Dec. 6, 2022

Self-Care Culture is Making Us Broke, with Chelsea Fagan

Self-Care Culture is Making Us Broke, with Chelsea Fagan

Exploring the financial side of the self-care industry (and where it falls short).


It was only a matter of time before The Money with Katie Show tackled the Goopification of wellness (even “wellness” seems like a term that’s been co-opted in the last decade). In the US, this industry is worth $212 billion—and growing 11% annually. People be spendin’ some money.

What if commercialized self-care is really just a millennial pink Band-aid for the problems endemic to our hyperspeed lives? Are we trapped in a cycle of deadlines and bath bombs and existential dread? (Just me?)

This week’s episode explores the commodified self-care industrial complex and how it’s awfully reminiscent of other industries marketed specifically toward women, but with the purported benefit of being ~good for you~. 

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Transcripts can be found at https://www.podpage.com/money-with-katie-show/.

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Transcript

Katie: How often have we been told as women to indulge in a massage or a glass of wine during a bath? How much emphasis do we place on the role of biweekly manicures and quarterly highlights and haircuts in our self-care routines? I have talked before about how being a #hotgirl is undoubtedly expensive, but I've been thinking a lot about how we are often marketed superficial or surface-level things in the name of taking care of ourselves or reducing stress, instead of addressing what might actually be causing us to feel insecure, stressed out, or on edge. So what's the actual issue, and what's a #hotgirl to do? Let's dive in. 

Welcome back to The Money with Katie Show, Rich Girls and Boys. I am your host, Katie Gatti Tassin, and this week we are talking about self-care culture. Recently I have been riding a bit of a high horse about my health. I've cut out alcohol. I've been consistently getting up at 5:30am and doing my woowoo morning digital workouts from Tribeca Fitness personality Taryn Toomey, which involve a lot of breathwork and making weird noises. And I've been meditating or journaling most days, or at least pretending to. And every once in awhile, I feel compelled to Goop my social media and espouse the magical powers of sobriety, sleeping, and exercise…really cutting-edge stuff over here, guys. But then I remember nobody needs another wellness routine from a childless, high-earning woman that mostly amounts to just having the time and money to spend two hours in the morning prepping my psychological state for a full day of fending off Slack messages. Really, nobody needs it. 

Let's talk about the expensive self-care trend playing out in the zeitgeist, because though this all does interest me, as the top article on the Money with Katie blog this year is one I wrote in 2021 called “High Maintenance is Expensive: How I Cut $320 a month in Girly Expenses.” The post is an exploration of the ways in which women are pressured to spend time and money on their appearance. And I think many of us have recognized that trend, and collectively acknowledged that it's problematic for women to feel they have to spend money to look conventionally feminine or acceptable, even if we still do it. But there's a new trend, one that is arguably more insidious, because it pretends to be something it's not. Maybe you've seen it online: the #cleangirl or #thatgirl aesthetic of self-care, a thing. It's really the same glamorization of expensive high-maintenance habits, but with the purported benefit of being good for you. Need I mention Goop again? If you make your way in a certain fragment of the TikTok algorithm, you may find yourself stumbling through a dizzying array of videos that all sort of look the same. You know the kind. They all have that, like, twinkly, soothing background music, and they feature a usually white, usually thin, usually long-haired, conventionally attractive woman pretending to not notice the iPhone that's stationed in the corner on a tripod, documenting her morning routine, her nighttime routine, her skincare routine, her routine routine. 

TikTok influencer: “Another favorite thing of mine includes my essence, my serum, my face lotion, my eye cream, and face oil.”

Katie: And these self-care regimens often involve some combination of extensive, expensive lotion lineups; elaborate smoothie recipes; gratitude lists; and this clean, minimalist, neutrally chic domestic environment that subtly implies mental health issues are something you can buy your way out of, and not with also-expensive science-backed therapy, but with a Restoration Hardware $10,000 beige sectional and a sea salt body scrub. We will be right back after a message from the sponsors of today's episode.

