Let’s talk a little today about a phenomenon I like to call the personal finance echo chamber. It goes a little something like this.
The online world of personal finance is filled with people who are virtually identical. They come from comfortably middle-to-upper class backgrounds. Most have graduated with university degrees, and many more have gone even further, picking up graduate degrees. Almost all of them have comfortable white-collar jobs. Many had student loan debt that eventually got paid off. And so on.
I’ve noticed this for years, even going as far as creating Generic Debt Blogger, a fictitious character who acted like an over-the-top version of every mid-20s female personal finance blogger. She loved Starbucks and Hillary Clinton and cute shoes and hated her debt. It was the kind of jokes I like–so obvious even I could get it.
But then I came to realize something. As much as I made fun of debt bloggers for all being identical, I was missing something very obvious right in front of my own face. It’s not just the debt bloggers. Every personal finance blog is identical.
We all have the same solutions to these problems, too. If only the world would just save more, we’d all be in better shape. The irony being, of course, if we were all good at saving, there would be many fewer investment opportunities. That’s how supply and demand work.
So what’s the problem?
So what if the world of personal finance all thinks the same? After all, aren’t most personal finance problems just variations of the same theme?
The problem is this. If we have a bunch of people from similar backgrounds looking at problems in the same way, we come up with a bunch of very similar solutions that are catered to a similar group of people. But the world isn’t filled with the same people.
One of the things I LURVE about finance is there are multiple solutions to just about every problem.
Have no money? You can remedy that in a few different ways. You can earn more, through a variety of different methods. Or you can spend less.
Digging your way out of debt? You can use the mathematically-challenged debt snowball solution, or you can pay down the loan with the highest interest first.
Have capital to put to work? There are a million different things to do with it. You can invest in stocks, bonds, funds, real estate, peer-to-peer loans, businesses, and so on.
There are multiple ways to get rich. Most bloggers suggest finding the best paying job you possibly can, stick around for a few decades, and let the heavy lifting of saving get you there. But there are other methods too, including starting your own business, investing in a variety of asset classes, and using debt intelligently to maximize investment returns.
I’m not immune to giving simple tips, either. When somebody emails me to ask my advice on their investments, I usually just tell them to buy two or three ETFs and be done with it. And I’m well known as Canada’s personal finance contrarian, the guy who’s willing to (gasp!) invest in individual stocks and try other things.
There’s nothing wrong with conventional advice. It’s safe. It’s easy. And you’ll nicely fit into the groupthink when you give it. But there’s a downside to playing it safe, too. That advice immediately isn’t very valuable. Why would it be? It’s like a grocery store arguing their box of Honey Nut Cheerios is worth $2 more because their store is sexier or some other such nonsense. It’s still the same damn box of cereal.
This is when the echo chamber really starts to rear its ugly head. People give conventional advice. New bloggers show up and parrot that conventional advice. Soon we have a whole army of bloggers giving virtually the same message in slightly different ways.
How is this valuable to the average reader? Especially one who already has the basics down pat?
The growth challenge
I’ve been saying this for years. It’s not just personal finance bloggers who need to look at the world differently. The average reader of such literature needs to as well.
The echo chamber makes this harder than you’d think. There’s zero reason why somebody would stick their neck out and try to give contrarian advice. Believe me, I know. Such advice gets automatically ridiculed. Not because it’s wrong. Because it’s different.
There’s very little anyone can learn from the status quo. There’s comparatively more to be learned from the contrarian. Even if the contrarian is wrong, they still make you think.
My challenge to everyone is this. Read stuff that challenges you. Don’t know how to invest in the stock market? Start reading up on it, and not just through ETFs, either. Figure out how to value a security.
Curious about real estate? Learn about becoming a landlord. Do the work to analyze cash flows from specific properties. Figure out whether investing in REITs or physical property is better for you. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
It doesn’t matter the subject. The important part is to stop reading the same old tips on paying off debt or frugal travel and start expanding your knowledge to something bigger and better. Get off the treadmill and focus on finding content that makes you ask questions when you’re done reading it. Your brain and net worth will thank you.