Otegha Uwagba remembers very clearly the moment she had the idea for We Need to Talk About Money. “It was in the run up to the publication of my first book [Little Black Book: A Toolkit for Working Women] in 2017. I was still very much figuring out how to freelance and I’d left behind my stable career path to pursue this nebulous and unpredictable world. It was very exciting, being a first-time author, planning events, doing the publicity stuff, my Instagram popping and all that. But I remember walking home one evening and I just felt so anxious about money and I thought, if only people knew… It wasn’t like I was putting on a front, but I wasn’t sharing that anxiety publicly.”
She recalls thinking at the time, “People are looking at me like, ‘[She is] young and successful’, [but] if only they knew how fraught my relationship with money is and always has been.” Realizing she couldn’t be the only person who felt this intense anxiety, she started taking notes on her phone every time she saw, felt or read something connected to her own tumultuous relationship with money, which reflected how rife these issues still are across society.
The result is a candid and captivating read of part-memoir, part-cultural commentary that spans subjects such as navigating relationships with people who have more money than you (something Uwagba has been familiar with since winning a scholarship to an elite secondary school), homeownership (“the albatross around my neck for the majority of my twenties”), beauty tax, toxic workplaces, and the complexity of issues around the ‘girlboss’ phenomenon.
Here, Uwagba shares six things she has learnt while exploring her relationship with money:
Identifying the emotional response
“Something that was really helpful in the research I did for the book was discovering financial psychologist Dr. Brad Klontz, who talks about money vigilance. Prior to discovering him, I always thought my relationship to money (which is feeling very anxious, very panicked, even though I’ve never been in dire straits) was so irrational and bizarre. Discovering I wasn’t the only one – to the point that psychologists have developed an actual framework [for these feelings] – was really helpful and, on a personal level, allowed me to inject a bit of rationality into how I respond to various money situations. You’re always going to have instinctive emotional responses, but I think it helped me to recognize where I was spiraling and catastrophizing, and has allowed me to now deal with situations that, a few years ago, would have absolutely floored me.”
Feeling fortunate in her attitude
“I’ve always said that I haven’t felt good about money, but I’ve always been good with money. And that is absolutely a credit to my parents. Growing up having to think about money has made me quite sensible. They’ve always encouraged saving; they’ll never ask me, ‘When am I going to be a grandparent? When are you getting married?’ Instead, it’s ‘Do you have savings?’ That’s always been the narrative in our house. I think for quite a lot of people, especially from my background, which is West African and quite traditional, there’s a lot of emphasis on finding a partner and having a family, but my parents have never been like that, which I’m really grateful for. I’ve reflected on how lucky I was in many ways [to have] had these attitudes instilled in me from a young age.”
Setting boundaries on what to share
“I’m lucky that I came to writing and journalism a bit later, in my mid to late twenties, because I had had enough time to observe the kind of ‘personal-essay industrial complex” and how young women, and especially young women of color, are encouraged to divulge really personal stories within a thousand words for clicks, and the narrative is completely taken out of their hands.
“Before I sat down to write the book, I put a lot of thought into what I was, and wasn’t, willing to disclose and set very clear boundaries. I emailed Roxane Gay [because] she’s someone who’s written very personally, and I asked her how she determines what to share. She replied, ‘Look, is it of service to the story? Is it of service to the wider point?’ That’s how I draw the line. And I spoke to another friend, Dolly [Alderton], who has obviously written masses about her personal life, and she was like, ‘Otegha, it’s a memoir, not an autobiography, so you can be selective about what you share.’”
I really want people – women particularly, Black women especially – to feel a sense of entitlement. To feel more entitled to money and respect and power and credibility”
Encouraging entitlement at work
“When I talk about toxic work situations, I don’t think my experiences are particularly exceptional. I think a lot of people going through those experiences internalize them and think that they are the problem – and don’t have the framework or the words to properly call out what’s been happening to them and why it is wrong. I really want people – women particularly, Black women especially – to feel a sense of entitlement, which is a word that is generally used in a negative way. To feel more entitled to money and respect and power and credibility, and not to settle.”
Cultivating a community of support
“I’ve always been a naturally confident person, but that was completely knocked out of me when I was in certain environments at work. Over the course of my twenties, I’ve lost some friends and distanced myself from certain people, and the people I have in my life now – personally and professionally – really feel like a community. They remind me that I have X, Y, Z going for me. I think a lesson, especially for women, is to keep only those people in your life – the people who make you feel like the best version of yourself.”
Keeping the faith that things will work out
“I wish I’d been a bit easier on myself [when I was younger], because I self-flagellated a lot. It’s the benefit of hindsight, but I do wish I’d had a bit more faith in my ability to carve out a life that I’m happy with. For most of my twenties, I felt that my life was going to end up going nowhere and, as a result, I was just petrified the whole time. I often felt like I had made bad decisions, and I wish I’d had the faith in myself at the time to realize that wasn’t the case. And it’s worked out fine. So maybe I didn’t need to be as hard on myself as I was.”
We Need to Talk About Money is out now