Is Talking Personal Finance Like Religious Evangelism?

Brent sent me a great email earlier this week:

Have you ever noticed how a lot of the articles you write could easily appear on a religious website trying to convert nonbelievers? Just switch a few things around and you’d be there.

Instead of telling people to read Your Money or Your Life, you’d tell them to read Mere Christianity or something. Instead of telling them to save money, you’d tell them to save their own souls. Instead of life insurance, you’d talk about the afterlife.

Either way, you still talk in reverential tones about the wonderful life you’ve found after your transformative moment and encourage others to “convert.”

What you’re doing is basically evangelism.

Brent does a great job of pointing out the similarities between enthusiasm and evangelism, and he makes a few good points. However, I think there are a number of key differences between promoting good personal finance practices and religious conversion.

First, one can simply and empirically demonstrate the value of better financial choices.

If I go into a grocery store and show how you can buy the ingredients for a certain boxed meal separately for a much lower price, that’s a clear demonstration of the value of that financial choice.

If I can look at the history of various investment types and use those to conclude that index funds are a strong investment choice for people who don’t have time to do so, I can present that conclusion with data.

If a person can pay off a mortgage much faster by making half of a monthly payment every two weeks, then it makes sense to do that.

If one can go to the HR depertment of a large corporation and hear from them that a powerful portfolio of projects is likely to sway their attention, then it makes sense to recommend that new workers fresh out of college do this.

It is much more difficult to make such statements in the realm of the religious or spiritual. Such things rely heavily on faith, and regardless of how much a person might believe, you can’t force another person to share the faith you have. You can show them facts, but you can’t make them believe.

Second, financial success is not a black and white issue. With most religions, it is black and white. With Christianity, you either accept Christ or you do not, for one.

With personal finance, it’s much more about the thousands of behavioral choices you make each day. No one makes all of the best financial choices every day, but with some education and some forethought, people can reverse the course of enough of those decisions to make a real difference in their overall finances. Not only that, many of the individual decisions aren’t black or white themselves, such as choosing the right investment strategy or deciding whether to repay a debt or leave an emergency fund in place.

That’s not to say there isn’t some overlap – of course there is. There is overlap between religious evangelism and anything a person is proud enough or passionate enough about to tell others. All of these things have key books worth reading. All of them have best practices. All of them have big goals to shoot for. All of them can cause a person to gush passionately about it. Many of them can certainly contribute positive things to a person’s life.

I am absolutely certain that good personal finance practices have changed my life for the better. I can show you in great detail how little choices saved me money, how that saved money was channeled into debt repayment, and how a lack of debt drastically increased our household’s monthly cash flow. I can also tell you how those changes have reduced my personal stress level and introduced me to many new activities and things that I now hold dear in my life. To me, that’s something worth sharing.

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