Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Quick reminder to speak up against the Tax Bill

If you're like me, you're already on at least one Indivisible email list, but if you're in the U.S., consider this your friendly reminder that now is the time to call your Senators to urge them to oppose the tax bill. This bill will most likely raise your taxes (unless you're one of the wealthiest Americans), it will undermine the ACA - in many ways, it's another way to go after your health care. Even if your Senators are democratic, it helps to show your engagement, and may tip them toward taking more drastic action (such as withholding consent) to slow down the bill's progress. 

This is (sometimes) a finance blog, and these are deeply relevant issues. If you're interested in your own money - growing it, keeping it, paying down debt, saving up for your goals - you don't want to be paying more in taxes, and you don't want to be bankrupted by medical bills. 

Our voices do make a difference. They've made a difference before, in the fight to save ACA. Let's stop this thing. 

Opting Out of Ad Tracking as a Communal Act

Hide ads from your friends. (Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash)

A recent episode of Reply All talked about ad tracking on the Internet. While they remained unconvinced of certain users' sincere belief that Facebook is using the phone's microphone to spy on you, they found some pretty invasive things that Facebook and other sites are doing, including tracking your purchasing and browsing behavior on other websites, tracking your movements (for example, identifying when you travel, and which of your friends you are likely to be visiting). Social networks with friend/follower relationships, such as Facebook and Instagram, will advertise things your friends are interested in.

I don't know if I'm getting a lot of ads for things that my friends like, because I usually just get inundated with ads for sites and products I actually have visited (I online shop too much). For example, I'll look at a pair of shoes or a particular kind of underwear and I'll get a ton of ads for that. But the fact that Facebook is using your friend relationships made me realize that I am probably responsible for my friends getting ads for those things. That makes me feel kind of guilty.

Advertising works. It is pretty darn good at separating us from our money. The insidious thing is that we all think it doesn't work ON US, so we don't bother to turn off ad tracking, or we may even kind of like it. It may feel more pleasant to get ads for products you like than from ones you don't care about. From a frugal point of view, though, if I have to get ads, I'd rather get ads I can resist. And when I fail to resist, I don't want to be responsible for spilling my own consumerism onto other people's feeds.
I always thought that turning off ad tracking was something you did for yourself, but now I feel like it's something you do for everyone.

Reply All has a good guide for avoiding tracking by Facebook.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Seven Comments Not to Post When Someone Criticizes Your Show

You're wrong, the scene where Don Draper smashes 1,000 butternut squash was not too graphic. It wasn't graphic enough.

I binged Stranger Things 2 last weekend. It was really fun and I was overall really entertained and engaged, but there were a few things that I found discordant or frustrating, almost all of which were covered by Son of Baldwin in a recent Facebook post. (That post contains spoilers, but this one doesn't.) Many of the comments on that post (two by me!) had substantive things to add, including additional problems or different takes, but of course it's an internet comment section, some some were just butthurt and unhelpful. Inspired by that thread, here is my guide to what NOT to post on a criticism of a show you like (or a movie, book, etc.)

#1. Why are you being so negative? It's a good show! The Original Criticizer (OC) usually prefaces their critical post with general praise (including the Son of Baldwin Stranger Things post I reference above). Even if they don't, you can assume they liked the show if they're bothering to get deep with it. When the criticism is really specific, that means a few things:

A. The show is worth watching closely, thinking about, writing about, considering from various angles.

B. It's easier to list and quantify the bad parts than the good parts.

C. The show elicits that specific kind of frustration that comes from something being so, so close to great that it's almost there.

All of these are indicators that the OC has a really good opinion of the show overall and doesn't need you to defend it.

Criticizers are people who find value and even enjoyment in looking at the works they like with an analytical lens. They're basically saying, "How could this be done even better?" Or, "What can this teach us about culture/storytelling/our assumptions?" Or, "Even when I'm trying to be entertained, I'm stung in all these tiny ways; help me nurse this wound, Internet." They are not saying, "This thing has parts I didn't like, therefore it's bad, full stop."