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Katie: A breakdown called “That Girl: Wellness Shouldn't Be Work,” which reiterates the fact that the sheer amount of wealth and time required to re-create the surroundings and the products in these videos, highlights how “becoming that girl is really only possible if you're starting from a place of privilege.” End quote. Now, I was terrified to screw up my own TikTok algorithm of unhinged niche sketch comedy and cat videos, but for the sake of market research, I searched the hashtag #selfcare. The top video, with 1.3 million likes, includes, but is not limited to, multiple cabinets full of expensive serums, jars and sprays; a haircare routine that involved no fewer than seven products; pointy almond-shaped acrylic nails; eyelash extensions; an LED teeth-whitening kit; a drawer of Chanel and Dior makeup; face cupping (?); infrared gua sha, and a massive waterfall shower. It is safe to say there were many, many thousands of dollars invested in that woman's self-care routine, and of course the first pinned comment stated “everything on her Amazon storefront in her bio.” The implicit suggestion is that these are purchase recommendations. Most of these Amazon storefronts feature kickback-style commissions for the content creator, which, okay, fair. It is a job, but it's important to remember as the consumer, and I think most internet-savvy people probably realize by now, that someone will be paid if you purchase one of these products, and whether the product works or doesn't work doesn't really matter. Now, it's very obvious in the video that this woman is rich. In another video, she casually swipes a 24-inch LED touch screen on her refrigerator. This is clearly another ridiculous example of the trend—unintentional satire, even. But there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of videos pretty much exactly like this one, and the wellness industry—or the self-care industrial complex, which I think is a far more fun way to describe it, was worth an estimated $238 billion in the US in 2022, and is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 10%. So people be spendin’ some money. 

So where did self-care come from? No, it wasn't Poosh. Self-care was actually a medical concept that was popularized during the civil rights and women rights era in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a term that broadly referred to health and community engagement, as in how can we help our underserved communities access the basic health and social services that they need so they can continue to be activists? Aisha Harris’s The History of Self Care describes how self-care is rooted in the struggle for survival. It was patently not about pampering yourself; it was about centering disenfranchised people's health and well-being, which is, interestingly, also an aspect of the Buddhist philosophies that Western culture co-opted into productivity hacks.

If you pay attention to most of the content around modified self-care practices today, a lot of it mentions how these practices increase productivity or increase output. They're usually like pre-work morning routines known as the #5to9, as in what this person is suggesting you do between 5:00am and 9:00am to be a better worker. Translation: Take care of you so you can take care of capitalism. Just kidding…but like, not really. And hey, I mean, get up, seize the day. I don't think that's bad advice on its face if you prefer being an early riser. Just that there is a pretty overbearing implicit suggestion in these videos of what the time should look like, right?

So let's talk about self-care as the “solution.” So OG self-care: activism, strengthening a community's efforts toward equality. Now, commercialized, commodified, Goopified self-care is positioned as the solution for the challenges endemic to our hyperspeed lives. But at the individual level, a philosophy that says you can outrun burnout and existential dread if you just wake up early and drink ice-cold lemon water first thing in the morning…now, I'm not suggesting that getting enough sleep or exercising or eating nutritious foods or being hydrated are bad things. I suppose I'm glad that we're glamorizing mostly actually healthy lifestyle choices, as opposed to like Euphoria teen Molly binges.

But there's an obsession with the self, becoming the best version of oneself, that I've absolutely subscribed to in the past, and I guess still do to some degree, that's just begging for some venture capitalist to say, “You know what? We can disrupt that. There is a market opportunity here.” And if you scratch just a little bit beneath the surface of the $4.4 trillion wellness global industry, you start to notice something. It's not really about taking care of yourself. Taking care of yourself would be actually scheduling the OB GYN appointment that you've been putting off for six months (guilty) and putting down the pumpkin spice cold brew long enough to drink a freaking glass of water, Katie. No, it's not about care, it's about self-indulgence and self-soothing and things that feel good, and hey, ladies, bonus points if they also make you look good. 

It's no coincidence that this groundswell of #thatgirl content is occurring at this specific moment in history. When discussing this topic with my fact check editor, Kate, she pointed out that it's worth asking why we are so obsessed with soothing ourselves right now. Maybe it's because we're in the midst of a semi-stressful shift. If you listen to any of our previous episodes about millennials’ money, the American Dream, and how bootstrapping is proving to be an ineffective means of slowing the shrinking of the middle class, it starts to look more like a reaction to things getting worse. If you can't afford proper health insurance, at least you can get a candle or a face mask. When life is moving at hyperspeed, but you also constantly somehow feel like you're falling behind, is it really any surprise that we're slapping a, to use Kate's words, millennial pink Gwyneth Paltrow-branded Band-aid on the issue? Nearly 20% of American adults have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, and I would venture a guess that the undiagnosed number—so, people who suffer from anxiety without ever being clinically diagnosed by a professional—is even higher. Put that hypothesis in your back pocket for later. We're gonna come back to it. Regardless, the center of the Venn diagram between the beauty industry and the wellness industry is the section in the middle that says make “money off of women's insecurities.”

