What I Learned from the World’s Best Personal Finance Bloggers

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I’ve just returned from Denver and FinCon12, the annual financial blogger conference. Here’s a little of what I learned about money, business, and life from some of the best personal finance bloggers on the planet….

J.D. Roth, founder of Get Rich Slowly, and one of the most successful bloggers of all time, reminded us that what distinguishes blogs is "connected community," real human interaction. If people find what they read on a blog to be valuable, and share it with friends, that blog will be a success, regardless of how sophisticated, or not, the technology behind it. We need community, Roth noted, to survive our collective future.

One of the more vibrant personal finance communities on the web surrounds Ramit Sethi, the keynote speaker at last year’s conference. Ramit might be the most confident human being I’ve ever encountered. He exudes assurance on financial and business matters with that razor-like ability I’ve seen in other great business leaders to cut through BS and focus on what is truly important in delivering a valuable product.

Ramit has painstakingly implemented his own formula for success. He built a popular personal finance blog that now hosts over 300,000 readers a month, and runs what is most likely a multi-mullion dollar (he won’t say) financial education business based on his readership. He spent months honing the outline for his New York Times bestseller I Will Teach You To Be Rich, before he even started writing. His blog posts and emails set the standard for unique viewpoint, in-depth research, and quality writing.

I’ve used Ramit’s educational products, and they are top-notch. Though his edgy content is pitched at an audience of 20-30 somethings, he offers some of the best training around on how to succeed in business. Many boomers will need extra income to make it through retirement, and Ramit’s Earn1K course could be a good way to get started. In essence, it’s an MBA for the modern, digital world. Though, fair warning: if you’re offended by irreverent language, stay away.

Another irreverent personal finance voice is focused on lifestyle and frugality, instead of business. Mr. Money Mustache and his blog appeared on the scene last year, and quickly attracted a huge audience. The soft-spoken Mustache was invited to talk on "growing a popular blog without promotion," and reluctantly agreed. True to message, he rode a public bus to the conference, sporting a stylish mustache for the occasion. We met early in the proceedings and I felt an immediate connection to his self-effacing manner, shrewd wit, and penchant for early retirement math.

Mustache has generated a rabid fan base by offering up a unique, idiosyncratic, and creative stream of posts. Fearlessly different, he ignores most of the conventional advice for running a blogging business, choosing to focus on cranking out entertaining, precisely written, and technically sound articles. Never boring, he also is to be avoided if you take offense easily.

Mustache reminded us that it’s helpful to have an unwavering core message and OK to have strong opinions. He is highly opinionated when it comes to frugality. For example, he’s a strong believer that everyone should live close to work. He also admitted to an agenda that is close to my heart: He wants to "save the human race from overconsumption." (If you read my blog and bio closely, you’ll understand that’s part of my mission too.)

Liz Weston, the most-read personal finance columnist on the web, according to major ratings agencies, writes regularly for MSN Money and AARP Magazine and has authored numerous books, including recently The 10 Commandments of Money. She spoke on "How to Give Good Financial Advice." Leveraging her own extensive journalistic experience, she pushed for higher standards in the blogging world, noting that anecdotes and stories don’t constitute scientific proof. She delivered a primer on the vagaries of statistics, and then generously shared dozens of her best personal sources for financial information.

Perhaps we’ll see an increase in the quality of blog postings across the web now. But Liz’s talk left me wanting to leap to the defense of the poor anecdote. Sure, getting the facts right is important, but that may not be the whole story. It is true that you need good statistics in order to accurately communicate what the majority are doing in their financial lives. But what if you aren’t interested in the majority? What if you want to be different?

That’s where anecdotes and stories shine, because they communicate what is possible for a single individual. Statistics tell you what everybody else is doing; anecdotes tell you what you could do. It doesn’t matter if the average American is in debt and will need to work until the hearse arrives, because some of us are proving you can retire early and live otherwise. Personal experience — stories and anecdotes — are what make blogging unique!

And one of the most unique players in blogging today is Adam Baker of Man vs. Debt, who kicked off the conference with a riveting keynote. Adam and his wife started in a hole of debt, dug themselves out, and kept on going: creating one of the leading personal finance blogs, forging a unique lifestyle for their family, and recently producing an inspiring documentary about escaping from complacency: I’m Fine Thanks.

On the surface, Adam’s talk was about running a blog. But it went far deeper. He reminded us that life is short. And how remembering that, every day, is the best way to motivate ourselves to step out of our comfort zone and do something remarkable. He suggested we Start with Why (credit to Simon Sinek) before investing time in the "what" and "how." In other words, check our motivations and ultimate goals, before burying our heads in the sands of implementation.

Adam left us with a memorable quote from Howard Thurman — influential theologian, educator, author, and civil rights leader of the last century — reminding us not to let intellect get in the way of living, and serving:

"Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

That’s the principle that drove me to financial independence and early retirement. And it can help you realize your dreams as well!

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