I always get some pushback, but I keep going because it is important. A conversation about money without discussing politics is only developing part of the picture. If we, as personal finance writers, really want to help our readers, we should be giving them the full picture and the full suite of tools to take control of their money and their lives.
It is also a severely under-covered part of the personal finance discussion.
I give this background as a way to provide context for a conversation that took over personal finance Twitter recently.
The Washington Post and FinCon
FinCon is an annual conference for “digital content creators and brands in personal finance and investing.” Helaine Olen, who writes for the Washington Post, attended this year and decided that there was a disappointing lack of political discussions.
Olen writes of the sessions at FinCon that “[o]ver and over again, the systemic problems facing Americans are simply accepted as a given and unfixable, and tossed back onto the individual for him or her to solve.” She notes that topics such as “the surging cost of child care, student loans, employers relying on contract employees, lack of health insurance,” and others are discussed, but only in the context of obstacles that need to be worked around. There is no discussion of the political or systemic solutions to these problems that are on the table.
The Twitter Debate
Olen’s article set off a lot of arguments across PF Twitter. And, given my history of discussing politics and personal finance, I was tagged into a whole bunch of them.
Some discussions were interesting and informative. Some were decidedly less so.
I imbibed as much of the conversation as I could find (thank you to everyone that sent me links or tagged me in discussions!) so that I could write a comprehensive response.
Before diving in, though, I want to note that my analysis will be on the personal finance community writ large, rather than FinCon specifically.
I’ve attended FinCon twice (although I skipped this year to have extra time with my newborn). I had a lot of fun meeting people and hanging out with other writers. There were great meet-ups and fun parties. I don’t regret going in the least.
But I received little-to-no benefit from the conference sessions.
FinCon, ultimately, is a conference for teaching personal finance content creators how to make more money from their content. I don’t monetize my blog at all and am not leveraging my audience to make money through any other venue, so the sessions are not of any particular interest to me. The conference is not really designed for writers like me. Which is fine.
I would love it if FinCon decided to cover more political topics. I would appreciate sessions teaching more writers how to discuss politics without turning off their readers. I would be happy to see panels discussing how to be more cognizant of how systems and structures affect your readers. Teaching people how to write with more nuance about politics and policies would be great.
But the purpose of FinCon is not to teach people how to write better content or to better inform their audience. It is to teach them how to create more marketable content that will create a larger audience and more income.
And that’s fine. I don’t mean this to be seen as taking shots at FinCon. Like I said, I attended twice (and paid to attend a third time) and enjoyed myself and made great friendships within the community. But it is what it is and we should be honest about that.
The Set Up
Even if FinCon doesn’t need to talk more about politics, though, the personal finance community as a whole does.
As I have done in a number of other articles, I will structure this one around responding to arguments on the other side. The most useful way to have a discussion about whether we need more politics (or anything, really) is to understand the arguments that people are making on both sides of the issue.
It is easy to continuously repeat our own positions while the folks on the other side do the same, and too often we end up talking past each other with nothing productive to show for it.
For that reason, I will be using quotes and arguments that people have made in posts, tweets, and DMs. My default will be not to attribute these quotes so as not to personalize the arguments and make people feel targeted or defensive. If you’d like attribution, feel free to send me a message and I will be happy to add it.
It’s important to understand what we’re talking about when we’re talking about politics.
A very large piece of the pushback against discussing politics seemed to equate “politics” with partisan politics. Red team vs. blue team. Trump vs. Clinton. Elections and politicians.
The argument that stems from this is that politics is too divisive. You can’t convince anyone of anything. We’ve all seen the Facebook fights and the CNN panels and the news site comment sections.
Everyone just yells at each other and continues to believe what they already believed. Why bother?
As an initial matter, I would argue that there is a way to talk about partisan politics in a more productive manner, and it is worth it for some people to try to do that.
More importantly, however, politics is much larger than politicians.
Politics is systems and structures. Politics is power. Politics is intertwined with everything we do and influences every day of our lives.
Politics Is Everywhere
The omnipresence of politics can be broken down a number of different ways.
Even at the surface level, everything is influenced by policy choices made by governments and politicians.
