Personal Finance Thoughts, Part I

Monday, July 8, 2013

Okay so I’ve been thinking a lot about personal finance lately, and I want to write about it but I’m not sure what direction things should go in. Most of my thoughts on personal finance come from a combination of my own experience and jumping off points provided by personal finance blogs, where I go to read about other people’s experiences, as well as books I’ve read on the subject by personal finance “experts” like Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman, Clark Howard, etc.

So I guess I’ll just start with a few thoughts on the blog part.

For many years, I was moderately obsessed with the blog Get Rich Slowly. I do not know why, except that it was the first “personal finance” blog I became aware of (in 2007, when I was looking for information on Amy Dacyzyn) and just after finding the blog, I discovered the author’s personal blog, foldedspace, where he noted that he was making $4,000 a month in revenue on GRS.

I was like, What??? Who knew that was even possible?

So then I was reading both foldedspace and GRS to see whether this seemed like easy money or a lot of work (answer: a lot of work), and then I kind of got hooked on the upstairs/downstairs thing, the professional blog on the front end and the personal one on the back.

I thought it was interesting that the blogger, J. D. Roth, noted that one of the things that helped kickstart him on his life of debt-free living was the book Your Money or Your Life, which, likewise, was instrumental in helping me figure out a different path for my own life. However I’ve had limited success recommending that book to people, because when you first read it, it seems completely crazy and you’re much more likely to respond with, “Okay, maybe, but this is not workable for normal people,” than you are with, “Hey, this sounds great!”

So it was interesting for me to see someone who had more or less implemented the program, and then become very successful with it and gotten out of debt and started making more money than he’d ever imagined.

[Side note: I read the book in 1997 when I was living in DC, and one of my friends from work read it at the same time, and we were commenting on the fact that many of the stories in the book were about people who had followed the program, cut way back on their expenses, discovered something they loved to do that they were really good at, and then made a gazillion dollars doing that thing. My friend and I were laughing about that, we were like okay, if you're going to make a gazillion dollars, what do you need to learn to live on nothing for? Couldn't you just skip that step and head straight for the thing that makes you a gazillion dollars?]

One of the things I noted in my YMOYL experience was that at some point, the world feels like it flips. You suddenly can live on much less than most people and somehow you always have enough money. It starts to feel like you are living in a parallel universe.

J.D. had so many people following along, and I was looking forward to him getting to that point, hitting the parallel universe, and talking about it and people being able to see how it happened. It seemed like it might turn into something I could point people to instead of the book itself. Here’s what this person did and here’s how it turned out, and here’s where he wrote all about it.

But then it didn’t.

J.D. decided that he was being “too frugal” and started moving back towards living (for lack of a better term) like a normal person.

Later (much later) we learned that right around this time, he sold the blog for a large sum of money. So of course it felt like he was being too frugal, he now had a gazillion dollars at his disposal. And for the next few years, without letting his readers know he no longer needed to focus on getting rich slowly, since he had in fact gotten rich rather quickly, he emphasized “conscious spending” and repeated the mantra “do what works for you.”

It might have been more valuable to most people, but to me, it felt like a missed opportunity. Instead of showing people how to truly have a different life and what that looks like, he worked on helping people with average to above-average incomes choose bank accounts and life insurance policies. Woo hoo.

And now he’s moved on to a whole new life. And Get Rich Slowly is sill there, but it’s not the same. Though all of the old posts are archived there, so sometimes I still send people there for articles about specific topics.

Meanwhile, back in the blogosphere…

In 2011, Mr. Money Mustache came on to the scene, picking up well ahead of where J.D. left off, with a thoroughly YMOYL attitude, even though apparently he came to this approach on his own without actually reading the book.

In theory, I am in support of this.

