Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. As part of the series, we’re interviewing women about how they feel about their bank balances.
In June 2017, Cat Marnell packed all her belongings into storage and flew to Europe to travel “indefinitely.” She’d finished promoting her first book, How to Murder Your Life, a memoir about running around in downtown clubs and working in fashion magazines while on prescription pills (and more), and she needed to escape for a while. She’d also blown through most of her book advance (rumored to be in the healthy six figures, although she declines to specify) and wanted to live more simply. Since then, she’s been to more than 60 countries, by her estimation, and is finally ready to get back to work. Her next project is an audio version of her travel diaries (still untitled), which will be released sometime this summer.
One of the mysteries of Marnell’s life is how she’s been able to afford it all, between stints of joblessness, on disability, and/or in rehab. Here, she debunks myths about her family’s finances, her status as a taxpayer (she’s working on it), and why she isn’t worried about money right now.
So you’re in Italy right now? How much longer do you think you’ll be traveling?
I’ve been doing it for the past two years. I just got hooked on it, and I’ve haven’t gone back to New York at all. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. But I’m sort of reaching the end of the line. I’m a little burned out, and I need to settle down. I’d like to rent an apartment, but I don’t know if that’s going to be New York or London. I need to connect with people again, and be around friends. Traveling and having all of these amazing experiences, it’s awesome, but it gets lonely. I don’t actually get lonely, but that’s not good. People should get lonely. I need to reestablish my relationships with people.
How are you funding the trip?
Well, I just got my first check from the TV option for my book. It’s going to be a TV series, but I can’t say more yet. Those contracts take so long, but they’re finally all signed. I’m going to be co-writing and producing, and it’s going to be eight to ten episodes. I’ll get about five figures for each. Mainly I’m excited about the creative part of it, spinning that whole world. I want to dress the actress and throw her around the Bowery at 3 in the morning. But I’m not worried about money because I know I have that coming.
Do you think of yourself as someone who’s good at hustling?
No — the greatest gift is that I have agents who handle that stuff. I have two agents, a Hollywood person and then Byrd Leavell, who also represents “Weird Al” Yankovic and, you know, other literary luminaries. He’s loaned me money when I’ve been really desperate, like $500 here and there. I have gotten down to zero with money, and that’s scary. I had a friend tell me once, “Just steal food.” I am not a shoplifter, and it had never occurred to me that you could just do that. One time, back when I was living in Chinatown, there was this blizzard coming and I had nothing, like I had spent all my dimes. That’s when I stole a packet of powdered peanut butter and some apples. Clearly, I have issues.
Has that happened while you’ve been abroad?
When I first got to Europe, a couple years ago, I was like, “Oh, this is cheaper than New York.” If I spend $100 a night for a hotel, that’s $3,000 a month, and that’s a little less than my Chinatown rent, you know? I bought an unlimited three-month Eurail pass and I was just going from place to place. But then I went broke so fast. Now I stay much cheaper hotels that are like, $35 or $40 a night. These are like, tiny, shitty hotels with those clunky keys that are attached to a big cork made of wood. They can be creepy, though. The inn keeper will knock on your door at 2 a.m. in the morning and try to sleep with you, and I started getting paranoid. I was like, “I think people are watching me getting dressed.” I was like, talking to the suitcase.
So what did you do when you went broke?
I was all good until I got to Matera, Italy. I was so tired and hot and I had this huge suitcase that I packed all wrong. It was full of Lucite heels and rainbow wigs. I was a big idiot. I had two debit cards, and you’re supposed to keep them in separate places, but I didn’t and I lost them both at once. It was a nightmare. It was a whole month before I could get a card again. In the meantime, I had $700 cash and that was it, plus the train ticket that included a ferry ride.