The quality of your public education (or accessibility of your private education). The safety of schools. The funding for classrooms. The size of classes. The resources and support provided to teachers. The incentives that determine how many people want to teach. The curriculum. The tests.
The cost and quality of your healthcare. What insurance has to cover. Whether you can still get coverage if you have pre-existing conditions. Whether health insurance companies can stop covering you if you get too expensive.
Everything in the tax code is political. How much you pay in income taxes, payroll taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and estate taxes, of course. But everything else in the tax code is there because politicians wanted to encourage or discourage certain behaviors. There’s a home mortgage interest deduction because politicians decided they wanted you to buy a house rather than rent. Capital gains used to be taxed as ordinary income until politicians decided they wanted to encourage investing.
And these are only a few simple examples. Policy touches everything, and ignoring it is shortchanging our readers.
Systems and Structures
Looking beyond policy to systems and structures, the impact of politics on personal finance becomes even more obvious. What we see is that everyone’s lives, both financial and otherwise, are heavily impacted by politics.
Our LGBTQ friends can still be fired simply for who they are in 26 states. Lack of access to secure and steady employment is a problem that has to be front of mind when discussing personal finance.
De facto segregation means that your race plays a very strong role in where you grow up, and studies have shown us that where you grow up heavily impacts how difficult success will be to achieve.
The racial wealth gap means that certain demographics have some level of family wealth (and, more importantly, social connections) to lean on.
A government and culture built by men means that women have to fight harder for promotions, get paid less, occupy fewer positions of power and influence, and suffer disproportionately from harassment. The impact of harassment on women’s careers cannot and should not be ignored.
Immigration policy, and its changes at the whims of politicians, is an all-consuming part of many people’s lives.
For many people, dealing with politics is a necessary part of everyday life. Ignoring politics, or, even worse, telling your audience to ignore politics, is a dismissal of the lived experience of huge swaths of the population. We’re supposed to be helping people improve their financial situations. How can we do that if we refuse to acknowledge massive hurdles that they must overcome?
The False Choice
Now that we understand what we mean when we talk about politics, let’s dive into some of the substantive objections.
Our first batch of issues are largely a rehash of the “victim mentality” arguments that I explored recently.
One popular argument was that we have to choose between talking about individual solutions and systemic problems. As one person said, “I disagree that we, the financial media, should turn our attention from the personal to the political.”
This is, as we’ve explored before, a false dichotomy. First, as we explored above, the personal is political. Second, we should have the intellectual capacity and nuance to talk about both at the same time. We need to be able to teach people how to do their best to succeed in the current system while also teaching them how to fight for a fairer system.
Another piece of this argument is the idea that discussing systemic issues necessarily means that we are identifying things that we can’t do anything about.
If you buy both parts of this argument so far, then you have to choose between the personal and the political, and if you choose the political then you are telling people that there is nothing they can do about their situation.
“By trying to convince readers that societal and systemic issues are too large and too powerful, she strips individuals of agency. She denies them the ability and power to change their own lives. She encourages a passive, reactive mindset instead of an active, proactive point of view.”
“The basic principles of personal finance apply to most situations and the danger of mixing politics with personal finance is people can sit on the sidelines waiting for help instead of taking charge of their own situation.”
“If I were to write an article bemoaning the state of student loan debt in the United States, it wouldn’t solve anything. I’d just be adding to the noise.”
“As others have said here, financial education and FI are about individual self-reliance, agency, and real empowerment. It’s a message of hope and it’s a message that’s the complete opposite of those promoting a mindset of victimization and powerlessness. In my opinion you can either use the system to your advantage, or do nothing and let the system use you.”
You Have Power!
This is wrong on multiple levels.
First, as we’ve discussed, you don’t need to drop discussion of more traditional personal finance in order to talk about systems and structures. You can teach people the best way to build wealth while also acknowledging the systemic barricades that make it more difficult for some groups of people to do so.
But second, we have an elected government! The whole point of democracy is that you DO have control over politics!
You have the power of your voice, your vote, and your dollars.
You can advocate for causes that you believe in. You can call your representatives. You can attend rallies and protests. You can volunteer for campaigns and knock on doors.
You can vote for candidates that support policies you believe in. You can vote for ballot initiatives that advance particular policies. You can campaign to get your own initiatives onto the ballot.
