How Chelsea Fagan, Founder of The Financial Diet, Does Money

by Jasmine Rose-Olesco

You’re in line at your favorite store, laden with the various items that you promised would be your only purchases during this shopping trip. Except, as the line inches forward at a glacial pace, a shiny, glittering item catches your eye. In that instant, you decide that the item is a must have and you contemplate venturing from the queue to claim it. You, my friend, are about to embark on an impulse purchase. You take one step forward from the line and it’s all over. Soon, you’ll be berating yourself for your spending habits and looking at your bank statement with furrowed brows.

Chelsea Fagan, writer, author, and content creator extraordinaire has been there before and her site, The Financial Diet, has got you covered.

Chances are you’ve heard of Chelsea if you frequent the ever popular Thought Catalog, The Huffington Post, or NYmag.com. Plus, Fagan’s guide to twenty-something life, I’m Only Here For The Wi-Fi: A Guide to Reluctant Adulthood, has been heating up North American bookstores since its release from Running Press in 2013.

With a recent sponsorship from Hank and John Green of The VlogBrothers fame and a site redesign, The Financial Diet is posed to expand even more in 2015.

I spoke with Chelsea about her career, her website, personal finance, and the pros of embarking on a financial diet.

How did you get into writing and creating content for the internet?

I started a Tumblr in 2010 to document my move to France and it started to gain traction. So, I submitted an article to Thought Catalog on a whim in early 2011 and I just kept writing from there!

How did the idea for your book and the opportunity to write your book I’m Only Here For the Wi-Fi: A Guide to Reluctant Adulthood come about?

That book was based on my articles on Thought Catalog to that point. (I started the book in early 2012.) I was approached by an agent who loved my stuff on the site. It was at a time when the “millennials figuring out how to be adults” genre was white-hot, I think.

So, let’s talk about your website. What has been surprisingly hard or surprisingly easy about going on a financial diet?

Saying “no” to social engagements has been harder than I thought but it gets easier as you get used to it. It was really difficult at first, but I am trying to narrow down my “going out” nights to one or two a week. I really enjoy it now, though.

Describe the positive changes in your life since you’ve embarked on a “financial diet?”

I feel more calm, balanced, and healthy. My home is more organized and streamlined and I don’t worry about things as much as I used to. My finances are not perfect yet by any means, but I don’t panic when I open up my checking account.

You write about starting the site during the summer of 2014. What did life look like for you at that time?

I was writing for Thought Catalog at the time. I really didn’t have a budget in my daily life and I realized that money was one of the few topics that I never talked about in my writing at Thought Catalog. I decided I wanted to create and maintain a budget. So, I started a personal Tumblr just to have a place to write about money. I intended for it to be mostly for myself, but it quickly started to gain a lot of followers. It gained so many followers that I quit my job at Thought Catalog at the end of last year to do it full-time.

That’s amazing!

Yeah! By the way, did you see the redesign? It launched on Friday.

I did! It looks great! I mean, it looked good, before but I really love it now. Did you have a designer who worked on that for you?

Yeah, I have a designer. She’s been with me since the beginning. The Financial Diet is really both of ours. She’s an art director.

That’s awesome! It’s great something that started out as a project turned into a full-fledged career and that you’re working on this with a good friend.

It’s really been awesome. I actually didn’t know her before I created the site. She reached out to me at the very beginning when it was still a personal Tumblr and said that she’d love to redesign it for me. That’s how we met and we’re really good friends now.

How have you interacted with money over the years?

I was always really bad with money. I got a credit card at eighteen. It was right before the crash. They were still giving out credit cards in high schools to people who were heading off college, which, obviously, is a terrible idea. I maxed out my credit card and didn’t pay it off and, as a result, I had terrible credit. Although I didn’t have a lot of debt, I did have a tiny bit due to student loans. I wasn’t someone who was addicted to shopping or addicted to spending. I just was really bad at managing money. I never had a budget, I never knew how much was in my account at any given time, and I didn’t build any credit. But, a couple years ago, I paid off my credit card that had defaulted and it felt like a huge relief. So, I started wanting to do more stuff like that. I’m definitely not perfect now but I’m a lot better than how I interacted with money before starting my financial diet.

Yeah, I never even had any access to a credit card at all. I always felt like money was a burden. I was kind scared of the idea of money and I let my parents deal with the handling of our money.

Right.

So, what advice would you give to someone who wants to be smarter about their money and who wants to embark on a financial diet?

Start with small changes. Don’t sit down and say, “Okay I’m going to completely change my finances.”

I think the most important thing to know is that it is easier if you start with small changes. Don’t sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to completely change my finances.” You can start by looking at your spending and finding the first couple of items that you could do without or that you could spend money on in a more intelligent way. Start with one of the simple budget apps that can help you break down where your money is going and what you can do to improve your spending habits. I think you can start by saving ten percent of what you earn. It becomes a snowball effect. Whereas if you start off by saying, “Okay, I’m going to save this amount of money or I’m going to stop doing this entirely,” it becomes really hard. It’s a diet. If you start it at an extreme, then you’ll give up after a week and gain it all back.

