“Don’t talk about money” is one of the oldest and most engrained adages of social decorum — particularly, I would argue, for women (the somewhat anachronistic adjective “unladylike” comes to mind). However, talking about money with my female friends, from being transparent about our salaries to openly parsing our monetary ambitions, has resulted in some of my most enlightening personal and professional growth.
Black Monday, a new SHOWTIME original series, puts the complex relationship between women and money under a microscope by highlighting the experiences of Dawn Darcy (played by Regina Hall), a black woman working on Wall Street during the infamous stock market crash in 1987. Dawn is a unique character, not only because her colleagues are almost exclusively white men, but also because she is unapologetic in her pursuit of wealth and success during a time when that was even more taboo.
In 2019, there is still a stigma associated with the idea of women speaking candidly about their desire to earn a lot of money, but its grip on cultural mores has grown significantly less powerful. To that point, Man Repeller spoke with three women from different backgrounds about their relationship with money, and why they’re not ashamed to discuss it openly. Scroll down to read their stories, accompanied by a styled editorial that pays homage to the best of ’80s workplace attire.
Grace, 28, is a business change consultant living between London and Luxembourg.
I was fortunate to be born into a middle class family. Even though we weren’t uber wealthy, we were comfortable. Then, when I was about 10 years old, my parents got divorced, and my dad left my mom with no money. It was very strange to suddenly go from never having to really think about money to suddenly thinking about money all the time. There was a notable shift where money suddenly became a thing, and aspects of financial security that we took for granted before (like having enough to pay for school tuition) were no longer guaranteed.
My mom worked her ass off, holding multiple jobs so she could continue to pay for our education. She just kept working, working, working so we could maintain a certain lifestyle. But even so, I think I was always super aware that all the other children at school had more than we had, and that things came more easily for them as a result. For things like school trips, all the other children would all automatically be like, “Yeah of course we’re going.” But for us, my mom would be like, “Oh, I don’t know if we can afford that one. And I don’t know if we can afford that new book or your new swimming uniform.” The idea that you have to work for everything you have was embedded into us — as well as the idea that you can basically never can stop working for it because you never know when it might disappear.
I started working as soon as I turned 16, even during school holidays. If I couldn’t get a job, my mom made me go to the local job center and sign on to get unemployment benefits. It wasn’t much — around 150 pounds a week — but I remember being really embarrassed and thinking, Oh my gosh, what if my friends find out about this? They’re all living the high life, and here I am at the job center! I had a huge argument with my mom about it.
As soon as I left school, I started working in a bar. That was a defining moment for me because it was my first proper paycheck, and I remember seeing it hit my bank account and being like, “Oh my gosh! It’s just so much money.” I realized that if I worked more hours, I could make more money, so I told my boss I would work as many hours as I could. I didn’t mind that I was working constantly and was exhausted all the time. I just wanted to see the number increase in my account. It became an addiction. I still, to this day, find it quite addictive to see my savings go up.
People keep saying to me, “Why won’t you buy an apartment? You have enough money to put a deposit down.” But I just don’t feel comfortable doing that. It’s important for me mentally to have access to a lot of cash and to be able to take that cash out whenever I want. I need to have a buffer, just in case. Partially because it makes me feel safe, but also because it allows me to take a lot of risks. I leave jobs without having a subsequent job lined up. I ask for higher rates as a consultant just to see what I can get — and I’m perfectly willing to talk about that. Most people get really uncomfortable if you ask them their salary, but I never hesitate to share the ballpark range of what I make when asked. Why would I? We talk about every other aspect of ambition and success. Money is money. Everyone needs it to survive. I don’t understand why it’s such a taboo topic.
Contessa, 35, is the director of commerce at Essence. She lives in New York.
Growing up, I didn’t know that we didn’t have money, but when I stepped outside of that safety, it became apparent. I went to school in another district where there was a lot of money. Whether it was a school event I couldn’t afford to attend, or people wearing certain clothes, or the fact that I lived so far away that I had to be driven in, I could sense the wealth disparity. I remember realizing, Okay, there is a difference between me and these people.
I’m the first woman in my family to graduate college, but I didn’t graduated until I was 30. After high school, I did a ton of different stuff. I was a makeup artist in Atlantic City in a casino, which was weird. I wanted to write, so I did a little bit of that. I was running around with no direction, making horrible choices, letting boys treat me like shit. I was always living paycheck to paycheck. There was just a huge gap in my life that had no structure. Not having money is such a real feeling. It really put me in a shitty position.
