The (Financial) Stories We Tell

There is no one version of the truth.

Everyone’s financial story is unique.

Bad things happen. Good things happen. You get lucky breaks, and bad breaks. You may work hard for a very long time and see no results. Or you might work hard for a short time and hit it big.

Life is a complicated web of interwoven strands, each one impacting the next in ways you can’t anticipate.

Today I’m going to talk about how the financial stories we tell, and read, can be shaped however we might want. And you, dear reader, need to take them all with a GIANT grain of virtual salt.

The Limitation Of Personal Stories

The challenge with writing (or reading) a single article, a book, or a website about one persons story is that you’ll never know the full picture.

After all, how could you? A 1,000 word article isn’t nearly enough space to tell a complete story. Even a 1,000 page book wouldn’t be enough space to capture all the nuances, twists, and turns of someones life.

That’s why personal stories are limited in their usefulness to others. Just because I did something, doesn’t necessarily mean you can. You could take every action I’ve taken and still not get to where I got. Some things about my life you can’t replicate.

And some things, you wouldn’t want to replicate. I doubt very much you want your spouse to face death when you’re 32 with two young children. And yet, that was a key turning point in my financial life.

Humans love stories. We learn best through stories. But stories are limited in their usefulness. They’re rarely complete, and when telling the story, we’ll focus on the things we want to highlight and not talk about the things we don’t.

It becomes an issue when we craft the story in such a way as it omits key facts that would otherwise change how it is perceived.

How We Tell Our Story Matters

Lets say, for example, that I end up paying off my mortgage next year at the age of 38.

Note, I’m not saying this is happening, this is a hypothetical at this point.

I could then run a headline on the site that says:

“How To Pay Off Your Mortgage At 38 On A Single Income!”

How I would tell that story really matters. 

Here’s some key facts that I could cover – or not – which would totally change how you perceive this accomplishment.

Focus on the hardships

I could focus on the fact that I started off in community college, working full time and going to school full time nights and weekends. My oldest son was born two months after I graduated college, when I was 23 years old. My husband lost his job in the Great Recession when his workplace closed in 2009. He almost died three years later of septic shock, and has hardly been able to work since. We have three kids and all five of us live on my income. And yet, we scrimped and saved and here we are!  Success!

My story is one of being down and out, overcoming adversity and never giving up.

Bootstraps for the win!

Or maybe instead…

Focus on the advantages

Instead of telling the story in that way, maybe I’ll instead frame it with my advantages. It will no longer be a story of overcoming adversity, but a story of success.

I’ll tell you about how I earn a high income, having gotten into IT in my early 20’s and building a career there. My husband is a stay at home dad to our three boys, freeing me up to focus on achieving success at work. I have an MBA in Technology, and studied International Business through courses in France and China. I’ve been interested in personal finance and investing since I was a teenager – heck, my father helped me open my first IRA as a teen! This means I’ve been investing for retirement since I was 16 or 17 years old, before the dot-bomb and the Great Recession. And boy, if you entered 2008 with a decent nest egg, and didn’t sell, you’ve done well for yourself!

See how that angle totally changes how you would perceive my story?

And then there’s…

What do I tell – or leave out?

Seeing that I’m 38, you may assume I bought my home in my early to mid 30’s. I could choose to not address this in the article, and you’re going to make some assumptions. Maybe those assumptions will impress you, because you’ll think I did this in a very short period of time.

OR I could tell you I bought it when I was 26. Meaning we’ve been paying on the mortgage for twelve years. For the last five years we’ve had a 15 year mortgage, which means that it’s 1/3 gone anyways. Less impressive now, right?

Oh, and when we bought it, I had sold a condo I bought six years earlier for a large profit thanks to the housing bubble. This is how we afforded the down payment. I could go back even farther and mention that I was able to buy the condo in the first place because back then, you could somehow buy for 5% down and finance the rest. I don’t quite remember how that worked, but it did.

Even the fact that I’m 38 is an interesting fact. Do I cover how old my husband is? He’s 43, for the record.

Lets talk about that “single income” line for a minute. I could emphasize that fact, how my poor family has to live on mom’s income because of my husbands complicated health situation. Queue the sad music and the virtual tiny violin.

