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Financial Gaslighting: The Side Effect of Prescriptive Money Advice

wrong money advice

Trying to improve ourselves is never an easy, comfortable, or pain-free path — and having the advice of experts to guide us can be invaluable. But it’s important to be careful what self-help and financial advice we choose to follow.

Following money advice that isn’t a good fit for you can do more than set you up for failure. It can make you question yourself, your lived experiences with money, and your financial realities. It has an effect on us similar to gaslighting, a form of abuse that centers on denying the victim’s reality and making them doubt themselves.

In short, trying and failing to follow the wrong money advice can actually make you feel a little crazy.

When I’m told a money strategy is simple — easy, even — what does it say about me if I can’t stick to it?

It can trigger toxic money shame that gets in the way of progress.

How I’ve let money advice make me question myself

When I’ve fallen for advice that was wrong for my financial reality, it’s most commonly in my attempts to be more frugal. I’ve never been too wild of a spender, but I’m certainly no penny pincher either. In my natural state, I’m probably average leaning toward thrifty on the frugality scale.

Yet I overestimate my ability to live frugally — and underestimate the mental work and will power it takes to stick to it.

The urge to be this more-frugal version of myself is strong. When I find a money tip or read a success story, I almost reflexively start thinking about how I could replicate it. If other people can be strict about eating out less, spend less than half of what I do on groceries, or have a one-car household — I should be able to do that, too, right?

I followed financial advice without questioning it

Here’s an example: A couple of years ago, I tried to follow a new budgeting system. It required me to write down every single purchase I made, then review it weekly and monthly. It seemed like a smart idea that was getting results for whatever person I’d heard it from. So I decided to give it a try.

My expectation was that I would flawlessly follow this strategy. I’d write everything down and magically be able to better my spending habits. The reality: I wrote down about half of my expenses for about one week, never reviewed them, misplaced my planner, and then forgot I’d even committed to this system to begin with.

If I had stopped to think through this advice before trying it, I might have noticed that it relied on a lot of skills that are, shall we say, not my strengths:

  • It required me to keep track of a planner well enough to have it on hand whenever I left the house. However, I’m not great with organization or keeping track of smaller items.
  • The budgeting method also required a decent memory recall, to go, “Oh yeah, I’m doing this new thing — better write down that purchase I just made.” And while my mind is a steel trap when it comes to the events at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the years leading up to the Battle of Hogwarts, my ability to remember these little to-dos is spotty at best.
  • Lastly, it demanded consistency on a level that I’m not equipped to deliver. The whole “Set your mind to it and then do it” method of self-improvement is completely foreign to me. The thing I’m most consistent about is that, well, I’m pretty inconsistent.

The wrong advice led me to doubt my reality and myself

In this case, and in many others, I fell flat on my face trying to force myself into next-level frugality. I was so focused on cutting costs that I started to feel anxious and worried whenever I spent money. Money stress piled up, despite the fact that I was making progress, simply because I thought it wasn’t happening fast enough.

I picked fights with my husband if he spent money and, for a while, distrusted his financial judgment. Frankly, I didn’t trust my own financial judgment either.

Because I couldn’t follow money advice that worked for other people, I gaslit myself into thinking that meant something must be wrong with me.

Now, I focus on finding the right money advice for me

What I know now is that there was nothing wrong with me. And there was (mostly) not anything wrong with the advice I was trying to follow, either.

What was wrong was the fit. I’d try to follow money advice that didn’t click with my brain, my abilities, my income, my habits, my lifestyle, or even my values and goals.

When there was a breakdown in the process, I questioned myself. But what I needed to question was my insistence on taking money advice that was clearly incompatible with me and my financial reality.

6 Red flags of maddening money advice

When you’re in a tough spot, money and self-help advice can be highly attractive. Finally, you think to yourself, someone with some answers! If I can just apply this advice, I can actually improve my finances. We’re desperate to make any sort of progress — or simply appease the voice of panic that’s yelling at us internally, “OMG THIS IS SO BAD I NEED TO FIX THIS NOW.”