As with most normative cultural moments directed at women, from the cult of domesticity to girlboss feminism, it's still an implicit directive about how or who we ladies should be. In some ways, the only difference between the 1950s cult of domesticity, meant to lure women back into the kitchen after they got that taste of freedom working outside the home during World War II, is who all these routines and aesthetics and products benefit. Hey, you don't have to have a perfect body and keep a perfect home for your husband anymore. Now you get to do it for yourself, and you better like it. Can we interest you in a jade roller for $39.99?

I don't know about you, but I've never seen self-care content directed at cisgender heterosexual men. With the exception of that one viral, like, American Psycho TikTok guy who irons his sheets, I've never seen a #thatguy routine that shows a young and attractive straight man flitting around his Manhattan apartment fluffing pillows and drinking green juice and doing mat Pilates on the floor. But therein lies the rub. The fancy facials and picturesque homeware and intricate rituals involving arsenals of brand-name products catered to women are not likely to actually solve any of our problems. It's kind of like when you take a vacation because your work is sucking the life out of you, but then you come back from the vacation and your work just resumes sucking the life out of you. The vacation felt good, sure, but it didn't really address the root cause—the reason why you needed one in the first place. As Chelsea Fagan, our guest today, analogizes in her video, “7 common self-care tips that actually make you more stressed,” it's akin to shoving a pile of dirty clothes under your bed to deal with them later. We'll be right back after a message from the sponsors of today's episode. 

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Katie: So why do we buy into expensive product-based self-care culture? Because it's easier than the alternative. The alternative would be doing what's boring or painful or uncomfortable or just plain unsexy: going to the actual doctor about our back pain, budgeting, calling our parents, keeping plans instead of flaking or being generally unreliable to loved ones, even when we're tired. Volunteering, investing in our communities, even advocating for, I don't know, widespread policy change. Things that probably will actually improve our quality of life and our sense of self, but aren't as readily monetized or made beautiful for a 60-second video, and therefore aren't normalized or promoted in the same way. For me personally, I had to take a hard look at what my extensive self-care regimens were trying to achieve. In the beginning, I weeded out all of the excess due to sheer financial necessity. Haircuts? I'll do it myself. Manicures? For the birds. A facial would've been financial independence blasphemy. While I haven't ventured into the more extreme land of cosmetic surgery or injectables, that's just another echelon of increasingly common, expensive feminine maintenance procedures that run a rather imposing bill. 

After I removed the biweekly, often beauty-centered (let's be honest) self-care appointments from my calendar, I noticed an unintended side effect, if you will. My life became a lot simpler. I was no longer juggling nail fills with partial highlights and spray tans, or building a monthly appointment schedule like a game of #hotgirl Jenga sponsored by Marie Claire. I didn't have to skip the impromptu happy hour after work with friends for eyelash maintenance anymore. It was amazing how much easier managing my weekly calendar became when it wasn't glutted with a rotating cast of expensive treatments meant to make me palatable to the opposite sex and, let's be honest, acceptable and impressive to the same sex, in many cases. Dare I say, removing all my expensive self-care practices actually made my life less stressful. And as the aforementioned article’s title states, it saved me several thousand dollars per year that I was able to deploy in ways that gave me a strong sense of autonomy, safety, and purpose. Namely, through investing far more aggressively for my future, and regularly donating to the SPCA where I got Sam Cat, something I would've told you I couldn't afford to do before. When you earn $3,500 per month, getting $400 of it back creates a lot of options. 

To put a finer point on this, I estimate that my decision to quit most of this cold turkey from 2019 to 2021 added about $10,500 back to my balance sheet, which will continue to compound over time. In 20 years, those savings will be worth more than $40,000, if you assume an average annualized return of 7%. That's a down payment on a house. A small house, but still. I have since relented on one of my old habits: haircuts and highlights, mostly because being blonde makes me feel more connected to my alter ego, Katie Gaga. But even then, the choice to reintroduce an expensive habit was rooted in an authentic sense of self, or rather an authentic sense of Gaga (I don't know), rather than implicit pressure to look or be a certain way. Now your thing may be something that's completely different. Few things are inherently good or bad, and you'll have to lean on your intuition to guide you through the process of determining what is actually serving you and what's not.