Or I could tell you that over the past twelve years we’ve owned this home, we’ve had times where we did both work full time (opposite shifts). And we’ve had times where he’s worked part time. There were times he brought in unemployment, from being laid off when his workplace closed.

Also, the fact that right now he stays at home is frankly just easier for all of us. He could work in some field if we decided that makes sense. Even though he would never be able to return to his former line of work, we don’t consider him disabled. He’ll likely work again once the little guy heads off to kindergarten.

Oh, and that “mom’s income” is a high one. Not like a quarter or half million dollars a year high, but certainly high compared to the average. So there’s that.

No Story Is Complete

You would know all of the things I listed above if you’ve been reading my site consistently for the past two years I’ve been writing. And if you’ve read every article I’ve ever written. I strive to be as transparent as possible about advantages, disadvantages, and lucky breaks I’ve had in my life.

But really, in a single article, you can’t cover them all. If all you ever read that I wrote was this hypothetical mortgage article, then how I would craft that story really matters.

Think about how this problem is compounded for personal stories you read in the traditional media. They don’t have hundreds of articles about you, with tons and tons of context and nuance. They have one – or maybe part of one – where they tell your story. Oftentimes, they’ll cover what they do about your story to fit whatever narrative arc makes sense for the article.

If the article is about overcoming adversity, that’s what they’ll cover. Or if it’s about reaching success in your 20’s, they’ll cover that. They may or may not ask you probing questions about your entire life – and if they don’t ask them, you won’t talk about them. They’ll also pick and choose which of your responses to quote directly, or to cover at all.

Be A Critical Reader

You’re never going to know the full picture when you read someones financial story. The person you’re reading about will have had both advantages and disadvantages that you won’t see.

Those specific advantages and disadvantages may or may not totally change how you would have otherwise perceived their story. Think of it as a Photoshopped picture of their financial life.

So be a critical reader. Keep in mind that if you’re reading a personal story in the mainstream media, you’re only going to get a very narrow window into that persons life.

We like to tell our stories like the typical “hero’s journey“. We get a call to adventure, find mentors and helpers, face challenges and temptations, and eventually face an abyss of death and rebirth. Then we transform, overcoming those challenges and temptations, and return triumphant.

Stories are how we communicate as human beings. They’re how we learn best. They inspire us, they enrage us, they help us, and they hurt us.

But in the end, they’re limited.

Select the size of your grain of salt accordingly.

For more money musings, check out: 

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chiefmomofficer

IT professional, MBA, working mother of three, avid reader, geek and personal finance nerd

15 thoughts on “The (Financial) Stories We Tell

  • November 19, 2018 at 2:29 pm
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    Great post Liz!
    Just like you, I try to be as transparent as I can be but sometimes I feel I leave too much out in one single post. It’s hard to find the right balance knowing your readers don’t necessarily read everything you write.

    Reply
    • November 19, 2018 at 2:43 pm
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      It is! And I don’t think we can all be expected to write a novel with every post, going into all the details of our lives every single time. Sometimes, you just need to hit the highlights and know you’ve done your best to set context

      Reply
  • November 19, 2018 at 8:39 pm
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    Yep. I actually got into finance by reading Kiplinger magazines at my boyfriend’s house. That was over 10 years ago. My 2 favorite PF books are The Millionaire Next Door and the Automatic Millionaire. I generally share what I am comfortable with. I do try to be myself and upfront with who I am and what I have. Nice post!

    Miriam

    Reply
  • November 20, 2018 at 3:08 am
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    This is a truly wonderful post Liz. I love specifically how you mention how you choose to frame a story completely changes the vibe for a reader.

    In medicine as are always told to read scientific literature with critical reading (especially if a study is sponsored by a particular pharmaceutical company etc that will always showcase their product in the best light).

    That is why you can’t just copy and paste someone’s asset allocation for your own as your risk tolerance is going to be different. A billionaire can take a swing on something speculative without batting an eye whereas normal investors would be wiped out if it goes belly up

    Reply
  • November 20, 2018 at 5:08 am
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    Not only is this post informative, I love your table of content inclusion. I am stealing the idea.

    Stories are stories and people should not just trust a random stranger they met on the internet to give a step by step guide for ones life. This should be like a case study, same way in medicine. Each case is different, and the treatment for one person might cause adverse effect to other patient.