But that doesn’t allow for determining whether a particular financial strategy or money tip makes sense for you. I’ve run into plenty of prescriptive personal finance advice that’s well-intentioned but all wrong for me. And I recognize that ultimately, the responsibility of vetting advice and deciding what’s right for me comes down to only me.

The solution: be pickier and more judicious about the money advice you listen to.

Here are some red flags I’ve learned to avoid when deciding if a new money strategy, challenge, or tip will actually work for me. If I see these, I know I need to be extra careful and discerning before acting on the financial advice that’s offered up.

1. It requires you to be superhuman

There have been so many times that I’ve read financial or other self-help advice and been left utterly confounded by the person offering it. Because in my opinion, I’d have to basically be superhuman to follow it — or, at least, completely different than who I am.

“Just wake up an hour earlier” seems like solid advice — unless you’re an unrepentant night owl (hoo, hoo).

“Break a project down into smaller tasks that you can work on every day” is a nice idea —  for someone who already has planning skills and decent follow through (it ain’t me).

“Work toward increasing income” is great in theory — but so much of this doesn’t account for real-world obstacles or mental roadblocks that can make it so hard to actually earn more.

I fell into this trap with my earlier example of following a budgeting strategy that didn’t match my strengths. Since then, I’ve gotten into the practice of checking in with myself and doing a sort of inventory:

  • Does this advice make sense for my stage of life and financial management?
  • Do I have the mental energy and time available to make this change?
  • Is this advice in line with my strengths? Or will my own blind spots be getting in the way?
  • Is this advice based on what humans really need or want — or how they behave?
  • Does this strategy feel closer to changes I’ve made in the past that resulted in success, rather than failure?
  • Does this advice rely on skills I’m still working on? Should I focus on improving those skills first?
  • Does this strategy require me to greatly minimize — or not have — what seem like needs to me?

sking these questions helps me to be more intentional about my efforts with my money. And that includes working with my finances in ways that make sense for my needs, personality, and wiring.

2. It puts all the fault on you if you can’t follow it

Sometimes money advice works, but many times it doesn’t. A lot of personal finance advice likes to gloss over these disparate outcomes by chalking them up to a matter of personal responsibility, work ethic, or financial knowledge.

“If you fail or fall short,” this advice tells us, “it’s all your fault. How dare you suggest that not everyone, literally every person on this planet, can achieve financial security and success? If you don’t, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough, aren’t disciplined enough, and don’t want it bad enough.”

This kind of advice needs itself to be right rather than helpful. Instead of allowing finances to be a complicated, difficult topic, it claims money is simple and easy — if not, that’s because you’re wrong. You’re not good enough.

Please, please ignore money advice that tells you you are not good enough. You are good enough, you are trying hard enough, and I see it.

Skip experts who rely on shaming language to try to motivate financial change. It might get results, but it will be at the expense of your emotional health.

3. It ignores systemic obstacles (and advantages)

The kind of financial advice that overemphasizes personal responsibility is problematic for another major reason: it ignores the very real, systemic obstacles that are often standing in your way.

Two people can take the exact same steps to improve their finances and end up with vastly unequal outcomes. That’s largely a result of the systemic issues, problematic financial policies, prejudices, and power imbalances baked into our society that keep many poor and financially-disadvantaged people stuck.

Financial advice often can’t and won’t fix these issues for you, which is probably why most money experts simply don’t discuss these systemic problems at all. If you happen across financial advice that you think sounds too easy or doesn’t take the whole picture into account — you’re probably right.

But you don’t have to listen to people who gloss over the hardest parts of the financial reality you’re living or won’t acknowledge the systemic stumbling blocks in your way.  Try to find money advice that’s willing to situate itself in the larger context in which you make money decisions every day — and is willing to engage with the realities of the economic systems in our society.

