Kiley Reid Wants to Talk About Money

Come and Get It, Kiley Reid’s second novel and the follow-up to the wildly popular Such a Fun Age, is set at the University of Arkansas, where a visiting professor interviews students about their money habits. It has allowed Reid to explore a favorite topic: money, its power, and the weirdness it brings out in us. Kennedy, a freshman, overspends to numb herself from suffering, while Millie, a driven RA looking for financial security, perhaps puts too much faith in any fairness in the system.

Reid, 36, lives in a rural area of Ann Arbor, Michigan and teaches at University of Michigan. She loves her students and has great respect and little judgement for the different ways in which people deal with money. “The only thing I want to make sure that this is not a satire,” she says of the book. “We’re not making fun of anyone. These are real people who really inspired me, and I hope the book speaks true.”

Reid had a frank conversation with about how she views money, the value in transparency, and the things she misses about cash.

What was the inspiration for the book?

I knew that I wanted to write about young people and money. I was teaching undergraduate creative writing workshops at the University of Iowa. My students were so bright and quick and clever in different ways, and also had a really interesting and uniquely shared vernacular. A lot of my inspiration comes from dialogue that I hear in the real world. There was something about the way that my students would say a particular phrase that may have kicked off in the entire endeavor. My students would say something and I would say back, “Can you tell me more about that?” And they would say, “Oh, I hate telling about this.” And they would all say it the exact same way. There was something really tender and interesting and dialectically fascinating about that phrase, and I wanted to know more.

I read this book called Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality by two sociologists, Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, where they interviewed students and asked them about money and their relationship and their socioeconomic status. They followed them for a five-year study and they end up in wildly different circumstances even though they were all living within the same dorm. That was a huge source of inspiration as well. I did not want to do a satire. I wanted to have a low to the ground, hyper-realistic portrayal of normal people exploring how money benefits and limits their lives.

What things have you seen throughout your life that informed the book on the way that money really dictates so many things in relationships and friendships?

I find that university is an interesting place to understand money because at many colleges, particularly ones with students who live in dorms, there’s an appearance that everyone is the same. They’re all living in the same dorm room, they’re all eating at the same student halls, and they’re going to the same classrooms. But we can all remember that one student who you realize, like, “Oh, you have a lot of money.” Or having friends who had nearly full-time jobs in addition to class.

College is an interesting place because it’s almost as close to a utopia as we have in the United States. You’re living in mostly funded housing, whether it’s by tuition or financial aid, or your parents, or sometimes yourself. I was an RA, as well. But you can walk everywhere. You can have hobbies. You can meet new people really easily. You can just walk to the grocery store and live your life.

I wanted to have a low to the ground, hyper-realistic portrayal of normal people exploring how money benefits and limits their lives.”

I was really interested in the character of Kennedy and how money can be used to cope, sometimes almost in a way like substance abuse.

Kennedy does what so many people do to understand how they’re doing. She looks to the people around her and says, “How close am I to the lifestyles I see around me?” She is really crippled by choice, which I think we have all seen in different aspects of living within a class society. She doesn’t know what she should be doing, when, how, wearing what, with who, and those decisions just kind of cause her to crumble. When she gets nervous and panicky, she wants to go to Target. Kennedy is an extreme form of that release, but I feel that we are all very familiar with retail therapy, wanting to accumulate things to put around us, to fill in the gaps where we’re feeling lonely. I was really excited to have a young person who is extremely alone in a way that we don’t often get to see.

It’s super interesting. I’m doing a piece right now where I get to do what [the character] Agatha does and interview young people about their money. It’s fascinating. The first interview that I did, the first question I have is: How much money do you have? And a young woman told me $30,000. Twenty-one-years old.

From her parents?

I believe she had a job as well, but that is a level of wealth that I was not expecting, and I was very intrigued.

Like you said, the disparities that maybe don’t exist [between friends] as much in high school and adulthood as much are very much present in college.

They’re really present. College is an interesting time as well, because you’re bringing all of the values that you have from home into a new space and you’re learning firsthand what it means when your parents said potentially, “You shouldn’t talk about money.” But then you’re also put in positions where you do have to talk about money because if you want to live with girlfriends, you’re going to have to say, “Okay, how much can we afford for rent? Where should we live? Who gets to the bigger room?” You’re kind of fighting two sides, one of propriety and one of necessity.

I don’t think that it’s a moral failing to feel uncomfortable talking about money.”

Do you find it hard to talk about money in your private life?