I had to kind of take college upon myself. No one was just like, “Go to school.” I don’t even think that was a conversation anyone had with me. When I eventually decided to go, I was dating someone who came from money and suddenly I was hanging around people that went to Bard, Vassar and Wellesley, and I wanted to be able to keep up because I knew that the only difference between them and me was they were book smart. There weren’t smarter than me — they would say wild shit all the time — so I was just like, “Well, I could learn that.”
I believe I make the most money out of my cousins now. I am 35, and my career has considerably shifted in the last five years. Now I’m the director of commerce at Essence, and before that, I was the director of strategy at Time Inc. But before that, I was sleeping on someone’s couch, with no home. I’m grateful for it — it’s made me really street smart, and that’s really valuable in office spaces.
But transitioning classes can be hard. When you come from middle class families, you don’t just go make it by yourself — you have to make it and bring your whole family with you. And then when I get into places of class, when people are talking, I don’t always understand references they make and experiences they have. And I don’t know what it’s like to not be in a shit ton of debt. It’s like code switching almost. Working full-time and going to school full-time? That’s a whole different experience. No one’s given me anything.
My dad always said that poor is a state of mind and broke is a situation, something temporary. Language is important when you talk about money. He also said that these power structures — of oppression and debt — are meant keep a lot of poor black and brown people in this maddening loop of barely keeping their heads above water. So we have to be easy on ourselves, compassionate, which is why I’ve really tried to change my relationship with money. I’ve made it this far — I’m not gonna let the school loans system be the end of me and my brothers. My grandma’s grandma was a slave, so I think to myself, Okay, how do I build wealth for my family and play a game of catch up? It’s gonna be easier as the generations go on, but someone has to do the work now, so it might as well be me. That’s how I see my pursuit of wealth. Yes, I want nice things, but it would also help me fulfill a purpose — starting a new generation. Generational money is real. If I can start a new one, my kids will be better off than I am.
My parents are hard workers, my grandparents are hard workers. They’re wonderful, amazing people whom I love deeply. We deserve this prosperity, and we deserve to be happy in a way that we’re comfortable.
Lisa, 60 is currently retired. She worked as an attorney in Philadelphia, where she still resides, for over 30 years.
I grew up with the women’s movement. I also grew up in a Donna Reed environment — women of the ’50s, housewives, staying home. Mine was not a traditional African American household. Our entire history, Black women have always worked, but not my family, and not most of the women that I saw and knew growing up. They were housewives — the men worked and the women took care of the household. But I was raised with a father that was adamant about his daughters becoming professional and not relying on a man, despite the fact that he was a chauvinist pig with regard to my mom. For his daughters, he wanted more.
I had high hopes and dreams of being a successful lawyer, although I had no examples of what a lawyer did other than what I saw on TV. I grew up watching Perry Mason, and it seemed exciting, it seemed different. So I made that decision when I was in high school and then pursued that dream from high school through law school. I was very eager to start my career, although I didn’t know what the earning potential was until I got into law school and started looking at the salaries.
Eventually I became a litigator, meaning I dealt with the courts, and their judges, and the court staff, and opposing counsel and clients — all of whom who have certain images of women being subservient. For those reasons, I found the profession extremely disappointing. It’s very sexist.
The upside is you do make a lot of money. Money is a major reason why you stay. I mean, it took me a couple years to finally realize I didn’t like what I was doing, but before I realized that, I was loving that paycheck that came in. Earning that kind of money gives you total freedom. Economic power — particularly if you’re in a relationship. It allows you parity with that partner, and if you’re not happy in that partnership, it allows you the comfort to get up and walk out and leave. Money is important, there’s no question about it, and it allows women the freedom to stay or not stay in relationships.
I had made up my mind not to have children in advance of my entering my profession, but getting into the practice of law and realizing that my time was even more limited than I thought it would be and seeing women having difficulty balancing work with having kids only buttressed my prior decision. It just reinforced for me: You were right not to try to have kids.
Anyway, I stayed in the litigating profession into my mid-forties, so I was in it for 20 years. I wasn’t happy the last 15 years of that — but you buy a house and you have financial responsibilities and, therefore, you stay put and you keep chugging away and doing the job — it’s difficult to walk away from a six-figure salary. By the time I was in my retirement, I was making $250,000 a year, and that’s a lot of money to walk away from.
When my firm dissolved, it was easier for me to just consider an alternative career, which is what I ended up doing. I left private practice at about 44 and I took a position with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which did not involve litigation and did not involve going and looking for business. I just recently retired from that. I’m now retired and don’t miss the practice of law at all.
If you’re thirsty for more money talk and ’80s power dressing (same) Black Monday is now streaming, only on SHOWTIME.