Stacks House riding pig
Mary Wisniewski

I’m in downtown Los Angeles in a pop-up designed to inspire millennial women to save, pay down debt and invest, and I’m riding a mechanical pig branded with a dollar sign.

As I whip around, I catch glimpses of a video illustrating investments growing in time, a sign that flashes “Take the reins!” and silver cowboy hats hanging on a wall. I’m wearing one. Kesha’s “Woman” plays in the background.

It’s here, in the retirement rodeo room sponsored by Charles Schwab, where you’re supposed to experience a metaphor: When the ride gets dizzying, hold on tight — just as you ought to do when the market inevitably bucks up and down.

It’s just one of several rooms dedicated to a specific financial pillar in Stacks House, a pop-up in the Arts District, about a mile away from Skid Row and a few blocks away from trendy Italian restaurant Bestia. The money museum, created by personal finance expert Farnoosh Torabi and seasoned brand marketing pros Patience Ramsey and Kindra Meyer, is geared toward inspiring women to engage with their personal finances.

The pop-up wrapped up its five-week run in Los Angeles on Sunday. Now, the creators are evaluating the lessons they learned, fine-tuning the experience and preparing to bring Stacks House to additional cities.

“We want to come to New York by next year, at the latest,” Torabi says. “We want to hit at least one or two more markets this year.”

Inside Stacks House, the pop-up with a purpose

If you’re a woman, the self-declared “pop-up with a purpose” aims to increase your financial literacy when your obstacles include earning less than men.

Of course, it’s a pop-up. As with one of the venue’s previous tenants — the Museum of Ice Cream — the interactive displays here entice you to take selfies and post them on Instagram. You, in a cowboy hat and handkerchief that reads “Own your tomorrow,” riding a mechanical pig. Hashtag #StacksHouseLA.

Woman at Stacks House pop up

Stacks House aims to help women feel more comfortable about money through selfie-friendly backdrops.

Courtesy of Stacks House

You’ll have plenty of backdrops. If you pay $38, your ticket gets you into the debt boxing gym room, where you can rage on a bag labeled with a loan foe, like “college debt.” Then, you can strut in a ring as a victor with “Bo$$” as a backdrop. In another room, you can pose in a shower that is dripping money. Soon, you can strike a pose in a giant birthday cake with dollar sign candles on top and “Make a money wish” written below — an experience sponsored by peer-to-peer payment provider Zelle. The list goes on. In all the rooms, you can take a quiz on a machine to get feedback, like “Tackle the priciest debt first” and “Automate payments.”

It would be easy to dismiss Stacks House as superficial nonsense that ignores systemic issues. If you’re just prancing by, the personal finance lessons are light for the price you pay to enter, and you could spend even more. Inside is a bar and merchandise, including T-shirts that say, “the future is equal pay” and “Boss Lady” for sale.

Stacks House is not immune from offering advice that can offend. And yet, I kept smiling on my two separate tours. It’s my beat, after all, and I’ve been covering it for years.

Money: The subject we like to avoid

For many, including myself, talking about your personal finances is about as comfortable as telling a stranger how much you weigh.

It’s hard to answer the big questions about your salary, but it’s even uncomfortable to ask a friend who owes you money to pay it back (I don’t). I’m not alone. According to a 2018 Zelle survey, about 86 percent of women reported not being paid back after covering a shared expense, such as concert tickets or a meal with friends.

The museum, of course, is designed to inspire you to feel like you can achieve the opposite. Stacks House won’t solve your serious personal finance problems, but it’s not meant to. It’s a conversation starter.

What’s next for the touring pop-up?

Whether Stacks House can inspire visitors to feel more at ease while talking about money on a larger scale remains to be seen. It’s still early days for a brand building a community across the country through these interactive experiences.

The museum isn’t designed to solve the world’s financial issues, nor does it claim to. It’s geared toward inspiring us to improve our finances where we can.

The pop-up experience isn’t for everyone. The light personal finance advice could feel out of touch. Imagine you’re a college student living in Los Angeles, struggling to pay for food and housing, and you enter a room that asks you to pick a savings intention. Among the options are “fewer green juices” and “DIY manicures.”

It’s for a certain audience who can afford to pay $38 and might read Girlboss or Refinery29. It’s for an audience who has a bank account (the pop-up doesn’t accept cash for payment) but wouldn’t dream of going to a branch to learn about financial literacy.

It can offer substance, too. In Los Angeles, Stacks House ran panels — planned events that led to an uptick in attendance. The biggest hit? A panel on how to earn your worth.

For the creators, it’s just the first step for their brand’s ambitions. They are using the data they get from the quizzes visitors take to inform their next product under their parent startup, She Stacks. The vision is grand: She Stacks aims to become a go-to resource for women as they build their financial lives.

But Torabi is a personal finance veteran, and she is aware there is no silver bullet. As she put it: “There isn’t going to be one thing that is going to revolutionize peoples’ relationship with money and get everybody on board with paying off their debt.”

The pursuit to make people care about money requires trying all kinds of things.

In the shorter term, the founders are using feedback to refine the money pop-up. Expect the next one to have a room for kids and recurring programming, for example. Whatever the pop-up’s fate, Torabi is proud of the museum’s Los Angeles run.

“We are getting people talking about money,” Torabi says. “Money is a taboo topic. It’s an emotional topic. If nothing else, if people can leave Stacks House feeling as though they now can tap into a community, that they can feel a little bit more confident and empowered because now they have advice and tools to help them take control of their financial destiny, feel a little bit more in the driver’s seat, then we have done an incredible job.”

What the pop-up means for us

If you go to this pop-up, you might walk away inspired to do something. Maybe you only post a picture online. But perhaps you’ll park away some savings or call out your employer for paying your male colleague more. Maybe you’ll write a financial intention on one of its walls. Or, maybe you started listening to Torabi’s So Money podcast.

I left the pop-up feeling upbeat and wondering about my financial path ahead. To this day, I don’t usually ask for money back from friends and I often avoid salary conversations when I’m due a raise. Will I fix these follies? Gosh, I hope so.

At this point, I know there will be no ultimate aha — no moment where I take the reins and transform into a boss lady who slays whatever money-related horrors come at me. What I know is I left the pop-up posting a pic of myself in it on social media and spending $32.85 on a t-shirt.

I plan to wear that shirt at my next financial services conference. There, I’ll sit on a stage in a chair not designed for a skirt in front of a crowd of senior bankers — which yes, are most often older men — and I’ll ask executive panelists about how banking is changing in a pink shirt that reads “financial feminist.”