Mrs. Dow Jones Knows Why You’re Broke

Instagram personal finance guru Haley Sacks wants to convince a pessimistic generation that wealth is within reach.

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As the third financial quarter of 2023 was coming to a close, a new trend on TikTok was just starting. It was called “girl math,” a term coined by a New Zealand radio show to describe the convoluted way that some women justify the expense of extravagant or non-essential purchases. $350 tickets to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour? Well, if you choose to see her in your area, you’re actually saving money on the flight and hotel you’d need to see her somewhere else. Girl math.

Mrs. Dow Jones hates girl math. “It just perpetuates this idea that women are bad with money,” the Instagram personal finance creator, real name Haley Sacks, tells me. Indeed, the zillennials that Mrs. Dow Jones seeks to educate about the stock market and IRAs (often using Kardashian memes) are no longer girls and boys. Millennials have children, and the eldest Gen-Zer is already 26. They’re seeking security and stability in an economy far bleaker than their parents’, while spending most of their time in an online world whose sole purpose is to make them buy things.

It’s not that Sacks, 32, is opposed to non-essential spending. It’s the lying that’s a red flag for her. “If you are in control of your finances, it’s not a big deal to treat yourself,” she tells me over lunch at L’Avenue at Saks. “Why are we deceiving ourselves?”

She’s right at home among the restaurant’s gold and cream furnishings, wearing a bright silk shirt that catches the eye of not one but two different followers, who each stop by the table to say hi.

“This is my demographic,” she says. Which is to say, 20-somethings who don’t want tips on budgeting or hidden deals. They want to know how to organize their finances so they, too, can be lunching at a haute French restaurant on a Friday afternoon without putting it on their credit card and hoping the charge just goes away. Appearing in between Instagram lifestyle porn and targeted ads, Sacks’ informational videos are a reminder to stop holding one’s finances at arm’s length.

“Do you have a SEP-IRA?” she asks me. I didn’t think so, and I warned her that I was the kind of millennial she was worried about — one so intimidated by the world of savings and investing that I just try not to think about it. I had never come close to opening a high-yield savings account. My only credit card is the one that was given to me by my bank when I was in college. I have used girl math. Sacks is visibly disappointed.

“We’re conditioned to believe that in order to make financial decisions for ourselves, we have to wear a business suit and work on Wall Street, but it’s actually not that complicated or hard,” she insists, knowledgeable and passionate and, above all, elegant.

One reason, I suggest, that our attitudes are so complicated toward money is that the online conversation about it tends to be toxic and judgmental — just look at the comments of any Refinery29 Money Diaries. If you don’t have money, you’re doing it wrong. If you do have money, you probably don’t deserve it. This has contributed to a culture of guilt and secrecy, of watching your peers go on their European summer vacations and quietly seething about how they could possibly afford it.

“The American dream has really changed. I’m a millionaire who rents, you know what I mean?”

This brings us to one of Sacks’ first rules: Friends share salaries with friends. Because Sacks values financial transparency in her relationships, they’re always on the same page about the activities they do together. It also means there’s no mystery when one of them jets off to Italy or asks to go somewhere more low-key for dinner.

“Here’s the thing: There is an abundance of money,” she says. “One person’s success doesn’t mean that you can’t have success. There’s enough for everyone.”

This is not the kind of messaging we’re used to hearing. Millennials graduated into the Great Recession, and Gen Z is coming of age in an economy still picking up the pieces after the COVID-19 pandemic. Our generational uneasiness about capitalism is validated by the rise — and fall — of distractions like cryptocurrency, NFTs, and meme stocks. Buying a house and working the same job for 30 years are not an option for most, and the recent climb in the cost of living makes just standing still feel hard. Sixty-five percent of Gen-Zers and 74% of millennials say they believe they are starting further behind financially than earlier generations at their age, according to a 2023 poll. They’re getting laid off, maxing out credit cards, and have no expectation of ever owning a home of their own.

“The American dream has really changed,” Sacks acknowledges. But that doesn’t mean we should just give up. “I’m a millionaire who rents, you know what I mean?” Instead of resenting our current financial situation, Sacks prefers her followers take advantage of it. We should be switching jobs frequently in order to maximize salary increases and setting up our own side hustles. “In many cities, it makes a lot more sense to invest the money in the S&P 500 versus buying property,” she says. “At the end of the day, your returns are going to be greater if you’re in the stock market.”

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Much of Sacks’ advice is about the long game, resisting the pull of the day-to-day influences telling us we need to spend, spend, spend. Social media, in particular, is a place where poor financial influences thrive. Sacks hates the way apps like TikTok and Instagram have glamorized spending. Gratuitous Shein hauls and viral Amazon products and constantly changing trends keep users in a spending cycle that prevents them from getting started building any kind of wealth.

“We’re always online, and that means that we’re always being marketed to,” she continues. “So unlike our parents, who maybe were reading a magazine and saw an ad for J.Crew, now it’s like I’m saying J.Crew and my phone is going to [show me] 18 million ads later.”

