On Overly Personal Finance

It feels appropriate that it’s my last day blogging here and I sat down not knowing what I was going to write about. I wanted to sum up what I’ve learned but in trying to think of things I realized how antithetical that felt to what we do here.

Because I think if reading the money beat for a year — certainly not something I read before this — has taught me anything it’s that there is no right answer for everyone. I can share with you my reaction to a story but I don’t think it’s ever necessarily the correct one, and it’s more about me than the policy or the event or the #hottip. We all bring so much shit to the table. I love that this is a place where we discuss said shit, and our feelings about it, or just an honest accounting for how we’ve dealt with it, rather than posturing about what is right and wrong (though of course sometimes we can’t help but try!). A good old Cost of Things can be much more illuminating than any of our commentary or ideas about any of these things.

There are plenty of personal finance sites out there, and I’m not sure this is one of them. “The site is whatever we want it to be!” is what Mike says when we second guess ourselves on HipChat. Ester has called it “overly personal finance” which I think is hilarious and brilliant. It’s hard to explain to people at parties or, let’s be real, mommy & me yoga, when they ask me what I write about. Saying I write, or wrote (?), about money is kind of fun because it makes me sound serious-ish and professional but it also feels so inaccurate. “A blog about money. But it’s funny? And we talk about how it affects our lives? Just every day stories?” I haven’t perfected the elevator pitch.

I know lots of us come here for advice and tips but I think we get that genuinely helpful information in ways we don’t expect — in comments, in a story that gets to something you were avoiding learning about yourself, in just illuminating the experience of other people, which often turns out to be so different than you imagined. In fact I think the site works best when you don’t read it prescriptively at all. Accordingly, I think we get in the most trouble when something we’re saying as flawed humans is interpreted as prescriptive, when that was not the intention. I think we forget, or I do, that there is some sort of implied authority just by the very posting something on the internet for an audience. As much as I want to reject that and fight against that, I do want to be thoughtful and earn your attention and respect your time.

How to be practical and helpful without being experts?

I think everyone, from editors to contributors to commenters to lurkers, works to maintain that equilibrium, to not swing too far between this communal revelation / working out of things and paternalism. We all mess up. We all get annoying, scold-y, jokey, dismissive, judgmental. As in life, it’s hard to be vulnerable or to admit there is no right answer, day in and day out, without wanting to either throw up your hands or pretend some kind of — hmm — to pretend there is an end game, that we will one day have it all figured out. That if we just go debt → emergency fund → IRA — -> index fund everything will be okay. It won’t. Or it will but it will have nothing to do with anything we did.

We will all have to figure out for ourselves whether we should buy a house. Should we keep a day job, take care of a sick parent, buy a car, foot the bill, leave a tip. Our hill to die on, to borrow a phrase from Ester, is that the answers to these questions are different for everyone but complicated and life-affecting enough that they’re worth talking about, worth trying to get right. I think it’s not the index fund we are talking about, it’s what we’re trying to stave off or move towards or honor or hide from when we talk about our index fund. Or when we don’t talk about it. These things are, money is, class is, at work just underneath all the ways we talk about our lives. When we bring them into the conversation without making them the entire conversation, we get closer to the truth.

On that note, I’d like to leave you with my favorite Billfold comment of all time (SO FAR), which has nothing to do with any of this and is mildly offensive but like, LOL:

WayDownSouth: @jquick yes, agreed. If she just wanted a casual root and bonked him on the first date, there’s no emotional investment in a hook-up. No harm, no foul from his perspective. The danger of moving too fast was one of the morals of the story in Frozen (which my daughter and I have seen twice).

Anyway. Study STEM ya’ll. Study STEM.