Prescriptive Advice vs. Case Studies: A Suggestion on How to Read (and Write) Personal Blogs

April 5, 2018

This is supposed to be a personal finance blog, but it might be the worst one ever. Because so far, I’ve written very, very little about money.

My old personal finance blog, Common Sense Millennial, was all about trying to teach young 20-somethings how to use their money to save well, invest smartly, and reach big financial goals. And I did that through typical personal finance blog fare: I wrote posts on saving, posts on why you need to invest (and how to start), posts on everything you should know before you buy your first home, and so on.

I wrote that blog when I was 22 and 23. Even at what now seems like such a young age, I knew an extensive amount about money and personal finance. I knew how to make the most of the scant resources I had, making my posts even more interesting because there was always some hack or tip to help you spend less and save more.

But what I didn’t know was myself. I didn’t know who I was or what I believed.

Things have changed and that little personal finance blog that helped launch my freelance writing career feels like a long time ago. Today, I do know who I am. I know my values and what I stand for.

Somehow, on the journey I’ve been on from poking around with my little blog, writing content — even if it’s educational and helpful content — about “how to use money” or “how to be good with money” is no longer me.

It’s Okay to Change (and In Fact, You Should Expect To)

As most people can attest, the beginning of my 20s and the end of them look radically different. I’ve had transformative experiences and ended up with no regrets because I love where I stand today.

I’ve changed considerably (which is all part of the process of being human; we are works in progress, always, even though we always feel like we’re on the verge of being “done”).

But one thing that never changed was my fascination with money and the desire to learn everything I could about properly leveraging all the resources available to me to create the life I wanted.

Why then has it been such a struggle for me to return to blogging and writing directly about personal finance?

Why This Personal Finance Blog Doesn’t Talk Much About Money

I think I’ve been hesitating to write more about money here for a few reasons:

1. I write about it as part of my job.

Whether it’s my freelance writing or the writing I do for clients or the work I collaborate on with Eric, every other piece of writing I do is on how to use money. I literally write hundreds of thousands of words on finance every month.

Often, it feels like I’ve said everything there is to say about “here are the facts on money and how to use it.” I know that’s not true, of course, but it is true that a lot of my great ideas on the topic are devoted to my clients.

2. I’m no longer in prime discovery phase.

When I wrote my personal finance blog before, I knew a lot — but I was also learning a lot. And part of my learning process was to have a specific experience, gain new information or knowledge, and then share my findings.

I used to write about what I learned about my credit cards, or how I figured out how to make extra money on the side. But now, my learning experiences look far different. They’re focused around self awareness, mindfulness, and intention — and how you can apply those practices in your life, or how you can apply them to your finances.

In one way, I think this is a fantastic thing. It means that today, I dive very deep below surface level topics of, “hey guys, this is why you need to save, how to do it, and where to stash your cash.”

It means getting into the inner workings of how we think, how we make decisions, and what shapes us and our values.

In another way, this is a completely new challenge I haven’t tackled before, and I’m finding it… well, challenging. Writing educational content on straightforward questions with detailed answers, like I used to do on my money blog, was easy.

I just wrote; there wasn’t much need to stop and think about it.

Finding the right words to use to accurately describe intangible, nuanced, complex structures like self awareness is forcing me to be more thoughtful, more deliberate. It’s a good thing, but like I said, it’s also a challenge.

I question myself a lot more. I wonder if my writing makes any sense to anyone beyond myself. I’m unsure if writing the kinds of things that I feel compelled to share now will help me achieve my goal of making an impact on others.

I’m not sure, but I want to keep trying.

Although, that brings me to the third reason why I think I’ve found myself blocked (or just disinterested) when it comes to writing very specifically and in detail on money with this blog.

3. I have a real big problem with most financial blogs out there.

Yes, I said it. My old community of personal finance bloggers may now grab their torches and pitchforks and come at me.

Here’s the thing: most personal finance blogs are written like each post is a prescription for a pain or problem. If you only follow this advice from someone who paid off some debt and lived to tell the tale, you too can be financially successful.

That, friends, is often a complete crock of shit.

Personal blogs, financial or otherwise, can be powerful resources. But the problem is the people writing them are often simply just that: regular folks with no actual expertise, education, or credentials. They’re experts of their own experience and that’s about it.

My Big Problem with Personal Finance Blogs (and Personal Blogs in General)

That does not mean personal blogs are without value, quality, worth, or merit. They absolutely can be incredibly useful resources. I know for a fact people who have read my friends’ personal finance blogs and have had their lives changed through that readership.

