"Every charge on my credit card was because I needed it. I couldn't start living until I furnished my new apartment, I couldn't start working until I bought a faster computer, I couldn't interview for this job until I got a professional outfit. I couldn't possibly go on with the day until I had a latte and a chocolate croissant. Getting rid of my credit cards has put a stop to day-to-day justification of need."—From The Billfold, "How I Stopped Hating My Apartment (And Maybe Also Myself )" Aug. 30, 2012
Logan Sachon (Col '05) is not afraid to talk about money, nor is she afraid to confess her own financial woes. In a time when the Internet is saturated with whimsical Instagram photos and chirpy Facebook updates, Sachon writes daily about her struggles with spending and debt on the website The Billfold, which she began with her friend Mike Dang last year.
Sachon, 28, and Dang, 29, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, met when they were both blog writing for Bundle, a personal finance startup backed by Microsoft and Citigroup. "We had a fair amount of independence in what we wrote, but it wasn't ours," Sachon says "Mike and I had all these conversations about what we'd do if it were our site."
Sachon had noticed that interviewing people about their financial portfolios for Bundle was stirring anxiety within herself. "I was in a ton of debt—I still am—and I wouldn't have wanted anybody to ask me those questions," she says. She started writing about her own spending habits. "I slowly got used to it and realized: Wow. I feel a lot better, being open about everything. There is value in this."
The two also knew that their stories would balance each other well. Dang budgets, saves for retirement and sets aside money from his paycheck every month to help his parents pay their mortgage. Sachon, meanwhile, readily admits she has a "spending problem."
"I've known Logan for a few years, and she has always had a significant amount of credit card debt," Dang says. "We've never had a problem talking about money with each other." Those conversations were to become the basis for The Billfold.
Sachon and Dang decided to pitch their idea of a money site to The Awl, a New York-based network of websites devoted to long-form essays and shorter musings on "the issues of the day." Sachon had already freelanced for the site, interviewing comedians, novelists and entrepreneurs about their daily lives and big ideas—displaying the same curiosity about how people "make it" that now propels her own website. "Mike and Logan had a great idea for a website and they presented it to us, and the rest is history," says John Shankman, The Awl's publisher. The Billfold launched in April 2012.
"The Billfold addresses money anxiety in a concrete and necessary way. Both Mike and Logan are always linking to news stories that are ethically and informatively crucial if young people really want to understand the financial underpinnings of the world we are set to inherit," says Jia Tolentino (Col '09), a writer for the site.
Now pursuing her M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Michigan, Tolentino first noticed The Billfold when she was just out of the Peace Corps and writing corporate ad copy to pay the bills. "I'd never written about money before," she says. "Actually, I'd never really published anything creative before." She sent in her first essay, about potentially buying a house, to Sachon and mentioned their U.Va. connection.
Heidi N. Moore, the U.S. finance and economics editor for the Guardian and former correspondent for NPR's Marketplace, is also a Billfold contributor—Sachon interviewed Moore about her own financial habits and has asked her to break down complicated economics issues for the average reader.
"A lot of personal finance coverage is not fully accessible; it's a lot of numbers and it's usually written by people who have it all figured out, or act like they do. What I liked about The Billfold right away was its honesty. It tackles the way money makes us crazy—what it does to our emotions, our self-worth, our identity. No other website will tackle that," Moore says. "To borrow a phrase from [HBO's] Girls, I think The Billfold is also the voice of a generation."
Sachon and Dang do seem to have an uncanny ability to connect to their readers. While Dang often serves as the site's kindly sage, advising readers about budgeting, investing, careers and housing, Sachon's posts can seem irreverent at first glance, full of caps-locked words for emphasis, and written in a wry, deadpan tone that barely covers the churning worry beneath.
Sachon's interest in writing stems in part from her time at U.Va., when she worked on the staff of The Declaration, or "the Dec," a weekly student newsmagazine known for its arts coverage, long think pieces and "Poodah Corner," its cheeky humor column. "I showed up [to the Dec] my first semester and was terrified the whole time because everyone was smarter and funnier than I was, but for some reason, I kept coming back," Sachon says. "I learned how to put together a publication, and think about vision and writing. I never took any writing or media studies classes at U.Va. My interest in approaching the world in a way that's personal and funny comes from the Dec."
A Peek Inside The Billfold
- Stuff costs money.
- I don't have money.
- Okay, let's say I did have money.
- Theoretically that would be because I had a job.
- But how long will I have that job?
- Is my industry steady?
- Do I feel comfortable enough in my job to sign up for four years of car payments?
- Do I feel comfortable enough in my job to sign up for a 30-year-mortgage?
- Do I feel comfortable enough in my job to sign up for a year's lease?
- Do I feel comfortable enough in my job to pay rent month-to-month? …
- No, is the answer to all that.
- I don't know where I'll be in six months, because I don't know where I'll have to be in six months. And that is why I don't want to buy stuff.
Readers commented excitedly, some of them mimicking her format:
Crippled by education loans
- Student loans! Temporary jobs in temporary places! Attempt to be environmentally friendly by thrifting/repurposing/doing without!
- Wages have been stagnant for the past 40 years.
- Astronomical rents.
- Inflation on required things like food. Also gas. Also any sort of entertainment.
