Finding Good Information for Your Situation

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One of the biggest challenges I have when writing articles for The Simple Dollar is finding a balance of usefulness and audience.

What do I mean by that? Well, if I tried to write a personal finance article that would reach out to everyone who read it, it would be completely devoid of content. There’s no personal finance information that’s applicable to everyone in the entire world who might be reading this article.

On the other hand, if I write a personal finance article that’s just about my specific situation in incredible detail, it’s incredibly useful – but only to me. The more I dig into my own specific situation, the less applicable the entire thing becomes to anyone but me.

Instead, what I try to do is find a happy medium. I try to base the article on a few assumptions that I think a significant portion of my readers have and give advice based on those assumptions. Obviously, I can’t match every reader with every article – that’s an impossibility. What I can do is focus on areas that I know from my own life – like personal finance planning for parents, time management, building a career, escaping from debt, handling money issues and relationships, and so on – that match up with the information that others need.

So, how is that idea useful to you?

First of all, in order to find useful personal finance advice – here or anywhere else – you’ve got to discard some of what you read. Some of it is simply not going to be applicable to you because of the assumptions made by the person giving the advice. If you’re a retiree looking for frugality tips and you come across an article outlining ways to save money on a college campus, you’re probably not going to find too much that’s useful in that article. At the same time, for frugal college students, that article is very useful.

So, what can you do? Don’t be afraid to skip an article that doesn’t apply to you. Don’t be afraid to skip specific tips that don’t apply to you, either. Skip them, or better yet, pass them on to someone who might actually find value in that information.

Second, know how to identify what’s useful to you. Read the article – particularly the first paragraph – and ask yourself who exactly the article is being written for. If you’re still unsure, you can get clues from the rest of the website as well as the previous writings of the author of that article.

Also, use more than one source for your information. No writer is going to know everything – and that, most definitely, includes me. Writers are writing from different perspectives, have different sources for their own facts, and have different ideas about what’s important and what isn’t. Sometimes, writers are also flat-out wrong – and that certainly includes me, too.

There is no excuse for not getting multiple sources of input on any topic that you plan on investing your time and money into. Don’t base your retirement planning solely on The Simple Dollar or anything else. Major personal finance choices need to have some time spent understanding those options, and the best way to do that is to read multiple sources of advice on those topics.

Where do you go for this advice? Obviously, I hope that The Simple Dollar is one source, but I also hope that it’s far from the only source. Read other websites. Even better, read some books. Your local library is a giant treasure trove of great personal finance information.

There’s one final tactic, and it’s a big one. Always ask yourself if the person giving you the advice has a conflict of interest. I am very hesitant, for example, to trust advice given to me by a mutual fund company when it comes to buying mutual funds because they have a conflict of interest there. They make money by selling me mutual funds, not necessarily by giving good advice. I’m similarly hesitant to get my information about insurance from an insurance salesman.

You can’t always know whether someone has a conflict of interest when giving you information, but you can protect against it by eliminating the obvious ones and also by using multiple sources of information, as suggested above.

If you follow these tactics, you’re bound to find the information you need for your situation, validated by multiple sources. That’s the kind of rock-solid information upon which you can make personal finance decisions, career decisions, and other life decisions.

Good luck.

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16 thoughts on “Finding Good Information for Your Situation

  1. What is the best blog that provides personal finance advice that is very different than your advice?

  2. “First of all, in order to find useful personal finance advice – here or anywhere else – you’ve got to discard some of what you read.”

    I find myself shouting this at people on a daily basis. Not everything applies to YOU, and just because it doesn’t apply to you doesn’t mean it’s “bad” or “wrong”.

  3. Great thoughts, Trent. I always trust people MORE when they say not to rely solely on their advice!

    Over the holidays, my family and I did something that most financial folks would not have advised. We really did NOT have the money – but we went and did a ropes course (climbing and balancing on ropes, etc when 50 feet or so off the ground) in Tampa, FL with my wife’s sister.

