I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again – most personal finance bloggers don’t know crap.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to spend a lot of time ragging on other blogs. That ship is beginning to be crowded, and my contrarian nature requires me to leave such a ship right as everyone else shows up. The folks at Control Your Cash and I fought this fight for a long time before anyone else noticed, and now it’s time to move onto something else.
All most personal finance bloggers can offer is a little basic math and their own personal experiences. For the most part this is okay, since most personal finance decisions are pretty simple. Creating savings is as easy as making a few decisions to not spend all your damn money every month. Creating an emergency fund is a colossal waste of time – as we’ve discussed – but, skill wise, it’s pretty damn easy. If buying an item at Localmart is cheaper than buying it somewhere else, you go ahead and give them your money. This isn’t hard.
Investing gets a little more complicated, but only slightly. Most people are pretty well served by buying a few low cost mutual funds or ETFs. All you need to do is buy some Canadian equities, some U.S. equities, and some bonds, and you’re set. Hell, a nice balanced fund can accomplish that pretty well for you. That’s all it takes.
Now let’s talk a little about confirmation bias. You probably learned about it during that psychology class they made you take in college, but allow me to refresh your memory, assuming it’s not dead from all the substances you consumed immediately after that class. Humans generally seek out information that reinforces our already held beliefs. A churchgoer isn’t going to seek out the writings of Richard Dawkins – probably partly because he’s kind of an ass – and an atheist isn’t about to go looking in a bible for salvation when life gets tough.
Personal finance bloggers are no different, and this is where one of my most loathed phrases, – “works for me” – comes from. A debt blogger can be presented with mathematical evidence that Dave Ramsey’s debt snowball is a flaming bag of dog crap, and they’ll still argue that the psychological benefits outweigh actually paying more money in interest.
All that us personal finance writers are doing is exchanging opinions on how to achieve certain financial milestones. And because most of us are writing about stuff we’ve actually done, we’re naturally partial to our own methods. It’s important for readers of every blog, article, or book in our niche to remember that. And even if someone takes the time to research something, they’re most likely just going to regurgitate some info that somebody else wrote using their personal experience.
This is why contrary opinions are so important. Human brains aren’t generally wired to believe information that goes against their predetermined beliefs. Our brains are also designed so that we’ll often read some factoid and immediately believe that piece of trivia as correct, even if the writer just pulled it out of his ass on a deadline. We do this all the time without thinking that writers have motivation to fudge facts in order to get people on board with their predetermined beliefs. You don’t have to look any further than blog comment sections to see how much writers like it when people agree with them.
Except there’s one problem with contrary opinions, and that problem is nobody listens to them, thanks to our predetermined confirmation biases.
Essentially, this whole exercise is selfish. Other people talk about how they want to help their readers, but the reality is the vast majority of my peers are motivated by fame, (they’re a big deal, at least on their little corner of the internet) money, or even the simple pleasure one gets from being proven right. Everyone who writes a blog is, in their own unique way, a narcissist. Why else would someone pen the 14,392,441st article on emergency funds or budgets?
This is also why nobody ever graduates to the next step of finance writing. Because there’s a far greater chance that once people step into the abyss of trying to predict how certain investments will perform, or predicting the price trends of real estate, or a thousand other things that I try to focus on, they’ll start to get stuff wrong. Humans hate being proven wrong, and it’s really hard to be proven wrong when all you write about are things that have already been beaten to death or your own personal opinion.
I’ve made some bullish calls and some bearish calls over the years, and I think overall I’ve done pretty well. Sure, I was too early on Blackberry (hell, I’m always too early. Just ask Vanessa. HEYO) but I made some good calls on Automodular, (up 7% since I recommended it) and correct bearish calls on The Cash Store and Radio Shack. There are others, you’ll just have to go back and make a scorecard using my archives. That totally won’t be a waste of your time.
How exactly is someone sticking their neck out by just reconfirming the beliefs the reader had before they clicked over to your special corner of the internetz? How much value is a personal finance author providing if they publish a book or a post or a cave drawing of the same basic crap that we’ve all beaten to death? And how can an author look at their work and feel pride after churning out something that is unremarkable in every way?
And don’t give us the horseshit answer of “as long as I help one person it’s all worth it.” That person would have most likely found what they were looking for on another blog, and besides, most of the stuff personal finance writers churn out could be figured out by an enterprising person and all the technology in their iPhone. Helping one person with their finances is the equivalent of teaching your kid to tie his shoe – sure, it’s an accomplishment, but if that’s as high as you aim I pity your offspring.
What’s the point of all this? Readers, stop reading stuff that just reinforces your already held beliefs. Read contrarian stuff that makes your head hurt a little. If you’ve mastered personal finance, challenge yourself to read everything on investing. I’d even be satisfied if you just upped the level in your video game to something harder. You’ll never grow as a person if you keep reading stuff that doesn’t challenge you. And if you’re not growing, what’s the point of living?