While at U.Va., thinking about money wasn't really on Sachon's radar. She did work a part-time job her fourth year at the Rotunda information desk. "We opened the building in the morning and closed it at night," she says. "If there weren't tours going on, we'd tell visitors some anecdotes. I had a good spiel about the  fire." Still, her parents paid for her tuition and room and board. "I knew it was generous, but it wasn't until after I graduated and met people who had student loans or hadn't been able to go to college at all that I realized how lucky I really was," she says.
Sachon graduated from U.Va. before the recession struck. She toyed with the idea of graduate school, envisioning paying for it with student loans. "It was just sort of assumed that you'd take on this debt," she says. "The mentality seemed to be: Student loans! Everyone's doing it!" At that time, Sachon says, she and many of her friends thought that they would have well-paying jobs right after graduation. "It just seemed inevitable—but it was a delusion of grandeur."
In the year after she graduated, Sachon says she quickly ran up $7,000 in credit card debt, although she had a steady job in Southern California. "I never stopped to figure out what that salary meant, what I had to spend each month. The debt came from just living above my means the entire year. I was so sure that very soon I'd get a better job and that $7,000 would be nothing, something I'd pay off in a lump sum," she says.
Instead, she was laid off from her job and began working as a freelance writer, living paycheck-to-paycheck and, as she describes, using her credit cards as "stop gaps" so that she could still do "almost whatever" she wanted. She stopped keeping track of her finances. Last year she added up her debt and discovered she owed about $20,000, much more than she thought she did.
"That was a huge deal for her—having one number in your head, and then discovering that the real number was double what you originally thought," Dang says. "When she told me about her actual credit card debt number, my reaction was, 'Wow.' And then: 'So what are you going to do now?'"
Sachon decided to be open about her spending problem and debt on The Billfold and to hand over her credit cards to Dang so she would stop using them. Additionally, Sachon and Dang discuss how much debt they've paid off each month in their "Let's All Throw Some Money at Our Problems" column on their website. "It's a way of keeping ourselves publicly accountable for paying off our debt," Dang says. They invite readers to join in—the column's comments sections are full of readers' personal lists of student loan, car loan, mortgage and credit card debt balances, slowly whittled down each month.
"It takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there like Logan has with her debt," Dang says. "This last year was the first time I saw Logan making a real decision to deal with her debt rather than wish for a windfall to solve all her problems. Money is so personal, and you can't help but make emotional changes when you're doing something like getting in control of your credit card debt."
As she has started to tackle her debt, Sachon's writing has become less wry and more honest—in January she started a popular new Billfold column on depression and money problems and how the two are often intertwined. The reader comments rolled in quickly:
The best thing about The Billfold is the candidness/humanness of it—our fallibility and nuance in the face of what should be straightforward, two sides of a ledger book.
Words can't adequately explain how much this meant to me and probably a lot of other people. Thank you for doing this.
If all the praise from readers weren't proof enough that The Billfold is succeeding, there is another metric to consider. The Billfold's advertising sales are based on how many people the site reaches. In December, the site turned its first profit. Dang and Sachon hope that that money will allow them to start paying their writers and commissioning longer pieces of reporting.
"The Internet is a changing beast, so who knows how long this model will work," says Sachon. "It's a funny business, but we're in a good place—we're growing each month. We like our site and we think it's helping people. We know it is, actually."
Money Advice from the Experts
Almost a third of U.Va. students (32 percent) graduate with student loan debt, averaging $19,384. Thanks to AccessUVa, the University's financial aid program, that number is lower than the average of those of students who graduate with debt from other state institutions.
Still, the national outlook for recently graduated students is somewhat gloomy. According to the Los Angeles Times, average undergraduate student loan debt jumped to $27,253 in 2012, up 58 percent from $17,233 in 2005. New graduates also face a difficult economy—the unemployment rate for young college graduates is now 6.3 percent, although that has fallen from 8.8 percent in 2011.
So how should young people manage their financial lives these days—whether it's dealing with student debt, credit card debt or shiny new income? We asked three financial experts for advice.
I teach a special personal finance course offered only to non-McIntire students. I'm seeing more and more anxiety about the job market.
I push my students to attend the Comm School career fair. A lot of them are resistant because they are not McIntire students. But there are companies there like Hecht and the CIA and others that are not necessarily looking for Commerce students. It's also important to start interviewing and networking, learning how to look people in the eye.
If you are considering graduate school, especially one that will require loans, you have to look at the cost benefit. I advise my students to take a year or two off before you go to graduate school, because you will want to figure out what the real world is like. Try Teach for America or teaching or working abroad, where you get a stipend and some real-life experience. You will begin to get to know yourself.
And finally, credit cards are incredibly dangerous when you do not pay them off in full every month. You have no grace period. In other words, if you buy anything today and you didn't pay off your bill for the last month, interest starts tomorrow.
The most important thing is to get yourself on a monthly budget. The budget should include paying down some portion of your debt each month. Having a budget will force you not to spend more than you earn and not to ignore your debt.
I would say to young people, to borrow a phrase from Logan: be kind to your future self. Think about how the way you spend money is not just about now. It's about what you will be able to do next year, and the year after. And most importantly, be financial citizens. Read about money, learn about it and demystify it. It's only scary when you refuse to think about it. If you confront it, head on, you get to take control. Open your bills. Open your student loan statements. Open your paychecks. Get used to seeing those numbers. Then you realize you can control them.