Why Get Rich Slowly Declined

When I first started reading finance articles online somewhere between 2007 and 2009, one of the first authentic voices that I discovered was J.D. Roth of the website “Get Rich Slowly.” The blog was written in a diary-style format that really give you insights into both the psychological and mathematical aspects of debt elimination and the pursuit of investments.

Sometime during The Great Recession, J.D. Roth decided to sell his website to Quinstreet. A lot of readers held this against him, particularly the fact that he agreed to a non-disclosure agreement in which there was a waiting period before the audience learned of the sales.

I was not bothered by the non-disclosure agreement. Even then, I understood that anything that generates money is a business, and anything that is a business can be sold. Heck, one of the most popular auto dealerships in St. Louis was purchased by Asbury Automotive in 1997, and very few people are aware of that transaction because the original branding remains in place. That seems like intuitively smart business to me—if Wal-Mart bought the local grocery store, why they heck would they want to replace the goodwill by renaming it a Wal-Mart Express? Ethics aren’t implicated unless you lie to your customers about the ownership structure rather. Agreeing to transfer ownership of trade names is the legacy of American business.

Because of the entertainment and financial wisdom I once derived from J.D.’s writings, I still stop by every year or so to check in on the Get Rich Slowly website to see whether the content has once again become engaging.

As a reader-customer, this is my way of perpetually extending the prior goodwill towards J.D.’s work into a second, third, fourth, and fifth chance for the current writers and owners of the site. My behavior is probably a logical fallacy—taking the loyalty towards thing X and extending it to something that has never been a part of thing X but nevertheless describes itself as X—but the harm of this fallacy is so limited in the form of a few clicks every year that I never felt a need to correct it.

I spent part of my morning visiting the Get Rich Slowly site for the first time in ages, and I couldn’t believe how much it has continued to deteriorate in quality while subsequently amassing new spam-like characteristics.

I offer below my criticism of Get Rich Slowly in its present form because it is deserved. If this were written five years, it would’ve been a positive Get Rich Slowly blog review.

First, the new website owners added a team of writers with interchangeable identities to write content that lacks cohesion or a central narrative that unites the theme of the blog.

I don’t think I have read a website that improved after the founder sold it and a team of writers came in to replace him.

In part, this is a reflection of audience build-ups in the blogosphere. Usually, a website founder chooses a topic that he is passionate about, and this passion becomes contagious with the audience base that rapidly grows. On the other hand, people that write on other websites on a contract basis are usually doing it for the immediate payout, and are more interested in meeting the word count requirements for compensation rather than making sure that the audience is just as buzzed about Topic X of Interest.

Also, there is some self-selection there. People who are good enough to write in a captivating style usually end up running a site themselves so that they can reap the entirety of what they sow, and if the contract writers had commensurate talent, they’d have their own site rather than popping in on a site like Get Rich Slowly twice per month.

And then, from the perspective of the audience, there is the fact people are much more responsive to a singular voice that offers a consistent point of view that appeals to them. Get Rich Slowly has over a dozen writers now with very different styles and attitudes.

If you bring in a dozen new writers, at a minimum, three or four of them will be unappealing to the remaining audience. A dozen writers using a mild-mannered and anti-septic tone of voice to cover generic financial content is not going to replace the unique contributions of someone like J.D. Roth who was showing readers in real time how to vanquish debt and build up savings.

The site has lost its story arc.

Get Rich Slowly regularly violates the McAleenan Rule of advice-giving: “Never lecture someone to do something that you yourself would be unwilling to do if similarly situated.”

Giving advice, financial or otherwise, is often unpersuasive when it is unsolicited, generic, or suggests solutions that the advice-giver would never practice himself and is therefore rejected due to a lack of authenticity.

On November 8th, Get Rich Slowly published an article titled “Household Budgets for Beginners” that offers the following suggestion to rein in spending: “Get your kids on board and have them input all your daily shopping. ‘Mom, you spent $15 on shampoo?’ is enough to make me return the product.”

There are four flaws with a suggestion like this:

  1. No sane individual intentionally wants to reverse the power structures in a parent-child relationship by enabling a child to have autonomy over household finances.
  2. It facilitates a mindset that discourages self-regulation. What are you teaching your child about self-control if it requires a third-party admonishment to make a financially savvy decision?
  3. It incentivizes sneakiness, because you just know that the execution of this plan would lead to “secret purchases” that are later discovered.
  4. This example creates a strawman. It is not the $15 shampoo purchases that dooms a household budget—people who spend double the household average on purchasing decisions know darn well why they don’t have money at the end of the month. Instead, it is the individuals who perpetually make reasonable seeming expenditures and come up short that need a budget.