#2. I feel attacked! Even if the OC doesn't like the show, what do you care? It's not a criticism of you, personally. In reality, the OC is probably a pretty big fan (for all the reasons I listed in #1), so they certainly are not saying that all fans are bad & wrong.

#3. Stop ruining it! Sometimes, reading a critique does ruin a show for me, if the flaw that's examined is so giant and offensive that it taints everything with a really ugly brush. But that's not a fault of the critic who points it out; it's the fault of the show and the attitudes of the people who made it. If a criticism legitimately ruins a show or movie for you, don't blame the messenger.

Meanwhile, smaller-scale criticism, even when you agree with it, doesn't need to completely ruin something for you. You can love a thing without being blind to its faults. It's not helpful to your fandom to have a black-and-white worldview where every show is either Good or Bad and Good Shows Don't Have Faults and Bad Shows Don't Have Redeeming Qualities. I think it's an important skill to make friends with cognitive dissonance.

#4. Here's what the writer actually meant. This isn't the worst, especially if the comment is informative. Sometimes it's interesting and helpful to provide outside sources (e.g. interviews, commentaries) which contextualize a particular choice. But ultimately, I think authorial intent is bunk.

#4A. You don't understand: (surface-level explanation) This is a subtype of "here's what the writer actually meant," but the explanation is just a simplistic summary of what happened in the actual show. To avoid spoiling anything recent, I'll use an example from the Old Testament.

CRITICIZER: It just doesn't make sense. If God is all-knowing and all-loving, why on Earth would He ever be cruel enough to ask Abraham to sacrifice his own child?
COMMENTER: God was testing Abraham.

Like yes, we get it, that is the text. That is the very thing that the OC is criticizing.

Some commenters who make this type of post may be doing so out of a genuine misunderstanding of the rhetorical question and desire to be helpful, but I think that most are basically trying to say, "You dumb-dumb, you must not have understood because if you did you would not be criticizing."

#5. Your reaction was incorrect. When an OC's critique is of the form, "I didn't like it when [thing happened] because [reasons]," it is perfectly valid to say, "I actually did like it because [other reasons]." Or, "I didn't either, but for a different reason." What is unhelpful is any response that boils down to, "You are objectively wrong, that (scene/line/plot point) that bothered you wasn't actually bad, it was good. You were wrong to feel that way."

There is no objective truth about what is good or bad in fiction. This is not a vote or a debate to settle the Real Question of Who Is Right and Who Is Wrong and Whether This Thing Is Good.

The critique is just a person sharing how they reacted - how the fiction made them feel. Maybe you didn't notice the thing that rubbed them the wrong way. Maybe you even liked it! That doesn't mean they were wrong to have the reaction that they did. It was their genuine reaction. Different life experiences and worldviews mean that people have different reactions to stories.

It is fine to share your own genuine reaction, even if it is opposite: "I actually like that God is kind of insecure, it makes him more relatable." It is unhelpful to simply try to invalidate the OC's reaction: "No, you're wrong."

#5A. You are too sensitive, it wasn't (racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/ableist/etc). This is a subtype of #5, but it happens with stereotypes and representation often enough that I wanted to highlight it.

If you weren't offended by something, that doesn't mean it is, objectively, inoffensive. You should be especially careful not to be dismissive if you are a member of a majority group, and the criticizer is talking about problems with stereotypes and representation of a minority/oppressed group that they belong to. "Well, I wasn't offended" is an unhelpful response at the best of times (again, this isn't a vote on whether something is Objectively Inoffensive), but if you are not a member of the affected group, then it actually becomes a silencing tactic, and you're part of the problem.

If you are a member of the same group - say, the criticizer is a woman talking about misogyny and you're also a woman - then you still don't have a free pass to dismiss the OC's concerns. You certainly have more standing to offer your own perspective: "I get what you're saying about objectifying, but I find Lara Croft to be a really strong and inspiring character, and as a kid, she was one of the only fictional examples I had of a capable, adventuring woman." Note the difference between that and, "You're wrong, it's not sexist. Source: I'm a woman."

