It couldn’t be that hard I reasoned — millions of people had done it before. My university told me that I was now a critical thinker, so I should be able to tackle anything if I put my mind to it. I had managed to purchase a car successfully after reading a couple articles on how to comparison shop, what to look for, etc. Surely buying a house would be a manageable endeavor.
Except that I had no idea how to buy a house and everything I read about it appeared to be written in Greek.
7 years ago: my start in personal finance
I was a young professional moving to a small town that had very few rental possibilities and relatively low housing prices. Buying a home seemed to make sense, but the process certainly did not. I quickly realized that despite almost two full decades of formal education, I had no clue about terms like interest, down payment rules, offer to buy, or CMHC insurance. At the same time as when I developed this self-awareness, another insight struck me: no one else knew about this stuff either.
Because I had recently spent 5 years pursuing a post-secondary education, I happened to know a wide variety of young people who I considered pretty bright, so I asked them for advice. Yet my friends who were engineers didn’t know, the lawyers pretended to know, but didn’t actually, and most of my teaching colleagues knew even less than me! Surely my pals from the world of commerce and business could help, right? Nope. They might have been able to regurgitate something about interest rates, but they couldn’t tell me why I should speak with a mortgage broker.
It was at this point that I realized there was a space for a young Canadian experiencing these personal finance decisions for the first time to document his journey — warts and all. I eventually bought a house (after countless hours reading and negotiating), but in doing so I had uncovered more questions than answers. Like many middle-class Canadians, money conversations were a taboo around my dinner table growing up. The advice I had picked up more or less amounted to: try not to go into debt, and if you do go into debt, make sure it’s not credit card debt. Now as far as financial advice goes, that’s a pretty good start — but it’s far from comprehensive.
I started reading financial blogs, but at the time, most were based on the U.S.(still good fundamental concepts, but not always directly applicable). These articles just continued to whet my appetite. I had plenty of time to indulge my growing interest as I acclimatized to my new post-university life and embraced winter living on the prairies. I began to pay attention to Canada’s leading financial columnists such as Rob Carrick, Ellen Roseman, Preet Banerjee, and others. I read and re-read both Wealthy Barber books by the Godfather of Canadian personal finance, David Chilton. Then I ordered the whole “Amazon recommends” section that you could scroll down to after reading his book. Finally, after several months of reading about this stuff and annoying my friends and family with conversation starters such as, “Do you know how badly the financial industry takes advantage of us in Canada?” I figured I could just start annoying people on the Internet instead.
The idea right from the beginning was to write with myself in mind as the target market.
Now that can be a dangerous idea for a writer, but I figured that given my anecdotal experience, there were likely many young Canadians out there who had no idea just how much they didn’t know when it came to personal finance. I finally found a use for some of those “soft skills” that a Bachelor of Arts degree was supposed to have endowed me with, and I set about trying to answer all of the questions I had and then pass that information along in ways that didn’t put people to sleep. I figured if I could help a few people come to the same “eureka moments” I’d experienced, in addition to answering my own questions, then the project would be a success.
Things started to grow from there
In hindsight, I guess that demographically-speaking I hit a bit of a sweet spot in that I’m right square in the middle of the Millennial/Gen Y age range, and, consequently, much of my generational cohort were hitting these major financial decisions — like purchasing a house — at the same time. Initially, I didn’t have many thoughts of my own and certainly didn’t think of myself as a “voice in Canadian personal finance”. All I was doing was being curious and reading a lot of stuff from a wide variety of sources, then organizing it in a way that made sense to me so I could clarify what I thought my next steps should be going forward.
Eventually, I started to realize that most of the people writing about financial topics had vested interests and there weren’t a lot of impartial people talking about topics like mutual fund fees or the current job market millennials were facing. I think the fact that I had no formal training in business or finance of any kind actually helped me connect with a lot of readers. My lack of knowledge reflected the broader public much better than the mindset of most industry insiders who tended to make the same common mistake: they thought jargon-filled writing meant credibility.
Today, I’m still sort of shocked when I get a message in my inbox asking me to come on CBC radio to discuss millennials’ banking needs or from a school board asking me to come speak about financial literacy. After writing thousands of articles, as well as co-authoring a book (More Money for Beer and Textbooks is available online and in a fine bookstore near you), and appearing on several dozen radio shows and podcasts, I still find myself as curious as the day I began.
Here’s hoping that the young (or young at heart) Canadians will continue learning right alongside me.