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What’s the Best Way for a Regular Person to Learn Personal Finance?

How to wade through the books, podcasts and YouTubers in a way that won’t make you want to gouge your own eyes out

Just as there are infinite worlds in our own galaxy, there are infinite little worlds all over the internet. Having the entire body of human knowledge at our fingertips is great, but also daunting as hell. Like, if you want to learn personal finance, great! There are books, websites, podcasts, YouTubers, newsletters, memberships, gurus… but shit, where do you even begin? What’s the best way to learn the basics without boring yourself to death — or worse, getting monumentally crap advice? Alongside Brian Walsh, a self-proclaimed personal finance “nerd” who’s a Certified Financial Planner with SoFi, we’re going to get personal.

Why should I learn personal finance? It’s not like I’m terrible with my money (full disclaimer, I might be terrible with my money).

Whatever level of expertise you have, it’s a great skill set to have and build on. Walsh points out that we as a society have done a pretty poor job at teaching and promoting the virtues of financial literacy — e.g., very few people learn it in high school or college anymore.

“When it comes to making financial decisions, people will typically feel a little more overwhelmed when they don’t have any kind of baseline to connect it to, which is why it’s important for people to learn the basics before hopping into specific financial strategies,” Walsh says. 

Okay, where do I start?

Bearing in mind that everyone tends to want to absorb information differently, Walsh has lots of recommendations, including some very reader-friendly books. And if just thinking about personal finance books makes you gaze into the middle distance while drooling, don’t worry: These are books about economics and human behavior — in other words, personal finance books that have little to do with personal finance. He particularly recommends Nudge, Naked Economics and Start With Why.

Walsh likes these books because they focus on why we make bad decisions, and how to make better ones rather than diving into the nitty-gritty financial details. 

Are there… how to say this… exciting ways to learn personal finance?

Yes! I mean, you know, relatively speaking. Now more than ever, there’s so much out there. Do you happen to like gambling? If so, there’s a great book out there called Thinking in Bets. That’s just one example. When you find ways to put things in a context you’re familiar with, you’ll be more entertained and better able to digest the information within. It’s a bit like tricking yourself into eating your vegetables by putting them in your favorite food.

If reading’s not your preferred way to learn, there’s much more out there than books. There’s a ton of podcasts, which seem most effective to Walsh, as well as a lot of YouTube content. The great thing about these (particularly podcasts) is that, when you find one you trust and you like the vibe of the host and the show, you can just subscribe and new episodes will come to you. Walsh recommends SoFi’s daily podcast, Planet Money by NPR, Freakonomics and the Jocko Podcast. Again, just like the books he recommends, some of these, as Walsh says, “have nothing and everything to do with personal finance at the same time, because getting your money right is all about the little habits that add up to major changes.” 

Walsh isn’t personally into YouTube, so these aren’t his recommendations, but for what it’s worth, popular but accessible YouTubers include The Plain Bagel, WhiteBoard Finance and PBS’s Two Cents. Khan Academy also has finance and economics videos.  

Other ideas: Walsh uses Twitter to his advantage by following people for specific financial purposes — people whom he views as experts, whose opinions he trusts. It’s a quick way to consume a lot of information — namely, the articles these people share and the things they retweet. He likes Downtown Josh Brown, White Coat Investor, Morningstar, Tax Foundation and Carl Richards.

There’s also the burgeoning universe of Freakonomics, which started as a book and has grown into a website, a movie, a podcast and a radio show. (Walsh is a longtime fan.) Your own financial institution is also a great source of information, Walsh says — many offer it on their own websites as a blog, or, yes, as podcasts (like SoFi’s).

You got anything for couples?

Walsh and his wife listen to the Rise Together podcast — yes — together. “I don’t think you can have relationship health and personal finance health be totally separate,” he says.

What about all these financial gurus? Are they, y’know — massive bullshit merchants?

Well… pretty much, yeah. They have catchy nicknames, enviable lifestyles and account balances; they’ve got books, they’ve got podcasts, they’re guests on famous people’s podcasts; and of course, what they have more than anything else is the answers. All the answers! Or so they would have you believe. Walsh says to proceed cautiously: Just like in a newspaper or on cable news, in the personal finance realm there’s a difference between fact and opinion, and lots of gurus are in the latter camp.

The issue with these gurus is twofold: First, their advice is often conflated with opinion. This opinion and advice isn’t necessarily vetted, and it isn’t necessarily backed by information, whereas when you get advice from your financial institution, it goes through compliance review and passes legal muster. It may not be perfect information, but it’s at least been vetted! Now, with these gurus, even though it’s basically just some dude with no oversight, there can still be value to it — just know what you’re getting into.

Second, be a little wary of gurus who have simple solutions, Walsh says. They often overpromise and under-deliver. Walsh is a firm believer that results come with consistency over the long term, which is simple but not necessarily easy. And so those easy-button plans, like, say, the notion that no longer buying a Starbucks coffee every day will leave you much better off… well, maybe that’s true, Walsh says, but it’s also way more complicated than that. 

On the plus side, Walsh notes the increasing connection between personal finance and self-improvement that a lot of podcasts and blogs are bridging. That’s a good thing overall, as smart people are reaching new audiences they might not have had before. 

What about Dave Ramsey, one of personal finance’s OGs?

Walsh takes care to point out that Ramsey has had a huge impact on society and helped many people make good financial decisions, and that’s an amazing thing. But he doesn’t always agree with all of Ramsey’s recommendations, which, Walsh says, aren’t necessarily backed by research and data. Also, Ramsey’s one-size-fits-all advice just won’t apply to everyone, as many people have different circumstances.

So overall, despite it being extremely subjective and complex, it’s not actually that hard to learn personal finance if you go about it the right way?

Correct. The hardest part might be that there’s so much information out there now, and it’s critical that people know what they’re getting into when they get information from a specific source. 

Much like managing your expenses, learning this stuff is simple but not always easy (though it’s easier now than ever before). In trying to spend less than we earn and build up our savings, we all know what we have to do: It’s finding out the right way to do these things that’s worth learning about. But when you actually do, you’ll be glad you did.