    We decided to go ahead and do it cause we are ADVENTURE SEEKERS and that stuff is part of what we LIVE FOR! And the cost wasn’t going to drive us to bankruptcy but it would be a real challenge to make it up over the next months. Sometimes you have to GO WITH YOUR HEART – as opposed to everyone’s well-meaning advice.

  4. @Michael

    Tour around. I read Kiplinger and Yahoo Finance to find links to new blogs all the time. I disagree with the Yahoo Finance rehashing of “skip the lattes and save $4!” but sometimes they run contributor pieces that they feel are “outside the box”. Not often.

    Also, go right to Amazon and tour the personal finance books. Read the author profiles and you’ll find some good site leads.

    Otherwise, I go to thesimpledollar and getrichslowly.org for 90-95% of my regular reading.

  5. Which significant portion of your readers did you have in mind when you wrote the post in which you explained that you need a spoon to eat soup?

    It is always a good idea for a writer to ask himself “Who is my audience for this article? What do they already know about this topic? What can I tell them that they don’t already know?” I think your writing could benefit from doing that far more often. A lot of posts here end up being collections of some information relevant to one group, some information relevant to a totally different group, and some information relevant to pretty much nobody.

  6. Jackowick, I have certainly toured — was wondering what Trent thought is a high quality PF blog diametric to his. What do you think it would be?

    From Yahoo, Ben Stein’s columns were good ones. I know Trent is a fan of some of Ben Stein’s classic columns about earning more.

  7. Multiple sources may have drawn their conclusions from the same school of thought. A consensus among “experts” does not guarantee information is factual, accurate or relevant. Having a broad base of personal knowledge gives a person a better chance at weeding out bad advice. Housing bubble, anyone?

  8. “There is no excuse for not getting multiple sources of input on any topic that you plan on investing your time and money into.”

    Gah. Who are you, my mother?

    You know what else there’s no excuse for? Not even trying to get your facts straight.

  9. I think that longtime readers sometimes forget that there are always new readers who may need to learn information that has already been posted perhaps several times before. Some commenters seem to have very acute memories of exactly what has been written before.

  10. comment 1 – I don’t know of a ‘best’ alternative view online, but I’ve found that several of the blogs Trent highlights in his weekly roundup give a contrarian view, so it may be worth it to click through his links there to some of the lesser-known blogs he pulls from & check them out. His brief comments with the links are solely his quick thoughts on the topic, & fairly often are not the viewpoint in the linked article.

  11. @Johanna

    “Not even trying to get your facts right.” By observing your comments over the past year I notice that you hold people accountable to not make statements they can’t support with facts.
    This comment of yours leads me to believe you know exactly how hard Trent tries to get his facts straight. Why don’t you follow your own advice and make sure you have evidence before you make assuming statements like this.

  12. @11 Michael – What?

    It’s pretty obvious Trent almost never bothers to do even the most basic research. His posts tend to be based on what he feels things are or should be like. A quick look at almost any Reader Mailbag would reveal that.

    He even makes the same basic mistakes over and over again, no matter how many times he’s been corrected, so I don’t think he ‘tries very hard’ at all.

  13. I’m surprised unemployment hasn’t been a bigger topic on PF blogs. I guess that’s because most bloggers have never experienced it? It’s hard to find discussions on it, and it’s information I could really use right now.

    And even though there are many different kinds of living situations these days it appears that most PF advice still assumes that everyone is married and/or has kids.

    There’s no one to blame, I’m just surprised that there are so few bloggers to fill the gaps.

  14. wow these comments leave a bit to be desired. I enjoy these articles and like anything i read i take what apples to me and leave the rest.

  15. I look at everything I read as a suggestion. If it’s too good to be true ~ it likely is. If it doesn’t pertain to me today or in the future, I ignore it. Kind of like flipping channels to find what you like/need. Over all I am generally satisfied with this blog or would not be reading here. If I was as disappointed as some commenters seem to be, I would not be wasting my time here being negative.

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