Another long post. Buckle up kiddies, because this one is about values and deep shit.
In the personal finance blogosphere, we have all heard the phrase “personal finance is personal” repeated ad nauseum. I believe it has been simplified past the point of usefulness, and I would like to pull it apart some. There are two sides to this sentiment, one that I find useful, and the other that I find problematic. I would love for this to turn into a back-and-forth discussion in the comments or elsewhere, so please do not read this as a windy, one-sided diatribe.
The idea that “personal finance is personal” reminds us that people in the community we are all a part of come from very different backgrounds and have very different goals. With this phrase as a starting point, it is difficult to make the argument that an individual should have any input over how others handle their money, up to the point that others’ decisions begin to negatively affect that individual — just Google “people paying with food stamps who have iPhones” to get a sense of the wrath this causes — but I am thinking today about personal finance choices that are well within the notion of self-sufficiency-and-not-affecting-anyone-else. If we limit the discussion to areas where, quite frankly, one person says to-MAY-to and another says to-MAH-to, this phrase makes it seem like there should be little disagreement that people can do whatever the eff they want.
However, disagreement and hostility still clearly happen in these cases. My blog is still tiny (understatement) so I do not dare insert links and risk wrangling with the big shots just yet, but I am thinking about when a certain flower-monikered blogger recently announced her home purchase, when a certain YOLO blogger decided to go on trips to Europe while carrying student loan debt, or (throwback alert!) when a Banksy-themed blogger got crucified by Consumerist readers for not shredding her own cheese. Part of this seems par for the course of being a successful PF blogger (one reason, by the way, that socially anxious Deena holds her own blog back time and again), but this seems like even more than that. The one consistency of bloggers who have become my friends in real life, as Andrea once pointed out, is that we all have “secrets” that we do not share on our blogs for fear of being judged in this way.
I think that it is good that we repeat this relativistic message, because we are a very heterogeneous bunch, and we need to remember that. The personal finance blogosphere has everything from recipients of public assistance to self-proclaimed one percenters. We have men and women. We have married people, divorced people, and single people. We have recent college grads through people well-established in their careers. We have stay at home parents, we have people with corporate careers, we have freelancers. We have frugal folks and spendy folks. We live all over the world. We have personal stories of privilege and personal stories of deprivation. Our dreams for the future are all over the map: working for ourselves, retiring early, moving to a new place for job opportunities, settling down roots in our parents’ communities, home ownership, debt freedom, providing good examples for our children, and even saving up for travel or consumption that will add enjoyment to our present lives. I feel this diversity is a real strength, and while I know there is criticism that some voices not fully represented in our community (which I take seriously), I do think an incredible number of perspectives and insights have come together in this shared space. I wish there was a way to quantify how we’ve helped each other (both bloggers and readers), but I am sure if there were, it would be a lot.
The reminder that we all have a different story and a different set of goals is worth repeating over and over, because it helps remind us to be sensitive, and to support one another on the other person’s terms. I do not plan to have children, and I am very unlikely to be interested in owning a primary residence for myself, but if I forgot that other people have different life circumstances than me and judged everyone else’s decisions through the lens of what makes the most sense for me, I would be a terrible community member indeed. I think remembering that things are relative is really, really important, and I am glad we all remind each other “personal finance is personal” for that reason.
On the other hand, sometimes this phrase becomes unhelpful and stunts dialogue. Stepping back, the phrase “personal finance is personal” is a tautology if I have ever heard one. (Yes, I had to check Wikipedia to make sure my friend the logician would not punch me in the face if he ever stumbled across this post). People can make any choice they want and say “well, personal finance is personal” and shut down to any suggestions of a different perspective. This is just as problematic, in my opinion, as rock-throwers who have not considered the writer’s circumstances (see above). I think a lot of people seek out this blog space for accountability, and it is important for us to remain open to other people’s suggestions without immediately seeing it as an attack. Admittedly, if fewer of the attacks I outlined above happened, this would be easier, so I know this is complicated, but hear me out.
The posts and bloggers I respect the most are those who make an honest statement of their intentions, demonstrate that they have thought about the alternatives they can conceive of, ask for input, and ultimately make a financial decision that is true to their values AND takes the best information the community has to offer and incorporates it where possible. It is hard to disagree with someone who has clearly considered their position on something, and says, “look, I understand the numbers here fully, I have looked into alternatives, I have listened, and I have made a choice where the costs and benefits make sense to me.” At that point, there is no argument to be had, there is only support to be given.
A great recent example of this (and I checked that she doesn’t mind me using her as an example) is TeacHer. She posted her 2013 goals stating that she wanted to contribute some money to her Roth IRA (but not max it out) and contribute some money to a non-retirement investment portfolio. A reader challenged her on this in the comments (basically, “why would you start a taxable account without maxing your tax-advantaged Roth?”) and she considered this carefully. Later, she admitted that she had made this choice because she wants to save up for a house down payment in very-expensive area of the country, and she updated her goals to reflect her true desires. (A side note that I think this shows a lot of courage and strength of character.)
Now, it turned out that TeacHer incorporated the reader’s Roth IRA advice and will save up for the house next year after maxing her Roth, but that is not even the point. The point is, she was fearlessly honest with all of us about what she wants to do, and announced a plan to do that which honors her values. As a result, I can get behind her fully on this, cheering her on, offering her encouragement when it gets hard, contributing my mental resources to helping her solve issues along the way, and holding her feet to the fire if she decides to go blow $10,000 this year on blackjack instead. She could say “well I can spend $10,000 on blackjack if I want to, because personal finance is personal!” but this is exactly what I mean. She did not announce that blackjack gambling is her intention, she announced that home ownership is, and so my criticism would not be out of some value judgment about blackjack, it would be about meeting her on her own terms and helping her toward what will actually make her happy as best as she understands it.
There is a difference between being hurtfully judgmental and making constructive criticism. I don’t want to let the phrase “personal finance is personal” get in the way of the latter, and I don’t want us to all be scared about announcing our intentions anymore. We can change our minds, we can mess up and own up to it, we can all be freer to talk about what’s really important to us. So seriously, let’s stop judging the shit out of each other. Let’s stop being defensive when someone offers an honest critique. Let’s act like a damn community.
Monday, I am going to try to start living all this preaching I’ve just done. I will share some of my real intentions, and tell you how I am going to work toward them with my blog as a backdrop.
What do you think about the phrase “personal finance is personal?” I would love to hear other insights besides my own, because this has been on my mind excessively for months now.
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