So I took the ferry from Italy to Albania, and I had to sleep on the ferry deck, literally under the rescue boat. I woke up covered in salt. When I got to Albania I was so scared. I had never stayed in a hostel before, but I went to one anyway and it was awesome, for $9 a night. There wasn’t any air conditioning and it was July, so I went up on the roof and pulled cushions off the lawn furniture and slept up there. I got woken up in the morning by all these dogs having an orgy in the town square, and the call to prayer in the mosque, and I was laying there thinking, “This is the craziest shit ever.” But I was very at peace, in this weird way, and I had never really experienced that in hotels. Ever since then, I’ve been much more open to weird stuff. I sleep on boats. I sleep in tree houses. I’ve gone full hobo. When I get low on money, I just go to a cheaper country.
What do you do about meals?
I don’t go to restaurants. I go to the supermarket and buy cheap salads. I do the hotel breakfast thing and shove leftover food in my bag. Like I said, I don’t steal, but today I did do something unethical. I had bought these little boxes of wine and I thought they would come with straws, but you’re supposed to pour it in a glass. So today I took straws off of juice boxes and I pocketed them so that I could drink the wine like a juice box. I’m doing that right now, on a park bench.
It’s a great feeling, to realize that you don’t need that much.
I used to be so trapped within my own body, in my own fatigue and exhaustion, especially in my 20s. I don’t want to talk about drugs, but I’ve really cleaned that up. My New York apartments were just these expensive boxes where I would hide out, and I couldn’t think about any other options. I had some amazing apartments, though. When I first got my book money, I rented the sickest loft in Tribeca. It had three levels and a private entrance on Cortlandt Alley. It was enchanting. But I couldn’t afford it. That’s when I wasn’t paying taxes.
When did the taxes catch up to you?
I came down to earth, in general, when I finally went away to rehab in Thailand. I went so I could write the book. I went a whole year without writing it, because I was so sick. I was drinking a lot at that time, in particular. I was physically ill, never leaving that amazing apartment. Writing a book, you just can’t be high. You have to regulate. You have to take medication. You have to sleep. I was writing every day. It took years, but at the end of it, I was a much more grounded person. I also reconnected with my family, and that’s when I said to my dad, “Yo, I haven’t paid my taxes in several years,” and he was like, “Oh my God!” He’s a super responsible, anxious person. And he did not give me money, but he did pay for an awesome tax attorney to help me, and that was a huge gift.
How much trouble were you in?
At that point, I owed at least $125,000 in taxes, and I’ve been catching up ever since. And I’m cool with that. I just wasn’t on this planet for a while, really. I know that’s not an excuse, but I didn’t open my mail. Now I’m on a payment plan; about $600 a month goes toward what I owe, and I had to pay all these fees. I was like, “It’s kind of like I got a loan from the government,” and my dad was like, “No!” These days I just do whatever my dad tells me. He gets my bank statements, and if he wanted to, he could step in and control my bank account. I trust my parents so much now. They’ve helped me a lot.
Has your family helped you financially in the past?
Everyone’s always like, “Oh, she has daddy’s money.” First of all, that’s very sexist. It was always my grandmother’s money. I love her, my Mimi. I stayed with her after I left my job at Lucky magazine and was on disability. She got me back on my feet. Mimi would just write me checks.
Besides the tax situation, have you ever gotten in trouble with debt?
The one responsible thing I’ve ever done in my life is I only ever use debit cards. That way, I never go negative. I have it set so that I can’t overdraw. I love a decline — I don’t care. Decline all day. I’m not ashamed. I’ll spend to the bone, to the bottom. But I never go negative. My credit score still sucks, and I don’t even know how. I got declined for a Kmart card. I do owe my mother $30,000, though. I told her I was talking to you about money today, and I was like, “Is it okay if I mention that I borrowed $30,000 from you?” And she was like, “As long as you say that you haven’t paid it back yet.”
I’m working on being less avoidant with money. I’m also paying for health insurance now, things that I never really cared about before. I’m more responsible, sort of. They taught me in rehab that you can pray for money. You can meditate on money and visualize it. I tell myself things like, “I’m a success magnet. I’m a money magnet.”
Do you think that traveling has made you more responsible with money?
