When I ran into Nicole Dieker at FinCon, the annual conference of personal finance bloggers, the freelance writer and editor of the now-defunct website the Billfold was bedecked in buttons. The largest one in the center? "2020 Yang." Andrew Yang, a believer in universal basic income, wants to give each and every American a $1,000 monthly check. Surely, I thought, Dieker had received plenty of comments about it at a personal finance conference.
Wrong. As of the fourth day of the event, only two people had asked Dieker about Yang. I was the second.
The world made by the Great Recession didn't simply spawn the tea party and Occupy Wall Street. It also helped create an ecosystem of personal finance bloggers, podcasters and Instagram influencers, many of whom who see financial struggles in purely individual terms. On their platforms, they discuss everything from early retirement financed by high earnings and almost pathological lifestyle cutbacks - the so-called Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) movement - to struggles to pay down tens of thousands of dollars in student loan or credit card debt.
Spending a few days at FinCon 2019 shows the limits of the nonpolitical approach to improving your financial life. The vast majority of sessions are devoted to teaching attendees how to tell their "story" so that they can profit from their personal finance passion. (Typical session topics include "How to Get Booked & Paid to Speak" and "How to Build a $1 Million Blog.") Over and over again, the systemic problems facing Americans are simply accepted as a given and unfixable, and tossed back onto the individual for him or her to solve.
Rarely mentioned are the political system's many contributions to common economic troubles. A session on debt management points out, "bankruptcy is not necessarily the end of the world," but doesn't mention, say, how as a senator Joe Biden led an ultimately successful push to make bankruptcy harder for people to access, or that then-professor Elizabeth Warren lobbied hard against those changes. A session on retirement planning discusses the common obstacles cutting into millennial finances - the surging cost of child care, student loans, employers relying on contract employees, lack of health insurance - without any political context for why those obstacles are there. As a result, one speaker says, savings is "really just on the people." No one appears to doubt this. Instead a questioner raises his hand and asks, "How do you gamefy savings?"
It's all connected, as a quick stroll to the main floor of the FinCon exhibit floor shows. There you'll find the financial literacy advice from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which once protected consumers from Wells Fargo but now under the Trump administration takes apart regulations protecting people seeking payday loans. Then there's Medi-Share, the Christian health-care cost sharing company. It offers less expensive rates than the typical insurance policy. How can it do that? Because it's technically not insurance, it doesn't need to be Affordable Care Act compliant. It's an extremely imperfect individual solution for the healthy and devout for a problem that we're inured to but that, in fact, should never lose its horror: The United States is the only developed country that does not guarantee universal and affordable health care.
It's not that the financial stars and would-be financial gurus attending FinCon are apolitical - many most certainly are not. (As Dieker said to me, "If there's a meetup for frugal living, why isn't there a meetup for democratic socialism?") It's that few link the two in their work.
Andy Hill, founder of the personal finance blog and podcast Marriage, Kids and Money, tells me that college debt is a major concern of his audience. But when I ask him whether he's paying attention to the discussion of student loans and paying for college in the presidential election, he tells me, "It doesn't come up often because I think being empowered to make your own decisions outside of what the government may or may not do is more important than what might happen in the news."
Child care is a big concern for Hill's audience as well. When I tell this father of two young children about how New York City, where I live, adopted universal pre-kindergarten, he's immediately interested. "If there was universal pre-K in Michigan where I live, I think I would be very happy," adding, "It's an interesting conversation, and an interesting conversation that needs to be fostered. I guess I need to learn a little bit more about it."
Personal finance bloggers are not wrong when they say we can't control our lives without control over our finances. But that's often a hard ask for Americans. It's not because we lack financial literacy, and it's not because more people could stand to take financial advice from the attendees at FinCon. It's because we are facing staggering levels of income and wealth inequality, while facing staggering costs for housing, health care, education and so on. If better personal finance could fix this one by one for more than 300 million Americans, we would know by now.