#6. Casual offensiveness is okay because it's realistic to the time period / setting. This is basically a way of excusing on-screen racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. because the show takes place in a historical time period (or dystopian future, or high school, or other setting where oppression would be normal). I'm not saying that historical shows should always be unrealistically progressive, simply that it is fair to critique a show for poor representation/stereotyping/laziness even when it's set in the past or in an intentionally retrograde setting.

There are intelligent ways for historical and speculative fiction to engage with these issues. The Handmaid's Tale, for example, depicts brutal and inhumane treatment of women. But it (a) is intentionally upsetting, not glorifying; (b) has Something to Say about the issues it raises; and (c) is aware of and intentional about the setting and the parallels to the real world as it is now. I don't think Handmaid's Tale is perfect. (The show, anyway. I haven't read the book. I have some REALLY SPECIFIC critiques of the show that I would love to share with you sometime, but they're kind of beside the point right now.) But you don't get the sense that Handmaid's Tale is hiding behind its dystopian setting as an excuse for violence-porn or to gloss over misogyny (tho, the show does gloss over race WHOOPS I SLIPPED IN ONE OF MY CRITIQUES.)

The point is that it's fair to expect a show to have something to say about an issue if it's going to bother to raise it, to offer some kind of payoff in exchange for the discomfort caused by, say, showing racialized violence or uttering a homophobic slur. For some, that discomfort is pretty damn painful and intense, so it's not too much to ask that show-creators wield their emotion-eliciting power with some kind of intentionality. It's fair to criticize a show that handles these issues clumsily, and "but it was the past" is not a sufficient defense.

#7. It's just a show. Don't overthink it! See also: That's a reach/stretch! It's not that deep! Related: You have waaaaay too much time on your hands!

This is an attempt to dismiss the entire conversation with, essentially, the claim that it's not worth it to think too hard about media. Maybe for you, it isn't - maybe you just want to enjoy some passive entertainment without getting all literary-criticism about it. That's fine, I guess (I kind of think you're missing half of the value of fiction but whatever). But that means this discussion isn't for you. You're free to ignore it! You don't need to shit on everyone else's productive, thoughtful discussion just because you don't care.

I mean, you do care, probably - probably, your actual feeling is more like one of the ones above (my show is being attacked and I'm being attacked! You saying something I liked was racist means you're saying I'm racist means you're saying I'm bad and I can't handle it!) In which case this is a derailing tactic to try to get criticizers to just shut up by shaming them about being oversensitive, paranoid, or too in the weeds.

Joke's on you: I am never ashamed to be in the weeds. I'll overthink ANYTHING. Even your lazy comment.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Five Frugal Halloween Costumes for the Unconsciously FTM Teen

Since my teen years, when I started making my costumes myself, I've always been pretty frugal at Halloween; I liked the challenge of putting together costumes with thrift store finds and re-using elements from last year. I've also, in retrospect, been super trans at Halloween. A societally accepted time for crossdressing, Halloween became a rich canvas for the unconscious performance art that is my gender weirdness. The following are costumes I donned at Halloween between the ages of 13 and 17. What do you think was the transest one?

A pirate
There are girl pirate costumes, but this wasn't one. I was a decidedly masc pirate in my tattered pants, red sash, lace-up shirt, vest, and bandana. Very proto-Jack Sparrow before Jack Sparrow (this was circa 1999). Minus trans points because a boy pirate is kind of the unmarked class of pirate. Plus trans points because I was on a pirate kick after writing and performing a Social Studies skit about Mary Read.

Estimated Cost: $15. The shirt and vest were left over from my brother's Halloween costumes of yore. I already happened to own a tattered pair of knee-length cutoffs (being a dirtbag in my everyday life). My red sash came out of my mom's fabric scrap bin. I just bought a cheap "pirate in a bag" for extras like a bandana and eyepatch.