You can donate money to politicians, campaigns, and causes that will develop and shape policy.
You have all sorts of tools to sculpt and change politics, but you can only utilize them if you know about the issues. If we truly want to empower our readers, then we need to give them the knowledge and the tools necessary to go out there and change politics to improve their lives and the lives of others.
Otherwise we’re simply encouraging our readers to adopt a victim mentality when it comes to politics and to resign themselves to accepting whatever the people in power want.
(Of course, it’s always possible that I am being overly generous. It could be that other personal finance writers actually understand this and are choosing not to give their readers these tools of change because the current system benefits them.)
Not My Job
The next set of arguments are variations of “It’s not my job to talk about politics.” These are people that said that they are here to talk about the basic rules of personal finance, not to talk about the larger world of systems and structures.
“It’s not my job to change the system. It’s my job to give readers the tools they need to thrive within the world we’ve created.”
“Likewise, my job is to improve the financial lives of individual readers. It is not my job to solve the student loan crisis, to fight high taxes, or to rail against our modern corpocracy.”
As an initial matter, your job is whatever you damn well want your job to be.
If you run a blog, then you get to decide what to write about. You can choose to limit yourself. You can choose to ignore systems and avoid talking about politics. But that is your choice. If it is not your job to talk about politics, it is because you made a decision that you didn’t want your job to include talking about politics.
Using this as a reason not to talk about politics is essentially saying “I choose not to talk about politics because I choose not to talk about politics.” That’s…fine, I guess. But it isn’t a cogent argument.
Help People More
To give the benefit of the doubt to these arguments, some people could have been using it as shorthand for another argument that I saw a lot of: We’re in this to help people.
The idea (again) is that talking about politics doesn’t help people. This is obviously wrong for all of the reasons we’ve already explored. But I’d also argue that talking about politics is even more helpful than simply talking about the basic rules of personal finance.
Even looking at smaller bore policies rather than restructuring systems in their entirety, policy changes are going to carry a ton of weight. People are going to get far more mileage out of subsidized daycare than they would out of comparison shopping. You’ll help people a lot more by advocating for a living wage than by advocating for doubling up the hours they spend side hustling. There is more to be gained by a policy of paid parental leave than there is from cutting out lattes.
Sure, people should know about different ways to be more frugal and to earn money on the side, but why not talk about both? Plus, (more on this later) how much is your blog advancing the conversation on frugality above and beyond what people can find on a million other sites?
Help More People
In addition to helping people more, talking about politics helps more people.
The people that need the most help are also the people that have the least time to seek out personal finance blogs. By ignoring this population you are choosing to focus on helping a small slice of the population. A small slice that is already being served by thousands of other personal finance writers.
When you raise political issues and empower your audience to address them, you are helping a much wider population. You are helping your audience, sure. But the policy changes and structural changes that can result will also help the people that are struggling and working hard and don’t read your blog.
Raising awareness and encouraging activism are the things of movements. Movements that improve the lives of everyone rather than a select few.
A Unique Opportunity
As people that are knowledgeable about money and finance, we are in a unique position to understand, and educate on, the related political discussions.
A helpful way to look at this is actually through the lens of one of the examples given in support of the “not my job” argument.
“A doctor’s job is to maintain (and restore) the health of her patients. It is not a doctor’s job to battle insurance companies or the pharmaceutical industry. She may have concerns about these aspects of the medical-industrial complex, and she may have a deep desire to see things change, but changing the system isn’t why she spent 15+ years in higher education. She did that so she can improve the lives of individual patients.”
While the doctor may be specifically employed in a job where her duties are limited to caring for individual patients, her experience and expertise with the medical system make her an excellent advocate for how that system can be improved. She does not need to work to change the system, but if she wants to fight for a better system, she is in a great position to do so.
Policy-minded doctors have valued voices in health care policy discussions and have helped to develop policies that have improved the lives of huge numbers of patients. Where would we be if all of the doctors decided to keep their heads down and simply tend to individual patients? Where would we be if the experts in any field refused to participate in the politics and policy discussions within that field?
We need expert voices to advance these discussions. If you have a deep understanding of money and personal finance, then you’re in a great position to build up the related policy knowledge that would advance these discussions and help millions of people.