I talk about money so often within the scope of my work and when I’m interviewing people for my novels. I just also find money really interesting, and so I definitely talk about money with close friends often. Through those conversations, I’ve created my own boundaries that are pretty easy to stick to and those are things that protect my family and the things that my family would not want to share with other people. I hope it’s clear that, as much as I love talking about money, I completely understand why other people don’t, and I don’t think that it’s a moral failing to feel uncomfortable talking about money. We live in an era where people and the quality of their lives are staggeringly worse and better on each side, and I think that that makes people feel responsible, and I completely understand that feeling. The way I approach the world is through a pretty materialist lens, and so that’s why I do enjoy talking about it. Do you feel uncomfortable talking about money?

I think that as time has gone on, it’s become more important to talk frankly about money. Or we’ve been untaught that we can’t. But I do think you hear a lot about being open with your friends, but it does cause divides. Sometimes I understand why people don’t want to talk about their salaries or how much their house costs because it creates a boundary that you know exists, but sometimes the more information you get, the more alienated you can feel.

I think that’s correct. I remember when I was a nanny, the mom that I worked for one family for about a year and a half, she came home one day with all these shopping bags and said, “Oh my gosh, I’m such an idiot. I just spent $700 at Baby Gap.”

That changed the way that I saw our relationship. I was really financially not secure. I believe $700 was my rent at the time. I knew that they were wealthy. I think that I saw a bit of carelessness on her part to share that with me. Perhaps she was sharing it with her girlfriends who could do the same sort of thing, but it did change the way that I saw our relationship.

With close friends, I do like talking about money. I have no problem telling friends how much our house costs, what my salary is or anything like that. And at a certain point with friends who are writers or in whatever field, I think it is important to say to friends what you’ve experienced, the market prices, so that they can hopefully get the same thing.

I do think that money is running our lives in those ways of quiet panic and etiquette and propriety all the time, and those are the moments I love to write about.”

You’ve really made me think about this a lot. I think it happens in so many things. There’s so many interactions with your friends and your coworkers about money, and you never really think about it in a larger sense.

Money has a way of sticking with you a little bit. Oh my gosh, this is so funny. It was like 15 years ago. I took a cab back with a guy I was dating, and I remember the cab ride was $45. He never offered to pay, never paid me back. That always stuck with me.

And at the time, $45 for me, that was a lot of money. Of course, that would be different now, but I remember the panic that I felt and how that shaped our relationship. I didn’t bring it up. I didn’t want to seem petty or anything, but I do think that money is running our lives in those ways of quiet panic and etiquette and propriety all the time, and those are the moments I love to write about.

Do you see a change in your work when you interview students in how they talk about money versus how, when you were living in a dorm, people talked about it, like a generational change?

The numbers are bigger. I interviewed a group of young women in Iowa and the way that they spoke about the numbers, the particular way they would say, “Oh, it’s around two, it’s around five,” and I would say, “100 or 1,000?” And they would say, “5K.” That was just the vernacular use, and I thought that that was really fascinating. I think just on a really simplistic level, I would’ve said 5,000 or 2,000 when I was growing up, and it just came in a shorthand, and I thought that that was interesting.

Technology has definitely changed the way that we talk about money. I always think it’s so fascinating when a noun becomes a verb and it’s like, “I’ll Venmo you.” “I’ll CashApp you.” “You can do this to me.” I think that the distance that technology places on transactions is very interesting. One of the questions that I recently asked students in the article that I’m writing is, “What’s the smallest amount you would ever Venmo request someone for?”

And I got a range of numbers and there’s so many conversations of, “Oh, I can’t believe Chloe requested $2 from me. I give her stuff all the time. I do this, I do that. Why would she do this?” But then the response is always, “Hey, I’m going to send it and then I’m not going to say anything.” So I do feel like technology makes it much easier to get someone paid. It also creates this barrier where you’re not working through those things in person, which I think at a certain level, looking deep in our relationship, and either for worse or for better, it’s one thing. The technology I think has created an interesting barrier in money transactions.

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I think most young people not using cash has changed a lot of things.

I listened to this great podcast the other day. This guy was talking about how he was extremely poor when he was younger, and I believe he was around my age, so 36. And he said, “I would hate to be poor now because everyone uses a credit card.” His mom used to hang out at Home Depot and steal receipts from the trash can and then go to the store, take all those items and say, “I want to return these things,” and pay her the cash. You can’t do that because everything is through credit cards. Also you just don’t find cash on the ground the same way.

There doesn’t seem to be any alternative to giving people money on the street, to maybe tipping a doorman or someone you walk by, somebody at a coat check. But I really wonder for people who relied on cash what happens to them?

There’s a big difference. It’s probably a false sense of security, but it feels safer to have a card. Because if you lose your card, you can call and your money is protected. Once you lose cash, that’s it. I remember living in New York in my twenties. I think it happened maybe five or six times where I was just walking down the street and I bent down and picked up $20 or $40. It happened all the time. It was awesome.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Adrienne Gaffney is a features editor at ELLE and previously worked at WSJ Magazine and Vanity Fair.


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