It’s definitely changed my life. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I really needed to run away from New York. I had gone back on drugs, and honestly, it was either go to a mental hospital or go to Europe. The first day, I spilled Perrier on my fucking laptop and missed my flight to Turkey. I was still wearing my green wigs. I was insane. You can’t wear a green wig in Istanbul. A man literally hunted me in his car. I had to run screaming until I found a cop. Now I’m so organized. I stay close to the train stations. I don’t make mistakes.
What are you wearing these days? Do you have a travel uniform?
In the U.S. people are like, “Ew, your shoes are scuffed,” but here it’s not cool to have new shoes. All the girls in Europe just wear dirty Adidas. Right now I’m wearing those and some cheap skinny jeans that I got for like, $15, and a tube top and my mom’s old cashmere sweater and a North Face that I got in Japan. I just try to fit in and not attract too much attention. I’m using bar soap and I just wear sunscreen. I don’t give a fuck. I don’t do handbags anymore. I can’t carry around anything extra. I don’t see how people use these fucking Birkin bags. It’s a heavy box, banging against your legs. I’d rather just get a good tote bag from a contemporary art museum gift shop. Then I’ll use that until it’s too disgusting.
Are you still getting any money from your book, or is that all gone?
I’m still getting checks from my international book deals. Every once in a while I get a big Google alert that’s all in a foreign language and I’m like, “Oh, the book must be coming out in the Netherlands now.” I get a new check every time it’s published in a different country. In the U.K., I got mid-five figures, and I got a lot from Germany, too. Then there’s tons of smaller ones, like Finland, Italy — I got under $10,000 for each of those. I even got like $1,000 from Russia. Anytime I call my agency, I’m like, “Yo, has anyone sent in money?” But I think that’s finally done, the $5,000 checks here and there.
I did recently get some money from a new project that’s coming up, my first one since my book. It doesn’t have a title yet, but it’s an Audible Original. I’m supposed to record it in London in mid-April, but I might do it in New York — we’ll see. It’s an audiobook in diary format, based on diary entries that I kept during my first summer in Europe. It covers a hundred days and about 26 countries. I didn’t plan to publish it when I was writing it, and I was usually too tired to think about making myself sound cool. At first I thought I was going to edit the whole thing, but I wound up just doing a few copy edits. Otherwise, I didn’t touch it all. It’s just exactly what I was going through at that moment.
Why didn’t you want it to be published in writing?
I wanted to create something that would be harder for people to review, because I have this huge fear of getting bad reviews. But I do want to write more books. I have a proposal that’s almost done — it’s not a sequel to my first book, but it’s based on things that have happened since then. I have no idea what I’ll get for it.
I read that you got $500,000 for your first book deal — is that true?
That wasn’t the exact amount. I definitely was paid well. I’m proud to have gotten a big book deal the first time. That was my value. There was a bidding war and that was the market, and I never apologize for that. I’ve only got gratitude.
My next book is going to be less linear than my first. It’s going to be more of my dark Disney brain. But also lots of juicy stuff, some gossip from my personal life. I’m going to throw at least one man under the bus. It’s going to be about chasing magic, and the price you pay. I’m obsessed with wizardry, but that comes back to money — it’s not reality, and it’s not sustainable. I’ve had a really, really bad couple of years, a rough time in my personal life and stuff that I don’t talk about or write about. It’s been painful and difficult, dealing with my health and the horrible things that led to me having to wear these wigs. It’s been painful. I don’t want to go into that, but I’m lucky to have my career and the money.
What was it like when you got the first big check for your book?
The first check I got was huge, six figures, for the book advance. I had to go my agent’s office to pick it up. I just skulked in with my baseball cap on and got the check from his assistant and hustled out. Then I took it to my friend’s apartment and showed it to them. We all stared at it and they were like, “Marnell, you gonna take a picture of it? Want to do a video?” I was like, “What do we do with it?” We definitely had this sense of glee.
What was the first thing you spent it on?
I rented that magic loft in Tribeca then I bought a bunch of nice furniture. I got one of those massive marble tables from White on White, and an Icarus Wing light, and this other Italian lamp that would change colors. I bought an embroidered pillow for $4,000. Then I overdosed on heroin the same day. That’ll be in my next book.
Cat Marnell’s Audible Original will available for pre-order in April.