A prince
You have the masculine built right into the name there, and there's an obvious female equivalent that I was conspicuously not being. I think my interest in fairy tale style princes was inspired by Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Estimated cost: $25. I reused several elements from the pirate costume (shirt, vest), and added a cape that was basically just a few yards of blue fabric. The most fun part was a wooden sword which was just a few old pieces of wood lashed together and spray-painted.  I remember my concept included giant shoulder armor which I'm pretty sure I didn't end up doing, although one might easily adapt football or hockey shoulder pads for the purpose.

Haruka (Sailor Uranus)
Well, I mean, technically this is a female character... one who wears a boy’s school uniform and all the main characters think she is a super handsome boy the first time they meet her. It is crucial to note that I didn’t do the classic Sailor Moon sailor suit look, but the boys’ school uniform look (blazer, plaid pants, matching tie), even though it was extremely not recognizable.

Estimated cost: $30. I bought all the pieces of the costume, but they all came from thrift stores. It's surprising how easy it was to find the right colors and patterns of plaid. Sure, none of it fit me, but whatever.

Jareth, the Goblin King
Knock off points for the fact that this is a fun and recognizable character and their being male isn't the ONLY reason I would dress as them. Add +1000 points for the sock down the front of the pants. (It was a joke! A joke commentary on how visible David Bowie's package is in the movie! JUST A FUNNY JOKE NO OTHER REASON)

Estimated cost: $65. I bought an extra special fancy lace shirt and an 80s hair band wig specifically for the costume. I did manage to use clothes I already had for most of the rest (tight gray pants, a black lace-up corset that I happened to already have for my weekly Rocky Horror viewing, black boots. Of course, the only black boots I had were steel-toed workboots which are all wrong for the look. Butch problems.)

A woman
Nobody understood my costume. “What do you mean, you’re a woman? Which woman?” “No specific woman! Just a woman!” “But you are a woman. I mean, in real life.” “I KNOW. It’s IRONIC and POST-MODERN and META.”

Estimated cost: $20. I borrowed the clothes from my brother's girlfriend. I only bought a cheap blond wig and and Wet & Wild-quality garish makeup: red lipstick, blue eye shadow. In retrospect, it was drag.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Back on the YNAB train

Toot toot

Well, it finally happened. After 3 continuous years of tracking all my expenses, I fell of the YNAB train! You might have noticed there have been no expense reviews posted here lately: it's because I literally don't know how much I spent.

Partially, this was accidental, due to laziness. Partially, it was accidental-on-purpose, due to not wanting to pace myself on buying men's work clothes. After I came out to myself, it just seemed unacceptable to continue wearing dresses and stuff anymore, even though I'd been okay with it for years. Dysphoria has a funny way of getting worse when you acknowledge it, or seeming to.

Once I realized I'd been forgetting to YNAB, and had no idea how much I had left in my various budget categories, I didn't rush to fix it - I was kind of curious to see if I was at a point where my budget could just kind of run without my keeping such a hawklike watch over it.

Answer: maybe someday, but not now. I didn't overdraft or anything, but I did spend more than I should have, and I wasn't able to answer my partner's questions that I usually can: "What is our budget for this?" "How much eating out money do we have left?" Someday, I hope that the answers to these questions will be, "Who cares, we have plenty of money." Or, "We are so frugal most of the time, one little splurge won't hurt." But the truth is that it seems we're still at a point where we'll overspend if we don't have guard rails. I will, anyway.

I'm not bothering to total up what happened in those heady No Guardrails months of August and September. Instead, I'm making a fresh start and beginning to budget again in October.

The good news is that my partner has a new job. The money will be very similar, and our fixed expenses are the same; still, we took the opportunity to blank-slate re-imagine our budget. The amounts ended up being similar, but we ended up shuffled the categories a bit for psychological reasons.

