The rise of personal finance bloggers, out to save financially illiterate millennials
How do you make personal finance shareable for the Instagram generation? Replace jargon with relatable comics and a conversational tone to ensure financial literacy for Singaporean millennials, as some bloggers have done.
SINGAPORE: Ever since personal finance blog The Woke Salaryman put out its first article last year — about the most important things to do to save S$100,000 by the age of 30 — its rise in Singapore’s personal finance landscape has been meteoric.
And it started with an observation by one of its co-founders, He Ruiming, when he was working in advertising.
“(My industry peers) were going to claw machines, buying sneakers, indulging in S$7 coffee every day,” he recalls. “Many creative people like to spend money on stuff that we wear as badges of identity — like, ‘oh this is me, I drink cold brew every morning.’”
Whenever He shared “useful” articles on personal finance with these creative folk, he was told the articles from established voices on the scene, such as the Seedly community, were “so boring”.
That was when he realised there needed to be a “really low bar” for personal finance — a platform “so accessible” that “even if you were a coffee-drinking, sneaker-buying person from advertising, you’d be able to relate (to it)”.
But when The Woke Salaryman was born, even he and co-founder Goh Wei Choon, both 31, were taken by surprise by the “insane” reaction to their first post, which received 6,000 shares on Facebook within a few days.
Today, The Woke Salaryman commands around 171,000 followers on Facebook and 114,000 on Instagram.
It was the same with Dawn Cher, who runs SG Budget Babe. She first rose to prominence with her blog entry about saving S$20,000 in her first year of work on a monthly salary of S$2,500.
During the past few months, bloggers like them have noticed an increased interest in investment-related topics. And with Singapore sinking into recession owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, personal finance platforms like theirs have never seemed more pertinent, especially to millennials.
READ: Singapore in technical recession after GDP shrinks 41.2% in Q2 from preceding quarter due to COVID-19
FINANCIAL LITERACY, WHERE ART THOU?
Two in three working Singaporeans do not have sufficient savings to last them beyond six months if they were to get retrenched now, according to an OCBC survey conducted during the “circuit breaker”.
In such cases, they might “roll over credit card debt and default mortgage loans to some extent”, which would be “the worst thing that can happen, because credit card debt is the most expensive debt you can have”, says OCBC executive director of investment strategy Vasu Menon.
The survey, which polled 1,000 working adults aged 21 to 65 and earning S$2,000 and above per month, also found that 40 per cent of respondents planned to pare down their investment portfolio.
“A crisis is the best time to ask questions, because the crisis is a stress test to some extent. And this will come through in the survey results,” adds Menon.
WATCH: Pandemic financial advice for millennials, by millennials (7:52)
The seeming lack of financial prudence among Singaporeans, however, does not mean a lack of curiosity about personal finance.
Menon receives occasional questions about the markets from “eager” undergraduates on LinkedIn. Personal finance bloggers might satiate their “thirst for knowledge”, he says, as these bloggers “have the ability to write things in a more engaging way”.
But for everyone to benefit, the Davids and Goliaths of the finance ecosystem must work together. The banks’ role, he adds, is to “offer a sanity check”, ensuring these bloggers write sense.
Similarly, according to MoneySense, the Monetary Authority of Singapore does not shy away from working with financial blogs such as Dollars and Sense, and even lifestyle platforms like The Smart Local.
These efforts complement MoneySense, which infuses financial education into schools, from primary and secondary levels all the way to the Institute of Technical Education and polytechnics.
Bloggers are also able to provide nuanced insights about their readers, which can come in handy for financial institutions during a crisis.
“The larger the ecosystem, the better the awareness of financial literacy. If these sites keep saying financial literacy is very important, we can (even reach) the unconverted,” says Alvin Chow, 36, the founder of financial education company Dr Wealth.
“It’s also a reflection of demand and supply. When you have endless blogs about finance, it means there’s demand.”
KEEP IT SIMPLE, KEEP IT REAL
With the gamut of personal finance blogs and platforms at one’s fingertips, those that cut through the noise have replaced stuffy branding with illustrations or snazzy stock images, quirky videos, sleek layouts and a conversational tone.