Building an Audience
The next category of objection is people saying that they did not want to talk about politics because they want to build as large an audience as possible. Some framed this as wanting to help as many people as possible, while others just wanted to build their brand.
The idea here is that by talking about politics, you will either lose all of your Republican readership or you will lose all of your Democratic readership. Plus, you’ll lose all the people that just don’t want to hear about politics. Either way, you’re artificially limiting your audience.
First, for the people that want to help as many people as possible, talking about politics helps achieve that goal for all of the reasons already explained.
Regardless, though, I don’t buy the argument that talking about politics limits your audience.
As I’ve said before, my audience has grown significantly since I started incorporating political issues into my articles. My Twitter following has also grown a lot since I started using that platform to be more outspoken.
Obviously this is anecdotal and it is impossible to know how much of that growth would have occurred anyway. But talking about politics certainly has not hindered my growth.
Supply and Demand
This makes sense when you think about it from a free market supply and demand perspective.
There are literally thousands of personal finance blogs. Thousands. And they are all teaching readers about saving more and earning more and investing smarter.
The vast majority are avoiding any discussion of politics.
I don’t know whether it is correct that the majority of personal finance readers would prefer a site with no discussion of politics. I do know that that population has an absurd number of options to choose from when it comes to finding personal finance sites that they enjoy.
Even if the population of readers looking for more nuance and depth on issues is smaller, they have far fewer options. If your concern is building an audience, you should look for the unmet demand and move into that space.
Come join me. The water is fine.
Even ignoring audience growth, there is the sort of existential question of what you are contributing to the conversation.
There is a concept in baseball called VORP – Value Over Replacement Player. I think about this concept more than a normal person should. Or maybe normal people don’t think about this concept enough.
Let’s take a broad overview of this idea.
Imagine that you scored 50 runs for your team one year. Great! Congratulations!
The simplistic view would be to say that you added 50 runs worth of value to your team. But that’s not quite right. The real value would be how many runs you added relative to whoever would have gotten your job if you weren’t there.
Enter the replacement player. Maybe the team could have brought up someone from the minor leagues or added an unsigned free agent to the roster in your place who would have scored 30 runs. Your value to the team, then, is how many runs you scored (50) minus however many runs the random replacement would have scored (30).
You scored 50 runs, but your VORP is 20 runs.
VORP in the Workplace
I think about this a lot in my career.
If someone sues for $50 million and I negotiate a $5 million settlement, I can’t necessarily say that my value as a lawyer is $45 million on that case.
Instead, I need to have an idea as to what the person who would take my job if I left would have been able to do.
My VORP (VORL?) is determined by the unique set of skills and experiences that I bring to the table, rather than the skills and talents that everyone learns and develops in college and law school.
The question I have to ask myself in each job that I take is whether, and how much, my particular unique characteristics are helping people and furthering the public interest relative to the average lawyer. What am I adding to the position that would not otherwise be there?
Value Over Replacement Blog
This is obviously not a direct analog to the personal finance space. Each additional writer adds to an ever-expanding field rather than taking a spot on a limited roster. The concept is still valuable, though.
What are you adding to the conversation that wasn’t already there? What are you bringing to the table that others aren’t?
Go ahead and write about index investing and why you shouldn’t time the market. Write about how to earn more. Write about cutting back on big expenses. I’ve written those articles, too.
But recognize that your readers can get that information anywhere. I’m not teaching readers anything about the importance of index investing that they wouldn’t learn from JL Collins. I’m not expanding the conversation about backdoor Roths beyond the work done by Brandon at Mad Fientist.
There are thousands of personal finance sites that are covering the same concepts and there are dozens that already have massive readerships. Writing about those same topics is fine, but it doesn’t add much to what’s already out there.
How can you advance the conversation? What unique viewpoints and information are you bringing to the table? What is your Value Over Replacement Blog?
Maximizing Your Value
If you’re not sure, I’d like to invite you into the world of personal finance and politics.
There are far fewer of us over here, so there is a lot more territory to explore.
There is also far more space for nuance and detail and intricacy. You can write about the same topics but have a different angle or viewpoint that brings out different nuances of the subject. You can keep coming back to the same topics yourself to dig out different pieces for closer examination.
