Gaby Dunn ‘09 first appeared in the public eye as a brassy YouTube comedian. After accomplishing the goal many strive for—building a following for her channel, making a career out of it—she felt she was still missing something. Despite a seemingly glamorous lifestyle, she wrestled with financial instability for her entire life, especially in her YouTube career.
“I get a brand deal, and I use that brand deal to immediately pay off credit card debt,” Dunn said in a Skype interview. “So, you guys think I’m rich from my brand deal with Hello Fresh, but I actually am just barely keeping up.”
Dunn makes $8,000 per video with Hello Fresh, a meal-kit company, and makes five videos per year with them. Her YouTube advertisements bring in about $1,500 a month. Her most stable income has been her multiple book deals.
Dunn’s latest endeavor, published on Jan. 1, 2019, is a book titled Bad With Money. The book, which is part-advice and part-memoir, follows Dunn through her journey to destigmatize financial issues and explains how other young people can begin to do the same.
Dunn received a $150,000 advance for Bad With Money.
Her financial transformation began in 2015 with a Splinter News article, where she revealed that most YouTube celebrities—including herself—struggled financially despite appearing well
–off online. The article, “Get Rich or Die Vlogging,” drew over 56,000 views.
“People lost their minds reading that,” Dunn said.
Soon after the article came out, Dunn received a deal to produce a podcast called “Bad With Money.” Up until then, her online presence dealt with issues related to the LGBTQ+ community and sexuality. For the podcast, Dunn said she wanted to share the financial struggles she’s experienced since childhood, which freelancing and unsteady brand deals only exacerbated.
“I was like … ‘I need to talk about money or otherwise I’m going to scream,’” Dunn said.
The podcast resulted in a book deal with Simon & Schuster, Inc., and Dunn is currently on a national book tour promoting Bad With Money.
Dunn said she approached Bad With Money with an analytical eye reminiscent of her journalism career at Emerson.
“There were a lot of systemic problems, and there were a lot of things that this generation were up against that the other generations aren’t … so I started getting even angrier,” Dunn said.
Even though Dunn said she began writing because of her first-hand experience with financial hardship, she described the research process as illuminating.
“I can’t speak about credit cards without speaking about women being kept from having their own credit cards until the [1970s],” Dunn said. “Or how redlining kept black people from getting good interest rates on loans and mortgages.”
During her time at Emerson, Dunn found herself financially strained. Although she managed to work an unpaid internship at The Daily Show, she failed to receive academic credits for her work because it did not sufficiently relate to journalism, according to Dunn’s book.
Janet Kolodzy, Dunn’s former advisor and current chair of the journalism department, remembered Dunn for her unyielding perseverance to receive credits for her outside experiences.
“As much as I tried to figure out a maneuver around the rules, I was stuck because of the way the rules were,” Kolodzy said.
Dunn discusses this frustration in her book, citing it as an example of how financial security can affect education and career mobility.
Since Dunn’s graduation, however, the rules have changed. Emerson now offers a professional experience credit for those who have an internship or outside work experience that does not directly pertain to their major, or if they have maxed out internship credits.
“I personally could call it the ‘Gaby Dunn rule,’” Kolodzy said.
Although Dunn said she maintains fond memories of Emerson, she writes about the weight of her student loans. Despite scholarships, Dunn said she graduated with $30,000 in debt.
“I didn’t have any concept of what I was going to be paying back,” Dunn said.
Dunn said she wishes she could tell her college self to simply pay more attention to finances. She said saving for the future was the last thing on her mind while studying at Emerson.
“I think it would’ve been beneficial to actually look at what I was spending and where that money was going,” Dunn said.
Nathan Hurst ‘07, Dunn’s former editor-in-chief at the Berkeley Beacon, said he remembers Dunn as a dedicated journalist, both willing and eager to throw herself into a difficult story.
“I really expected her to be one of those people that’s like, ‘Oh, and now I’m reporting on national social issues for the New York Times’ or something,” Hurst said. “She’s taken such a multimedia turn—it’s been really interesting.”
Hurst also said he understands Dunn’s financial instability, considering that a career as a writer and YouTuber rarely lends itself to a steady paycheck.
“[Dunn] was freelancing and having to really hustle to put rent together,” Hurst said.
Hurst, like Dunn, faced student loan debt after his time at Emerson. He said he wishes he better understood and paid more attention to loans before committing to them.
“I couldn’t help but feel kind of stupid,” Hurst said.
Dunn said she believes that these feelings of shame surrounding money are not coincidental and that openness can eliminate its stigma.
“It benefits [the people at the top] to actually promote this lie that if we talk about money we’re tacky or stupid,” Dunn said.
Dunn said writing the book was nearly as difficult as gaining financial control over her life. This is her first non-fiction book, and she said allowing herself to accept help—which she eventually did with Research Assistant Emily Parsons—was the biggest barrier she had to overcome.
“I was so ashamed to ask for help about money, and then I was so ashamed to ask for help on the book. It’s like, why are you so ashamed about asking for help?” Dunn said.
Dunn said she realizes a book about money diverges from the lighter fare content she normally produces.
“Nobody’s ever been like, ‘Oh, what a hip dude that money person is!’” Dunn said.
As for the future of financial literacy, however, Dunn said she feels encouraged by the growing dialogue among young people about money.
“I don’t remember anyone in my group of friends talking about this stuff as openly as I see [Generation] Z talking about it, so that makes me hopeful,” Dunn said.
1/31/19: A previous version of this article stated that Nathan Hurst graduated in 2006. He graduated in 2007 and we corrected the article to reflect that.