Get Rich Slowly regularly wastes the time of its readers by pumping credit card referral schemes. I call it a scheme because their credit card reviews are run on an affiliate basis in which they collect anywhere from $75-$350 for each credit card application/approval that flows from their site.

As I write this article right now, the top article on the website is “Buy Power Capital One Card Review.” The thing is, it’s not really a review. It follows the same format that all referral schemes do—discuss the benefits in such a way that your writing style is indistinguishable from the PR department of a credit card company, and then include a drawback or two that isn’t much of a flaw so you can create the illusion that you are being objective.

By a show of hands, how many of you think that each credit card review on Get Rich Slowly includes the writer team recommending you sign up for the card?

Ding. Ding. Ding.

Here is what they have to say: “Thinking of using a credit card for more than cash rewards or a free hotel stay? What if a credit card could help you save for something more substantial, like a new car or a flexible lease? It is possible. The BuyPower Card from Capital One® card gives users 5% back on their first $5,000 worth of purchases without any opt-ins or rotating categories and then 2% thereafter.”

Yes, they have thrown themselves so far into the bag for the credit card companies that they include specific registered trademark symbols in their allegedly neutral editorial reviews.

Get Rich Slowly hired Honey Smith, who may be the most singularly ill-equipped individual to advise other people on how to improve their finances (unless you subscribe to the theory that some people exist as warning signs to others).

Honey Smith entered the field of personal finance right after running a blog dedicated to online flirting. She advises people on how to reach millionaire status, despite racking up over $200,000 in student loan debt which is not dischargeable in bankruptcy. She writes about how she gets expensive haircuts because she claims it makes her look financially successful and said she picked up a monthly massage subscription to deal with the stress from her debt.

When she got engaged, do you think she: (A) got married at the courthouse steps because her non-dischargeable debt balance was already requiring interest payments so high that it consumed nearly all of her disposable income; (B) delayed the day of her wedding until she got on better financial footing; or (C) racked up thousands in new credit card debt while bragging that her wedding cost less than the national average.

You can find the answer in her post here: “Frugal Or Foolish? Our Cruise-Ship Wedding.”

Dang it. The title bludgeons away the suspense.

General criticism of writer attitudes that permeate throughout the site: Get Rich Slowly writers tell stories of “personal journeys” that lack didactic self-assessment, wastes people’s time with those men vs. women gender competition articles, lays heavy emphasis on the platitudes about trying your best, and seems woefully unaware of the effects of the Abilene paradox.

The Abilene paradox refers to situations where people hold back what they are really thinking because they think that their views will make them an outcast, and other individuals actually agree with you but also hold back from revealing what they are really thinking for fear of being judged likewise.

When this attitude sets in, you find finance articles written in which hesitation and prefatory language to soften the blow becomes automatic—for instance, when a business owner saving substantial amounts of money to utilize a do-it-yourself pension plan writes an article on the Get Rich Slowly site, he feels the need to include obligatory language about “this being a 1%er problem” and how he is “lucky to even be in a position to need this kind of tax expertise at all.” I appreciate expressions of gratitude when it is genuinely and voluntarily offered for its own sake, but not so much when it is included as a repellant device to ward off hostile reactions from an unsympathetic audience.

The other consequence is that the articles on the site fall into the wishy-washy relativism that Dr. Charles Murray calls “ecumenical nonjudgmentalism.” When people talk about how they are spending much more than are making, the writers at the site offer the generic “it’s hard out there” and “you can only do your best.”

The problem with this advice is that it makes the advice-giver feel emotionally satisfied for not being offensive and giving “safe” advice, but it doesn’t actually help anyone. No one is better off for the interaction.

Criticism of Get Rich Slowly’s well-meaning intention is warranted when it paralyzes an opportunity for self-improvement. As much as I think writers like Pete Adenay at Mr. Money Mustache go overboard for putting Benjamin Franklin’s “Way To Wealth” advice on creatine, I’ll take his excesses any day over mealy-mouthed platitudes that amount to a shrug of the shoulders when someone is clearly pleading for help. When Adenay tells readers to stop going out to eat and buy concert tickets while they’re facing credit card debt, he is at least offering a frame of reference that can lead to self-improvement. Saying “Yep, it’s a struggle out there” does not modify behavior and improve results and therefore should not be lauded as “an empathetic response.”

My Get Rich Slowly blog review is backed up by some data that suggests other readers might feel the same—since J.D. Roth left, the website traffic for the website has about 75% of its readers from a high of over 2 million to its current rate of 500,000. That is still a huge, heavily-read blogging platform, but it is quite telling that the article output at the site has dramatically increased while the website traffic has dramatically decreased. Multi-author websites are difficult to pull off well, but I’m not even sure that’s what Get Rich Slowly’s new editorial team is trying to do.