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Review: Gaby Dunn’s ‘Bad With Money’ – Barron's

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Photograph by Doug Frerichs

“How can I get my kid to be responsible with money?” is the anxiety of many a parent. I suspect it was the question in my mother’s mind when she gave me, at the age of 16, a financial planning book called Prince Charming Isn’t Coming: How Women Can Get Smart About Money. I can’t tell you whether it was useful or not because I could never bring myself to read it—teenaged me just couldn’t get past the patronizing title.

Gaby Dunn’s new book, Bad With Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Togetheris the book I wish I’d had back then, except I can’t imagine anything like it being published back in the 1990s. Part memoir, part advice book, and part manifesto, it’s bloggy in its informal, voice-driven writing and assumes a level of wokeness still unheard of in many personal finance books. (Adding to the zeitgeistiness, the author of course has her own podcast.) Dunn’s goal, as she writes in the introduction, “to demystify personal finance so that it becomes less scary and overwhelming for all of us, including me.” It’s clearly aimed at a younger audience, with early chapters on affording college, choosing a smart major, and navigating unpaid internships without torpedoing your fledgling finances. And it’s the opposite of patronizing.

Dunn places herself squarely in the role of helpful big sister, sharing her journey from clueless high school student semi-thoughtlessly taking on student loans to moderately clued-in 29-year old with a retirement plan. She doesn’t assume her audience is just one caffeine-fueled spreadsheet session away from financial Valhalla. She doesn’t assume that her readers have stable jobs, health insurance, or financially savvy parents to bail them out. She does assume, however, that they have ambitious dreams, deep concerns about systemic inequality, and that they are OK with cheery all-caps asides.

Dunn weaves her own experiences into advice on core subjects like retirement, taxes, and budgeting. But she also raises less-covered topics, like the cost of mental-health care, how our feelings about money can shape our romantic relationships, and the brutal math of student loans —which she terms “the neck tattoo of the financial world.”

The chapter on mental illness is one of the best, offering a zero-punches-pulled accounting of how Dunn came to recognize that paying for mental-health care is vastly preferable to “saving” that money and living with untreated bipolar disorder. It’s an intimidating level of candor, as much because of her financial disclosures as her emotional ones. She’s willing to tell you what it really costs her to be well: $225 every six weeks for a psychiatrist and $125 per session with a therapist.

While some will likely pick up this book hoping for practical advice, the practical advice is probably the thinnest part of the book. For example, a “financial psychologist” tells her she’ll need to save about $1.3 million to be able to retire on an income of $50,000 a year. She accepts this wisdom and moves on with some common-sense advice about how even if that seems impossible, it’s important to save what you can. But as Barron’s readers know, calculating a retirement nest egg is a highly personal bit of math, and it would be useful to have more of those nitty-gritty details in the book. It would at least be useful to know how Dunn’s source arrived at that number, since estimates can vary widely even between experts—economist Teresa Ghilarducci, for example, writes in her excellent and concise book, How to Retire With Enough Money, that you may need only $500,000 in the bank to retire on $50k a year. (She also walks you through her math and her assumptions, like that Social Security will still be around, which Dunn doubts.)

But Dunn’s book isn’t meant to be a financial encyclopedia. It’s meant to get younger people thinking about their financial futures, and all the ways that money may deeply influence their most personal choices, from wedding planning to graduate school to relationships to what it costs to have a baby. These aren’t things I was thinking about in financial terms in my younger days, but they should have been (yes, Mom, you were right). If it’s a little thin on specifics, I think that’s OK—Dunn sketches out enough important basics about SEP-IRAs and 1099s to give the Internet generation a sense of the important terms they should be Googling.

And Dunn has a special knack for noticing the strange contradictions of our age—that strangers in a
Starbucks

will happily disclose to her their favorite sexual positions, for example, but are horrified into silence when she asks about their bank balances. And her approach to calling out such paradoxes is thoroughly readable: “Me on
Twitter

: burn the capitalism system,” she writes. “Me on Amazon: check out my wish list.”

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