For example, we used to do roughly this (there are a few more categories, but you get the idea):
  • Family
    • Rent
    • Utilities
    • Groceries
    • Medical
  • Bagel
    • Clothes
    • Work lunches
    • Hobbies
  • Croissant
    • Probably roughly the same subcategories, but since I was the one entering things into YNAB I didn't bother to subcategorize here
  • Savings Goals
Basically, each of us had a lump sum of personal money out of which we bought anything that was just for ourselves. Even though I subcategorized my personal category, I found it difficult to regulate my spending within it. I didn't feel especially responsible about blowing any individual subcategory because I always reasoned that I could lower other areas of my personal spend in order to make up for it - until the end of the month when it all caught up with me. When I inevitably blew the category, I'd be racked with guilt for having eaten up too many of resources for my own personal stuff. I'd see that number at the top of the master category, seeming to say, "You selfish jerk, you spent $1000 on yourself this month! What a pig!" So, we're trying something a little different, psychologically. The current setup looks like this:
  • Rent
  • Utilities
  • Groceries
  • Medical
  • Clothes
    • Bagel
    • Croissant
  • Work lunches
    • Bagel
    • Croissant
  • Hobbies
    • Bagel
    • Croissant
  • Savings Goals
I'm not sure if this will work any better, but the idea that I may feel more responsible about stewarding the family clothing budget than considering clothes as part of my "personal" budget. Of course, I may still blow it, but at least I'll remove the always-b.s. excuse of "I'll just spend less on work lunches to buy more clothes" since the two appear less directly related. At the same time, I hope to reduce unnecessary guilt that comes from seeing the total of money I've spent on "just me", but rather see something more netural like, "Our family spent $x on clothes." (Even though I can still see how much of it was me.)

As always, there are potential pitfalls; we may find expenses we don't know how to categorize. In particular, I'll have to start categorizing money that my partner spends, which I never did before (just marking anything I didn't recognize is "probably Croissant"). We may find that this system works worse than our previous one. But, the old system wasn't bulletproof by any means. I'm curious if mixing it up will help, hurt, or have no effect.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Frugal Bagel Is Trans!

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Ed. note: this is another personal, non frugality related post, but I want to share my experience in case it helps anyone. I wrote this a few months ago, not too long after my last gender-related post, but I held off on posting until I'd personally come out to my folks and all. 

Yeeeeeah, so, I'm trans.

I haven't been in the closet all this time; I literally just didn't know. I feel very silly to be coming to this conclusion now, at 31, after watching my transfeminine non-binary spouse's entire transition from the sidelines like "You go girl. I'll be over here." After years of statements like:

"Oh, I wanted to be a boy when I was a teenager, but I grew out of it, but it's okay if you call me 'he' I don't mind."

"I only play video games where I can be a gay male elf."

"Of course I'll be your best man, no no, no need to say best woman, let's stick with best man."

"You don't have to say 'gentlemen and lady' just because I'm here. I'm no lady. I'm a cactus."

"I can't sing songs by women singers. My voice doesn't go that high. Yeah, I know, it's weird. Let's do 'Black Hole Sun' again."

"Yeah, Elvira's a good idea, but I only do male Halloween costumes. Come on, it's the one night I get to crossdress. I have to play a woman the rest of the time, ha ha."

"If my boobs get any bigger I'm getting them removed. I might anyway! I wonder if I have that gene that predisposes you to breast cancer where you have to get them removed. Ha ha! No, I don't want breast cancer, but wouldn't it be cool to have to get the removed?"

"I wish I looked more like Hugh Jackman only in a way where I wouldn't be unattractive to people."

"Too bad I'm not trans, right???"

"You're cherry picking," my denial tells me. "Think about times when you felt preferred to play a female role or be described with feminine language."


There are many reasons that I didn't make the leap between "I love being mistaken for a man" and "I am a man." Here are four of the bigger myths, lies, or excuses that my brain has constructed over the years.