I’m glad that someone is showing that it is possible to live happily for much less than most people think possible. I think MMM offers a great deal of useful information on his website. I think he has opened the eyes of many people to the possibility of a different kind of life. I like his anti-consumerist stance and that he focuses on the environmental impact of choices like living close to work and biking instead of driving. I like his emphasis on creative problem-solving and continuous questioning to make sure you are always learning, always improving, always thinking about your choices.

All good.

That being said, I cannot read that blog. The tone too often completely gets under my skin, despite the fact that I fully agree with almost everything he says.

I think the persona he has created is smug and arrogant. I think he is unwilling or unable to consider the possibility that his approach to life is not necessarily going to work for everyone, for all kinds of different reasons. Or that many people would not actually even want to live like that. And that not everyone has the capacity to make $50,000 to $100,000 a year and buy and fix up multiple houses, which they can then rent out to provide ongoing cashflow.

He has structured his comments section so that people who don’t agree with his articles or have any questions or concerns about them get a smackdown and are called a complainypants. (Which, by the way, is a great word.) This results in a large group of like-minded individuals gathering together to discuss how great and smart they are, and how much better they are than the rest of the world, who do not live in the enlightened manner in which they live and do not share their badassity. And anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a whiny complainypants. (Or possibly a jealous hater, though I think that term might be reserved for the anti-Pioneer Woman crowd. I might be getting my blog animosity people mixed up here.)

This is not enjoyable for me to read. This is cult-like. It feels like Rush Limbaugh with his dittoheads. (And it actually reminds me of a quote I read a long time ago, I think from Dave Barry, about being frightened by large groups of like-minded people. But I can’t remember the whole quote, and am unable to dig it up, so will just have to leave it at that.)

So…

What is the point of all this?

I don’t know.

Following Your Money or Your Life allows you to live in a parallel universe where everything is cheaper and you always have enough money.

J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly was heading in that direction but turned around. But it doesn’t matter because he made a gazillion dollars when he sold his blog so now he always has enough money anyways, who cares.

Mr. Money Mustache does live in the parallel universe but he’s so flipping annoying about it that I can’t read about it. But other people seem to like it. Maybe you would too.

That’s all I know about personal finance blogging.

One of my friends said to me the other day, “You need to write more about personal finance.” I’m guessing this wasn’t what she had in mind.

Sorry, sometimes what comes out is what comes out. But I do have more to say on the subject in general, so we’ll just have to wait and see what comes out next time around. Maybe it will be better.

8 Responses to “Personal Finance Thoughts, Part I”


  1. Interesting! I wanted to start reading a personal finance blog for inspiration, but ran into the same problems you did. I read exactly one MMM article, couldn’t take more.

    As to crowds of like-minded individuals, I stopped reading the blog Regretsy because the commenting crowd were so… So…. Like-minded? This is extra dangerous on a blog for snarky humor. :D

  2. LeesaB Says:

    I personally love reading Mr. Money Mustache, and have read his entire blog. But I can also see where his tone can get annoying – that is the chief complaint about him, I think. From what I can see, he doesn’t truly think he’s better than others (he does say this occasionally, though it is hard to find), but his main point is to own where you are in life, so to speak. As in, if you choose to live far away from where you work, fine, but accept that it will take you longer to achieve financial independence, and by the way, are you SURE you can’t do something about the situation? It gets people thinking, to be sure.

    You might try out The Simple Dollar, which is my other go-to financial blog. The tone is completely different from MMM, so I think you’ll find it more to your liking. He writes more and more about the philosophical aspect of a less consumer-oriented mindset lately, but has a lot of excellent posts in his archives that are easily accessible.

  3. Joy Says:

    I rarely comment, but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. I appreciate the sporadic nature, because when I do get an email about a new post, I’m surprised and delighted, and I don’t find this blog a bother like so many that are out there.

