When it comes to things you aren’t supposed to talk about in polite conversation, money is probably at or near the top of everyone’s lists. Every layer of money — how much we had growing up, how much we have now, how much we owe, how much we spend — is more taboo than the last, and speaking about our own stories is often taken as an indictment of someone else’s. It’s hard to be honest about where we come from, and it’s even harder to be honest about where we are now, because having what is perceived as “too much” or “too little” can be equally socially damaging. So we avoid the topic altogether, and no one’s feelings get hurt.
But if we believe in one thing at TFD, it’s that money shouldn’t be taboo, and that one person’s honesty about their own life is not a personal attack on anyone else’s. Having more or less than someone is not something to be ashamed of, nor is it something to be proud of. It just is, and the sooner we accept that money is just like any other necessary aspect of human life, the sooner we can break that taboo and start learning from each other, just as we learn in talking about love or work. We want to break that taboo here at TFD, and we want to start by asking questions.
In our second installment of The 10 Big Money questions — our Q&A serious with fantastic, smart women about all things money — we’ll be talking to Dr. Chloe Angyal, a brilliant feminist writer and academic. Chloe and I actually have a story charming enough to be fitting for her Doctorate from the University of New South Wales, where her dissertation was in romantic comedies. In early 2011, I wrote a decidedly idiotic and un-feminist article about the Slutwalk, which Chloe proceeded to rightly tear to pieces at Feministing, a great women’s site she edited at the time. A year or so later, realizing we were both living in Paris, we met up and hit it off, and have been friendly since, despite usually being a solid several thousand miles apart. (I even once served as her boss in a way, as she was one of my freelancers at my old job — a role for which I felt marginally qualified at best, editing a doctor and all.)
Since our first meeting, she’s become a Doctor, and moved to the Huffington Post, where she serves as Senior Front Page Editor. In addition to her thoughtful commentary and reporting on women’s issues and politics, Chloe serves as living proof that serious, PhD-backed writing can be funny, lighthearted, and accessible to everyone. Huffington Post’s success — creating a space inviting to nearly all, and filling it with smart, diverse voices — is in many ways Chloe’s success, and vice versa. Her Twitter will make you cackle with laughter as much as it will make you think.
And since (to my knowledge) she’s never much talked about money, I thought she would be a perfect fit for this series. Every subject benefits from having her acute eye turned on it, so why not finance? And while she was a little hesitant to open up on the topic, she ultimately decided to take the plunge — and we’re very glad she did.
1. What was your relationship to money growing up?
We didn’t talk about money very much, probably because we had enough of it. My parents weren’t always well-off, but by the time I came along, our family was quite comfortable — and if there were ever any problems, they didn’t tell my sister or me about it. For the big ticket items, like private school tuition (I went to private school 7-12), I knew that my grandparents were pitching in. Things changed a little when my sister and I went off to college, because the Australian dollar was so weak. When my sister started college, the Aussie dollar was at 57 US cents, so imagine my parents looking at an Ivy League tuition bill and basically doubling it.
When my turn came, I got pretty generous financial aid; I went to Princeton, which gives financial aid in the form of grants, not loans. So my parents took out much less in loans than they might have had to had I gone to school somewhere else. I worked in college, but not every semester, and it wasn’t to pay tuition, it was to earn spending money. But we never really talked about money until my parents explained the power of starting your adult life debt-free — it was really important to them that I not have student loan debt as a young adult, and that’s just given me an enormous head start in my professional life. I suspect I’m only half as grateful as I ought to be because, as someone without student loans, I don’t think I can fully appreciate what a difference that makes.
2. Do you feel, looking back, like you got a good education about money, either at home or at school?
Certainly not at school, unless you count memorizing the compound interest formula in Year Eight. And not at home, either. My parents exposed me to some really important ideas, and financial literacy wasn’t one of them. While they’ve always made it clear that I can ask them any questions I want, I never really knew what to ask, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. So talking about money has, until recently, been a source of anxiety and stress, because I find not knowing the answers, to anything, to be really scary. And when it came to money, I had this looming sense that there was a huge universe of important things that I didn’t know, that I was supposed to know — and that not knowing it would have big negative consequences. For a long time I just chose to remain ignorant rather than diving in and enduring the embarrassing realization of how little I knew. And I could do that in part because I knew that, if something went really wrong, I had a parental safety net. I do not advise this course of (in)action.
3. If you have debt, what are your strategies and philosophies for paying it down?
I have a little bit of medical debt from emergency surgery that I had when I had very bare-bones health insurance (which I wrote about for you when you were at Thought Catalog). And I have about $20,000 left in student loan debt, which I recently committed to taking off my parents’ hands. My plan for that is to work my ass off for the next few years, get the best bonuses I can, and hand that money right over to my folks.
