‘I was on the disaster curve’: Frances Cook on life as a reformed money mess

Host of personal finance podcast Cooking the Books and now author of a book dubbed ‘the realest guide to money’ Frances Cook tells us why it’s so hard for people to be open about money, finding new ways to channel her spending habits, and why more young women should look to invest.   


Read more: Mind over money: an extract from Tales from a Financial Hot Mess


The Spinoff: Obviously you’re in a much better place financially, but how long did it take for you to get to this point? What finally pushed you to actually do something?

Frances Cook: I knew I was going wrong with money about five years ago, but it really took turning it into work for me to be able to get my head into gear and make some changes. Because I’m really good at my job but I’m really bad at my life, so that’s kind of where the money podcast came from. I’d say I’ve been intensively working [on getting to this point] about the same time as the podcast has existed – around three years. I thought ‘if I make this work, I’m going to work at it really hard, throw myself into it and figure it out’. 

You mention in the book that a big turning point was when your husband, Ben, called you out because of your spending habits. What was that like?

He’s usually really nice to me! So him just flat out calling me out was a moment when I thought ‘oh man, even he’s losing patience with me. I’ve got to get this together!’ But also, I knew he was right. That was the worst part. They always say that the truth hurts. He said: ‘You’re paid more than me. You’re stuffing this up. Why?’ and I kind of just had no answer. I had nothing to hide behind and that sucked. I realised that even the person who has the most patience with me was running out. 

But even before that, I assume you kind of knew you had a problem but you were kind of ignoring it.

Yeah, I just thought ‘I’m somehow skating by, that’s fine!’ But I think I’d also hit that point [where I realised I needed to do something], especially after that fright I had with the job that I mention in the book. 

I have some friends in theatre and they sometimes talk about the disaster curve where the only reason that the show keeps going is because an amazing amount of things happen to not go wrong. I was on the disaster curve with my life. I was getting by but only because an amazing amount of things hadn’t gone wrong. It would take just one thing to go wrong [for it to all fall apart], and I suddenly realised that actually, this is really precarious and not a lot of fun. Even though I felt fine day-to-day, there was this little buzz of anxiety. I just hit that point where I thought ‘I’m tired of this and I would like that to change’. 

When you started Cooking the Books and you began opening up a bit more about your own personal money situation, was that quite a scary and difficult thing to do?

Yes. It’s really funny because people will message me sometimes and say ‘I just found your podcast and I really enjoy it. I’ve gone back and I’m listening from the beginning’ and I always have this moment like ‘ugh, please don’t!’ 

For starters, I was still learning as a broadcaster. I think you should always be [learning], but particularly in those first few episodes you can tell I was really raw. I can also hear how uncomfortable I was when I was talking about my own money situation. The team who were helping me get set up said I had to share and be open because podcasting is super intimate, which was fine, but it’s one thing to say it and another thing to do it. Now, I find it super easy to talk about money. I sometimes have to remind myself in social situations that not everyone is on that level. 

In one of the first episodes I did we calculated the difference, based on my salary, of a conservative KiwiSaver fund (which I’d been in until very recently) compared to growth fund. I found that growth doubled my money – thousands of dollars more by the time I retired. To that out there and show that I really stuffed that up and I’ve only just fixed felt confronting, but I think that episode was the one that got me to see why it was all worth it and why opening up about money gave other people permission to open up as well. My Facebook page just got hammered after that episode with messages telling me they just used the calculator as well and they never realised that it was so much money. 

That’s when I thought ‘OK, that’s exactly why we’re doing this, because someone has to start it. Someone has to start the conversation.’

Do you think that comes down to embarrassment? In the book you talk about how a lot of people are reluctant to talk about money because they’re worried about people telling them that it’s all their fault or that they’re really dumb.

You have to be very vulnerable [to be open about money]. It’s hard, especially when you’re someone who considers themselves successful in other areas. I felt like I was doing alright in my career, I felt like I ran my home fine, but I was just falling apart in this really crucial area. I think a lot of us don’t feel comfortable with it because when you’re used to feeling strong or you’re used to feeling successful, to suddenly have to feel vulnerable it’s like ‘nope! I’m going to put that in a box and forget about it’. 