Yeah that’s definitely true. I feel like I would approach a financial diet, initially, by doing it the “wrong way.” I would approach it with extremes, thinking “Oh, I’m going to immediately be perfect.”

Right.

You also write about your desire to invest. What tips would you give to someone who wants to begin investing in companies?

My biggest tip is that you should find someone in your life who can advise you. You can read about all of the basics of investing online or in textbooks. I did, but I don’t think that I got a clear understanding of investing. And so, I reached out to people in my network who knew about it. That way, I was able to ask questions and get practical advice that was tailored to my life and from someone who knows me. So, I would suggest asking your family members, asking friends who are knowledgeable about investing, and asking people that you trust in your professional life. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t even know things like, “What is an RNA? What is a 401K? What is a stock?” So, I think before you make any decisions, you should go to someone who can introduce you to that world. If that makes any sense.

That makes perfect sense! So, it’s time to get a little more personal. You write about how you are an extrovert but that you want to be more self-assured in saying “no” to the option of spending a lot of money on a social outing. For someone else who is like that and maybe is looking to take a step back, how would you suggest having that conversation with a friend?

That’s really tough. Money is one of those few topics that is treated like a taboo, especially amongst friends. It can make you feel very insecure to say to someone, “I really can’t do this because I’m trying to save money.” But, I think that if you frame it in a way that is about wanting to be proactive instead of making it sound negative, then, that’s the best way to frame that conversation. Always make it a positive because if you frame it with, “I can’t keep doing this,” or, “I spent too much money the last time,” it makes the other person feel guilty. That’s, I think, what can cause a lot of tension.

Definitely. I’m more, I would say, of an introvert. However, I do have a friend who has better finances than I do and is considered upper-middle class. Going out with her always seems to be a situation where I’m spending to the last dollar or having to borrow money from her, which, I know can be embarrassing for me and annoying for her. I really appreciated you writing so openly about this topic. That was one of my favorite pieces on the site.

Thank you! It was tough for me because in a big city like New York where there’s always so much to do and so much to see. If you don’t pay attention, you can spend hundreds of dollars just on going out to restaurants and bars.

It’s so ridiculous.

It really is.

Speaking of New York City, how do you deal with the pressure of being a professional in a city where there seems to be a competitive “Keep up with the Joneses” atmosphere?

I do things that are personally enriching and that have nothing to do with other people or how they perceive me. I take classes by myself, I cook a lot at home, I spend time with my boyfriend, and I work on projects that I enjoy. The more I do to make myself happy outside the perception of others, the better I feel. I also shop less and I never spend time with someone who makes me feel competitive. That’s how you end up buying a 300 dollar purse to look like someone you’re not.

Let’s expand on that. On your site, you write about the importance of defining what success means to you. What is your definition of success or has your definition of it changed?

Success to me means three things: a good work/life balance, the ability to work on things that I truly love and feel passionately about, and financial stability.

Let’s get back to New York City for a minute. What are some of your favorite thrift stores or places that you frequent that are better for frugal spending?

I have been trying to purchase more investment pieces, such as items that take a long time to find but that I want to keep for a long time. I really love places like Nordstrom rack, TJ Max, and other places that have high quality items at great better prices. Outlets are another great example of that. I try to stay away from fast-fashion stores except to buy items like t-shirts and tank tops because I feel like I never find myself liking the clothes that are offered. I feel that it’s better to have one high-quality item than ten poorly made pieces of clothing. You end up throwing them away because you don’t wear them. So, I try to go to wholesale stores.

That’s really great advice. I feel like it’s embarrassing, in a way, to admit that you are spending frugally, especially in a city like New York. It’s a place that is all about labels. I think that’s pretty ridiculous, too.

Right. I think for a lot of people, when they think about spending, they think it’s better to go to fast-fashion places and buy something for twelve dollars. On the surface, that seems like you’re really not spending too much. But, when those dresses aren’t high quality, they don’t last for a long time and you just end up buying way more of them later. In the long run, with fast-fashion, you don’t save that much money.

Exactly. That took me a really long time to learn.

For me, if I’m going to spend money on a fun dress for going out, I’d rather spend money at a thrift store than go to a fast-fashion store. You’re going to find more original items for the same price as at a fast fashion place and it’ll be a higher quality.

Right. So, this question pertains women and the topic of money. Why would you say that money seems to be a polarizing topic for women?

The topic of money is a man’s concern. Women are taught to think about our family life or dating.

I think it’s because we’re not raised to think about it. I would say, for the majority of women growing up, their parents did not give them a very thorough financial education. Plus, you certainly don’t learn about it in school. I feel like we still live in a society where women are taught to think about other topics besides money and that the topic of money is a man’s concern. Women are taught to think about our family life or dating. Even now, when we are more likely to think about our professional life, there’s still not a lot of empowerment for women in that arena. So, I think a lot of women feel very insecure when talking about money because they feel like they don’t know anything regarding the topic. They’re afraid of sounding ignorant or they’re afraid that it’s just not something that any of their friends want to talk about. But, there’s nothing inherent to women that says we can’t talk about money or be financially literate. It’s a cultural thing.

