How (and why) personal finance bloggers fudge their numbers

Hi all! Now, from what I understand the readership of this blog is a mix of a) other FI/RE bloggers, b) non-bloggers interested in FI/RE, and c) people who didn’t mean to come to my site, who promptly leave again!

Today, I’d like to briefly take a moment to talk about something which may not sit well with all of my fellow personal finance bloggers. I want to talk about how and why bloggers might be, for want of a better word, “creative” with the way they portray their numbers.

The point of this post isn’t to attack, it’s to highlight a couple of issues, including one that I came across myself recently.

So, lets dive in!

A couple of common scenarios

Announcing huge debt payoffs or super high savings rate without disclosing income

There is no shortage of blog posts out there along the lines of “How I paid off $100,000 debt in two years”, or variations on the sum and timescale. They’re popular, and probably get a lot of blog traffic. However, the details described within many (not all) of these posts leaves something to be desired. Often, the number missed out is the person’s income, which often (though by no means always) is significantly above average. Of course, it’s not all about the income, but you’ve a hell of a lot more scope to pay down debt if you’re on 100k than 15k.

Ignoring alternate income sources

FIRE bloggers wax lyrical about developing multiple income streams, and some of the more well-known bloggers have developed such a following that their blogs now generate more income than they ever had from traditional employment. They may preach the 4% rule, while in practice they’re actually living off this or other regular income. A fine way to live, as long as you’re honest about how you’re doing it.

My recent dilemma – the savings rate

First of all, a quick recap on my situation. For the moment, I have a full-time income above the median in the United Kingdom, one which most calculators define as putting me in the “middle class”. I also have many of the regular expenditures of modern life: mortgage, bills, gym membership, insurance, et cetera. So far, so normal.

At the beginning of 2018, I came up with a number of goals for the year, for several different areas of my life. One of my financial goals for the year was to try to spend less than half of my income over the course of the year, and I’ve been charting my progress publicly in my Net Worth Updates.

How am I doing so far? Month by month, I’ve achieved it in four out of six months so far this year, but my overall rate for 2018 still stands at 66%. That’s not bad in itself, it means I’ve saved or invested 34% of my income this year, much better than many can say! But it’s not within my target.

And then I realised.

Apart from my primary employment, I also have extra income each month from letting out part of my house to a lodger, and I declare that income on my monthly reports. At present I record all of my spending on my mortgage and household bills, and then report the income on another part of the report (which amounts to about half of my monthly housing expenses). The effect of this has been that my balance sheets now look like I’m spending much more money on housing than I did just over a year ago, while living in a house share with four other people and just recorded my portion of the household expenses.

The realisation was that I could easily justify taking the income from my lodger and just reduce my household spending by that much on my balance sheet. Here’s an example

  • Current scenario – Outgoings £1,300pcm, Income £2,500pcm (£2,200 salary, £300 lodger)
    • 1300 / 2500 = spend rate 52%

But if i switch things around, it looks like this

  • Second scenario – Outgoings £1,000pcm (£1,300 – £1,000), Income £2,200
    • 1000 / 2200 = spend rate 45%

It’s worth reiterating that there is NO material difference in these two scenarios. I’m not any better off financially, the only difference is that the numbers look better on the monthly updates I post on this blog, and I may gain more FIRE blogger kudos. For the first half of 2018, it would change my spend rate from 66% to 61%. Not a drastic change, but would get me quite a bit closer to my sub-50% target.

However, the thought of doing that made me uncomfortable. Not just because I’d have to change how I run my balance sheet Excel file (perish the thought!), but because I would be twisting numbers to make me look better, and it wouldn’t do me or any of my readers any good in the long run.

So, basically this is a post detailing how I decided not to change something on my blog. I hope to have more interesting topics to discuss in the future, promise!

I feel it’s important that if bloggers are going to set public challenges or report massive financial success stories, we owe it to be candid about the ways and means which they are achieved. That’s not to say that everyone should publish all of their numbers, far from it. But we should be cautious of publishing half-stories, which only serve to make us look better, without actually advancing the field of knowledge in the personal finance community.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Have you ever been “creative” with numbers to make yourself look better?

TFE

Recommended Reading

 

6 thoughts on “How (and why) personal finance bloggers fudge their numbers

  • Hi TFE

    Thanks for linking my content 😉

    I try to be as honest as possible and I’m gradually getting more open about the numbers. That’s a hard obstacle to overcome sometimes – posting your financial details for the world to see. But I am getting there.

    I never manipulate numbers or try to make myself look better though. I think consistency is key. Different people measure things in different ways, but as long as you consistently do it the same way – it’s the trend that’s important.

    • You’re welcome firethe9to5!

      I absolutely agree, it’s not about sharing things you’re not comfortable with, but being candid and consistent with what you are sharing.

      TFE

  • Hey, cool post – I always go for the simple approach – and think changing numbers to make them look better is such a waste of time and ultimately making things more complex unnecessarily.

  • Hi TFE

    First time reader – It is nice to stumble upon something that is on my thoughts at present.

    Another situation is your regular monthly investment in your own property. Is your mortgage 100% an expense or part savings (paying down the principal), and part expenses (the interest?). You could argue it is 100% an expense because you are forced to “further invest” in your own home each month, and you certainly can’t ring up Santander and ask for a few months off paying your mortgage because your asset allocation determines you are currently overexposed to residential property!! That would definitely be a conversation that is played to the office!

    I “track” any overpayments to my mortgage as “savings” but not the portion of the regular monthly payment that pays down the principal. This seems silly.

    I for one just try and be consistent with my metrics, but I am thinking of moving over to thinking about our “expense rate” rather than “savings rate”, because if I don’t spend a portion of my income and don’t invest it, and just retain it as cash in our accounts, it is still savings and contributing to our net worth. Keeping cash in reserve in your account is still an investment. The merits of such an investment is for debate elsewhere.

    Your expenses are the key thing – if you stop the pounds from disappearing then the savings will look after itself. If the savings look after itself, so does the net worth.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your blog.

    QT

  • In addition, similar to the lodger situation, If you obtain dividends from shares or Income Mutual Funds, and then reinvest them then that will boost your savings rate, but if you automatically reinvest dividends or hold Acc Mutual Funds, then your savings rate would appear to be lower! In both situations the impact on your net worth is identical.

Leave a Reply

The FIRE Engine - Blog Directory OnToplist.com
%d bloggers like this: