Today’s Insight-giver is Nicole Dieker. Artsy and smart-sy, she’s got Major Thoughts about the the financial hustle for millennials and the value of creative work.
You’re a senior editor at The Billfold, a publication that speaks openly and honestly about money questions. Why do you think the hesitation to talk about finances still exists?
People are uncomfortable to admit that they have more or less than someone else. This is one of the reasons why it’s so hard for someone to say “I can’t afford that” when a group of friends suggests going out to dinner, but it goes the other way too. If you have more money than your peers, it feels inappropriate to acknowledge that — especially if you know that part of your financial success is associated with privilege.
Aversion to discussing finances also starts early and comes from the top down. Kids ask their parents questions like “are we rich/poor?” or “how much money do you earn?” and the parents give evasive answers. Parents may also teach children that it’s rude to talk about money, in part because that leads to the “discomfort re: having more or less than someone else” that I mentioned above. These behaviors are reinforced in the workplace, of course — and so you get a whole bunch of adults who have not been trained to discuss money openly.
One could say that the focal topic of the 2016 election was income inequality. Do you think that younger generations (I hate saying “millennials”) are more open to talking about finances? I feel like most people under 40, regardless of their current economic status, have felt a sting of a “have not” moment, whether they took out giant student loans, couldn’t get a job after college, or are still struggling with credit card debt.
I think the internet has made it possible for people with similar interests to have in-depth conversations with strangers, often with a veneer of anonymity attached — and so we finally have this safe space to talk about money. I don’t think it’s just “Millennials” leading this conversation. Online blogs and forums sometimes appear skewed towards a younger audience, but I’d bet there are people of all ages having these discussions on various websites.
I do think that a lot of Millennials are dealing with financial obstacles that previous generations haven’t had to experience — student loans being the prime example — and both Millennials and older generations are also dealing with more expensive housing/rental markets, healthcare costs, and the new expectation that everyone will be responsible for funding their own retirement. I’d recommend reading Helaine Olen’s book Pound Foolish, which explains exactly how our financial landscape has changed in the past 30 years, and why it is so much harder for everybody to make ends meet.
I’ve been seeing two growing factions online, when it comes to financial writers: proponents of having a “side hustle,” and people who feel like it’s damaging to expect young workers to have more than one (or even two!) jobs to make ends meet. Do you have a stance?
I believe that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. (I’ve said this in more than one interview, so please don’t call me out for self-plagiarizing!) Some people get really jazzed about their side hustles, and some people dream of having just one job.
I think that the minimum wage should be a living wage, which would undoubtedly help people who are working multiple jobs, and I definitely support wage increases for everyone. (Again, read Helaine Olen — real wages have remained stagnant while inflation has made everything more expensive, so that’s another reason why you see people working multiple jobs.)
I also think that there will always be the people who want to earn extra cash on the side, or want to take on a creative project after work. If that’s you, then go for it. Find what makes you happy and do your best to make it financially sustainable.
You also have a Patreon project called The Biographies of Ordinary People. Can you tell us about it?
When I was a senior in college — I studied music and theater — I went to visit one of the faculty during her office hours because I had a Very Important Question. “We’ve spent four years learning about famous artists,” I said, “but most of us aren’t going to be famous. We’re going to have to figure out how to make art while living ordinary lives, but we haven’t studied how to do that. When I go to the library, all of the biographies I see are about famous people. Where are the biographies of ordinary people?”
That conversation was the spark that launched this story, which I’ve been working on in some form or another for the past ten years. The Patreon project was a way for me to solve three problems: 1) to force myself to finally write the draft, instead of just tinkering with the book; 2) to see if the story had an audience; 3) to earn money from Day 1, instead of doing the usual thing of writing a draft (unpaid) and then shopping it to agents (still not paid) and then waiting for the agents to take it to editors (no money yet) and then maybe a publishing house buying a book, if you’re lucky, and paying you an advance that is significantly lower than what writers used to earn before the Great Recession.
I wanted my advance now, as it were — and I got it from my readers, who are the most important people in the publishing equation.
The book itself is about the Gruber family and their three daughters, Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie. I’ve been calling it a “contemporary Little Women.” It’s about family, art, friendship, and the way our world has changed over the past thirty years — the book, which I’m going to split into two volumes because it is so long — begins in 1989 and ends in 2016. At the center of the story is, of course, that question that I asked in college: how can we make art while living ordinary lives?
Did your day job of writing about finances influence your desire to write about “ordinary people”? Especially in this day and age when it sometimes feels as though “big” stories (superheroes, dystopias, etc.) get more attention than private or domestic stories?
I wanted to write The Biographies of Ordinary People long before I ever knew I’d become a professional writer, much less a personal finance writer. The events in the story — having a fight with a best friend, figuring out how to tell your parents you’re a lesbian, dealing with a terrible entry-level job — may seem “small” compared to superhero stories, but they’re big. They’re what fill our lives and make us human.
What was appealing about doing a Patreon piece, rather than going the traditional publishing route?
First of all, the Patreon project only funded the initial draft of this story. The Biographies of Ordinary People is not a publishable product yet! I have been pursuing the traditional publishing route, including conversations with literary agents, as well as investigating self-publishing options. My goal is to figure out which publishing method will hit the center of the Venn diagram of “earns me the most money” and “keeps my vision for this story intact.”
What about readers, you might ask? Shouldn’t they be in my Venn diagram? Okay. (Deep breath.) I got a MFA in theater directing, which was a disaster in so many ways, but it taught me a few hugely important life lessons. One of them was that your vision matters. A diluted vision, or a chopped-up vision to serve multiple audiences or marketing goals, will never connect as strongly as that original vision.
The biggest mistakes I’ve made as an artist have all involved compromising a big idea to incorporate someone else’s suggestions on how it “should be.” The times I’ve done my best work have always, always been when I’ve been allowed to fully develop an idea — this includes revisions, btw, I’m not saying don’t edit! I’m saying don’t compromise. Don’t make yourself smaller.
I really believe in this story, and I trust it as a big idea and as a vision that I need to see all the way through. If I get to do that, and take it all the way to publication, there will be readers who love the book. I already know from several of my readers that they love the draft, which is exactly what I was hoping would happen. (One reader said “this is maybe the most beautiful book I’ve read in a long time.”) Now I just need to keep doing the work.
In addition to following you on The Billfold or supporting your Patreon, how can we keep in contact with you? Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, etc.?
Follow me on Twitter @hellothefuture or read my Tumblr/blog at NicoleDieker.com. Every Friday, I do a “This Week in Freelancing” roundup on my Tumblr where I list how much freelance income I earned that week as well as how much work I completed. It has been fascinating to watch those numbers grow over the past four years.