Success stories (and the people who hate them)
I spent last week in St. Louis for the third-annual Financial Blogger Conference. In two short years, Fincon has grown into more than just a gathering of bloggers. The place was packed with 500 bloggers, authors, journalists, sponsors, and financial professionals.
Naturally, the workshops and main-stage speakers were outstanding. Our keynote speakers included Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC's Today show, and Pat Flynn of Smart Passive Income. Many of your favorite finance bloggers shared their knowledge in smaller groups, with talks like “How I Made $300,000 in Two Years with an Autoresponder”, “How to Use WordPress Like a Ninja”, and “How to Connect with Extremely Successful People”.
This year, I didn't have a main-stage talk. Instead, I participated in a panel on making money from your blog. I joined Luke Landes from Consumerism Commentary, Toni Anderson from The Happy Housewife, and Andrea Deckard from Savings Lifestyle for a one-hour discussion of ads and affiliates and ebook sales. (I learned far more than I shared; I'm four years out-of-date on blog monetization!)
My main gig, though, was as emcee for the event. In July, I decided I was done with feeling scared when I spoke in public. I wanted practice. I contacted Fincon organizer Philip Taylor (from PT Money) to ask if he needed help. Could I act as moderator? “You bet!” he said. It was a win-win situation, taking pressure off of him and giving me a chance to improve my speaking abilities. I'm glad I did it.
As you can probably imagine, when you bring 500 finance nuts together for almost an entire week, there's a lot of talk about money.
This year, I conducted about a dozen interviews. I'm writing an ebook about what it takes to achieve Financial Independence (especially the early retirement variety), so I pulled aside anyone I knew who had already done so. I asked them to tell me their stories. Though the details differed, the overall themes of each story were remarkably similar. Let me tell you my favorite.
One morning, I met an attendee for breakfast. For our purposes, let's call him Bob. (I'm giving him an alias for reasons that will become apparent shortly.)
For the better part of an hour, Bob and I had a routine conversation about saving and investing. For a while, we became bag nerds, discussing our favorite backpacks and carry-on luggage. He and I are both obsessed with finding the ideal bag. (Have a favorite? Let me know! I'm always looking for a better one.)
After a while, Bob asked me about my current project. I told him I was writing an ebook about Financial Independence, and gently pried into his own situation. “Are you FI?” I asked. Bob paused for a moment.
“I guess it depends on how you define it,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “There are different degrees of financial independence. There's the independence you get when you're no longer a slave to debt. You achieve more freedom when you reach occupational independence. But what I'm really talking about is the type of financial freedom that would allow you to retire. You're about 45, like me. Could you retire right now?”
Bob thought about it some more. “Well,” he said. “I suppose I could, but it would mean giving up a little of my current lifestyle. I'm not willing to do that right now.”
“That's the situation I'm in,” I said. “I could retire if I wanted to scale back. I don't want to scale back. So, I'm semi-retired. I still work, but I do it on my terms, and I don't make a lot, which is fine. I don't need to make a lot. Just enough so that I don't draw on my savings.”
“Yeah,” said Bob. “Me too.”
Then he changed the subject. “How are you going to publish your ebook?” he asked.
“I have a friend who publishes and promotes these things,” I said. “Why? Have you published an ebook?”
Bob blushed a little, which I thought was odd. “Yeah,” he said. “I've published a lot of them. I do it through Amazon.”
“Is it profitable?” I asked.
Bob blushed a little more. “Uh, very,” he said. “But part of that is because of what I write about.”
“What do you write about?” I asked, but I already knew.
Bob, deep red by now, spilled the beans. “I write…certain stories for ladies,” he said. “They run maybe 6000 words and I charge $2.99 each on Amazon. I sell a lot of them. A lot of them. Whenever I want to buy something, I write another one. It takes me a night or two to write, and then I let my wife edit it. I publish it on Amazon under an assumed name, a woman's name.”
By this time, I was laughing at poor Bob. “That's awesome,” I said. “I'm always preaching that people need to make more money in order to better achieve their financial goals. Few people listen. You've found a fun way to do it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It's helped me pay off my mortgage. It helps to pay for vacations. And if I keep at it, it'll help me retire early.”
Everyone Hates a Winner
I learned a lot at Fincon.
For instance, Mrs. Moneyseed told me about a curious phenomenon. It turns out that folks don't like to read about people who achieve early retirement. “A lot of people have a mindset that retirement means you turn 65, move to Florida, and play golf all day,” she told me. “When we talk about early retirement on the blog, they get defensive.”
Later, in a conversation with Derek (Free at 33) and Mandy Knight (Lemonade CEO), they said the same thing. Derek was homeless at eighteen and hooked on drugs. By 28, he was married, clean, and mortgage-free. In a few years, he'll have saved enough to retire.
“People don't like to hear that I've been successful,” Derek confided. “People want to hear how they can get rich, but they're resentful of others who have done it.” Mandy told me how they'd been profiled in a newspaper and received mostly negative responses — and over something that, objectively, would seem to be only positive.
Throughout the conference I heard similar stories.
Eventually it occurred to me that my colleagues and I love gathering together once every year largely because, if only for a few days, we're able to spend time with like-minded people who don't condemn us for scrimping and saving so we can retire before 50 (or 40 or 30).
Perhaps nobody takes more heat than my friend Pete, better known as Mr. Money Mustache. I wrote about the MMM philosophy last month after spending a week with Pete in Ecuador. Just as he does at his own site, Pete got raked over the coals in the comments at Get Rich Slowly. “I don't get it,” I told him last week. “I agree with everything you say. If people would listen, they'd get rich.” He just shrugged. He's used to the criticism by now.
Two years ago, I wrote about America's love-hate relationship with wealth:
Almost everyone who achieves financial success believes they've done so through justifiable means. They believe they've earned their money (or deserve it), and they don't feel guilty for having it. Too, we're generally supportive and appreciative of our friends who make it big. (I can think of a handful of folks I know who have managed to acquire wealth, and I'm proud of each of them.) But when it comes to strangers who are rich? Then our attitudes seem to change.
There's an underlying distrust of the rich in mainstream American society, which seems odd. Isn't that what most of us aspire to? We all want to be rich, yet we resent it when other people manage to achieve their financial goals. We complain that they had advantages that we didn't, or that they cheated, or that they don't deserve the money. But what if the same thing happened to us? What if we became rich? How would we feel about such judgment and criticism?
Two years later, I still don't understand it. Why tear down people who have achieved success? Why not learn from them? Instead of looking for the reasons their stories and methods wouldn't work for you, why not look for the elements that do apply to your life? One response is constructive; the other is destructive, both to you and another person.
Back to Work
I had a great time in St. Louis chatting with old friends and new. But I didn't get nearly enough sleep. (Only today, after four nights at home, am I starting to feel normal again.) I'll return next year, of course; I hope to land the emcee gig again!
In the meantime, it's back to work, writing about money. For the past month, I've been locked in my office, hard at work on my ebook about Financial Independence. I'm something like 30,000 words in (it's tough to know since the project is scattered across many documents) with my deadline fast approaching. It needs to be turned in by Halloween.
This book may be the best thing I've ever created. What started out as a straight money manual has morphed into something more. It's now a treatise on personal and financial freedom. This feels like the culmination of everything I've been reading and writing about for the past decade. It's my life work, my legacy project. I love it. I hope you will too. (But you'll have to wait until January to see it!)