I can attest to this myself. One of the first catalysts that sparked my journey to where I am today came through a personal finance blog. I remember reading income reports from Michelle of Making Sense of Cents back in 2013, during the summer I made my first $500 as a freelance writer and was so, so hopeful that I could one day write for a living — but unsure if it was really possible.

Michelle published income reports monthly, and that fall and winter I watched as her income slowly rose from $5,000 or so per month through her blogging, to over $10,000, to $30,000, and more. $30,000 in a month, I marveled. All from blogging.

Today, Michelle’s site and her business gross over a million dollars in annual revenue. That’s absolutely insane — and it goes to show you what’s possible through a lot of grit, determination, hard work, and commitment to a goal.

Her income reports took me from wondering if I could really make it as a freelance writer to knowing that surely, I could make at least enough to pay my bills and not die. I might not have had the belief and faith I needed had it not been for the content she published on her blog.

I could tell you countless other empowering stories like that one that affected me or a friend of mine. Some stories are even more powerful. Melanie at Dear Debt, for example, has done incredible work in genuinely helping and uplifting people so distraught and overwhelmed by their debt they were contemplating suicide.

And to be fair, it’s not that I have a problem with personal finance blogs only. I think “blogging” in general has always rubbed me the wrong way — and it’s why I shut down my successful blog years ago, which included walking away from a book deal a publisher put on the table because they were pushing me to write it in a way that didn’t feel authentic to me.

I pursued a different path, which was the right choice to make. I built a legitimate, sustainable business that I run today and absolutely love, and felt no need to try my hand at blogging again.

Up until this point, of course, when the call to write and publish something, somewhere, became too loud to ignore.

But still, I never sat down to reckon with what pushed me away from blogging in the first place and what prevented me from returning for so long.

I always knew I was bothered, irritated, by something, but never took the time to soul search for what made blogging feel problematic to me, and something I couldn’t participate in myself if I wanted to be in integrity with my beliefs.

In considering why it’s taken me so long to actually write about money on this personal finance blog, I finally understood what it was.

Personal Blogs Should Not Be Used as Prescriptions on How to Live Your Life

It was that prescriptive way in which people gave advice on blogs that made me fed up with the whole idea of “being a blogger.” It was how bloggers positioned themselves as experts with zero credibility beyond their own experience to back that up.

And it was the way, specifically in the personal finance community, where almost every blogger was more focused on making themselves money rather than actually helping their readers connect with legitimate personal finance advice.

It felt deceptive, disingenuous, and inauthentic. It many cases, it still feels this way to me.

There are, of course, exceptions. There are bloggers out there who do an absolutely excellent job of clearly explaining that what they share is not prescriptive advice, but simply their story that might inspire, motivate, and help others in some way.

Frugalwoods is an incredible example of this. Liz and Nate share in a way that is genuine and authentic, taking care to never impose their own choices and beliefs on others even as they share their stories, experiences, and explanations of how and why they’ve made the choices they have.

My friend Erin Lowry from Broke Millennial is another example of a personal finance blogger I admire for her ability to help others without giving prescriptive, one-size-must-fit-all advice. She shares her choices and experiences and lessons learned, but is always mindful of the fact that her life is her own and how she lives may or may not make sense for someone else.

While I’ve happily continued to follow and read these blogs even after leaving the personal finance blogosphere, I now recognize I chose to dwell on the problems I saw in the space. Unfortunately, I let my own belief that writing a blog as some sort of instruction manual for better living was doing more harm than good stop me from my own projects and writing.

I should have been focused on the positives and the people I respected for their ability to share their personal lives as case studies rather than prescriptions for the right way to live. That was my mistake, and I hope seeing it and acknowledging it will help me steer this blog in the right direction.

Personal blogs (financial or otherwise) can be such powerful, useful resources if the writers of those blogs aim to present a single case study rather than prescriptive advice that’s all-or-nothing, defining what’s right versus what’s wrong.

If we can both write and read personal blogs as case studies — helpful suggestions or signposts pointing the way rather than dictating what to do — I think we’ll all get more value out of them.

As a case study, a blog can be used as a tool to help you figure out or try on what’s right for you. That’s certainly the framework I hope you use as you read this blog.

Iam not here to prescribe you a right way (or define a wrong way) of doing anything. I merely want to show up, share my stories and thoughts, and allow you to use my words as a case study for one way to create a lifestyle centered on awareness, mindfulness, and intention.

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, I might even be able to get back to writing about personal finance in a way that makes a useful impact — but only, of course, if you find there are tidbits of my case study that you can apply and leverage in your own life, your own way 🙂

Here’s how you can stay in the conversation.

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