To combat this, Sacks has a few more rules: Remove ApplePay from your phone and credit card auto pay from your browsers. Unsubscribe from promotional emails. Wait 72 hours before pressing “buy” on an item. Sacks herself no longer buys fast fashion and has stopped ordering food in favor of cooking. She allows herself to Uber home from an event only if she took public transportation there. Other habits from her past, like regular blowouts and manicures? Forget it. But the end goal isn’t stringent frugality.

“If you want to use your money to buy happiness, focus on spending it in places where it will give you choice and flexibility and safety versus on Shein dresses,” she says. “If you’ve got the big things right, you don’t have to worry about the little things as much.” Sacks is urging a pessimistic generation to believe that building wealth is a realistic endeavor.

Sacks grew up in New York City, with both parents working on Wall Street. But they never spoke about money, she says, and she initially planned to go into the entertainment industry. After graduating from Wesleyan in 2013, Sacks began working as a page for Late Show with David Letterman and was later accepted into a residency at Above Average Productions, founded by Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels. It was there where she faced significant financial decisions for the first time, like contributing to her 401(k).

“They asked me all those questions, and my face went blank,” Sacks says. She turned to the Internet for answers but found very few accessible resources for finance. So when she ended up getting laid off six months later, Sacks decided to channel her digital content creation prowess, previously reserved for comedy videos on Vine and Facebook, into Instagram, and Mrs. Dow Jones (a nod to one of the better-known stock market indexes) was born.

Now, Sacks has more than 820,000 Instagram followers and another 286,000 on TikTok. She tries to be as up front as possible with her followers about her own financial situation — she’s a millionaire, but she doesn’t share specific numbers. “A lot of my money is tied up in my business,” she explains, which consists of her online presence, as well as speaking engagements, advisory roles at early-stage companies, and hopefully soon, a book. She knows her situation is thanks in part to coming from financial privilege. She doesn’t have student loans, for instance, nor has she struggled with things like emotional spending. The details of her portfolio aren’t surprising, she says, but aren’t really the purpose of her work.

“There are some [personal finance creators] who are so open-book,” she says. “But it doesn’t matter what you came from; you still probably didn’t learn about money. It literally doesn’t matter who your parents are.” She’s not a certified financial planner. She can’t tell you specifically how to invest. She can, however, address our discomfort with talking about money at all.

In addition to her short-form videos, which focus on financial lessons and hacks, she also has a YouTube channel where she goes deeper on financial tutorials, as well as shares more personal things like her morning routine and the worst purchases of her 20s. Sacks tries to weave her content into the things her followers are already consuming, whether that’s using Blue Ivy as a way of explaining Custodial Roth IRAs, or Taylor Swift as a model of how to hack the tax system.

“I’ve been thinking ever since they went public: ‘What is the analogy that’s hiding from me about Kylie [Jenner] and Timothée [Chalamet]?’” Sacks wonders aloud at lunch. “I’m like, ‘There has to be something there.’”

By speaking the language of social media, Sacks and other online financial educators like Your Rich BFF and Her First 100k are giving finance a rebrand. Instead of burying the information in how-to books that suggest it takes 300 pages to learn how to save money, they believe sometimes all it takes is a Canva template and 240 characters. The resulting knowledge is “the equivalent of turning up to a mechanic and knowing what they’re talking about and feeling more comfortable in those professional spaces,” said Simran Kaur, founder of online education platform Girls That Invest. “There is something to be said about how we have been able to provide information that was only for the rich and the wealthy to everyone.”

Sacks adds that the finance industry benefits from people’s money insecurity. “You pay people fees to manage your money because you don’t feel like you can do it yourself… It’s threatening to them that this is being distilled in a clear way.”

As for how to build a new relationship with money, Sacks says to start with some journaling to find out why you’ve been avoiding it. “How do we talk to ourselves about money? And then it’s like, ‘OK, where’d that come from? Is that from your childhood? Is that how mom and dad would talk about it?’ And sort of retooling that.”

The next step is to go on a money date, something Sacks did with a friend when she first started getting serious about investing. Print out a few months’ worth of bank statements, she says, to get an idea of where money is being spent and what could be saved. This base-level understanding of finances will allow people to take advantage of Sacks’ more advanced — but, she promises, not complicated — advice. She recalled a recent experience she had at dinner, when a 22-year-old approached her as she was leaving a restaurant.

“She was like, ‘I love your content, and I just want you to know: I just got my first full-time job, and I’m already doing my match, and I’m fully contributing to my Roth,’” Sacks says. “If you’re 22 and you do that, that’s literally going to change your whole life.”

Maybe Sacks can turn you into an enthusiastic investor. But she’ll settle for making sure you’ve got what she calls the “little black dress” of personal finance: 1) a high-yield savings account, 2) a six-month emergency fund, and 3) a 401(k) that’s matched by your employer.

“At that point it's sort of like, let those wings fly, baby,” she says, waving her hand in the air. “My work here is done.”

Photographs by Sabrina Santiago

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