So bringing it back to the mental health theory, what's it all for? Theoretically, if we were to take self-care's intent to its most logical extreme, we'd probably land somewhere in the vicinity of the conclusion that it's meant to help us live better lives, to feel safe and secure and happy and healthy. Now, as your friendly neighborhood personal finance personality, allow me to suggest something else that can help you achieve a deep sense of security, safety, happiness and—bonus points—access to things that will keep you healthy: having enough money to meet your needs, and maybe even enough to help meet the needs of your family, friends, and greater community. I know—shocking that this is the conclusion we are coming to on Money with Katie

When taken literally, we can explore the unfortunate ways in which, if you live in the US, your access to things like healthcare and mental health resources are often contingent upon having money. And it's worth noting that a large source of anxiety is money itself, or rather the lack thereof. As of April 2022, it was estimated that 67% of Americans were experiencing financial anxiety. The ways in which financial insecurity or resource scarcity can impact your psychological well-being are well-documented. For example, experiencing even brief bouts of poverty or anything close to it, namely food or shelter insecurity, can leave an indelible mark on your psyche. Growing up in poverty literally rewires your brain to perceive the world around you differently, for example.

Now, I want to be very careful to clarify that I'm not suggesting the self-care industry is the reason why some women feel they aren't making financial progress. At the end of the day, your mani/pedi is expressly not to blame for wage stagnation or wealth inequality, for-profit healthcare, unaffordable childcare, the shrinking middle class—in many ways it's just a reaction to those things. But if you are a woman who suffers from money anxiety and you have a self-care routine akin to 2018 Katie who had a variety of acrylic products adhered to every visible surface of her body, your hard-earned money will probably serve you more powerfully from the safety of an emergency fund or Roth IRA than in a $50 eye cream.

Finally, this is merely my theory that there may be a more direct solution to the understandable fear, insecurity, and anxiety for which we currently use commodified self-care as salve. And it often looks like prioritizing one's financial wellness instead. Fortunately for us, this is often a one-to-one relationship. The money that we don't spend on the self-care products can be saved, invested, or merely used differently. 

Now with that, I am thrilled to welcome Chelsea Fagan, co-founder and CEO of The Financial Diet, and connoisseur of self-care hot takes to the show. Chelsea, thank you so much for joining us today.

Chelsea Fagan: Hi, Katie. Thank you for having me. 

Katie: Absolutely. So one of the things that I wanted to explore today is the way in which I think this commodified self-care culture is a reaction, in some ways, to worsening conditions for regular people, and maybe women in particular. That the cost of all of the things we need—namely food, shelter, access to healthcare—become more expensive every year despite widespread wage stagnation. But hey, like, the candle’s on sale. So in some ways to me, the self-care movement seems to be like a response to the fetishization of productivity and hustling to get ahead, or even in some cases just to keep up. Like #thatgirl, #5to9, TikTok trend often positioned as this way to ensure that your workday itself is more productive, in many cases. How do you think about this?

Chelsea Fagan: To kind of separate out what you just laid out there, so, there's the first half of it, which as you, I think, rightly kind of point out. In an economy and in a kind of social structure where there are diminishing returns for “making the right choices,” where wages are stagnant, where people can't expect to have the same adult life benchmarks that their parents had, that it's, as you put it, it's very easy to sort of replace that or at least kind of soften it with more superficial, more financially accessible pleasures and indulgences. And I think it's also the reason why, for example, millennials will statistically, and Gen Z will statistically spend a lot more on restaurants and travel and things like that than their parents' generation did. And I think there's a ton of factors for that. But I definitely think what you're talking about as far as the diminishing prospects in the face of that, the quick hit self-care stuff that doesn't necessitate long-term wealth building is an easy, not fix, but it makes it feel better. So I think that's one side of it. 

I think the other thing you touched on with the kind of girlboss hustle stuff, I think, you know, when we look at the stats for women, the numbers are very, very clear, in the sense that professional women as a group—and we're talking usually about the same group of women, who are more highly educated, who are often more clustered in urban environments, women who were generally sort of pushed towards college and professional success as metrics of value and self-worth. You know, sort of modeling themselves a bit more after, you know, a Sex and the City than, you know, maybe the like seventies mom sitcom. They were really sold a very, very unfortunate lie to a large extent, which is to say that women have increasingly entered the workforce, which is very beneficial to unregulated capitalism, because what does that do but create more consumers and vastly depress the value of labor, right? You have twice the amount of people in the labor market. You can pay them less. 

So we have women who are working a lot longer hours, but on the flip side, men have not been making huge leaps and bounds in the amount of domestic and childrearing work that they do. So there has just been sort of a lose/lose situation for this particular class of women, where they're expected to essentially have the same career aspirations and identifications as a man, but to still fulfill this very idealized version of what it means to be a wife or be a mother for which there just simply are not enough hours in the day, let alone enough money for comprehensive childcare. 

So I think the girlbossification, at least in part, and the sort of self-care industrial complex around it, at least in part, is, I think, almost an attempt to sort of reclaim what is ultimately, I think, a form of oppression for women, which is being enormously overworked while still overburdened with domestic responsibility. Now that's just a power symbol, and it's evidence that you can have it all, and it's something that you can overcome, and it's something that you can even make aspirational and a status symbol. And so I think in both cases, whether it's the very sort of feminized gendered version of it, or it's the more sort of universal version of it, these responses, I think, are just a very human need to make untenable situations feel more under control. 