4. What is your current job (or jobs!), and how did you get to where you are today in your career?
I’m a Senior Front Page Editor at The Huffington Post. I also teach for The OpEd Project. I started doing journalism in college, and I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to make a career out of writing. I graduated in 2009, when journalism seemed to be crumbling, along with the rest of the global economy. It was clear to me that it was going to be hard to find a full-time journalism gig — papers were just shedding jobs, and it was a time of real panic — so I didn’t try. Instead, I cobbled together lots of things to make money: I took a part-time job at a women’s health advocacy organization, I tutored, I did a paid part-time internship at the OpEd Project and another at a digital journalism startup, I taught SAT prep. And on the side, I wrote and pitched freelance articles.
I started my PhD in 2011, and because I’d been given a research grant for that, my living expenses were covered and I was able to stop doing most of the other work and focus on getting my doctorate done before the funding dried up. I was able to supplement the grant with freelance writing, a lot of which was based on what I was learning in my doctoral research. Outside of Feministing.com, where I was a contributor and then an editor, I rarely wrote for free, but I often wrote for next to nothing — as many freelancers who write for online publications do. Again, that’s something I was able to do because of my PhD funding, and because I had no student loan debt and a parental safety net in case of emergency. And it’s worth noting that in journalism, and especially in social justice journalism, it’s a real problem if the only people doing it are people who can afford to work for free — it means that the voices of people who have the most to gain from social justice are missing from the conversation.
I got my PhD in 2014, and had already decided that, for now, academia isn’t for me. I love teaching, and I can do that through the OEP, which pays me to help academics take their great, important ideas and share them beyond the ivory tower, where they can do the most good in the world. But the academic job market is terrifying, and I wouldn’t put myself through that ringer unless I really wanted to be a professor, and right now I don’t.
After I finished my doctorate, I spent about a year freelancing full-time before I started applying for full-time jobs. And now I have a “normal” job for the first time ever. I miss the flexibility I had when I was freelancing and PhD-ing sometimes — the freedom to go work from my sister’s kitchen table in London or my parents’ spare room in Sydney — but I do not miss the instability and unpredictability of freelance life. I like knowing how much money I’ll make every month. I love being paid on time, and not having to chase an invoice for three months. It makes long-term saving and investment a lot easier. Plus, my office is pretty casual, so I can still wear yoga pants every day if I want, just like I used to.
5. When was the first time you negotiated for yourself, at work or otherwise? Can you tell us a bit about that?
I don’t remember the first time, but the most recent time I negotiated was for my salary when I took my current job. I was absolutely terrified, but I knew it was the right thing to do, so to prepare, I wrote a page-long essay about Chloe Angyal, in the third person. Like a lot of women, I’m great at advocating for other people — my friends, my mentees — and not as good at doing it for myself. So I wrote down all the reasons why Chloe was qualified for the salary she was asking for. Before the negotiation, which didn’t turn out to be the showdown battle royale I was dreading, I followed Amy Cuddy’s advice about taking up space. My boyfriend was there when I was preparing, and he’d tell you that as I was waiting for the phone call, I roamed around the room doing my best impression of a grizzly bear. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, but it was worth it. And I think it’s made me better at my job, too, because I feel like I have to work hard to prove that I’m worth what I asked for.
6. What is something you understand about money now that you wish you had before you graduated from school and entered the “real” world?
I didn’t fully understand the effect of compound interest in the long term, in the real world. It’s one thing to know that the concept exists and another to understand how small acts of saving can have huge tangible long-term pay-offs. Compound interest is your friend. If I could go back in time, I would show this John Green video to my 20-year-old self — hell, to my 16-year-old self, who was spending most Friday and Saturday nights on a neighbor’s couch earning babysitting money.
7. What is one of your biggest money-related mistakes that you’ve made? What did you learn from it, and what do you do differently now?
I waited way too long to educate myself and get comfortable talking about money. The guy I’m dating now didn’t share my discomfort, and has a way of explaining things to me that doesn’t feel condescending or cause me anxiety. He undertook a pretty deliberate effort to help me get my financial house in order and teach me what I needed to know, and he did a pretty good job of making it seem casual and not at all orchestrated, which, now that I’m looking back on it, it totally was. And I’m grateful. It’s resulted in such a shift for me. Ignorance is not something most of us can afford. When it comes to finances, complacency will bite you in the ass, because the system is set up to take advantage of ignorant and/or complacent people.
8. What is one big financial goal you still have for yourself? Are you currently using any concrete strategies to pursue it?
I’d like to sit down and do the math carefully on renting versus buying in the places where I’m likely to live in the five years, and then, if it makes sense to buy, start saving aggressively toward a downpayment.
9. How do you deal with financial setbacks when they happen?
You mean after I’m done panicking and self-flagellating? I remind myself of my mother’s favorite saying: You only get to spend money once. Then I remind myself of my father’s favorite saying: These things happen. Then I try to put systems in place to make sure I don’t make the same mistake again.
10. What is your personal definition of success, and do you consider yourself successful?
My definition of success is figuring out how your talents can best be put to work making the world a better place, and then doing it. And having enough money in the bank to go home and see your family when you need to. For me, the first is a work in progress, and I think it always will be. And I’m a long way from home, so the second one is often a stretch — but Kayak.com price alerts really help.
Follow Chloe on Twitter here.