Do you still find yourself falling into unhealthy money habits from the past? 

Massively. I still fail on the first hurdle all the time – budgeting. Much less badly than I used to, but food is a weakness. I love going out for food. I’m also just very lazy and I don’t like to cook, so that’s my kryptonite. I’m constantly having to keep an eye on it and just be kind to myself when I fall off the wagon and get back on when I do. 

After looking into the money psychology of it all, I always make sure now that I have a goal and I always put money into my savings and investments first thing, just to fight that impulse that I have to spend everything. I might spend everything – I probably will spend everything – but I’ve already done my saving and investing so it’s OK. I’m hoping to go on a trip to South America next year, so that’s one goal. I’ve got all these short, medium and long term goals that keep me going. I’ll probably be a spender until the day I die, so it’s just trying to figure out how to work within that so that I feel happy but I’m also not shooting myself in the foot. 

I feel like being a spender or a saver is kind of like how some people are morning people and some people just aren’t. It’s a hardwired trait. 

That’s so true. But you also don’t have to take that as ‘oh I’m stuffed with money’. You just have to think ‘right, I’m wired differently on this. How am I going to deal with it?’ Personally, I love investing because it feels like spending. I love going through and buying my shares because it feels like I bought something really fun. That actually kind of helped tide me over from other things I wanted to buy. You can auto-invest, but I do mine manually because I enjoy it. So in a way, that’s a superpower of being a spender. There are pros as well.

One of the things I’m really interested to learn more about is investing, which I’ve kind of always been keen on but I’ve been too scared to learn or try. So one of the things that really resonated with me from the book was this idea that if you’re not an old white man in a suit, you don’t feel qualified to do it, more so if you’re a young woman. 

And yet, we’re some of the best at it. Women are better investors because we leave things alone and young women are the best investors because we’ve got time on our hands, so it’s funny that the ones best at it are the least likely to actually do it. 

The great thing is, there’s been so much change on the New Zealand investing front in the last few years that involving legitimate, good companies that make it easy to invest. Even when I started the podcast three years ago, you had to go through a broker or you’d have to commit $500 at a time in order to invest. Who has that just sitting around? Whereas you’ve got companies now that let you invest $5, $50 or whatever feels like a safe amount to figure out what you’re doing. It’s all so accessible. I just think shares are great for younger people, especially if you’re stuck in Auckland – you might not be able to afford a house, but you can afford shares. And maybe shares are what’s going to get you into a house one day, even if that’s in your 40s. 

The book is definitely more on the practical side and I liked how it featured a lot of little tips as well as big picture advice. Do you have any favourites? What’s sort of your go-to tip when people ask you about money?

A lot of the personal finance world gets flak and justifiably so because it ignores the realities of people’s lives and it can get quite lecture-y. The whole ‘give up your coffee’, ‘give up your smashed avocado’ thing drives me bonkers. It’s just rude. That’s not the reason why people can’t buy houses.

My big thing is that you can’t do anything until you’re spending less than you’re earning. I always tell people to make a money diary, even if it’s just for a week. Write down everything that you bought, how much you needed it (ie: does it keep your body functioning, like food and shelter?), and how happy it made you. The big thing I never want people to do is to feel deprived or to feel like they need to be living like a monk to hit their financial goals. I want people to be managing their money so it makes their lives awesome now and in the future. So that’s really important: what’s making you happy? Cut anything that isn’t – there’s always so much that isn’t. 

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After that, look at what your goals are in five-to-10 years time and figure out what sort of investing is right for you. Because everyone should be investing, even if you’re about to retire you might have 30 years of retirement left.

Asking yourself ‘what makes you happy’ reminds me of a tip you mentioned that you should rotate what you cut back on every month so it doesn’t feel so monotonous to save.

Everyone keeps bringing that tip up so it must’ve really resonated with people! It was actually one of my uni friends that told me that which I think goes to show that if you’re open about these things and you talk to your friends about it, then you can get all this amazing wisdom. I would’ve never got that tip if I hadn’t just been casually chatting to a mate about money. I would’ve never seen her as someone who would be giving good financial advice, so shout out to being open about money.

This interview has been edited for clarity.


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