Katie: Mm, I love that. I think Jia Tolentino wrote in her book, Trick Mirror, that optimization is often just a response to things getting worse, which I was like, oh man, that is so spot-on and it hurts. But while I was pulling together the materials for this episode, I kind of wanna go here with you next 'cause you've touched on this so masterfully already. I kind of noticed that men are almost completely absent from this self-care cultural moment, which to me just further affirms what you are describing. It's almost entirely directed toward women, and aspirational for women. This immediately heightened my suspicions when I noticed this, because it reminded me a lot of both the beauty industry—and obviously there's quite a bit of overlap between the two—but also the kind of 1950s cult of domesticity that’s trying to position this very specific brand of consumption—in that case vacuums, washer/dryer sets, dishwashers—as being products that are good for women. Like hey, they're gonna make your life better, and they really further this like aspirational housewife role. So it's kind of fascinating to hear you bring that in, because that was kind of the conclusion that I was coming to as well. I'm curious if you have any other thoughts about that in particular. 

Chelsea Fagan: Well, I think, you know, we live in a time of increasing convenience and diminishing value, I think is one of the most comprehensive ways to look at it, because like you said, when we look at like the 1950s and sixties and the extent to which a lot of these domestic devices were kind of positioned as liberating to women, we can look back and say there are ways that that was true, right? Like it really did open up a new level of freedom for women in terms of autonomy over their own time that they just simply didn't have before, because it took, you know, hours to do a load of laundry and things like that. So that, I think, is for sure true, and I think we're sort of seeing that on warp speed with, like you said, the optimization of things, but also like, you know, app culture and convenience culture and delivery culture and everything being available with one click, if you're able to afford it. To do any of these tasks yourself, you can outsource almost everything, and the ability to outsource is now available to the middle class, which is really new in human history, and it was always something that only upper-class people had access to.

And when I'm talking about diminishing value, I think there's something quite insidious about having these conveniences that give you back more time, without filling that time with something that is meaningful and qualitative and additive to quality of life. Ultimately, usually what we're encouraged to fill that time with is either more work or more consumption. It's almost never an equation of, you know, outsource this so that you can sit around the fire and read stories with your loved ones. It's usually positioned as, you know, outsource this so that you have time to, you know, you can spend a little bit more time at the office or you can buy this new product or watch this new show or take this new trip. There's a real danger in constantly equating “convenient” with “better.” And I think that that has been a very, very effective marketing tool, especially geared toward women. 

Katie: I'm laughing, because that was almost precisely my experience. I started outsourcing things, thinking, oh, this is gonna give me so much more time back, and invariably I just ended up working a lot more. And it kind of flattens your experience of life a little bit, because you start to only see yourself as this economic unit of which to maximize or to optimize, as opposed to, maybe it's a good thing that you have to get up from the desk at five o'clock to go cook yourself dinner. Like maybe that's like the slowdown or the break that you actually kind of need or would be good for your day. So hear, hear. 

In one of your videos, “7 common self-care tips that actually make you more stressed,” you highlighted the way in which the self-care industrial complex usually positions things that are ultimately kind of diversions from your problems as solutions to the problems. And one of the examples that I think really hit home for me was taking these very luxe vacations where there is actually going to be a direct financial consequence, because vacations are expensive, and it can create this a bit of a vicious cycle, really, where you're feeling stressed about something at work, the work that you do for money; you spend a bunch of money to escape the work; and then you come back to the work; you feel even more stressed because ultimately the stressor that you are trying to ameliorate is still there, but now you're even more stressed because now you need the money more, 'cause you just spent a bunch of money on the vacation. And I think you kind of analogized it to pushing like a pile of dirty clothes under the bed. And I'm curious: In your own life, and maybe if you had some wise words to share, how do you think about that balance between “treat yourself” and “don't actively financially disadvantage yourself,” or in this particular example, basically, don't be evasive, I guess, or don't be avoidant with your problems. Like how do you think about that balance, specifically as it pertains to vacation versus work time? 