Bringing systems and structures into the discussion also opens the door to extract more value out of stories of personal experience. Different people have different experiences with the same structures. Hearing about a wide range of experiences from people of different demographics and upbringings helps us form a more accurate picture of the world around us.
Every experience matters. Every story about how sexual harassment affected your career decisions furthers the discussion. The bigger picture that these stories paint allows us to recognize patterns, identify systemic problems, look for structural or political solutions, and work to identify stop-gap ways for individuals to help themselves and others in the meantime.
In short, there are fewer people writing about politics and personal finance and much more to say that adds value to the conversation.
If you want to maximize your VORB, open yourself up to political discussions.
Politics is Hard
One objection that came up a surprising amount is that politics is hard.
One person argued that we recommend index investing because timing the market is hard. He said that because politics has far more variables than market timing, it must be that much more difficult. Because of this, it wasn’t worth talking about.
I disagree with the premise. Personally, I don’t recommend timing the market because it just isn’t worth it.
Timing the market requires a whole lot of time, effort, and luck. There’s a lot of downside risk. Plus, there’s an easy alternative in index investing that gets you a better outcome with lower risk. Sure, timing the market is hard. But more importantly, why would you bother?
The question, at least to me, is not “Is this hard?” but “Is this worth the time and effort?”
We shouldn’t avoid things just because they are hard. Plenty of things that are hard are worth doing. We’ve already discussed the massive upside and all the people that could be helped by advancing the discussion of political issues.
Is talking about politics hard? Sure.
Is achieving change going to require a lot of time and effort? Most definitely.
But is it worth it? Absolutely.
A variation on this argument was that we should not talk about politics because people don’t agree on a set of solutions.
“Olen complains, for instance, that Americans face ‘staggering’ costs for housing, health care, and education. But she doesn’t acknowledge that there’s no consensus on how to address these problems.”
This argument surprised me, because it seems based in a fundamentally different view of the role of blogs and bloggers than I have. Do people think the role of bloggers is simply to regurgitate things that everyone already knows?
There is some value in having a few blogs that essentially collect conventional wisdom into a single convenient location, but there are drastically diminishing returns on the value of each new blog doing the same thing.
For the rest of us: Of course we should talk about problems that haven’t been solved yet! How else will they get solved?
Do your research. Raise awareness of the problem. Open the discussion. Build the consensus.
Big problems can be solved, but only if we put in the work to solve them.
Waiting for Unanimity
The final variation on this argument is that there’s no point in discussing politics because we’ll never hit a point where everyone agrees.
Before getting into the substance, I want to note that arguments like this are what happen when you choose your desired outcome first and then backfill your reasons. I am sure that the people making this argument do not apply this same standard to other topics that they talk about.
We’ll never hit a point where everyone agrees that index investing is the best way to go. We’ll never hit a point where everyone agrees that financial independence is worth pursuing. We’ll never hit a point where everyone agrees that whole life insurance is a bad deal.
Not only that, but we all write about controversial issues! Renting vs. buying. Paying down debt vs. investing. Stocks vs. real estate. We are nowhere near consensus on these issues and nobody complains about personal finance writers talking about them.
We Don’t Need Everyone to Agree
So the argument is bogus. But I have an answer anyway.
We don’t need everyone to agree!
Laws, policies, structures, and social norms don’t wait until 100% of people are on board before changing. They change when enough people get loud enough about the need for change.
Not everyone agreed when Brown v. Board of Education was decided. Not everyone agreed when women were given the vote. Half the country split off and declared war against the United States because they thought the new president might try to abolish slavery.
It’d be great if people agreed on these things. But we don’t need to wait for the stragglers. We can raise awareness, get loud, and form movements that make life better for millions of people.
Slavery didn’t end because everyone just decided that it was wrong. Jim Crow laws, which were still enforced during our parents’ lifetime, didn’t get overturned by unanimous vote.
You raise awareness of issues. You change the minds you can. And then you push the people in power to do the right thing.
Supporting the Status Quo
Which brings me to my last point.
Not discussing an issue is supporting the status quo. Saying, “Don’t bring politics into this,” is another way of saying “I don’t want the system to change.”
