Something's Wrong in the Neighborhood
All is not well in the personal finance blogosphere. I have known it for a bit and could not put my finger on what exactly it was; it’s like one of those smells you can’t identify, so you just let It go and pray it’s not you. Recently, other bloggers have begun to pick up on it, and I think it’s time we discuss it.
To be more precise, it’s not high-Income bloggers that are ruining personal finance. It's high-Income bloggers in collaboration with each other and the media that are destroying personal finance.
Let me explain; I blame Mr. Money Mustache, (not him personally) he launched a blog with a relatively novel concept of reaching financial independence early though extreme saving and frugality. His blog not only drew attention because of his experiments but also because of his ability to monetize his blog.
In the same way that the documentary An American Family gave birth to MTV’s The Real World, then a slew of spin-offs and copycats, then ultimately Survivor, and even the Kardashians. MMM success helped give birth to a bunch of monetized money blogs.
Now everyone is looking for the next big star, the next financial Kim Kardashian. The media is on the lookout for the next blogger to idolize. Fair enough, don’t we all want to be rock stars?
The 20% vs. the 80% Club.
The problem is, many bloggers have day jobs where they are pulling six figures plus salaries (good for them), and they’re saving a bunch of money (really good for them). Most of America doesn’t make 6-figure plus salaries.
In fact, approximately 80% of the population doesn’t make six figures. So, when some high-income blogger blows up on social media, because a mainstream media outlet featured them, roughly 80% of the population isn’t going to be able to relate to the story.
So when some new media darling who FIRE'ed by 30 blows up on CNBC, Marketwatch, or Business Insider with there “I saved 90% of my income and you can too” story, some audience eye-rolling can be expected.
Of course, readers are going to respond with “must be nice” or worse comments. They are not sneering; they are not jealous; they are not envious; they simply cannot relate.
Several blogs have started to point out the backlash and ridicule they receive from some readers, as if the viewers are some sort of internet trolls.
The reality is that these people are not jealous of the blogger’s success; it’s that they cannot relate to the advice. According to the 2016 Census, the average household income in the United States is just over 59k.
Frugality is Not a Novelty; it's a Way of Survival for Some.
When you make 280K a year, being extremely frugal is a novelty or a hobby. You have the safety net of knowing if things go bad, and you have a 10k or even 40k emergency, and you can still save money, just not as much. If you make 59K a year, frugality is a way of life, and contrary to what the media and bloggers would have you believe, these young families are not out there blowing all their money on avocado toast or lattes.
They are hard-working families where each spouse may work different shifts to ensure the children don’t have to grow up in daycare or with babysitters. To suggest that the key for these people to reach financial independence is to go back to college to become a professional, or to start some side hustle, is insulting.
Every day in America, real-life people do amazing things on modest incomes. Not everyone wants to hit FIRE (financial independence retire early) at 45. They want to enjoy their family and have some free time. You can live a great life, work some, save some, and spend some. That type of advice does not get the headlines; we live in the day where sensationalism sells.
Stories about high-income earners saving massive amounts of money are what sells; it’s the Kim Kardashian of finance.
Not to take anything away from those people, but in a way, the sacrifice is not real. Because it’s done in part for publicity, and because there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and because it doesn't have to be that hard for years on end, it's maintainable.
When you're making 300k and want to save a million dollars, going to heroic measures to save is fun, or at least tolerable, since the light at the end of the tunnel is only a few years away. When you're making 50k and the light at the end of the tunnel is 25, 30 years out, you can barely see it, and it makes you feel differently.
It’s like when Gwyneth Paltrow was recommending 15k… um.. lady accessories. No one gives a damn about how she spends her money. No one cares that Gwyneth is a successful actress that's made lots of money. (Good for her)
When she crossed over to giving lifestyle advice that people couldn't relate to, that's when people started getting upset. Frankly, they were right to point out the ridiculousness of it.
Facing Your Audience
If you produce a blog, you have the right to produce the content you want, and for the people, you want to speak to. However, if people are calling you out on your content because they can't relate to it, you need to take a step back and ask, “why did you start getting into finance blogging?”
Was it because you wanted to be a web celebrity and bump elbows with other web celebrities on Twitter and forums?
Was it because you wanted to make money? Or was it to actually help people? Do you know your audience? Who are you speaking to?
From my experience, professionals pulling six figures don't need much help. They have a pretty wide margin for error and can make a few mistakes and be just fine.
The people who need help is that average family the people that can't relate to the media's latest prized pony.
The Blogosphere's noise has tainted our view of reality for the majority of America. It may sell ebooks or online courses, but it’s unrealistic for the majority of families. Advice should be inclusive, not exclusive.
It should make people appreciate their lives and make small adjustments in order to reach their goals. It should inspire people to read more posts because they feel as though they are truly understood, and someone has the burning desire to help them.
So, what’s truly missing? It’s empathy and authenticity.
Great, you save a ton of money and can retire in 3 years, but what about everyone else? What about the people who worry about getting to the daycare on time to get their kid, or the family who needs to clip coupons on Sunday’s to make sure they can put money in their emergency fund? Why are we leaving this information out? Why aren’t bloggers connecting with the majority of America?
Changing How We Think and Speak
We need to change the dialog and be inclusive. Everyone doesn’t want to spend 10 hours a week building their side hustle.
They may be too tired from raising three kids under 5. If we want to make a movement that includes everyone truly, we have to understand their wants, needs, and desires. Our financial advice needs to include people who just want to make their lives a little bit easier. It doesn’t have to be one extreme to the next.
Instead of trying to sell eBooks, let’s try to embrace all of America. Try to be something we truly are. Try to include everyone in every financial situation. Interviewing people in every financial situation is the only way you can indeed be authentic to the audience. Share real-life success stories like the lady who retired off real estate without making six figures every year. She worked hard and planned well to reach her financial goals.
If you want empathy and authenticity, you will find it here. No BS! So, what’s your financial story?
Artwork by Darko Ristevski
Michael launched Your Money Geek to make personal finance fun. He has worked in personal finance for over 20 years, helping families reduce taxes, increase their income, and save for retirement. Michael is passionate about personal finance, side hustles, and all things geeky.