    I found you through the $1 a day posts and started following you about 3 years ago. I love YMOYL, I think it’s an amazing resource. If there are other people out there who are interested in living/eating cheaply, they might like The Prudent Homemaker. She feeds her family of 9 on 40¢ a day per person, or around $100 a month total! I think you’d like her. She shares how, but like you, doesn’t post too much. She’s a HUGE believer in eating out of your pantry.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    @Rebekah Jaunty

    Yeah, parody sites can go either way. It’s easy to get into overload really quickly. I enjoyed the anti- Pioneer Woman sites for a while but only some of them. There were some that were done in good fun (or were, like Pie Near Woman, brilliant — I found much of that completely awe-inspiring and totally hilarious, there were some that I would read and then just laugh and laugh, oh my gosh some of those were funny) but then there were some that just seemed like too much or coming from such a negative place I couldn’t get behind it.

    It seems unhealthy, to focus so much energy on something you hate so much. Unless it is clearly providing you some kind of creative outlet — like using Barbie dolls to re-enact scenes from the blogger you are lampooning, including original stop-animation videos. (And I just need to say that I sent that video to a couple of people to see if they thought it was funny and no one did. I think you had to be knee-deep in the TPW parody, and know what the various dolls represented, to really appreciate it. I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.)

    I had a few people refer me to Regretsy when I was talking about the PW stuff and my love of parody, but I don’t think I spend enough time on Etsy to really appreciate it. I could sort of objectively see why people would like it and why they would think it was funny, but it wasn’t something that grabbed me.

    Also I feel like there is a delicate balance between making fun of something (or someone) who seems like they could stand to be brought down a few pegs, and just being mean. Making fun of Ree Drummond was all in good fun when there was this inexplicable lovefest for her going on everywhere else, but then when she did a show that a whole bunch of people hated, for me at least, it lost a lot of its appeal. At that point, it starts to feel like piling on. Not fun.

    In terms of personal finance blogs, for what it’s worth, there’s a post at Get Rich Slowly where they asked the readers what blogs they read:
    http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2013/02/22/ask-the-readers-what-are-your-favorite-personal-finance-blogs/

    If you’re still looking for something that resonates with you, you could check it out to see what people recommend.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    @LeesaB
    I know a lot of people really love MMM, and in fact one friend of mine has been so inspired by it that she actually biked to work (once … not sure if it’s going to happen again, she said it was hard).

    I guess what’s a little bit frustrating for me about MMM is that I feel like so many people make so many questionable decisions, they could be doing so many things differently, but his advice and his approach feels very all-or-nothing to me. I feel like a lot of people are going to look at that and say, “Okay, if that’s what it takes to save money I guess I’m just not cut out for that.” And then do nothing. When in fact there are a million things they could start doing, a little at a time, that would not involve selling their house or doing their own car repairs or biking to the grocery store.

    I feel like by telling everyone THIS is how you live on less, he’s bypassing the most important step of the whole proces, which is for each individual or family to think about what they care about, what they want their life to be like, and then to look at how they spend their money and make sure those things align.

    MMM’s spending supports his values, but if you don’t share his values, it doesn’t resonate with you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t live on less.

    I think I’m actually going to write a full post on this, based on a comment in one of the MMM forums, and my belief that this step is missing from most of the personal finance books I’ve read. The books start with Step One, save money or track your expenses or whatever, but really they need a Step Zero — think about what you want your life to be like and what you care about. That’s the most important thing to figure out.

    And thanks for The Simple Dollar suggestion. I feel like I looked at that at various times in the past but never got into it. Then I think that was sold, and a lot of commenters on the GRS post I linked in my other comment said they stopped reading because it’s just the same thing over and over. I think that might be one like GRS where the archives are the best part.

  6. lessisenough Says:

    @Joy

    Thanks for the nice comment. Good to hear that the infrequent posting schedule is actually a benefit!

    I think a lot of bloggers set themselves up for failure with an overly aggressive posting schedule. I’m sure it helps build an audience, but man, it’ll wear you out. I post when I have something to say, or when I have time to write. Or when I promise someone I’ll write something up for them (like the “How to Shop” series and the personal finance stuff I’m thinking about now, I’m working with a friend on some pf things which is making me think through all of this).