But the rebranding is not merely aesthetic. Firstly, successful blogs like The Simple Sum manage to simplify jargon.
With 85 per cent of its target audience ranging from 20 to 34, its podcasts and comics aim to empower them through casual language. For instance, deciding whether to get a credit card should not be overcomplicated.
“Find a card that won’t make you upgrade your lifestyle. (If) you’re spending money to save money, does that make sense?” says Xu Yuanduan, the platform’s content lead.
Secondly, maintaining accessibility requires some degree of transparency about one’s personal circumstances, although this leaves others room to pass judgement. Cher, for example, took flak from disbelieving readers when she shared her saving efforts in her first post.
But Cher says she goes Dutch with her husband (then boyfriend), gives her parents an allowance, handles their insurance and makes her own coffee.
Whether readers think her stingy or not, she continues to dish out “timeless” tips that apply to everyone, such as making sure that one has a well-covered insurance plan.
“Whether you’re my fan or sceptical of what I say, you can’t deny that you need to be insured. If you go ahead and choose not to have hospitalisation insurance, when you’re hospitalised, you’ll have to (take) the consequences,” she says.
Finally, “keeping it real” requires bloggers to understand the layman so they do not write in a void.
Understanding, for example, that people were looking for ways to make money while at home during the circuit breaker, Cher blogged about how to earn side income. It garnered about 18,000 views, making it one of her more popular posts.
The Woke Salaryman’s co-founders think up their ideas, but they also “look within the community” or “ask friends who know someone working within specific industries”, because they “don’t want to pull anything out of (their) asses”, says He.
NOT JUST ABOUT MONEY
Successful finance blogs also help readers realise that personal finance does not revolve solely around dollars and cents.
Jeraldine Phneah blogs about issues impacting her generation, like the cost of living, work-life balance, lessons she learnt during her first five years working as well as the environmental and financial benefits of embracing minimalism.
The 29-year-old, who runs JeraldinePhneah.com outside her full-time job in technology, has also received COVID-related career questions: Whether it is the right time to switch jobs and how people can future-proof themselves.
During the circuit breaker, she conducted a webinar on how millennials can optimise their LinkedIn profile to be found by recruiters, and another on networking tips for beginners and introverts.
She also discussed how her readers aged 25 to 34 can navigate a job market “disrupted by technology”.
“Many people tend to associate IT skills with big data and coding. But it’s more about understanding where your industry is headed and how you can align yourself accordingly so you add value to employers,” she says.
This could mean exploring a new software that is specific to one’s industry and improves one’s productivity.
Essentially, financial advice is life advice.
On any personal finance journey, keeping one’s mental health intact is important, shares He. If a job causes severe distress and you can afford a break, he recommends living off your savings for a while before starting the job search.
As a result of The Woke Salaryman’s non-judgemental approach, He and Goh get younger readers opening up to them about issues like racking up debts through purchases in online games.
Recently, a post of theirs about moving out in one’s 20s gained them 10,000 Instagram followers within a week.
The Woke Salaryman’s values are aspirational, they clarify, lest there be any fear that one must adopt a spartan life. “We’re normal people. We don’t eat instant noodles every day or eat only rice and beans,” says He.
He and Goh are well aware that privilege underscores an individual’s perspective towards money. Putting the “woke” in The Woke Salaryman, they have no qualms about addressing how inequality influences personal finance.
They acknowledge that “a portion of Singaporeans won’t find (their) content helpful” because “systemic poverty makes it harder for them to overcome their circumstances”.
“You can tell people to save 20 per cent, spend 50 per cent and use 30 per cent for your needs or whatever, but not everyone’s created equal,” says He. “These ratios won’t apply to everyone.”
Goh adds: “We always preach ... long-term decisions, but not having enough money in the household makes it extremely difficult to make such decisions.”
For their largely middle-class readership, The Woke Salaryman advocates the “right mindset”, which can be developed with “emotional maturity and discipline”.
