In the last post, we looked at why it’s so important to read widely in order to avoid bad financial advice. In this post, we’ll take a look a some of the specific ways you can evaluate sources to find good financial advice.
Many universities provide useful checklists for evaluating sources, especially now that digital resources are so common. The first two items on Cornell’s checklist, Purpose and Authority, are particularly relevant when it comes to assessing the reliability of resources for your own personal research. Let’s take a look at how these relate specifically to personal finance blogs, podcasts, and gurus.
- What is the purpose of the source? Is it educational? Or is it commercial/promotional? A website covered in advertisements for ‘systems’ to help you ‘beat the market’ is much less likely to be reliable than the government’s MoneySmart website. Of course, simply because someone is running a business doesn’t mean their advice is flawed. But you should look out for bias (see below).
You may also find sources that are more ‘entertaining‘ in nature. I’d class CNBC’s MadMoney, described by Helaine Olen as ‘half man-cave, half Playhouse Disney’ as one such as example, complete with goofy sound effects, jumping, and screaming. Certainly I wouldn’t suggest following that program for advice.
- Who is the intended audience? Is it for experienced investors, or novices? Finding a resource tailored to your background and experience level is important. Research in fields as diverse as language learning and sports show we learn best when a lesson is just beyond our current level of competence.
Is it targeting a specific group, like women, or young people? Beware though. Just because a course or book is marketed as for ‘women’ (50% of the population!) does not mean it will suit all women. Or that men won’t get anything out of it.
- Also consider whether the information is universally relevant, or specific to a certain region. There’s no point taking tax advice or credit advice from someone in the United States if you’re located in Australia. At best, it will be irrelevant. At worst, you could get into trouble. Topics like saving, mentality, general financial literacy, and basic budgeting, however, are likely to be applicable anywhere.
- What is the author’s background? Do they list their experience, credentials, and occupation? If you are seriously considering paying someone for their services, you should investigate these claims further. There are many ‘PhDs’ out there with degrees in fields that are totally irrelevant to what they are selling, or worse, with self-awarded or bought online degrees from invented establishments. This is not to say you need a degree for your advice to be worthwhile – I value the experience of someone who has actually achieved financial independence at least as much as someone who has studied finance. And my PhD is not in a finance-related field. But you should certainly look out for people who obscure or misrepresent their background, and make sure advisors you pay hold appropriate registration.
- Does the author cite their sources? As I mentioned before, there are two reasons this is important: firstly, it gives credit to the original author. Secondly (and more important for you!) it allows you to check the author’s claims. I view very skeptically the claims of any ‘non-fiction’ book which does not include a list of references, or any advice blog which does not provide links to original sources.
- You may also like to consider how current the publication is, and whether it is updated. Old doesn’t always mean bad – some advice stands the test of time. Take a look at my post on outdated financial advice for more details.
Bias and advice
Dorothy Rowe, author of The Real Meaning of Money, says every financial journal has advertisements for systems that will reveal the ‘grand design’ or the ‘secret’ of making money. But the question you need to ask is ‘Is the person selling the system very, very rich?‘ And if so, I would add, HOW?
Rowe says ‘I asked a buyer for Dillons book shops if Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, is wealthy. She said “He is from the sale of his books.“‘
Of course, we need to apply the same kind of critical thinking to blogs and podcasts and television shows and webinars and courses too.
Where does the money come from?
Is the person selling the course making money through the means they are recommending to you? Or is their primary income selling DVDs/tickets/books/ad space?
That is, if they are advertising themselves as a property investing guru, have they built their own wealth through property investing? Or through advising others?
If they are claiming to be a stock market whizz, have they made their own money through the stock market? Or through a piece of software they’re selling?
Is it sustainable?
The next question you need to ask is whether what they are selling is sustainable. For example, I’m always skeptical about seeing advice on blogging from bloggers who blog about making money blogging.
Just imagine if the entire internet was full of blogs on blogging. Or wikis about wikis. Or if YouTube was all videos on how to make videos. Only a small number of people can make money from blogging. And only an even smaller number can make money blogging about blogging.
Likewise, I am skeptical about organisations that make their money from teaching you how to create courses. Do they go to courses on creating courses to teach people to create courses?
It’s like course inception!
(If you want a quick lesson on why pyramid schemes, multilevel marketing, and courses about courses about courses can’t work for everyone, check out this short video from the hilarious Better Off Ted)
Finding a good teacher
Teaching is most definitely a skill in and of itself, separate to content knowledge, and well worth training in. My years in higher education (both teaching and researching learning) convinced me that there are some people who have a lot of knowledge, but lack the skills to impart it. And other people may have less knowledge, but have a real knack for engaging and extending learners. (Some, perhaps, have neither!) Rare is the person who can do both.
And herein lies another benefit of reading (or watching or listening) to saturation. You get to find those rare gems. You get to pick your own teachers, unlike in school.
To me, good teaching is a product of two things. In-depth, continued learning about a certain area, and development of superb educational skills. This includes how to give a good presentation, and how to speak clearly. But more importantly, it’s about how to listen, encourage conversation, and guide exploration.
You’ll notice that both of these are processes. Great teachers are constantly updating both their knowledge of the field, and their knowledge of teaching methods.
Does your teacher walk the talk?
Imagine you want to learn to speak Portuguese. You could hire a native speaker who might have little experience speaking to non-Portuguese speakers, no training in applied linguistics, and no teaching experience. They might be able to model pitch perfect pronunciation, and correct all of your mistakes, but they’ll be hard-pressed to explain why your mistakes are mistakes, or recommend strategies to memorise new vocabulary, or resources to practice with at home. That’s not how they learned their mother tongue.
On the other hand, it would be no good asking me for help either. I might have devoted a third of my life to studying how languages work, how we learn them, and could give you hints about strategies that work for learning languages generally. But I couldn’t speak a word of Portuguese to you beyond ‘obrigata’.
What you want is someone who has knowledge of both the language and how to teach it.
In a financial context, it’s no good to try and emulate a successful investor who obscures the details of their strategy.
Nor should you latch onto a smooth talker who has no idea about investing and makes all their money speaking.
Look for someone who both has a lot of knowledge in this area, and who can write or speak clearly.
In these times of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternate facts’ you may also like to read this.
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Today’s featured image is my current desk on the coast in Portugal (hence the salad and Portuguese egg tart!) where my search for good resources would be aided by a brighter screen in all this sun!
Do you have a favourite financial author? Let me know in the comments!