    And I think that’s how it will be for a while — I have no plans to try to make a living blogging.

    Thanks also for the Prudent Homemaker tip. I’ll check it out.

  7. Terri Says:

    It has probably been 2 or 3 years since I have read Get Rich Slowly. I used to be mildly obsessed, reading it every morning before I went to work. I loved JD’s writing style and how real each post felt. I guess he sold it when he started posting less and less and new columnists were brought in. I didn’t like how it moved from day-to-day stuff to big ticket items. While both are important, I think that the day-to-day stuff is more so. A lot of blogs write about how to save BIG. There are posts on how to save hundreds a year on insurance or how to buy a car almost at cost. Saving $200 a year on insurance doesn’t mean much when you send $1000 a year on mocha’s. But saving $5 at a time by not buying a mocha doesn’t feel as good as saving $200 all at once on insurance.
    I have cut down my blog reading over the years but still love Less is Enough. While the posts are infrequent, they are always very thoughtful. I would also like to recommend My Frugal Freedom. Daizy leads a very interesting, frugal life.

    http://www.myfrugalfreedom.com/

  8. lessisenough Says:

    @Terri

    Your comment reminds me of an article in the Tightwad Gazette where FZ addresses the question of why she focuses so much on little stuff, and she said something to the effect of that with the small stuff, you have many opportunities every week to make a difference. Each individual thing is small, but it adds up. With big stuff, people are more likely to pay attention to that because it’s so much money, and also there are limited chances to make a difference.

    This is actually related to the track things vs. don’t track things and the Elizabeth Warren balanced money approach that I have been thinking about. There’s a place for both, and which one you focus on depends on both your circumstances (i.e., how tight is your budget) and your inclination (i.e., people who don’t like tracking things need to figure out a system that doesn’t depend on tracking to make it work).

    This is definitely something I hope to write more about as I work through things.

    RE: GRS
    After I found out that GRS had been sold (by reading the comments when he announced his divorce — I think there were over 500 comments to that post, it was pretty fascinating to see the variety of opinions expressed) I went back to see if I could figure out when it happened. He had been making offhand, side remarks for a few years about how it wasn’t “his” blog anymore, which, as it turned out, were actually literal. It wasn’t his blog anymore.

    Someone in the comments pointed out that everyone should have known this because the copyright line for the site at the bottom of every page said “Quinstreet Media.” So then I went to the internet archive (the wayback machine) to see if could figure out when that copyright line appeared, and it was in 2009 when the site was redesigned, and the credit card ads and all of that appeared. And then I felt kind of dumb for having been put off initially by the redesign and all the credit card ads but thinking “Well, it’s JD’s site and if he wants to make money from ads, then that’s fine, he should do that.” And then I felt like I’d been duped, and that annoyed me.

    I feel like if you’re going to sell your site to a media group and plaster it with ads, it’s not fair to your readers to have them think that’s all your doing and the money is going to you, and not tell them where the money is actually going.

    But whatever.

    And then interestingly, when I looked in the wayback machine to figure out the timing of all this, the post that was stored with the Quinstreet copyright line was one called “The Guilt of Wealth,” where J.D. talked about how he didn’t feel as good as he had expected to with the car he’d bought and the success he’d experienced. So maybe he got his anyway — he made a lot of money but he felt bad about it. (For a little while at least, I’m sure he’s over it now.)

    (And clearly I am outing myself with this comment about my level of obsession with this. For so long it was like like my daily soap opera. What is going to happen next? Tune in tomorrow, for another exciting episode of as the JD turns… I think I’m finally over it. Thankfully his new life is not interesting to me at all. Nor is MMM, and I am completely over The Pioneer Woman so I think I am without internet obsessions. For the moment, at least.)


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