Why Is Personal Financial Advice So Mean?
I used to come home from middle school and turn on The Maury Povich Show or, let’s face it, Jerry Springer. There, sitting on a stage lit by dozens of cameras, in front of a stadium-style audience, would be an out-of-control teenager, wayward parents, or warring siblings. The host—whose giant salary was paid for by their dramas and misfortunes—would feign disbelief and moral outrage as he walked up and down the aisles. Can you believe people like this? Tune in tomorrow for more.
Fast forward to working at YNAB where my afternoons no longer involve procrastinating on homework from the couch. Though, the more time I spend consuming personal finance advice, the more I see new versions of the old format. This time, it’s money choices that give fodder to the Judgment Economy.
Some quotes from a few popular voices in personal finance:
“Are you done f’ing around and don’t want to die on the Walmart floor?”
“Stop doing poor people things!”
Why is it acceptable to get your money advice delivered with an insult or an eye roll? My car mechanic and my doctor don’t talk to me that way. My lawn guy isn’t performatively banging his head into a microphone when I tell him my grass is underwatered.
The Shame Game
The vibe around some of these personal finance voices reminds me of how people searching for help with weight loss or fitness are similarly preyed on. As if your money situation or physical appearance is always a character issue.
Don’t get me wrong, many people have actual money problems that need to be solved. But what’s helped by shaming them? Not much, according to social psychology research. When people feel shame, they tend to isolate and withdraw.
But I hear a counter argument. Some people need tough love; they need to be told what no one else is brave or skilled enough to do. That’s fair. It is tough to talk honestly about money. Yet, honesty ≠ cruelty.
Who among us hasn’t made regrettable decisions? Who hasn’t struggled with impulses or habits we wish we didn’t have?
One thing that’s implicit in the ‘self-made’ narrative of personal-finance gurus is that what separates them from you is discipline and hard work (the same is sometimes assumed for people who have achieved significant weight loss). This is what in psychology is called survivorship bias.
Survivorship bias works like this: because Facebook is worth $800 billion, every other startup can do it too, right? Obviously not. Facebook is called a unicorn for its almost mystical rarity; it is not called a horse. We are wired to look to the .01% that “survive” as examples for the rest to follow. However, very little effort is made to understand why the other 99.9% do not achieve the same.
This doesn’t mean everyone is doomed to stay where they are. But we should be skeptical about simplistic, judgmental thinking when it comes to people’s lives and choices.
They Do It for Clicks
So, why is financial advice so mean? One answer is, of course, very obvious. A great formula for elevating your status on YouTube is highlighting an extreme or irrational decision someone made (“Dude Is Going into Debt to Mine Crypto”) and then showing your face angry or shocked on the other side of the screen. It’s algorithmic magic.
This has been a powerful hook even in the pre-algorithm times. When someone starts to feel humiliated or like a total failure, they lose confidence in their ability to help themselves. They might naturally crave authority, someone who radiates success. Maybe even someone who’s willing to punish them a bit for their mistakes.
It feels kind of predatory.
Keep Your Dignity, Change Your Habits
Of course, people do need help. Many of us need to learn how to understand the tradeoffs being made in money decisions, and how to be aware of spending (in a sane way). There’s a lot to learn! We’ve been writing, talking, and making videos about this stuff at YNAB for nigh 20 years.
There’s even accountability that many of us could use help with. After all, the way we spend and save our money is based on habits (YNAB teaches four of them). But why must so much of personal finance be toxic, riddled with cruelty?
Some people may expect that being in a tough financial situation means you deserve to be yelled at. Or maybe it’s just entertaining to watch. Maybe it’s comforting to feel the security and distance that judgment can bring. To think: Well, I would never do that.
But I hope we don’t give up on people who are struggling with money or feel that we deserve to be shamed for our choices. At YNAB, we believe money is something you can learn, habits that anyone can build. (Exhibit A: my twenties.) When my financial life was more stressful and chaotic than my friends' money situation, I often felt bad about myself. I felt ashamed even without a national figure berating me on their YouTube channel. I felt bad because I thought you’re just supposed to be good with money. Like fish just know how to swim.
But I didn’t know. I had to learn, then change. I’m thankful I found my way in a community and with resources that preserved my dignity and didn’t profit off of the negative self-conceptions I was already struggling with.
The lowering of self-esteem is actually not a requirement for change, though it might be a part of someone else’s business plan. No one needs to consume content that feeds the negative voice that already exists inside of their head. Encouraging people to forgive themselves for past mistakes, work on building better habits, and celebrate small successes is far more inspiring than shame.
Helping others build their sense of self-worth as they work on their net worth might motivate them to change their relationship with money for good—even if it doesn’t generate as many clicks.
Looking for some encouragement as you work on feeling more in control of your finances? Sign up for the Change Your Money Mindset workbook and email series. It's free (and friendly!).