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Stay Skeptical of Personal Finance Gurus – The Sensible Merchant
Remember in Land Before Time when LittleFoot and his mother go in search of the Great Valley? When he finally gets to the lush beautiful oasis he was promised, it’s dry and dead.
That’s what most personal finance advice is like.
I consume a lot of personal finance content. I read blogs about inflation and books about famous market crashes. I listen to podcasts discussing stock picks. I research investing trends.
Hell, I have a website devoted to money.
I also grew up in a home that started out using food stamps and hand-me-downs. It’s second nature for me to be good with money because I had to be.
I have very little raw talent and therefore very little ability to ever earn a big six figure salary. I don’t say this to be self-deprecating, but to explain why I have to be smart with my money. It’s been my only edge for decades. I might not make more than my peers, but I can probably save and invest better than them.
It’s like the world’s lamest super power.
Like any good hero that discovers a super power (even a lame one), I am also interested in helping other people be better with THEIR money. I’m interested in what works and what doesn’t. So I follow other people on social media who are doing the same thing to see what’s working. Surely these people are all as honest and helpful as Abe Lincoln picking you up from the airport.
This is where the promised land turns out to be a wasteland and there is not always a happy ending for Littlefoot and his friends.
I’ve noticed most “influencers” use their platforms to humble brag or spew the same tired cliches about budgeting and hustling. I know I’m guilty of this to some degree, but I’m really trying to balance that line. What you see is what you get with me. Warts and all.
I understand how it happens though. They have limited characters on Twitter. Limited real estate on their Instagram post. Limited time in their TikTok video. And they’re trying to make a big splash in as little time as possible.
But here’s why you’ll never see me post my net worth, how much debt I did or didn’t pay off in a year, and what my overall market returns are:
That self promotion is simply unhelpful. But for some, that self promotion is downright damaging.
I saw this on Instagram the other day on a very popular personal finance account. Not to pick on anyone, but this shit has got to stop.
No budget in the world is getting the average person there.
It’s like Lebron James tweeting about how easy it is to get into the NBA – all you need to do is be 7 feet tall and great at basketball. Simple, right? It’s basically trolling. But it gets eaten up by the hustle and grind culture of social media.
If you’re trying to help well-educated middle-class millennials who’s well-educated middle-class parents raised them to be aware of money and get a good education, okay fine, you might help them budget for a brand new Toyota instead of a brand new Mercedes.
But here are the real groups that need help:
Why sharing these types of numbers is neutral at best.
You have no clue where anyone started. If they tell you, you have no way of verifying it. You don’t know their upbringing, their inheritances, or their goals. And they don’t know yours.
You don’t know their education, their income, or the city they live. And they don’t know yours.
You also don’t always know what they’re trying to sell you or what ad revenue they are receiving or what affiliate partnerships they have when you click on their links.
There is no budget in the world that is going to get you or anyone else a quarter of a million dollars in cash in 3 years unless you are already a high earner or very wealthy, so let’s knock off the charade. This is an echo chamber at its finest.
No two situations are the same so no two outcomes will be the same when you start tweaking the dials. This is why it’s unhelpful to share your numbers and comes off as a platform for you to humble brag more than help.
But let’s say you actually are trying to help people and you mean well.
Why sharing your extreme numbers could be doing more harm than good.
Someone may read about your amazing bank account, feel bad about themselves for having only a tiny fraction of your wealth, and throw their hands up saying the world is rigged so why even play the game.
The 1% should not be where the 99% take their cues from.
No wonder we are seeing teenagers YOLOing their life savings into meme stocks on Robinhood. They are gambling. Because gambling is the only way you’re going to make $231,000 CASH in 3 years. But 99% of gamblers lose (and 86% of day traders). And the 1% of winners touting their windfall is promising hope where there is none to be found.
Just like the lessons most non-investors might take away from the Gamestop saga which I wrote about here.
Okay, Smart Guy, what is helpful then?
Timeless and evergreen tips like these:
- Save more than you spend (even if you live at home with your parents earning minimum wage).
