Move over, Dave Ramsey—the future is female.

By Julia Shiota
February 22, 2021
Advertisement

The pain and disbelief in the voice of influencer Aja Dang is palpable as she shows viewers her laptop screen. On it is her total student loan debt amount for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, totaling about $186,811. The video is from December 2017 and marks one of the first in a genre of videos that has increased in popularity ever since: women-driven debt-free journeys.

Credit: Aja Dang/youtube.com

Over the past few years, there has been an uptick in YouTube channels and Instagram accounts focusing on becoming debt-free, with many of these platforms run by women. These channels are more akin to diaries that showcase financial ups and downs than they are to polished money explainers and how-tos. These female influencers are not experts in finance—they don't even work in finance—but they're taking charge of their money and inviting viewers along for the ride.

For years, finance-based channels run by women—like the popular The Financial Diet, founded by Chelsea Fagan—have been offering finance tips that range from the more entertaining ("8 Insane Things Rich People Think Are Normal") to the very practical ("How to Save Money, No Matter How Much You Earn"). Women have also been active within the finance podcast space, such as Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez's upcoming podcast with Real Simple, Money Confidential, where listeners get answers to their money-related questions from a panel of experts. Figures like Fagan, O'Connell Rodriguez, and others have been centering the experiences of women within the realm of finance, which has historically been a male-dominated sphere.

Dang began her debt journey with the "7 Baby Steps" program created by the well-known (and recently much-criticized) Dave Ramsey, syndicated radio host. Ramsey's plan lays out specific steps to overcome debt and increase wealth, and it has proven successful for many, some of whom even go on his show to do their "debt-free scream" once they pay off their debt.

When I asked Dang what drew her to Ramsey's approach, she said she was drawn to how straightforward it was—and how the strict rules were initially helpful, particularly for those who might need a high level of accountability to kick certain bad money habits. However, she soon realized that the approach didn't work for the realities of her life. One of the key pillars of the Baby Steps method is to save $1,000 as an emergency fund, and then throw as much money onto your debt as possible. For someone in Dang's position—she works in a freelance and contractor capacity—this didn't feel like enough of an emergency fund. "As I began paying off my debt, I started to feel uncomfortable with how little of a savings fund I had built up for how inconsistent my job is," she said. "So I upped my small emergency fund to $5,000."

This sentiment is echoed by many of the other women running their own debt-free journey channels. While many begin with Ramsey's method, there comes a point where his strict approach simply doesn't fit. Some women, like Dang, find the parameters of the system to be unrealistic—$1,000 might cut it as an emergency fund for some, but for many that is not enough to cover rent and basic costs, especially for a family. Other women tire of the "rice and beans," deprive-yourself-of-everything-until-you-are-debt-free ethos Ramsey vehemently espouses. As Dang puts it, "I believe that a balanced life while paying off loans is more sustainable. It allows us to develop methods and techniques unique to our own situation to continue financial wellness past becoming debt-free."

Instead of sticking blindly to a single method, even one that is highly popular, women creating debt-free journey content pick and choose what works for them, creating a financial plan that suits their unique goals. And as their monthly budget update videos show, their individualized approaches really do work. In the introduction to her channel, The Unsavvy Budgeter, Cindy describes herself as "just an average person with a lot of debt" who wants to share her journey.

Most channels include an introduction video like this, sharing total loan amounts and plans for how someone will tackle that debt. This gives viewers an opportunity to discover creators that really resonate with them—whether the viewer, too, is digging themselves out of grad school debt or living on minimum wage or what have you. And one common thread runs through all of these female money influencers' channels: They are shockingly transparent about numbers—even when their total debt amount might garner negative attention.

In August 2020, a young woman named Morgyn posted a video, "Paying $180,000 of Student Loan Debt," that detailed her total loan amount, her reflections on obtaining her degree, and her plan to pay off that debt. Likewise, Annika Hudak posted her "Starting My Debt-Free Journey" video in September 2020, laying out the six-figure debt she also accumulated from her recent undergraduate degree and her plans to immediately start paying down that debt. These types of channels regularly upload monthly budget videos, updates on the debt they managed to pay down, and any changes in their debt-payoff strategies, often with detailed spreadsheets to track their progress.

Another young woman, Leila, of the channel Debt Over It, even uploads videos sharing how she uses extra money that she earns outside her usual income streams. She encourages her audience—and herself—to think about allocating extra cash to pay down debt, rather than being tempted into spending the money.

Khristann, who runs The Other Side of Debt, describes the focus of the channel as a "journey to eliminate debt, break generational cycles, and create a legacy" and even includes a thoughtful review of her experience using Ramsey's Financial Peace University classes for viewers who might be curious. Other channels are run by women who are married, who have children—like Lo Mills, who has been documenting her and her partner's financial journey as a couple as they work methodically to pay down their debt (about $300,000 remaining) while balancing the needs of their family and planning for retirement.

What makes these channels different from other finance outlets is their transparency. These women are willing to go on the record with hard numbers each month in a culture where debt is most often aligned with shame, even though there are an estimated 45.5 million Americans who have student loan debt. The numbers are even more startling for women: A report by the American Association of University Women shows that women hold almost two-thirds of student loans in the United States, with Black women obtaining their bachelor's with even more debt than other women.

The conversations around money and debt that these female finance influencers bring to YouTube and Instagram are crucial. They not only remove the stigma associated with these topics, but they also serve as a reminder that our relationships with money are always linked to larger societal issues, including race, class, and gender.

Dang places a strong emphasis on the importance of women being financially independent. "I think a lot of women are put in or stay in unhealthy situations because their money is tied to someone else," she says. "And that's why I always say financial independence is the ultimate form of female empowerment."

A lot of talk about "female empowerment" online can come across as disingenuous, but a quick look at the comments beneath these women's debt-free journey videos shows the real impact of sharing these stories. Commenters cheer the creators on while opening up about their own progress with debt, all of which often leads to a cascade of comments of mutual encouragement and camaraderie. In fact, when I ask Dang about her experience of being so open about money online, she tells me that the only people who shamed her for her debt were men.

"I learned at a very young age that when someone insults you, it's because they're insecure with themselves," Dang says. "So those comments never bothered me. But it's funny how many men were so bothered with a woman trying to become financially healthy. I don't know where those guys are now; I might've scared them away from my channel after doing the one thing they never thought I'd be able to achieve."

Once one of these women makes their last debt payment, as Dang did in 2019, the comments explode with shared joy. Where there was once shame and secrecy, there is renewed determination and mutual support for those trying to improve their financial situations.

The money experts to watch in 2021 aren't only the ones who run the polished finance-based media outlets—they are the average women tracking their successes and struggles for a wider audience. While their focus is on paying down their own debt, by being honest with their debt struggles, they are inspiring an entire generation of women to attain their own financial goals, too.