The idea of joining a virtual community where people talk openly about money is appealing for a variety of reasons. For one, the internet has provided an infinite number of ways to discuss financial wins and losses usually confined to an individual or couple.
It can be uncomfortable to discuss money with peers in-person, but geeking out online without reservation has become an acceptable pastime for hundreds of thousands of people. Many of us don’t mind reaching out to friends when it comes to cooking or childcare, but with the touchy subject of money, it’s simply easier go online for information and support while simultaneously avoiding a social faux-pas potentially carried out in person.
Money and Jealousy
As a closet money nerd, I’ve observed the FI community quietly for several years. During this time, I’ve noticed some interesting psychological behaviors in myself and in others. For one, the amount of support these online spaces provide goes starkly against any cynical dark vision of human nature. Even with a very sensitive subject intimately tied to our sense of self (such as net-worth), it’s rare to observe any outward acts of jealousy or resentment.
This phenomenon provides an exciting alternative to recent research on social media’s impact on self-esteem. The fact social media encourages an unhealthy culture of personal comparison is not surprising, but the fact several personal finance bloggers thrive within this space (while being extra vulnerable through massive personal disclosures) is worth noting.
Here are some possible explanations for why the FI community is full of healthy support instead of envy:
#1. There is a Common Understanding About the Use of a Highlight Reel to Establish Credibility
In many cases, people are starting online businesses with these blogs and vlogs. In order to attract costumers, financial bloggers naturally need to display their accomplishments. In particular, FI bloggers who are successful advertise themselves with emotional intelligence and tact (even going so far as to mention how vanity metrics lack the substance they are seeking).
Fellow bloggers can understand the behavioral economics behind proud displays and understand it is about establishing credibility. Therefore, they are able to move on without such highlights being a personal jab at their success (or lack thereof).
For the most part, successful people in the FI community position themselves well in order to be something to aspire to (and they offer courses, books, and workshops where they put in a lot of effort to genuinely try to help others). This is very different than when people violate the norms of modesty online for no reason other than attention seeking.
#2. FI Bloggers Balance Differences Around a Common Interest
Research shows the more we have in common with someone (age, gender, profession, appearance, location, interests, etc.), the more likely we are to feel in competition with them. This psychological fact is dodged tactfully among personal finance bloggers because we come from all areas of the world - with a variety of backgrounds, circumstances, professions, and desires. All brought together through a common pursuit of FI, the sheer diversity of people to follow online within this niche is healthy for us as learners, social media lurkers, and human beings looking to improve.
When I happen to come across people with a similar profile, I pay closer attention to them by default (because of a greater potential to bond with them and my natural curiosity about what they are able to pull off financially within similar circumstances). However, I’m still following doctors, lawyers, electricians, teachers, and writers whose lives look very different from mine. When these people experience success, I’m genuinely happy for them. When they seem to have a question or need a different perspective, I genuinely want to help them.
#3. FI Bloggers Use Numbers to Set SMART, Ambitious, and Attainable Goals
When stripped down, the rules for reaching FI are very simple:
-Save half your income for at least ten years and wisely invest the other half.
-Save 25 times your expected annual expenditures and withdraw less than 4% a year.
Most people drawn to FI for the long term are ambitious people with a vision. By default, they are usually people who keep their eyes on their own life. However, in order to grow, they understand how to strike a balance by looking around where (and when) it counts. In essence, the challenges of FI are enough to make them “keep their head down” for massive focus but attainable enough to keep them looking up and around for confirming evidence. This combination sets the stage for healthy long-term comradery where people mind their own business yet look to others for healthy affirmation while doing something against societal norms.
You have to be very secure in yourself to buck off society. With a firm mental foundation (and an above average relationship with money leading to confidence), these people have a natural panacea for any jealous feelings.
#4. FI is a Philosophical Movement About Building Better Character and a Better World
Most people in the FI community are deeply concerned about what it means to lead a meaningful life (and what it means to be an aware human being with a concern for the greater good). These people may or may not have an environmental focus, but by default, their actions fall into a category of anti-consumerism that benefits the planet. Lowering their amount of consumption for the sake of saving money immediately results in saving materials and supplies while also encouraging others to do the same through a life of stoic example.
When people with such strong beliefs come together, they naturally know themselves and the larger purpose motivating them. These people aren’t looking for quick praise, petty conversations, or to inspire envy in others. This is apparent in how they handle themselves online.
#5. With So Much Content, You Can Pick Your Tribe
Obligatory relationships have little space in the online world of personal finance. If Mr. Fakename changes his tone or becomes condescending, nothing says you have to read his content. This sets a very high bar for consumers and creators alike and helps to keep boasting and jealousy in check.
If somebody you follow on social media makes you feel bad about yourself for any reason, it’s your responsibility to analyze those feelings and acknowledge what is on you. If you are brutally honest with yourself and realize you simply don’t enjoy them as a person, there is nothing wrong with filtering your world a little bit. It’s quite easy to find a demographic full of other people offering the same information who do make you feel good about yourself or your mission.
#6. Finally! A Group of People Playing The Same Game!
As someone formally trained in identifying giftedness, I can confidently say a disproportionate number of people in the FI community are gifted. A lot of gifted people are fiercely competitive with themselves and others by nature. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it’s channeled correctly.
For example, if someone wants to compete with me about yearly savings rates, I think “Game on!” and only admire them when they win (they often do). If someone wants to compete with me about what name brands they’ve bought, how big their house is, what size their pants are, or how much money they make at a job they hate, I don’t know what to tell them. Should I say, “Congrats? I don't think we’re playing the same game?” In essence, if their values aren’t my values, it’s not a fun game (let alone a game of friendly competition).
On the other end of that, it’s also possible to feel isolated as a gifted person because you think you can’t share achievements in the areas of life that matter most to you.
A lot of highly accomplished people struggle with self-disclosure because they grew up in school as “the one to beat” or they’ve developed some complex where they think others are happy if they fail. Research with gifted teenagers shows a lack of self-disclosure is connected to their high levels of loneliness and isolation.
For example, I have many friends with student loans who haven’t saved for a down payment on a house (let alone have the option to pay off a house). If I want to have close relationships with these friendly people, I intuitively understand they don’t want to hear about my privileged conundrum of paying off the house, buying a second property, or investing (we chose to pay off the house by the way). I have to hide this side of myself, even if it’s on my mind every day as a passion of mine. Since middle school, hiding accomplishments and aspirations has been a way to socially survive, but it also means a lot of people close to me don’t know me very well. I’m working on this.
Finding the FI community has eased a lot of this loneliness for me, and I imagine it has abated the problem for many others as well.
The people I’ve found online have provided a place for me to be excited and unapologetic about one of my many passions. The relief in finding such a place naturally makes feelings of resentment or jealousy irrelevant. Instead, these blogs are a “sure-fire” place to go in order to feel inspired and validated.
I’d love to know what you think.
Have you ever browsed personal finance blogs and gotten jealous? Or do you find you leave motivated and energized?