rafts I didn’t have during the financial shipwrecks of childhood. To wit: the HerMoney podcast, which launched in April 2016. Since then, financial journalist Jean Chatzky and her team have produced nearly 300 episodes. I haven’t missed one. Even when Jean and her guest are tackling a topic like “how to raise successful people” (episode 160) that is both irrelevant to my (childfree) life and offensive to my politics, I stream. This aspirational listening reassures me I don’t have to live out my past.
Of all the literacies I have sought as the first in my family to go to college, to get a PhD, to leave the East Coast and then the country, financial literacy has been the most obscure. I imagined, likely incorrectly, that my well-cushioned friends acquired this knowledge osmotically starting in childhood. I imagined, correctly, that my financially flailing parents could mostly teach me by negative example. My liberal arts college certainly didn’t offer courses in life skills like budgeting, saving, and investing. Books for “dummies” put me off by calling me what I regretted I was. Even if they hadn’t, in the domain of finances, figuring out what you’re dumb about is the first formidable obstacle. I knew how to balance a checkbook thanks to my fifth-grade math teacher. I knew that bankruptcies and unpaid bills royally fuck up your credit. Thanks to my student loan debt, I knew the difference between principal ($35,000) and interest (I refuse to calculate). But how do you know what you don’t know? What questions to ask? Something about APR and retirement accounts?
The gaps started to fill as I got adult jobs. My first one post-college was with the Oregon state government. No pension—this was right after the Enron fraud put another nail in the coffin of those—but after six months I was vested and joined the public employees retirement system. Being a graduate student taught me about paying estimated taxes and getting a side gig to pay down unsubsidized student loans. A job at a state university put me in another employees retirement system. HerMoney debuted.
Talk to me often enough, and I’m bound to share a tidbit of financial information I gained from Jean and her guests. My devotion is total, and I hardly questioned it until I recommended the podcast to some late-20-something feminist lesbians. The appalled looks they gave me after they’d sampled some episodes hit pause on my avidity. My aspirational listening now seemed terribly traditional.
To me, HerMoney brought the formerly poor the pleasures and securities of financial literacy that the rich obtain by other means.When I listened through their ears, though, HerMoney resounded with whiteness, cis-heteronormativity, assumed maternity, corporate consumerism, and girliness (episode 1 begins with Jean complementing Gretchen Rubin, “your hair looks great!”). I heard how the comforts of financial knowledge came encased in an icky feminist capitalism where gender essentialism as much as—and sometimes in tandem with—empirical research drove advice and messages of empowerment. Business coach and entrepreneur Rachel Rogers (episode 249) advises listeners on “how to earn 7 figures” and remarks that the “world will be a better place when women are making a lot more money” and “a lot of us [women] have natural talents at organization, at nurturing, at writing, at marketing or branding.” In episode 84, Jean comments to financial journalist Stacey Tisdale that “joining together to further the greater good is something that women do better than men.” Episode 228, with “Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond, is a nightmare of domesticity and settler colonialism. Questions like, is money really so different for women? is wealth accumulation really the best route to gender and racial equity? who counts as a “woman” to HerMoney anyway: transwomen, the nonbinary, the childfree? came rushing in.
Regardless, my aspirational listening continues. This isn’t only because, in 45-minute segments, HerMoney comprehensively demystifies all the many individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and when you should contribute to them. Or that it taught me what a certified financial planner (CFP) is and offered a tool to find one who has helped me see my new class position and navigated me through socially responsible investing (with all its contradictions). Or that HerMoney speaks against silence, exploitation, burnout, and perfectionism and illuminates the quirky, fascinating emotional and behavioral dimensions of money. I agree with the show’s credo that education is a bulwark—if a flawed and insufficient one—against inequity, exploitation, and stuckness. I sometimes wish it were more political, but I also don’t think everything I consume needs to echo my politics. And Jean does feature topics like the recent “Are We Owned by Amazon?” (episode 270), living childfree (197), and fighting white supremacy and homophobia at work and through wealth (157, 217, 219, 223). Navigating the world is complicated and its politics often impure; as much as the show can set the traps that ensnare women in myths about beauty, success, mothering, and productivity, it can also erode them.
Sometimes I feel good that (for now) I don’t have to worry about money as I did for 30-some years. More often I feel good that I know something about all that surrounds money. Unlike all the laborious and expensive steps that got me to having some money, knowing something about money only costs me 45 minutes a week. And maybe some aghast looks when I fail to stifle my love of HerMoney.
Heather Houser has spent a lot of years worrying about money, but she also thinks about the environment and contemporary culture. Her books are Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data and Ecosickness in Contemporary US Fiction: Environment and Affect.You can find more at heatherhouser.com and on Twitter @HouserHeather.