A disproportionate number of the personal finance bloggers out there seem to have a history of being bad with money. They are currently deeply in debt, or were so not long ago. Does this seem odd?
In one way, of course it does. The best advice, you’d think, would come from people who are the best in the given field. A professional baseball manager will probably be able to give you better advice for your stance in the batter’s box than a dad who has coached some Little League. You’d think, then, that the best money advice would come from folks who have a long history of responsible financial behavior, and who have never screwed up royally with money.
But on the other hand, advice doesn’t do anyone any good if the recipient can’t relate to the adviser, and vice versa. The idea of taking diet advice from someone who has a ridiculous metabolism and never has to watch what she eats is absurd. I suppose this explains the appeal of Richard Simmons over a chiseled, drill sergeant-like personal trainer. (Come to think of it, why do people like Richard Simmons?) Anyway. Likewise, not everyone is trying to make it to the Major Leagues, and if all you’re hoping for is to become a competent player, the input of a Little League coach may be more appropriate and have more impact than the advice of somebody from the big-time.
Those who have struggled with an issue are in unique positions to help those still struggling. Only a sinner can understand the sinner’s mentality, and no one wants to be lectured by someone who has never cursed, so to speak.
To get more thoughts on the topic, I picked the brains of some of the folks who regularly give out money advice: personal finance bloggers, most of whom have first-hand experience with a whole lot of debt.
So why should anyone in their right mind take money advice from people who have been bad with money? Here’s why:
They’ve gone off the deep end and lived to tell the tale.
Geoff Williams blogs for WalletPop and is the co-author of Living Well with Bad Credit, a topic he is qualified to write about, having declared personal bankruptcy himself some time ago. (Read a previous Q&A with Williams about his book here.) Williams says:
Obviously, one can make a reasonable assumption that a person who has gone down in flames with their bank account is the last person you should take advice from. That said, schools bring in former drug addicts to talk to kids about the dangers of taking drugs, and for good reason — those in the audience know that these former addicts know their material. Internet security companies sometimes hire ex-computer hackers to help fortify their software and defense systems. It always feels more credible to listen to a fitness expert’s advice for losing weight if they once had to go through it themselves. So why not get advice on how not to mismanage your money from people who have mismanaged their own?
If I was in debt and was looking for a blog on personal finance, I want to see someone in my shoes. They were there so they know how to dig themselves out and never go back.
They understand the mentality of irresponsibility and overspending.
More from Geoff Williams:
I don’t want to damn anyone with faint praise because there are a lot of established personal finance experts who I really admire, but when I hear some experts, even those I admire, offer advice on how to be careful with money, I know that what they’re saying may be correct, but I also recognize that it’s a lot easier to be smart with your money when you’re financially comfortable. And I think the financial advisers, writers, experts and the like who have gone off the deep end and have been mired in debt, they at least understand the mindset behind a person who is making difficult choices–like trying to figure out if they should make the minimum payment on their credit card, or if they should instead go the dentist appointment they scheduled some time ago. It can be very scary if you don’t have enough money coming in, and your debts are just climbing every month. When it comes down to it, the advice–save as much as you can, don’t overspend–might be exactly the same that you’d hear from the personal finance expert who hasn’t made a mess of their own money. But I still think it may resonate more when you’re hearing from someone who understands what it’s like to have 14 outstanding bills on your desk with only enough money to pay six of them.
You can relate to them, and they can inspire you.
Baker, from Man vs. Debt, and his wife once owed $80,000 in non-mortgage debt, and they still have “enough student loans to take down an elephant.” His take on why certain people should be sought out from certain people:
Whenever I want to get advice on any topic, I prefer advice that comes from someone else that’s been in “the trenches.” I want to know someone has been there, done that and turned their situation around.
There are plenty of great influences (in finances and other subjects) who have always handled their respective issues responsibly. However, for some people (myself included), it’s a stretch to relate to these influences. I don’t connect with someone who has never been in debt. I don’t connect with someone who has always been thin, healthy, and in great shape. I don’t connect with someone who has always had a strong spiritual connection.
I connect with people who have gone through these journeys. I connect with people who start one place, make a conscious decision to change, and then actually do it. That’s where I’ve been (and that’s where I’m at on some of those issues).
It’s not that they automatically know more. It’s not that they are more inspirational even. It’s just that I can relate to them and therefore I’m much more likely to take that rapport and actually turn it into something concrete. So when I look for advice… I look for the people who’ve been there, done that!
They don’t preach, and their advice makes sense for you.
Adam at Money Relationship says:
Some of the better off bloggers seem to preach “credit card rewards” and “chasing interest rates.” If a person in debt went to that site, I just think it would spell DISASTER. It’s better to learn from someone who’s tanked financially just like you. It will also show you that getting out of debt can be done.
They genuinely want to help.
Aaron, of Three Thrifty Guys, dug himself out of $40,000 in debt over the course of five hard years. Having been through it, he says he wants to make the journey easier for others facing monstrous financial hurdles:
The main reason that I’m doing the website is to help others. Sure we hope there might be some ability to monetize what we are doing, but our main goal is to help others get out of debt and manage their money better.
The reason I’m so passionate about helping others with money is because of my history with debt. Now that I have been to the depths of my own depravity with money, I want to make sure others avoid the same mistakes I’ve made. Ironically, due to that history I think I have some credibility when I speak about money.
The perspective of someone like me who has gone through a few years with debt ought to be quite different than someone who hasn’t dealt with the same issues. There is more of an awareness of what can happen when you don’t make the right decisions and this in turn affects how I approach different subjects. I’m more apt to share personal anecdotes and offer tips to the reader on how to avoid similar missteps I’ve made. I believe people appreciate that and can internalize someone else’s personal experience better than abstract theories on money.
There are so many people out there right now struggling with finances. I’m one of them, and if I can offer any type of hope, then I feel like my time spent writing is well worth it.
That’s not to say the only advice you should take is from people who have been in debt.
Geoff Williams recommends rounding up a range of info and advice:
There’s always something you can learn from someone who has been in the trenches. Now, that said, I would never encourage anyone to only seek advice from people who have gone through money problems. I think I have an interesting perspective on bad credit, but I’d never claim to have the only perspective. Investors are always saying that you should diversify where you place your funds. I think the same could be said from where you get advice on any topic, whether its how to spend your money or find a good plumber.
And oh yeah, it helps when the person doling out advice is better with money than you are.
Jim Wang, from Bargaineering, says:
I’ve never been irresponsible with money and I’ve never had credit card debt, so it’s difficult for me to relate to someone with $500 of CC debt, let alone $5,000 or $50,000. Likewise, I would have no experience getting out of debt and to write about it would be
What I think is crucial is that you need to listen to someone who is at least a little better than you with money. You can learn something from anyone, even if they are worse off than you, but it’s much easier if they’re at least a little ahead of you. They don’t have to be a trailblazer, they just have to be a little farther ahead so you can follow them down the path.
In other words, you shouldn’t take advice from people who are bad with money. But you can get some inspirational and insightful tips and pointers from people who used to be bad with money.