4. It’s given by someone with a different background

Because of these systemic differences, it’s vital to get answers and advice from people who have been in the same financial situations you face. Who know how to navigate the tricky, specific, and vastly different obstacles you’re dealing with.

Consider the person behind the financial advice — their background, struggles or privileges, advantages or disadvantages, and financial status.

Find the people starting from a similar place of struggle. The money advice they give will be the most realistic, relatable, and helpful to you. More importantly, you’re less likely to get advice that’s wrong for you when it comes from those who have been there, done it, and understand the challenges at a gut level.

Fortunately, the personal finance space is more diverse than ever, thanks to those who are showing up for their communities and sharing their financial wins and wisdom. The range of people providing their viewpoints about finances includes women, people of color, people with lower incomes, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, people with disabilities, and more.

I’ve linked to a few I admire here, but this is by no means a comprehensive list. Readers, please contact me if you want extra help finding resources that fit your situation. If you’re a blogger who fits one of these descriptions, please leave a comment with a link to your resources!

5. It’s making someone money

Personal finance advice is largely  aimed at people who have money, because these people have the most options open to them: investing, borrowing money, or opening accounts. And these money moves are some of the most lucrative sources of revenue for financial companies and even bloggers.

I want to first be clear that I don’t begrudge businesses or bloggers who earn money from the hard work they put into educating others about personal finance. Many offer solid, free, and valuable information about money that helps millions of people.

Still, as a reader or user, you should keep in mind that these are businesses — not charities. They are there to turn a profit, and their advice will often reflect their own financial incentives.

In other words, they are more likely to offer advice that makes them money in return. Of course an investment firm will say everyone needs to invest, and a student lender will think you should definitely consider refinancing. That doesn’t mean it’s right for you or your current money situation.

Understand how financial sites and bloggers make their money so you can take this potential bias into consideration when weighing information or advice they share. Read disclosures included on site pages and blog posts. Get opinions and information from multiple sources before deciding what’s a smart choice for you.

(For the record, Brave Saver is a labor of love, and I don’t currently make anything from running it. Should that ever change down the line, I’ll be ethical and transparent about it and make sure you know.)

6. It’s not meant for your stage of financial management

I mentioned why a lot of money advice is aimed at people who have more of it: because people with money have more options and are easier to give advice to — as well as make money off of. This creates an unfortunate situation where people who have less money, are struggling, or have lower incomes are largely ignored.

When people who are financially struggling look for money advice, they’re met with a wall of seemingly improbable success stories and tips from others who have a lot more money.

And because this advice is the most plentiful out there, they think they should follow it. When they can’t, the failure feels personal. It can be disheartening and reinforce the message that if other people are doing it and we can’t, it’s because there’s something wrong with us.

Instead of letting that stand, challenge it. Acknowledge that the advice giver is at a different stage of financial management, and while you hope to be there someday, you aren’t just yet.

You know your own circumstances and challenges better than anyone else. The best thing you can do is develop the self-trust to make your own money and judgments.

It can be a process of trial and error, but with each attempt you’ll be wiser and better at knowing what works for you and your finances.

Bottom line: Find and follow money advice that works for you

Be pickier about whose advice you try to implement in your life so you can make sure you’re set up for slow, incremental success — not automatic failure.

If you falter or run into a new hardship, remember to stay on your own side. Give yourself room to fail a little while figuring out which financial methods work for you.

Learn more about your finances so you can better vet money advice against what you know and where you’re at.

Question your situation and your money strategies before you doubt yourself. Don’t listen to any outside voice that makes you feel unworthy, out of touch, or wrong. Protect your sense of self-worth and reality — as well as your values.


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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Bob at The Frugal Fellow
    June 10, 2019 at 9:11 pm

    Great post here. I also feel like all six of your red flags are true of the, ahem, *bigger* names in personal finance. But it’s so true. Not all advice works for everyone. Knowing what works for you is half the battle.

    I’ve always liked the phrase “personal finance is personal.”

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