    One has to get enough samples too. Read multiple angles to create a sort of meta analysis. Which has more power than individual studies

    Like you said, grain of salt.

    Reply
  • November 20, 2018 at 8:21 am
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    Thanks Liz for being honest about things. I firmly believe that there are innumerable ways to reach a goal and solve a problem. If they tell you otherwise, don’t believe. Following guidelines is one thing but doing it to the T rarely happens. Like you said, people choose to amplify parts of your story that suits their agenda.

    Great job!

    Reply
  • November 20, 2018 at 11:20 am
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    Love this post, Liz. You’re so right that the pieces you include or exclude from your story make a huge difference in the reader’s understanding of it. I think it’s why it’s so important to get out of the habit of comparing ourselves to others. I have to remind myself not to compare at least several times a day, because when I do, I’m never comparing apples to apples. I always have about 5% or less of the relevant info.

    Reply
  • November 20, 2018 at 11:25 am
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    I love this post! There are so many ways of looking – and portraying – a life, a set of choices, a series of circumstances. Now to *remember* this when reading other people’s posts! 🙂

    Reply
  • November 20, 2018 at 3:30 pm
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    Absolute humdinger of a post, Liz. I’d suggest that we use the same talent you’ve demonstrated in framing our stories to frame our hardships when facing a challenge: is this a fascinating puzzle to solve, or an aggravation to whine about to all in earshot? A chance to solve problems with creativity that pushes us outside a comfort zone, or a nuisance to be avoided because we only excel at that we’ve already mastered? I use that reframing exercise all the time in talking with our kids, usually after a travel snafu, and it gives good for thought (even if they don’t always but what I’m selling).

    Thanks for the thought exercise,

    CD

    Reply
  • November 20, 2018 at 7:17 pm
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    Thanks for sharing this perspective.

    Our journies through life are complicated to say the least. I often tell the residents that anecdote is not evidence and that a collection of anecdotes is still not evidence. There are too many biases and hidden traps in the way we think and interpret information to rely solely on stories.

    You highlighted how simply changing how a story is framed has an incredible impact on the message.

    The problem is that stories are so compelling. They are one of the best ways to teach or change minds. The hero’s journey speaks to us all and we all live life as if we are that hero and in doing so tell ourselves a story about ourselves that might be a departure from reality and more of an aspiration.

    Take Mr. money mustache as an example. Pete created a persona that is somewhat of a characticture of himself. It is highly amusing and great entertainment. He is also filled with great knowledge and advise. Is Pete really as BadAss as MMM and face punching his spendy pants neighbors? Who knows, but who cares? The point is the story, the characters playing it out and what we can learn along the way.

    What if instead we viewed all this money talk as somewhat akin to fiction? Grains of salty truth, mixed in with a healthy dose of artistic licence to tell a powerful and effective story about Finding FI.

    Reply
  • November 20, 2018 at 7:47 pm
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    Loved the multi-faceted look at your story here.
    I’d write more but I’m running late for work!

    Reply
  • November 20, 2018 at 8:12 pm
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    This is a great reminder, both a writer and a reader.

    Reply
  • November 22, 2018 at 2:13 pm
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    I think this is so true. I love blogs that tell personal stories, rather than just facts and figures about saving money, because over time you get to learn so much about the writer and the events that shaped their lives. I often change beliefs about my own financial story. How much of my success has been based on timing (when I graduated, when I bought my home, when I met my husband, etc) and how hard I have worked (striving in my 20s to make the most of my career, making smart decisions with my money, etc). The truth is all of these events weigh on our end result. And I think it’s important to keep that in mind even in our own lives. Thanks for the reminder

    Reply
  • November 27, 2018 at 9:02 pm
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    This is such a great post, Liz. Yep, I know all those aspects of your story, but it was wild to read the various stories that came out of highlighting or leaving out certain facts!

    Reply
    • November 27, 2018 at 9:15 pm
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      I know! I thought it would be interesting to see how the framing of a story could really change the way the reader sees it, and what they take away from it. And the funniest part is-all of these things are true at the same time! 😃 Humans brings are complex, have advantages AND disadvantages, and the snippet of someone’s life you pick up in one brief sound bite will never show the whole picture. Even if they’re not hiding anything!

      Reply

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