The Danger of the Single Source

Single Source (1)Bill Nye once said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don’t.” And therein lies the danger of the single source. She’s the mouthpiece of personal finance. He’s the only financial expert Americans need. I shudder when I hear people speak about any singular financial figure and his or her theory as prophet and gospel. The speed at which soundbites are shared on social media sans attribution only compounds this issue. Is everybody reaching similar conclusions or is everyone parroting back one person’s ideas?

A few weeks ago, for instance, The Minimalists did a podcast on debt. I instantly mentally prioritized the episode on my long podcast lineup, because decluttering and money are kind of my thing. Before I could even cue up the show, my Twitter feed was flooded with advice to cut up your credit cards because a credit score is an I-Love-Debt score.

Sound familiar? That’s because The Minimalists weren’t actually talking. Dave Ramsey had taken over another Twitter account–one that I actually happen to follow. While I will probably always have mixed feelings about Dave Ramsey, my issue here isn’t actually with Dave. My issue is with the fact that rather than explore any of the complexities and nuances of debt, broad strokes of a single source were doled out as a salve to every listener and follower. When people pushed back, sharing the reasons why they wanted or needed a credit score, they were met with a resounding no. Instead of teasing apart an issue, examining different viewpoints, or reflecting on any type of privilege that might exist, The Minimalists staunchly towed the company line. And it isn’t even their company.

I have nothing against favorites. We live in an age when we can like, bookmark, favorite, and share ideas faster than ever. I get it. When you find something that works, you apply it. But be careful how deeply you bury your head in the sand. No one philosophy gets everything right. What works for one person might be totally counterintuitive for the next. What remedies one situation may exacerbate another. In the information age, there is no reason not to curate the best tenets from multiple sources. Even if that leads to overlapping information, find reaffirmation in it. In a realm that advocates so staunchly for multiple streams of income, it baffles me when some people seem averse to seeking multiple streams of information.

As I wade deeper into investing, I am on a perpetual quest to learn. One of the first books I nabbed from the library was The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing. It had come highly recommended by many bloggers and was a manageable summary of the spate of insight on the time-suck that is the Bogleheads forum. I could very well have allowed this to be my only investment book. But why? Instead, each trip I make to the library, I pass through the finance section and grab another book. I may not read it cover to cover, especially if it does seem to repeat much of what I’ve already read. But why risk missing out on something valuable?

And it’s not just books and blog posts that merit a deeper exploration. The other day, a spirited conversation broke out on my Twitter feed when I was puzzling over my 403b options. Steve of Steveonomics made the excellent point about the value of minimizing our current taxes. Then, Dave of Finance for Teachers weighed in with the possibility that we actually won’t be in a terribly low tax bracket in our later years if we are able to collect both our pensions. While both points were salient and both bloggers are much more expert than I am, a blend of both of their ideas is probably the best course of action for me.

How many times have you asked a question only to zero in on the answer you had hoped for? It is human nature to seek validation, so when we find a philosophy or viewpoint that suits ours, we put the weight of our focus on it. I’m guilty of it, and my guess is that you are too. I’m not advocating that everyone live in a perpetual state of decision fatigue. By all means, make a choice. Chart a plan. Test out a plan. Then, as you go, make a conscious effort to find other views and reconcile them against your own in an effort to continue evolving. Since money touches nearly every part of our lives why shouldn’t we work to be as informed as possible?

So Tell Me…What are your favorite sources of information? Have you witnessed anyone fall prey to the single source mentality?

The Danger of the Single Source

22 thoughts on “The Danger of the Single Source

  1. Love how you pointed out privilege. So much info out there on the unbankable and how lack of access to credit actually keeps people in poverty. Conversely, it can serve as a catalyst to poverty or at least perceived poverty with massive amounts of debt if not used properly. While it would be great to never finance anything, like you said, reality and there best decision for some does come through that financing.
    Multiple information sources are key. In all areas of life. Even if we find we disagree, it can at least expand our point of view and compassion.

    1. Yes, I sense there’s a post brewing on the issue. From my perspective, the whole point of teaching people to be smart with money is to help them leverage all the tools carefully and judiciously.

  2. Dave Ramsey is one of those folks who just puts me on edge. On the one hand, he’s helped a lot of people. On the other hand, some of the advice he gives out is really bad for most people, and his endorsed local provider program seems super scammy to me.

    (Also, I’m reading Your Money or Your Life right now, and I feel like they have some of the same dogmatic language, just on a different side of the spectrum. It’s definitely not about to become my finance bible either.)

    However, I went through his Financial Peace University a few years ago. I’m an advocate for “take what works for you and leave the rest.” For example, we built up a buffer emergency fund before getting hardcore about paying off debt, and I’m really glad we did.

    However, “take what works for you” only works when you have multiple streams of information. I mixed up one snowflake of Dave’s glacier of information, with sources like the Listen Money Matters podcast, and posts from a lot of the debt payoff and early retirement bloggers I read. That’s what’s working for me, for this period of time 🙂

    1. That’s a really terrific perspective, Pia. I’m glad you shared! There are just too many innovative ideas to only stick to the tried-and-true ones. You’re so smart to blend them!