Some of these arguments made this point more explicitly than the authors probably intended.
In response to a comment about the potential benefits of universal pre-K, one person said:
“I live in a small town in Pennsylvania. We have a preschooler who goes part time to a local preschool, for which we pay about a thousand dollars a year. This is a great fit for us. I don’t want the government to take away my options while providing universal care for all kids. I recognize that a lot of parents need a lot more help than they are getting. However, government is not good at allowing people to keep what works for them. Advocating one national solution to fix individual problems often doesn’t work well. I think personal finance should stay personal.”
This person is saying that things are working out well for them right now, and so they want politics to stay out of personal finance. It is an acknowledgement that talking about politics brings about change and this person does not want change.
Another person said, “Politics have seeped their way into sports, TV, schools and just about everywhere else, the last place it needs to be seen is on the FIRE/financial blogs I read. Today it is the left that wants everything to be politicized because they are not happy, and in the future it will be the right that will not be happy.”
This person is pointing out that liberals want to talk about politics because they want change, while conservatives don’t want to talk about politics because they like the way things are. Given that only the people that want change are going to push for it, choosing not to take a side is taking a side. If you choose not to talk about an issue, you are siding with the people that don’t want change.
The Politics of Individualism
My last example here is indicative of a lot of the explorations of the personal finance community that I have done.
“No politics, please! Personal accountability, even if some societal-economical surrounding does have some influence, it is still how we, ourselves, respond to it.”
This is one that we see over and over and over again.
People dismiss the idea of privilege because they want to encourage personal accountability. They advocate against loan forgiveness because people should take personal responsibility. They rail against pushes for diversity and inclusion because such a push strays from decisions based on pure personal responsibility. If you talk about systems and structures, they will attack you as having a victim mentality because you are not focusing solely on personal accountability.
Here’s the thing.
Elevating individualism over everything else is a political ideology. You are being political when you are making these arguments. You are advocating for a political system that minimizes the responsibility placed on systems and structures by maximizing the responsibility placed on the individual.
That’s fine, if that’s what you believe. But be honest about it. You are being political.
Stop trying to shut down other people that want to be political. Stop pretending that you are not pushing an agenda. You are. You are just fighting for a system that looks a lot like the one we have today.
Staying on the Sidelines
As a suburban white kid learning about the civil rights movement in high school, I had a sort of revelation while thinking about the white Americans of that era.
Some of them were staunch allies and did their part to fight for equal rights. Some fought to preserve segregation, and their wickedness is preserved in photographs for students of all future generations to see.
But most white people just didn’t get involved. They didn’t pick a side. They didn’t want to be political. They protected the status quo by sitting on the sidelines.
These weren’t evil people. These weren’t the folks spitting on protesters or working in the halls of power to preserve white supremacy. Many of them probably thought that segregation was wrong and quietly supported equal rights in the privacy of their own homes. Maybe even in the voting booth. But they didn’t get loud. They weren’t fighting to make change. They weren’t being political.
In retrospect, there is an obvious right and wrong side of history. We all like to think that we would have made the right choice and picked the right side. But I think I can understand some of the thoughts that would lead someone to avoid getting political at that point.
This is the way it’s been for your whole life. Plus, conditions are better for Black Americans than they used to be. Segregation is worlds better than slavery, right? So as long as we keep trending in the right direction, everything will turn out alright. Everything will be fine. I don’t need to get political. I don’t need to deal with the conflict and the confrontation. I don’t need to take responsibility for making change happen.
Especially if you lived somewhere that did not bring you into daily contact with the terrible conditions in which the Black community lived, I can understand this thought process being comforting for a lot of white people.
Pick Your Side
It is easy to fall into this trap.
It is easy to decide you don’t want to talk about politics.
It is easy to avoid controversial topics.
But if we’re only willing to do easy things, then I don’t think we should be giving any advice to anyone.
Life is hard. Politics is hard.
But if we really want to help people, we need to fight to change the systems and structures that are holding them down.
If we want to help a lot of people, we need to work for systemic change that will help people regardless of whether they’ve heard of our blogs.
And we need to remember that refusing to pick a side is choosing to support the status quo.
Everything is political. The only question is whether we’ve thought about which side of history we want to be on.