- Make yourself indisposable at work (even if that means someone relies on you for their coffee every morning).
- Start investing earlier than you think you need to (the years are short but the nights last forever – this is why it feels like you have plenty of time but your 60s will actually be here before you know it).
- Automate your investments (turn on your 401(k) deposits, make regular IRA deposits, even if it’s just an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account each paycheck).
- Don’t worry about what other people are doing (most people are drowning in debt trying to impress you).
- Don’t give into FOMO by buying the latest meme stock or penny stock (even though it can be REALLY hard to watch complete idiots getting rich – it won’t last forever).
- Keep learning even after school (read, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, take on new challenges just for fun).
- Track your money (use a simple excel chart or find an app; you can’t know if you’re saving more than you spend unless you track it. Treat it like a game where the goal is to do better each month and level up).
- Practice gratitude for the money and things you DO have (especially friends, pets, and loved ones).
- Go to community college if you are even the slightest bit unsure of what degree you want (and even if you are sure!).
I’ll stop yelling at the clouds now.
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For an ironic twist of events, check out my Instagram: @TheSensibleMerchant
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This is an excellent post–there’s a fine line between giving helpful advice to strangers and bragging about what happened to work for you/BUY MY COURSE. I do love gawking at net worth reports, but my first exposure was following J. Money’s stuff for years–which legitimately showed a slow accumulation of wealth over time and made it seem more realistic/motivating to someone in my position. Those 10 bullet points are spot on, but I’m just going to pretend that I didn’t read #6. I can’t fight the FOMO!
Thank you. I struggle with it even myself. There is value in numbers. J. Money has used transparency correctly. Those numbers are tangible. They are relatable. But when they turn into bragging like you said they really turn me off. Appreciate the comment and glad I’m not alone with the FOMO!
I love the sense of realism that you bring to the table with this post. As a former advisor who became burnt out in the industry and switched to blogging, I cannot stress enough points 3-5 enough. It does not matter what others do, only care about yourself and what you need. Starting young and automating your investments is the greatest wealth accumulator that you can build. Then, ignore what others are doing. It does not matter what brings them happiness or concern, focus on your needs and build the future you want!
Thank you, Olaf! I appreciate that insight coming from someone that worked in the actual advisory industry. I checked out your blog and you are exactly the type of Personal Finance expert I trust because you don’t paint any unbelievable fairy tales about getting rich quickly or easily. Harsh truths with a positive tone. Thank you for being a great example for those of us just starting out blogging!
Kevin, thanks for the kind words!
Excellent post, you hit the nail on the head! I often wonder what the “advice” (aka jealousy-inducing braggery) does to people on low or modest incomes who are just starting out in the budgeting, saving and investing game. It must be very demotivating. No wonder so many vulnerable people get scammed by “gurus”. Love your tips at the bottom of the post!
I consider myself well-versed in money and investing and even I am demotivated when I see posts like that! Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I love the use of the word braggery lol.
Enjoyed your post. I have a blog to track my net worth for my own personal use. I find it helpful to look back from time to time to see how far we’ve come.
Exactly – using numbers is great for yourself. I do the same thing! I checked out your blog, I can tell you aren’t using it as a way to make others feel poor which I really respect. I have also tried using less shampoo and conditioner too by the way! My hair is healthier and I spend less on expensive chemicals. Good stuff.
I couldn’t agree with you more. I get bored with reading blogs with the same thing. Good lord what happened to giving the reader good practical advice about money. I could care less about what you have in the bank.
Exactly! Too many egos in this space. I’m much more interested to know how good you are with money or learn something about markets and the economy from you than seeing a pointless number that I have no way of ever verifying. True experts have wealth in knowledge and pass it on.
“Save more than you spend”? If someone spends more than 50% of their income just surviving, how can they ever save MORE than they spend? Don’t you mean “spend less than you earn, and save the balance?”
Whatever works for your particular situation! Some will be able to save more than they spend, some will need to spend less than they earn.