Chelsea Fagan: It's one of the reasons why we talk a lot about making sure that when you're analyzing the compensation of a job that you analyze it beyond just the salary. Because for example, something like having a much better paid time off program, having more weeks of vacation every year, is in many cases worth a lot more than just a little bit more money, past a certain point. And I think if you are in a situation where you have two weeks a year to yourself, there's very little that you're going to be able to do to escape the fact that that's just an unhealthy dynamic, that that's too much work and not enough leisure time. So I would say if you are in that situation, and you have some level of leverage or financial flexibility, to see if that can be addressed first and foremost. Perhaps it means renegotiating with your own employer, or moving to a new job. Because I do think that that's something that you're not gonna be able to sort of hack your way out of, basically. But once you have it, you know, I think…something that we see a lot in American culture that we don't see as much in other cultures. You know, I've talked a lot on the channel about how we're extremely atomized, we're extremely isolated. We Americans typically live in car-centric commuter-heavy areas where there are not what is referred to in urbanism as a lot of “third spaces” that, you know, they're easy, natural, passive places of congregation that are neither the workspace or the home. You know, we're talking about social clubs, churches, restaurants, town squares, shopping streets, pedestrian-friendly areas. We don't typically in a lot of American life have a lot of those things anymore, and we used to have quite a bit more of them here, but also in many other cultures and countries, there's just a lot more passive social engagement that happens on a day-to-day basis.

And you know, in America we tend to, for example, binge drink a lot more, because there will be this dynamic of Monday to Friday you're busting your ass working, you're taking care of the kids, you're in the car commuting, you're doing it all, and then you live for the weekend, you know, and that's when you go out and that's when you go hard. As opposed to, you know, on Mondays I have my book club; on Tuesdays, you know, our neighbors come over with their kids for dinner, however it may be. And we do see that in a lot of other cultures there is this kind of, you disperse the social enjoyment and the connections and all of those things. And similarly when it comes to something like a vacation. If you are not, you know, doing little day trips in your city or spending the night over at a friend's house in a nearby town, or going to a fair in your own area or whatever it may be, if you're not frequently having those hits of adventuring curiosity and getting out of your day-to-day, when it comes time for a vacation, of course you're gonna wanna go…

Katie: Go big. 

Chelsea Fagan: Go big or go home, and fly first class and stay in a luxury hotel and get all the pictures in the infinity pool, because that's your moment. So you know, I think having a level of control over your time. If you're overworked and don't have enough PTO and/or are working 80 hours a week, that's problem number one you have to fix at the source. But beyond that, if you're not in that position but you do find yourself just basically living for the weekend and/or living for that one or two big vacations a year, it's very important for reasons outside of the financial to look at, how can I make sure that I am making my life holistically social and engaged and not just saving it up for these big moments? 

Katie: I'm also struck by the fact that a lot of the things you mentioned as examples, like a book club or neighbors coming over for dinner, these are things that don't cost money. So even someone that may be in a position where they actually can't even take the vacations right now, it's kind of nice to remind yourself that living a socially engaging life does not have to be something that's expensive. And on that note, you were the first person that I saw raise the red flag on social media about how this “put yourself first” strain of self-care advice: “Bail on friends, be unavailable, don't do any free emotional labor for your loved ones if you're tired, 'cause you come first.” This idea that taking care of yourself means being relatively unreliable to people, especially in this social context, I thought it was ironic, because as I did some reading for this episode, I learned about the origins of self-care, which very much tended toward community-mindedness in the civil rights era and activism, and you just had this more kind of community-focused approach, I guess. It was patently not about soothing oneself. So I would love it if you could dive a little bit deeper into this opinion for the audience. 'Cause you were really the first person that I saw online kind of being like, “Uh, guys, this is crazy.” 

Chelsea Fagan: Absolutely. As I mentioned to your previous question, we know, we have all the data here. Like we know that Americans are very socially isolated as they age. Like they have very few social connections relative to their peers in other countries and cultures. We don't live intergenerationally as much; we don't have as many friends. We don't socialize in those passive ways. We don't have those third spaces, and that only gets worse the more money you have, actually. Like we do know that the more money you have, the even less you need to rely on social connections and community, because you can just pay for everything. You don't have to drop your kids off with Grandma, you can pay for a nanny, you know, and that multiplies in every aspect of life. And we know that it's making Americans unhappy, it's making them sick, it's making them die earlier, it's making them less compassionate, less empathetic.

And it also bleeds into politics. You know, if you don't have strong social connections and a strong sense of community, well, what do you care if your neighbor can access healthcare, you know, or is being paid a living wage? You don't care. You don't know those people from Adam. So I think the framing of self-care that is very much a zero sum game that's at the expense of someone else. And I think that's really important to be clear about, you know. If you are bailing on someone, by definition, someone has been bailed on. If you're showing up late, by definition, someone else's time has been wasted. You know, these things are not just self-serving, they're self-serving at the expense of someone else. And I think that…it's not shocking to me that that would become a default in an economy—and again, capitalism loves atomized individuals because they're the perfect consumers, because in the absence of connection and in the absence of all of those free, fulfilling, enjoyable activities that give you that long, stable, balanced mix of dopamine and serotonin, well, you're gonna be constantly consuming for quick hits, right? So in a culture and an economy that wants that, it's not at all surprising that people lean into that. And I think the sort of almost therapization of that and making that now somehow a net positive is the logical conclusion of a culture that has, I think in many ways, completely forgotten what it means to be a part of a community first and an individual second. 