Excuse #1: "I am too happy to be trans"

Probably my deepest misunderstanding is the assumption that gender dysphoria is a qualifying condition for being transgender. I knew several trans people who all described long and profound periods of depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia prior to transition. This includes my spouse. I saw firsthand how unhappy it made them. I saw how they shrank a little each time someone called them "him" or by their masculine birth name.

In fact, I related in a very personal way - it reminded me of how I felt in my teen years when I recoiled at being called "she." This did not, however, seem relevant to me now. I figured that my own gender dysphoria was all in the past because I didn't feel it on a daily basis anymore. I claimed, "it went away."

"That doesn't happen. That's not a thing," my spouse said skeptically. "It doesn't just go away. Plenty of people wait and wish and hope it will go away, but it doesn't."

"Well, it did for me," I insisted.

Being seen and treated as female was normal to me, and typically it didn't cause distress, nothing I'd recognize as gender dysphoria. But I have the opposite feeling about being seen and treated as male: gender euphoria. It makes me really happy when I'm called by a male name and "he/him" pronouns; when I'm described with masculine words, whether positive or negative ("handsome", "bastard", "handsome bastard"); when I look more masculine than usual in certain lights/clothes/makeup/Halloween costumes; when I come up as male in a some dumb internet quiz that guesses your gender based on your whiskey preferences or whatever; when I belt out lyrics like "I am a man of constant sorrow." (Well, the first part of that sentiment makes me really happy.)

If I'd been more willing to pay attention over the years, I'd have to admit that I did occasionally get vague, negative gender feelings. Getting called "ma'am" in a store; ticking off "F" on a form; going to gender-segregated events like baby showers; coming up as female on a dumb internet quiz that guesses your gender based on your wall sconce preference.

But these moments were fleeting and situational, and they seemed unimportant. I'm pretty happy most of the time, so why go through all the hassle of transition for what I described in my (in retrospect, deeply trans) post as "minor optimization"? The thing that I now realize is that cis people fundamentally don't think of a genderswapped life as an optimization.

I have also come to realize that "Should I transition?" is a different question from "Am I trans?" (Or, to be more to the point, "Am I a man, a woman, a nonbinary person, or what?") But I conflated these issues in my mind. I didn't want to transition, therefore, I must not be trans. I must be a cis woman, I guess???? But it was easier not to dwell on that part.

Excuse #2: "I am not masculine enough to be a man"

I'm stereotypically femmey in a lot of ways. I love Jane Austen. I hate sports. Most of my friends are women. I can describe any specific color shade with an extremely precise, somewhat obscure name. I feel pretty in a flouncy skirt. I write fan fiction. I'm a giant coward about insects (you might have overheard me announce in the park, "This butterfly is bothering me!"). And, of course, I'm way into "lifestyle blogs" about using fashion and home decor to live your best self.

Intellectually, I know it's simplistic and inaccurate to confuse gender identity with gender presentation and with whether a person conforms to gender stereotypes. If I met a man who was stereotypically feminine in all the ways listed above, I wouldn't doubt he was really a man. (I know men who exhibit each one of these qualities). But in my own case, I took wearing dresses and liking girly shit to be confirmation that I must be a woman.

I never could figure out how to describe myself on the butch-femme spectrum. Now, there are plenty of lesbians who don't feel they fit into either category - maybe they prefer Ellen's term "chapstick lesbian" - but for me, it wasn't a sense that I was in the middle, but that I wasn't on the scale at all.

When I think about whether I'm more masc or fem as a queer man, I don't have to hesitate. I have no hesitations at all about being a sissy, dandy fancyboy.

Excuse #3: "I am an ally"

For lots of people who transition later in life (which, in this context, means as an adult rather than a kid/teen), their stories include, "I didn't even know transgender was a thing until [college/middle age/last year]…"

But I did know! I knew really well!

A family friend came out as trans when I was ten. When I was twelve, I came out as a lesbian and got involved in a local LGBT youth group, where I met a bunch more trans and non-gender-conforming people. Five of my romantic partners have come out as trans (which I used to consider a humorous coincidence but might in retrospect be more of a "like seeking like" thing). This includes the most important romantic partner in my life, my spouse of three years. I had a front-row seat to their entire transition. Yet none of this made me question my own gender.

