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opinion

I have a degree in finance, but most of what I know about money came from the internet.

I started my personal finance blog in 2011, when I knew next to nothing about money. The web was a friendly place for creators just like me, who were paying off debt and investing in the stock market.

Not only did it offer a safe place where I could learn at my own pace, it provided a community where people were open about the traditionally taboo topic of money. I was inspired enough to pursue an MBA in 2013. But when I graduated in 2015, I turned down a career in investment banking to stay online, where I knew I could do more.

The internet provides accessible, free advice on everything from budgeting to investing in the stock market. There’s no reason to make an appointment with an adviser at your bank when you can watch a three-minute YouTube video from the comfort of your couch – and re-watch it as many times as you need to understand it.

Then, once you find the money topic you’re most interested in, online subcommunities can transform a single financial method into a lifestyle, like living debt-free or pursuing FIRE (financial independence retire early). If you’ve ever felt too timid to bring up your student loans or investment portfolio with your friends and family, there are thousands of strangers on the web willing to lend an ear – and their spreadsheets.

The money advice online is predominantly from young creators, because they’re the most social-media savvy. The newer the platform, the younger the personal finance celebrity offering up their wealth-hacking strategies.

GenX is still quietly churning out blog posts on dividend stocks, millennials are touting their real estate portfolios on Twitter, and GenZ is hawking crypto tokens on TikTok. Unfortunately – and unbeknownst to their followers – most personal finance creators lack both formal financial education and credentials. Their real skill is digital marketing, not finance.

As a result, the financial advice online runs rampant and unchecked. Even poor advice, like focusing on paying off your mortgage early instead of investing in the stock market for retirement, can go viral to convince thousands before anyone does the math.

And when someone does do the math, there’s virtually nothing that can be done to reverse the misinformation. You have no hope of removing every screenshot of a deleted tweet or erasing every recording of an Instagram story. The internet is forever.

You missed out on stocks, houses and crypto. Now what?

Can financial planners adjust to parents giving kids their inheritance early to buy homes?

Where financial institutions require employees to undergo training and receive certifications before they work with clients, an online finance creator doesn’t need anything more than smartphone. The employee of a bank or brokerage can face serious career and even legal repercussions for doling out bad financial advice, but a personal finance influencer – or “finfluencer” – faces no consequences. Just look at celebrity financial guru Dave Ramsey, who has convinced millions to put off investing until they’re completely debt-free – advice that is neither practical nor delivers the highest return on investment.

But most financial advice online is not misleading or harmful. In fact, it’s good. Really good. In my experience, online personal finance advice is worlds better than any of that provided by established financial institutions.

Talented online financial creators have mastered the art of breaking down complex topics for beginners, and they deliver information without shame or intimidation. They take it a step further and build relationships with their followers, engaging with them and answering questions in a way that is infinitely more accessible than a bank adviser behind an appointment calendar.

Your favourite finfluencer is an empathetic, thoughtful friend who will tell you exactly how much interest you’ll save by increasing your student loan payment by $25 a month. Don’t we all need more people like that in our lives?

My inbox is overflowing with e-mails and direct messages from people who felt unwelcome by financial institutions, but used my advice to pay off their debt, start a registered retirement savings plan, and negotiate a five-figure raise.

More surprising still are the messages I get from followers who work in finance, who learned something from me that they weren’t taught in their accounting degree or corporate finance job.

Perhaps the thing even more shocking than how good financial information is online, is how bad it is everywhere else. Why haven’t banks and brokerages done a better job educating not only their clients, but also their employees?

Until financial and educational institutions find a way to provide quality financial information in a way that is easy for the average person to access, understand, and implement, the finfluencers are here to stay. In the meantime, we’re all better off – and richer – because of them.

Bridget Casey, MBA (Finance), is founder of Money After Graduation, a financial eLearning company. You can follow her on Instagram & Twitter at @BridgieCasey

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