But the idea of wealth “shouldn’t be monopolised by a few classes”, adds He, who would like to see, say, a graphic designer be financially free one day.
In a similar vein, Providend chief executive officer Christopher Tan, 50, says knowing his clients’ background helps him to better understand their relationship with money.
“If someone comes from a family that’s been destroyed by poor financial decisions like investing in the stock market ... naturally they’d (view the stock market through) certain lenses,” he cites.
“I’ve also spoken to clients who came from very poor families but are financially wealthy today. They don’t dare to spend a single cent, because they’re afraid of not having money again. And that affects their way of investing. They become very conservative and put all their money in a bank.”
Although Providend mainly handles clients in their 50s who do not turn to personal finance bloggers, more of them have approached him to speak with their millennial children about the importance of “financial resilience” for the road ahead.
He has similar advice on perusing personal finance blogs. “We need to ... take into context (the bloggers’) upbringing,” he says.
ARE MILLENNIALS ACTUALLY SOLD?
Some millennials, however, have not bought into the hype surrounding personal finance bloggers, even as they understand the need for financial literacy.
“They’re a useful source of information, but I don't think anyone should treat their advice as gospel,” says Wu Bingyu, who works in a production company.
The 29-year-old turns to his mother for financial advice because she used to work for the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (Iras). But he also does his own research for a more well-rounded understanding.
Likewise, if theatre director Adeeb Fazah is not seeking financial advice from his peers who share similar circumstances, he sieves through information on his own.
“As a freelancer, CPF and Iras are things I need to figure out. Starting was hard because ... it felt like I was plunged into a deep whirlpool of information,” says the 28-year-old. “I’m getting the hang of it.”
However, The Woke Salaryman, whose initial target demographic would have included creative folk like Adeeb, does not quite cut it with him.
“As long as I don’t fit into their version of a working person, which I definitely don’t, then the advice won’t be suitable, and I’d only feel bad about not hitting the goals they set,” he reasons.
“It makes me feel like an awfully unaccomplished fool.”
Those who see the benefit of personal finance bloggers make it clear that it is important to do one’s homework as well.
Whenever 28-year-old Alexander McColl seeks financial advice, his research process begins with “a billion tabs” open on his web browser because “it’s useful to build up your ‘google-fu’ to know where to find answers”.
“If I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of things, then I go ahead and do what my well-fed intuition tells me,” he says. “If there’s still a feeling of uncertainty, I’d go to friends who seem to know their stuff.”
It helps him to think of personal finance as “compulsory”, because it is like “a test you have to pass on the road of adulthood”.
For bloggers, the mark of effectiveness could still be in getting creative folk — the ones who inspired The Woke Salaryman and embody the cliche that creative people hate numbers — to be engaged.
For example, filmmaker Cheng Chai Hong considers himself “fairly financially illiterate” because he never saw wealth accumulation as a goal. But the most useful financial advice the 30-year-old received was from He of The Woke Salaryman.
“He said saving money isn’t solely for wealth accumulation. The more money you save and have in passive investment, the easier you can say no to bad deals or unhealthy workplaces,” says Cheng.
Then there is Jemimah Wei, a writer and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) student at Columbia University. She knew she wanted to be a writer, which “doesn’t make bank”, so she planned for the long term.
“You don’t need to go abroad for higher education, nor is an MFA a prerequisite to be a writer, but I very desperately wanted that kind of mentorship and writing community (at Columbia),” says the 28-year-old.
“I didn't think I could afford an education abroad, so I worked towards the specific scholarships that would make that reality possible.”
Despite being goal-oriented, she felt that money talk was reserved for the realm of bankers and business whizzes. But bloggers like SG Budget Babe and The Woke Salaryman helped her “bridge that gap between the garble of financial literature and layman understanding”.
“Many artists don’t want to deal with the money, the business side of things. But not dealing with it is a kind of mental shackle as well. It’s directly linked to stress and opportunity and time, which affects the quality and production of your work,” Wei says.
“Money, more than anything, is mental freedom and time that you can devote to the work you want to do.”