There were signs, of course. In some trans-inclusive spaces, it's common practice to introduce yourself with your name and pronouns. Cis people sometimes whine about this: "Shouldn't it be obvious?" I did not have that objection - I certainly don't think it's necessarily obvious - but I hated having to give mine. Introducing myself with just my name was fine; my birth name is feminine, but it doesn't bother me, because I feel like it's an arbitrary sequence of sounds and I can make it mean whatever I want. But "she/her" pronouns do bother me. I certainly could have asked for other pronouns and had that honored, but I didn't feel it was my place. My role was as an outsider, an ally, a partner. I didn't want to be "that cis person" who asked for different pronouns on a whim, or to be a wiseass. This was a trans space, i.e. not my space, and it was incumbent on me to be a polite visitor.

Still, every time I said, "My pronouns are she/her," I couldn't help reflexively adding, "I guess."

Excuse #4: "Men are the worst"

I mean, they are. This isn't a lie I told myself so much as a thing that I believe but that has kept me from admitting my gender to myself. A common transphobic comment hurled at trans men is that "wanting to be a man" is just internalized misogyny. But I think I have the opposite: externalized misandry.

I don't think men are inherently bad, no original sin or anything like that, and I know a bunch of great men. But it's certainly easy to find anecdotal evidence that being raised as a man in a patriarchal culture, being told you're "better than" in a million tiny ways, is a good way to become selfish, lazy, amoral, condescending, and just a complete doink.

I don't want to be that. I don't want to be (stereotypically, culturally, patriarchally) male. I don't want male privilege. I don't want my accomplishments to be seen as confirmation of male superiority. I want to be the underdog breaking the glass ceiling from beneath, not the Cobra Kai dojo dickhead lounging on top.

But… it's not about what I want. I'm not choosing to be trans, despite what my denial would have me believe ("You're just doing this because you're bored, you're copying your spouse, you just wish you were trans, you're being ridiculous, why bother.") I'm not choosing to be a man. I'm acknowledging it.

Further ed. note: Stay tuned to learn along with me how to have a frugal transition!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

How Trustworthy Is Your Favorite Personal Finance Guru?

Stage presence doesn't make you an expert.

It's a startling return to good old-fashioned personal finance advice!

Recently, as part of a book review, I noted that personal finance books by "gurus" are usually bad. This is because gurus make their money from selling you advice, so they're incentivized to make personal money management look so hard that you feel you need ongoing guidance - and lots of products.

Here are three questions to ask yourself about your favorite personal finance guru.

Do they try to make personal finance look complicated?
Personal finance, when it comes down to it, it's not that complicated. Sure, some people have specific, complex scenarios for which they need specific, professional help. Businesses and individuals with complicated situations might need the help of an accountant or a tax lawyer. But if you are typical individual looking for general personal finance advice, the principles are pretty simple. Spend less than you earn. Invest in index funds. It's not rocket science.

Gurus make a living from convincing you that it's complicated, too hard for you to understand after reading just one book. No, you need lots of books. Also workbooks, videos, seminars, software, and a special "university" where you can work your way through a sequence of classes and then get trained to teach them to others! It never has to end!

If you read enough personal finance books, you start to notice that the content is pretty similar from book to book. Outliers with unusual content are usually wrong, or, at best, needlessly complicated. Just because a guru has released a ton of books, it doesn't mean you need to read them all. Just because a book exists that's niche-marketed to your specific scenario - Personal Finance for the 29-Year-Old Long-Waisted Pansexual Guitarist/Barista With Astigmatism and a Wry Smile - doesn't mean it will be any better than good' ol Personal Finance for Dummies.

The hard work of personal finance isn't learning the principles. It's actually doing it. It's actually setting up that retirement plan, or that will. It's changing your habits. It's convincing yourself not to spend, day after day after day. Gurus can tell you what to do till they're blue in the face, but, unfortunately, they can't do it for you.