Katie: Wow, that was incredible. You connected a lot of dots that I think I've independently kind of noticed and seen, but had never really put them together in that way. So thank you. You know, for me personally on the…you've mentioned the therapization of this atomized existence or this, “Let me be an individual first and a community member second,” kind of reminds me of therapy in general, and obviously that is also something that costs money in the United States. Mental health resources, healthcare in general. For me personally, disengaging with a lot of the expensive beauty regimens and kind of commercialized self-care routines was good for my mental health. Even if I were not then turning around and saving and investing that money, it costs $120 where I live to get a manicure/pedicure plus tip. The therapy session that I attend also costs $120. Both happen every two weeks. Money is a scarce resource. Sometimes you have to pick where you allocate that scarce resource. But I do realize that sometimes when I give these types of specific examples, like mani/pedis, it tends to make these things sound very frivolous, and potentially it sounds rather judgmental. And I often find myself walking that line of like, “Hey, but if for you, Botox makes you feel like your truest self, have at it, go for it.” But I do think it feels worth asking to me whether or not some of these things make us feel good, or make…they feel like we're taking care of ourselves. Because on some level we've just internalized the idea that maintaining this appearance of youth and beauty is inherently a good thing as a woman. I'm curious, do you think there are times when we perceive our attitudes about these things to be innate or authentic to us, when in reality they may just really be Trojan horses for external messages that we have internalized?

Chelsea Fagan: It's a tough question, right? Listen, I think we can tell on this interview, I am not shy about blaming a lot of things on capitalism or pointing out that capitalism exacerbates a lot of things. Sure. But I do think sometimes people are a little bit naive about what is truly kind of human nature, irrespective of culture or economic system or even point in history. And I think when it comes to the specific ideals of presentation and appearance of beauty and appearance of hygiene and appearance of style, all of these things…I mean, animals do that, right? Like animals primp themselves and do the feather displays and make themselves look as appealing as possible. And I think that that's something that, whether for women or for men, there's really never, I don't think going to be a human society that completely transcends that. And I think in some ways, America's standards are in some ways even better than some other countries. I mean, I always joke, like, my husband's French. I lived there for a long time, spent a lot of time over there. I mean, the least body-positive country on earth, let me tell you that. So when I come back to America, I'm like, feeling great, you know, as compared to them. So I think in some ways we're even maybe doing slightly better than other cultures are.

Katie: Well, that's good. 

Chelsea Fagan: Yeah. It's like a small comfort, but you know, there we go. But I do think that in terms of the exacerbation of it and specifically framing what are ultimately beauty regimens that are very outwardly defined and very outwardly perceived as being something for inner fulfillment and inner growth, I think that is a bit disingenuous. And I think that's also partially why I think there's been a fair amount of backlash to even the concept itself of body positivity. You know, do we need to feel positive? Can we just feel neutral? Do we have to feel…or the idea of “everyone's beautiful.” Well, is that really the goal, to make everyone, you know, through the miracle of modern science and a lot of money, look like a Kardashian? You know, I think there is somewhat of a pushback to this idea that although we may never be able to escape the fact that humans, like many animals, are visual creatures, we respond to specific and often culturally defined, you know, stimuli. It changes our perception of others. It changes how we're perceived, how we move through the world. All of those things, I think, are not going anywhere, to at least some extent. But the idea that it should be looked at as an internal source of empowerment, I think is at minimum a bit naive, because at the end of the day, it's sort of a tree falling in the forest. Sometimes, sure, you look at your own nails and you're like, “Wow, they look cool. I like watching myself type.” But nine times outta 10, the real benefits come when you're out in the world and another woman is like, “I love your nails.” Or like, they look great on a date, or you know, someone remarks on them in the subway or whatever it might be. Like, ultimately, these are external things, and I think it's ultimately in the long run probably healthier to accept that things can be good and enjoyable and fun and worth doing that are not 100% about you in a vacuum and how you feel. 