  3. “Even if that leads to overlapping information, find reaffirmation in it.” I loved this line because like you, I seek out information from a ton of sources. If I had simply followed Dave Ramsey’s advice, I would still be working and not home enjoying FI. Now Dave has some great information on certain topics, but blindly following a single source such as his can lead you down a very narrow path. I think synthesizing what you learn from a variety of sources and then applying it to your own situation is the key to being able to make progress. All of our paths are different and a “one size fits all” scenario may be the easy path, but not the best solution at all. You might like this short article I saw yesterday about diversity of perspective – It aligns with Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals” philosophy. Looking at situations from many perspectives (including opposing ones) is where the most growth can occur.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing that link, Vicki! I know Dave Ramsey works well for a lot of people. He’s created an empire from it, right?! But as you said, he doesn’t touch on everything.

  4. Check multiple viewpoints is good advice in so many areas. I was just looking at the Wall Street Journal project where they compared conservative and liberal Facebook news feeds, and the information presented was so different. I know when I look at product reviews, I always try to look at the most negative ones to figure out whether the problems raised are serious or not.

    Like Pia, I try to take the best bits from what I read or see and leave the rest. I try to look at a wide variety of sources, but I’ve noticed that curated sites tend to show me more of the same if I’m not careful to seek out other views.

  5. In medicine, we call this “last paper-itis” meaning that we focus on the findings of the last study we read. Unfortunately, a lot of what we ‘know’ is wrong, we just don’t know which parts are wrong yet. So it’s essential to keep reading, keep learning, keep questioning our assumptions, and not fall into the mythology that we know everything. Sometimes that paper ends up being right, but not always.

    1. Julie, what a great term for the condition! The implications of this in medicine are so far reaching, aren’t they? I hadn’t considered that! Even though my lens as a classroom teacher, it’s incredible how much shift happens all the time.

  6. Yes! It was Suze Orman who first got me hooked on personal finance, and while I love the Suze, I view her info as the first step. Then I started learning more, and then more still. And now I’d say that my views are an ever-evolving mix of a whole bunch of people plus lots of my own experience thrown in for good measure. And that feels right to me. I don’t consume new PF info as voraciously as I used to — or, really, I don’t consume as much by the “experts,” but I still read lots of blogs! — but I do try to keep challenging my views, which is both a good test of my philosophy and just a lot more interesting than believing one thing only and never evolving. 🙂

    1. I remember watching her on TV occasionally. And I have checked out many of her books! And I really like your point that exposing ourselves to new insights is a way to test our philosophies.

  7. I feel like this post is going to be a link in my new disclaimer page.

    No, I KNOW it’s going to be. Way to freaking nail it on this one, Penny! Because for real – the opinions and information we all share is way stronger taken as a collective that people can distill down to what matters for them and what fits for their situation.

  8. I really like listening to some PF podcasters that I do not agree with in any way. They have good information and keep me engaged by making me mad by their assumptions.

    When I want a knowledgeable read that I know understands on a higher level than I do, I like Financial Samurai.

    I read many sources and then just do what makes sense in my life. I don’t need to make the optimal choice, I need to make a choice that I can live with.

  9. The information you need may change over time. One of the biggest things I held on to from Dave Ramsey were his mantras about being “gazelle intense” and “living like no one else.” Substantive? Nope. But they, along with the overlapping advice of MMM that my “hair is on fire” gave me drive and reaffirmed that our debt is an urgent problem. I continue to learn and apply different knowledge as our financial situation changes.

    Also, it never hurts to read and learn more. One of the universal tenants of this community is that the focus should be on our unique, “personal” finance. No one method is perfect for everyone.

    Great stuff Penny 🙂

  10. I agree with Des. What a perfect disclaimer! There’s no one size fits all. And it’s dangerous to parrot quotes and not understand the complexities of the issues. Mr G’s “Mustachean Threshold” and our collective, beloved 4% rule don’t work in a vacuum. And while I love Dave AND Suze, and even Rich Dad, I wouldn’t follow any of them like a lemming. Good job bringing up this subject, Penny.

  11. “In a realm that advocates so staunchly for multiple streams of income, it baffles me when some people seem averse to seeking multiple streams of information.”

    *mic drop* worthy moment right there.

    Paul Jarvis, a web designer+product creator, talked about this on his podcast, The Freelancer. The episode was called “Survivorship Bias” and he discussed the tunnel vision view people get whenever they only pay attention to certain perspectives towards information. Great post! Found you from Half Banked’s blog!

  12. DOOD! The biggest problem I have with Dave Ramsey is how anti-credit cards he is. Yes, absolutely, I know there are people out there who cannot manage credit cards well no matter how much they want to, and those people should stay away from credit cards. But even after getting myself into big trouble with credit cards at age 19, I’m now 29 and have matured enough financially to use them responsibly. I charge everything I buy on rewards credit cards. (6% back on groceries? Don’t mind if I do, AmEx!) Then I pay the balance off in full the following month. I do not pay interest, but I do collect some pretty awesome rewards for buying things I needed to buy anyway. It bugs me how one-size-fits-all he is in his money advice.

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