And while it can be comforting to read the same tips over and over in order to reinforce fiscally-prudent thinking (and, perhaps, convince yourself you are doing something), it's not necessary - or frugal - to keep on paying for that repackaged content.

Are they trying to sell me something?
Gurus make their money by selling content. There's nothing particularly wrong with that model, as long as this content is actually worth the money. A person who has written a great book deserves to be paid for their work.

The problem for personal finance gurus is that generic financial advice (that is, advice that is not tailored to a particular person and situation) is not only relatively simple, but it's easy to find from numerous sources, Many of them are free. You can get books out of the library, or look things up on the Internet. There's nothing behind a paywall that you can't find somewhere else.

Any guru who tries to convince you that they, and only they, have the secret to financial success and they will only tell you if they give them money… is just trying to make money.

Some gurus do this in pretty subtle ways. Often, they'll offer free content with a mix of good, fact-checkable advice, and plugs for their other products. Some of their advice is designed to create a need for additional products from the guru's line. How handy that this guru who recommends that everyone have a living will offers a Make Your Own Living Will Kit.

You can't trust someone's advice if they will profit from that advice.

Do they have any conflicts of interest?
This is related to "trying to sell me something," but more indirect. A guru who owns a real estate firm may not personally be trying to sell you real estate, but they still have a vested interest in promoting the idea that real estate is the best investment. A radio personality whose show is sponsored by a home security company is unlikely ever to tell you, "You don't really need to pay for a home security system."

Conflicts of interest aren't as obvious as direct sales pitches; they're insidious, and what's more, they're hard even for the most well-meaning person to avoid. Even trustworthy people can convince themselves that what's best for you so happens to line up with what's best for their wallet. The best thing is to simply disregard any advice that touches on a topic of potential financial sensitivity to the speaker - which, again, means you need to be aware of how they're being paid. Ad sponsorship? Affiliate links? Commissions from referrals?

Follow the money.

Do they, actually, have any expertise on this topic?
Gurus cultivate an aura of omniscience, but they're just people like anyone else, and they can get things wrong. They can overestimate issues they have personally experienced, and underestimate issues they have not; misunderstand the complexities of math or law; jump to conclusions; interpret ambiguous data in ways that seem to confirm their prior assumptions; ignore inconvenient exceptions; and become bull-headedly stubborn about random things, just like the rest of us.

There is no formal training for being a guru. It's more of a personality thing. If you're charismatic and you have a clever way of putting things, that will carry you far as a guru. Knowing your stuff is less important.

That's not to say that they don't often say true things. Quite often, their advice lines up with the generally accepted personal finance principles. When they differ from that generally accepted set of principles, though, it's important to be skeptical. What's more likely: that they discovered some super-smart new take on this stuff, or that they're wrong a little bit?

If a guru is making a claim that nobody else is making, they should be able to clearly explain their reasoning, why they think the conventional wisdom is wrong, and what special expertise allowed them to see this differently than other people. Don't accept a confusing explanation as "ehh, probably true." Because people see gurus are wise teachers, they are too quick to give confusing explanations a pass as "probably just too smart for me to understand." This is not warranted. Really, it's far more likely that they're either intentionally obfuscating, or they just don't know what they're talking about.

Personal finance gurus have their place. A lot of the things they say are true; maybe, if you haven't heard them before, revelatory! These folks wouldn't be so successful or have such rave reviews if people didn't find their advice genuinely helpful. I do think that people like Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman have genuinely helped a lot of people. But it's not necessarily because their advice is unique or special. Most of what they say is good, old-fashioned, time-tested, common-sense, freely available advice. They just have good marketing and a big reach.

The problem comes when you don't realize which pieces of their advice are core personal finances principles, which are their own particular peccadilloes, and which are actually costing you money. It's good to fact-check your gurus with impartial sources. But, if you're going to do that, you might as well start and end with those impartial sources - skip the gurus altogether.