Finance Magazine

On Celebrity in Personal Finance

By Kathleen O'Malley @frugalportland

celebrity in personal financeI went out to breakfast a couple months ago, and sat right next to Rufus Wainwright. I like his music, but I didn’t recognize him immediately. In fact, I didn’t know he was famous until the guys on the other side of him (the restaurant has communal tables) asked where he was performing that night. He mentioned the name of the concert venue, and thanks to the technology available to me in my smart phone, I figured out who he was.

I wondered if I should say something. “I like your music!” No, too hollow.

“Oh! You’re a famous person!” No, too shallow.

I decided to pretend he was just some guy. “Popcorn and coffee, eh? Breakfast of champions,” was my opener.

We exchanged pleasantries, but otherwise, I didn’t treat him differently because he was a famous personI’m an extrovert. If we’re sitting at a communal table and we don’t know each other yet, I’ll at least say hello and have some sort of inane conversation with you. If you’re an introvert, you’ll hate that. Especially on five-hour flights.

Do famous people want to be fawned over? Or does this guy want to exchange pleasantries with people while enjoying breakfast at a hip downtown place?

Celebrity in Personal Finance

After my encounter with Rufus Wainwright, I started thinking about how celebrity translates to the personal finance world. Don’t laugh! There are celebrities in this sphere! Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman are two well-known examples.

There are even celebrities in the world of money blogs. But they’re not real celebrities. They’re just people who started writing about their relationships with money, and their sites hit it big. Through their transparency, these internet-famous people have built audiences that have made them rich. (A compelling story plus a big audience can sometimes lead to big money.)

Every year, personal-finance bloggers — and other industry experts — gather at FinCon, a conference for the financial media community. At FinCon, people with successful sites give advice to the rest of us who haven’t gotten there yet. Somehow, the people who are on the other side are seen as almost unapproachable. It’s as if their “celebrity” status sets them apart for some reason.

But here’s a secret: They’re some of the nicest people on the internet.

Sure, someone like Mr. Money Mustache has a different philosophy about money, and he’s not afraid to lambast people who are still following the traditional American dream. But in real life? He’s a laid back hippie who’s figured out how to optimize his life for the greatest happiness. Every time I saw him at FinCon, he was either standing alone or with someone else who’s been blogging a long time. In all honesty, he looked lonely. So I approached him and introduced myself. We spent the last day of the conference hanging out and talking, then shared a ride back to the airport. It was fun.

Trust me, people like Mr. Money Mustache and J.D. Roth absolutely know the difference between famous and famous-on-the-internet.

Why Don’t We Cheer for Their Success?

What happens when someone who writes about getting rich slowly gets rich quickly? Why aren’t we all cheering for him from the cheap seats?

J.D. blogged for years (YEARS!) about money and his relationship with it. We read along with him. We were there with him for his small victories. We sent virtual hugs when things didn’t go his way.

Then, the unthinkable happened: he sold his site.

You know, he’d been making money on his blog for a long time before he “sold out” but we didn’t think that was bad. “We all have to make a living somehow,” we’d think. In fact, his story inspired hundreds of people to start telling their stories (myself included). His approach was (and remains!) transparent and open.

We Want People to Be Like We Are

The reason we don’t celebrate the success of others is that we secretly (or not-so-secretly) want to be the best in our peer group. And whether our peer group is “people who weigh much more than they should” or “people who are working toward financial independence” we don’t want to be one of the people left behind. So we’re not nice to the biggest loser when he refuses a third piece of pizza and we yell at the blogger who got rich less than slowly when he talks about his spending.

We liked the old version of our friends. The newly thin guy used to make us feel better when we wanted a third piece of pizza. He was our bar, and as long as we weren’t getting out of control like he did, we felt pretty good about ourselves. We liked the old version of J.D. because his concerns were like ours. The old version of J.D. would never spend more than he earns! What happened to that guy?

Looking in the Mirror

I think it’s really a matter of seeing people objectively. I’d be willing to wager that you wouldn’t bail J.D. out of debtor’s prison (unrelated: why don’t they have those anymore?) any more than you’d chip in for your friend’s diabetes medication if the situation went the other direction. Sob stories sell more papers than success stories.

I know if I were in J.D.’s shoes, I’d have done the same thing. I would have sold my site, paid off my mortgage, and used some money from a liquid savings account to travel.

And I wouldn’t apologize for it.

Image taken in New Orleans, by me.

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