Salvation or scam: a closer look at financial gurus

When most people consider overhauling their personal finances, getting out of debt, and learning how to handle money, they think of turning to flashy finance gurus like Dave Ramsey, David Bach, Suze Orman, Tony Robbins, the list goes on. These financial writers, mostly American, have built enormous empires out of their books, television shows, motivational talks, and programs designed to teach the average worker how to organise their money. 

When I was an early-twenties university student and realised nobody was going to teach me how money worked,  I had to start actively seeking out the information. These people’s names, and then our own Barefoot Investor Scott Pape, kept cropping up with swathes of products to purchase that would teach me what I wanted to know. Through some investigation and procrastination internet searches for grassroots stories about personal finance like Budget Girl on Youtube, the Financial Diet, and Broke Millennial, I developed a healthy scepticism for what these gurus were touting as modified “get rich quick” schemes.

There are two key commonalities across the majority of finance gurus that are turn-offs for someone with humble financial literacy goals.

Firstly, finance gurus are selling you information that is already freely available. Whether this information is couched as “secrets to success” or a cheat-sheet to help you beat “the game”, the path to financial success is paved with the same steps, no matter who’s saying it: set a budget, save an emergency fund, pay off debt with the avalanche or snowball method, save for retirement, save for predictable and unpredictable expenses, invest diversely and consistently. If you read widely across finance experts or those just interested in sharing their own experiences, then the broad advise is nearly the same, with a myriad of examples for how to apply the tips to your own life. 

There is no arguing that the financial world has barriers to entry and one of the biggest is simply learning the lingo, the bare bones of financial literacy. The way finance gurus shroud the world of money behind secrets, insider information, and the act of paying to learn how to “master the game” perpetuates the myth that finance is impenetrable and too difficult for the average person to understand without a multi-week finance program and all the associated workbooks. With time, patience, and some self-confidence, you can learn everything the gurus have to say for yourself.

Another myth finance gurus bank on is the fantasy that anyone can be wealthy if they play their cards right. This simply isn’t true because it disregards the impact of oppressive social and financial systems that deliberately disadvantage marginalised people. For example, David Bach’s case study in The Automatic Millionaire explains how an average couple manage to retire early with a million dollars in assets by doing away with a budget and instead automatically saving an average of 10% of their income over 30 years while also paying off two mortgages. The problem is that issues of disability or chronic poor health, unaffordable housing, insecure employment, and/or discrimination in marginalised groups have an astronomical impact on their ability to generate wealth in comparison to the standard privileged white contender. By measuring financial “success” on will power alone, anything less than wealth is a demoralising personal failure rather than the consequence of inequitable capitalist systems.

A few years into my personal finance journey now, I can say I have a healthy relationship with my finances. By absorbing the available advice from professionals and diverse average people alike, I have the confidence to shape my financial future within the system, no cheat codes required.

Guest author

Julia Clark is a writer and PhD student in Sydney working on commodity aesthetics and object relations as applied to the body as the centre of consumption. You can read more of her work at juliaclarkwrites.com