Katie: I think it was an episode of The Financial Confessions where I think you had addressed kind of a similar question, where you were talking about, I think someone had asked, “But my presentation, like could that not be perceived as an investment? Like if I look good at work, am I going to be perceived as more professional?” And you had kind of made this point that it is a bit of a fine line or that there's a diminishing return there, where beyond a certain point of presentation and hygiene, whether you're wearing a Dior top or a blouse from the Gap is kind of a weak justification for investing maybe more than you should be in your appearance, which this kind of brings up for me. Chelsea, thank you so much for being here. That was incredible. 

Chelsea Fagan: Thank you for having me. 

Katie: Absolutely. Welcome back to Rich Girl Roundup. As a reminder, we take our listener questions about every month; we put out the call for questions on Instagram, so follow @MoneywithKatie and we will pick one that feels kind of interesting and like it could apply to a lot of people. Now, as my standard disclaimer, I am not a licensed financial professional. This is not financial advice. This is just “What would Katie do or think if she were in your situation?” And now from our sponsors. Paid non-client of Betterment. Views may not be representative. See more views at the App Store and Google Play Store. Learn more about this relationship at betterment.com/moneywithkatie. This segment is brought to you by Betterment, the online investing platform that gives you the tools, inspiration, and support that will help you become a better investor.

This week's question is from Chelsea. “I'm 32 and I feel like I am late to the money game. I am only just beginning to look into other financial avenues besides retirement accounts because I'm finally making decent money, but the main feelings I have are overwhelm, in the sense of being so behind. What would be a good next/first step to focus on if I'm trying to play catch-up, not necessarily trying to retire early, just trying to get enough to live comfortably, medium bougie until death do I part?” 

First of all, Chelsea, you and I both strive for the medium bougie life, so is there anything better? Secondly, 32 is certainly not late, and I noticed you said “besides retirement accounts,” which tells me you've already been saving for retirement. I'm also hearing you say you don't want to retire early, necessarily, just that you wanna live comfortably and be able to retire eventually. Obviously I don't know much else about your situation besides these few things, but I'm not exactly getting a picture of someone who is super behind. If anything, this sounds like a very normal, reasonable financial position for someone who's 32 to be in. To some degree, yes, your financial situation does come down to how much you are investing and over how much time. Those two factors, contributions and years passing, ultimately are going to determine your outcome. So if you have fewer years, you have to contribute more. And if you contribute more, you need fewer years. Conversely, if you have more years, you don't have to contribute as much. Fortunately you still have 30-plus years ahead of you. You have got plenty of time. In fact, a lot of economists' consumption models for life presume a negative or flat savings rate in someone's twenties because of how expensive that phase of life can be, and how relatively lower-paid. Big wedding, home, kids: It adds up quickly, right? But as long as you're continuing to progress in your career and earn more and allow your expenses to come back down, most people are able to start saving far more aggressively in their thirties, forties, and fifties. 

I bet you would feel way more in control if you had a simple system that checked off some big boxes for you. So think about this like a framework rather than specific advice, since like I said, I don't know a ton about your situation, but first, figure out what your save rate is currently. It's probably going to fluctuate month to month, but if you track your income and spending over the course of a year, that can help you paint an accurate picture of how much of your take-home pay you are saving and investing. If you have 33 years until retirement, that means you probably wanna shoot for saving 20% to 25% of your income, assuming you want to continue to live the same standard of living in retirement. Speaking of investing, hit your basic buckets: 401(k), Roth IRA, brokerage accounts. We could spend another 30 minutes talking about which assets to buy in which accounts. So I'll keep it high-level with this. With a 30-year timeline, you can afford to be aggressive: 90% stocks, 10% bonds. That's usually the mix most appropriate for someone with this type of timeline. And the tax diversification of having all three accounts will provide flexibility for you later. 

And lastly, you may wanna play around with something like a financial independence tracker. I will link mine in the show notes of this episode, but this allows you to input your income expenses, assumed rates of return and more, and it'll tell you, inflation-adjusted, about the trajectory you are on for retirement. I think a sense of awareness and control would go a really long way with the way that you're feeling. For example, I plugged in a little example. Someone with $50,000 invested already, $100,000 per year income, set to rise by 4% per year, and spending $4,500 per month, therefore saving about $2,500 per month after taxes, with spending that's rising at 3% per year, and then a 7% average rate of return before inflation. They were on track to hit financial independence in 21 years with $2.4 million. So with a 30-plus-year timeline ahead of you, I think you are gonna be just fine. All that to say, you've got this. 

All right, y'all, that is all for this week. I will see you next week, same time, same place, on The Money with Katie Show. Our show is a production of Morning Brew and is produced by Henah Velez and me, Katie Gatti Tassin, with our audio engineering and sound design from the talented Nick Torres. And additional fact checking comes from the lovely Kate Brandt.