Interview by Kati Krause
Photographs by Tom Jamieson
Forget those shiny magazine spreads full of attractive and mysteriously wealthy “creatives.” Forget the websites that parade around somebody’s highly-curated life to you, but won’t tell you how they pay their mortgage. And definitely forget the lifestyle porn stuffed with beautiful objects and artwork that requires deep pockets — or masses of debt — to acquire.
Money remains one of the biggest taboos — bigger than sex — and yet we spend more time earning it, spending it, and thinking about it, than almost anything else. We’re bored with people showing you the seemingly effortless, purposely enviable side of things—instead of the messy reality of their financial lives. So, here’s our attempt to turn it inside out: People, talking honestly, openly, and realistically, about the role of money in their lives. First up: Writer and broadcaster Ben Hammersley.
Hammersley is 38, lives in London, and has spent most of his adult life thinking, writing, and speaking about technology. He’s a fellow and advisor at more institutions than could possibly fit on a business card, including Goldsmiths University, the Brookings Institution, and Condé Nast. He recently finished a TV series on cybercrime for the BBC. He’s preparing to run an ultra-marathon. He’s just had a baby. He has a magnificent moustache. He makes the rest of us feel slightly insufficient.
How much money is currently in your bank accounts?
About £2,000 ($3,000) in my private UK account, $100 in my US account, €100 ($120) in my EU account, and £30,000 ($45,000) in my business account.
Do you own any other assets or investments?
No. Well, I own a boat. That’s worth about £10,000 ($15,000).
What’s your annual income?
It changes radically. In 2014 I made between £80,000 and £100,000 ($120,000 and $150,000), before tax.
What are your current sources of income?
Broadcasting, writing, and speaking. The vast majority comes from speaking — 80 to 90 percent — and I’m always about six months ahead with planning. I haven’t had a salaried position in a long time, so as with any freelancer, there’s always that worry that it could just dry up tomorrow — and the faith that it won’t. I suffer from the freelancer’s dilemma: Am I taking on too much of the wrong type of work because in the short term it’s soothing? I think I’m good at what I do, but the phone could stop ringing tomorrow. I’ve taken on work because of that paranoia and I always regret it.
Why the imbalance in favor of speaking gigs?
I have a very good set of clients who pay very well. And it’s where the money is — I can charge a lot more for corporate speaking than for professional journalism. Of course, one involves sitting at home in my pajamas, the other means going to a place and putting on a show. But I prefer the latter. The writing and broadcasting is advertising for speaking and consultancy.
Did your parents support you financially in your adult life?
I very purposely took three years out before university in order to qualify as financially independent, and got a full grant and a bigger loan. So I started studying at 21 and had a student loan, but no money from my parents. The loan only took me three or four years to pay off because I left uni after a year to take a job at the Associated Press.
How much do you pay in rent?
I split all household costs with my wife. Every month I put £900 ($1,350) into our joint account: that’s rent, bills, food, nappies. We split everything 50–50.
What are your other main outlays?
Nappies — they cost £60 to £70 ($90 to $105) each month. Comestibles. Oh, and subscriptions: the NYT, The Economist, Metafilter. I give money to rescue greyhounds. Dog food. I spend a couple of hundred quid a month on the things that aren’t joint expenses. I buy lots of coffee, but I try not to have objects. My books are all on Kindle.
My main business expenses are travel, gadgetry, and, as a rolling expense, connectivity. Three or four years ago my phone bill was huge because roaming was so expensive, but that has dropped now. I easily used to spend £7,000 ($10,500) a year on my mobile phone. Now a day in Amsterdam costs me £1 to £3, ($1,50 to $4,50) when it used to be £100 ($150).
What’s the most valuable thing you own?
The boat. I have some really old books which are quite valuable. And I commissioned Molly Crabapple to do a portrait of my wife, Aleks, and that was quite expensive.
Do you indulge in any luxuries?
I made a vow to myself years ago when I was very poor that I would never drink bad coffee. So: Coffee, cigars, and afternoons in shisha cafés. I buy a new suit every five years or so. That’s a luxury because I’m so freakishly tall. But I’ll buy it and wear it for eight years. Also, I look fucking good in it, so I know it makes sense. But it’s still £5,000 ($7,500), so, fuck.
The luxuries I indulge in are minor ones: Going to the nice pizza joint rather than Domino’s. At the end of the day we’re grown-ups and we work our asses off and we make good money so let’s just go out and have a drink, and if we do it, let’s go to a nice place.
There are lots of things that people consider luxurious that I consider part of being a rational adult. For example: I’m 6'6". If I fly economy, I’m a physical and mental wreck for three days. So if people pay me to perform, saving £1,000 by flying me in economy is foolish, especially if they pay me eight times that in fees. Also, if I spend a couple of hours a day doing stuff on my phone of course I’m going to upgrade it every year. It would be retarded not to do that. The extra £500 is nothing!
Do you break even at the end of the month or do you save?
At the moment I’m saving, but of course, the big chunk of money in my business account is waiting to be given to the tax man. I am putting money into a savings account for Ripley.
Do you have any debt?
Not any more. But a few months ago I still did, from my divorce. When we separated there were big household bills that I didn’t know about and my business collapsed because all sorts of shenanigans from clients and colleagues, so I had to take out a couple of loans. This time four years ago I was completely buggered. Now that historical debt has all disappeared.
Were you ever poor?
I’ve been through periods, even two to three years ago, when I was very skint, verging on ruin. I don’t ever want to be in that position again. But having gone through that, I’ve realized that stuff isn’t important to me — quality of life is.
Why were you poor?
A divorce is expensive. Terrible life decisions. Depression in my mid-20s, which meant not being able to take opportunities or deliver on them. So when I find myself in the opposite position — being cheerful and having a good run — then I’ll spend the extra £5 on good wine. Because all that stuff may be fleeting. A rational reaction may be to save for a rainy day. But I have faith that even if it all falls apart there are only so many more drinks I can have, only so many more coffees I can drink, only so many more mornings I can spend in cafés with beautiful women.
I have a watch that tells you how much longer you have to live, off averages by gender and country of upbringing. Mine says I have 42 years and 11 months left. Lots of people find it incredibly morbid, but I find it inspiring. Just have the fucking chocolate cake.