I agree. Do you think the cultural taboo has anything to do with the sexist notion that men might find us not sexually appealing if we are talking about money?

I think that in the workplace you can definitely experience sexism. For instance, when it comes to negotiating your salary or when it comes to how your boss perceives you. In terms of your income, it can definitely be affected by sexism, for sure. However, personal finance is one of those things where you have the power to handle it yourself. You don’t need anyone’s permission to save money. So, I feel like personal finance is probably one of the most important areas that women can use to empower themselves.

That’s really powerful. I never thought about personal finance in that context. Speaking of personal finance, you write about wanting to be able to hold your own when speaking with a lawyer or an accountant. What are some things you’ve learned when it comes to advocating for yourself while discussing financial matters with professionals?

I’ve learned that for whatever I’m going into their office to accomplish, I should have a beginner’s knowledge of the topic myself. Everything from “what exactly is an LLC and an operating agreement” to “what can I claim on my taxes and how do I file them as both the owner of a company and a freelancer?” are things that I should know before going to a meeting. I trust the professionals that I work with, but it makes the experience easier and more nuanced if you have a fundamental understanding of how these things work.

What are your personal finance goals and your future goals for expanding thefinancaldiet.com?

Two of my personal finance goals are having total control over my budget (i.e., how much I am able to save/invest on a monthly basis) and having stellar credit. As far as expanding the site, my goal is to maintain creative control over it and not to become a manager of some kind. I personally love the scope I have now: being able to wake up, do creative work, and watch it grow. I would like to see the full range of financial experiences, from getting out of debt, to buying real estate, to shopping smart. Also, I would like the design of the site to become aesthetically pleasing and interactive. The Financial Diet’s designer, Lauren Ver Hage, is wonderful and I want her to be able to spread her wings.

What steps are you taking, if any, to monetize The Financial Diet?

We have our media kit available on the site for partners and we are working on the back end to include ads in the visual layout of the site. It’s very important for us that the monetized aspects of the site are tasteful and smart, so we’ve taken our time.

So, what would you personally attribute to the success of the site? Why do you think it has resonated with so many people?

In pop culture and media and amongst our friends, women talk about everything from dating to work and going out with friends but I feel like money is one of the few topic that we don’t discuss. I didn’t know of any other places that I could go to in order learn about money in a relatable way. Sometimes, I would see articles in women’s magazines about spending here and there but I didn’t feel like I had a destination. When I looked at my Instagram, there were so many lifestyle bloggers and people showing you how to make things look beautiful or showcasing their beautiful outfits. To me, it seemed really unrealistic. I wanted to do a lifestyle blog that would be about money and that didn’t feel fake and aspirational. I think people resonate with something that feels real and relatable to their own life instead of what they wish their life could be.

The site definitely feels genuine. One of the aspects I love about it is the Financial Confession section. Okay, so, I want to give you a little humblebrag moment. Could you share how the opportunity to have your website sponsored by John and Hank Green came about?

I wrote an article about how fashion-blogging is bullshit. Fashion articles show you content like, “here’s an outfit that you can recreate at home,” but every component of that outfit is worth hundreds of dollars and was given to the blogger for free by a clothing company. I wrote that article in frustration and didn’t think too much of it. Someone sent it to Hank Green and he emailed me and said that he really loved the article. We exchanged a couple of emails and then I didn’t hear from him for a couple weeks.

John Green actually crashed the site.

Right around Christmas, his assistant wrote to me and said that John and Hank love the project and that they wanted to sponsor me. They didn’t say what they wanted me to do with the site, nor did they tell me how they wanted me to use the money. They just sort of said, “Here’s the money, go prosper.” So, when I launched the redesign, I sent the updated site to them and then they shared it on twitter. John Green actually crashed the site.

I love that he’s so involved with so many community-oriented projects. Obviously he’s an amazing writer, but I like that he’s committed to affecting positive change, too.

Yeah, he’s really wonderful, I love him.

Wow, you’ve really made so many leaps and bounds in a few short years. When it can be difficult to begin making money in creative fields like writing or creating a website, how do you merge your creative goals with your goals to be financially independent and smart about your money? Does the allure of “Keeping up with the Jonses” ever dictate what sort of projects or career endeavors you take on?

Personally, I spent most of my career doing work that is very high-value (financially) for the companies I worked and wrote for. In my spare time, I wrote more personal articles that weren’t necessarily profitable. But, in my regular work, I did at least 70 percent “popular listicle”-type content, or copywriting. I don’t dislike either of those things. I just always understood that listicle-type content are how media companies pay a lot of their bills.

Four years of that enabled me to have enough of a platform to start my own site and to do more of the freelance projects that I really enjoyed. But, I have always cared about making money at writing because financial independence and the ability to do things like travel or live in a nice apartment were, (and are), important to me. For people who are less driven by the idea of money, they can be pickier about the kind of projects you take on from the get-go.

Jasmine Rose-Olesco is a writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. She is a Featured Contributor for Femsplain.com. Her essays on race, class, and gender have appeared on Time.com and xoJane.com, among other online platforms.

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