How do we get people to care about their money?

Here’s the thing…

All this wonderfully educational how-to content doesn’t mean much if people don’t care to look for it in the first place.

As an industry—a community—we’re great at engaging with each other. But how do we engage with people who aren’t already in the conversation?

For the people who don’t already care about money, what’s the catalyst?

What experiences or events lead someone to think… Money. That’s a thing I’m going to look into.

What conversations circle around and trigger one about money? Maybe it’s wanting to start a business. Or leave a job. Or leave a relationship. Maybe it’s a health scare. Maybe it’s wanting to do something—or change something about their life—and realizing money is the thing that will help them get there.

Nobody cares about budgets. They care about putting their kids in soccer camp. They care about being able to go on tour with their band.

The headline, “How to build a budget” isn’t going to sell anyone unless they’re already enrolled in the conversation. “I took a sabbatical from work to do a cross-country tour with my band,” however, might do it.

Money is just a means to an end. It’s not the end itself. So what are the ends people care about? The people you seek to serve, what goals do they have? Where are they now and where do they want to go?

Take them there. Not with money as the focus, but as a means to their end. Not what you think they should want for themselves, what they want for themselves.

Maybe the money conversation is triggered by change in people’s lives—it’s tied to a breaking or inflection point. If so, we can meet them at the crossroads. 

And show them how to get where they want to go.

No one’s entering this world through a door marked, “Budgets, right this way!” They’re entering through “I’m starting a business” or “I want to leave my job.”

What other doors can you open?

Please enjoy this most wonderful sign outside of a gas station-meets-convenience-store-meets-diner near the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. That was a top notch road trip, indeed.

Personal finance stories I’d love to read

How to spend money.

How to make money.

How to save money.

How to invest money.

Personal finance content tends to be heavy on the how-to guides. And I get it. Cause it’s not like we were taught this stuff in school.

But isn’t money about so much… more?

Which got me to thinking, what other topics would I like to see addressed in personal finance?

Well, here’s a few ideas…

– Interviews with immigrants that focus on cultural differences in mindset and expectations around money. A conversation that would show what each culture takes for granted, how values differ and where those values and expectations come from in the first place. Family? The media? Where are these standards coming from and who are we trying to impress?

– Stories from residents or immigrants who are supporting family back home. How does that affect their relationships, the way they look at job security, and they way they plan for the future?

– Stories from interracial couples that experience cultural differences around how they look at and handle their money. How does this play out when you’re joining two families? And if one partner immigrates to the other’s country… what did their relationship with money look like through that process? Do they look at money differently now than before they immigrated?

– Stories from couples who come from totally different socioeconomic backgrounds. What was dating like? What changed with marriage, kids, in-laws? What fears and insecurities come up and how do they deal with them? What’s it like to marry into a wealthy family, a poor family?

– The power of scarcity versus abundance mindset when it comes to money. How people who grew up with a scarcity mindset were able to cultivate one of abundance. How that applies to more than money. How that plays out in family structures.

– The impact of self-development on your finances. Stories about how someone purposely worked to improve other areas of their life—health, fitness, career, relationships—and it affected their values and thus how they were spending or looking at their money.

– Stories about what it’s like for parents with kids living at home, or parents with adult dependents.

– Interviews with parents who are giving their kids money early instead of waiting until they die to pass on an inheritance.

– How someone having their parents help them buy a house affected their relationship with them. Did it add pressure or expectations? What’s the emotional side of accepting help that people might not think about?

– How people with trust funds think about money. How having a trust fund or knowing they can expect a large sum of money at some point affects the risks they’re willing to take, their careers, and how they plan for the future.

– How cognitive behavioral therapy (or any kind of therapy) changed someone’s relationship with money.

– How trauma affected someones relationship with money. So not just talking about emotional spending but the root cause of that emotional spending.

– How someone with autism or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia handles their money.

– Okay, anything on mental health and money. Because I think that’s a seriously under-discussed topic in finance.

Basically, I’d like to see content that doesn’t center around takeaways and actionables. I’d like to see more stories.

Stories that let you see the world through someone else’s eyes. Stories that make you aware of and challenge your biases. Stories that make you think about someone other than yourself.

Stories that give you perspective.

What about you, what would you like to see more of?

I was going to say that this photo has nothing to do with the post, but, I guess fences and personal finance content have enough in common. Taken at Regent Park in Toronto.

The privilege of financial literacy

I remember being in the checkout line at the grocery store eyeing that rack of candy beside the conveyer belt. I wanted a Caramilk bar. I pointed to it and looked up at my mum, “Can I have one?”

“Sure. You have money.”

I had started getting an allowance. I opened my velcro wallet (~nostalgia~) and glanced at the cashier. I knew I could give these quarters to her and get the chocolate bar, or I could take them home and put them in my piggy bank.

I knew I couldn’t do both. And if I got the Caramilk now, that meant I wouldn’t be able to get one when we were back here in a few days. Tradeoffs. I had to make a choice.

Oh, that’s how it works.

I was five.

I remember sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor with the contents of my piggy bank spilled out in front of me. I was pushing all the pennies together in one pile, all the dimes together in another, quarters…

I counted and stacked everything neatly. I opened my spiral notebook and wrote down how much I had. It was more than last week.

My mum walked in and asked,  “What are you saving for?”

I was six. 

I remember sliding a tin heavy with change across the counter to the teller. My mum had taken me to open my first bank account.

I knew what was going to happen next. She was going to give me a card. My very own bank card for my very own bank account.

“There’s fifty-four dollars and seventy-three cents in there,” I told her proudly, “I counted.”

I was seven. 

My mum never told me what to do with money, she taught me how to think about it.

I don’t remember her commenting on the stuff I bought. She never told me that something was a waste or that I should have saved my money instead. The point wasn’t what I was spending my money on, the point was that is was my money. 

She wanted me to see, for myself, how little decisions add up.

I learned about ownership, accountability, tradeoffs, and choice. And I learned when the stakes we low, real low.

I was five and my biggest financial concern was chocolate now or later. I wasn’t eighteen holding a credit card I’d signed up for during frosh week to get a free t-shirt, debating which car to finance.

She taught me how to ask better questions and how to figure out what I valued so that when the stakes were raised and banks were waving credit at me I’d be able to make my own best choice.

“You have to answer to yourself when you get older,” she said, “That’s life.”

I’m fortunate to experience many kinds of financial privilege, but it’s the privilege of financial literacy that’s given me the greatest leg up in life.

When I think about financial privilege this is what I keep circling back to…

It’s one thing to be given money—an allowance, an education, a house, a car, a job, a business—and it’s another to be taught how to make your own choices. Having your education paid for doesn’t mean much if you don’t know how to put money behind what you value. These financial privileges are kind of like building blocks and without that underpinning foundation of financial literacy… What do we have?

Financial literacy is about so much more than understanding compound interest and the time value of money. It’s about ownership and accountability. It’s about tradeoffs and choice. It’s about problem-solving.

Looking around at how we’re defining and teaching financial literacy, at the programs and resources that are available, that’s the biggest gap I see.

We’re still hung up on this idea that financial education boils down to numbers. We’re still empowering rules, not people.

We need to be teaching people how to think about money, not what to do with it.

This is a loaded and deeply personal topic. It touches on so many things that are impossible to tease out from each other—is the privilege of financial literacy separate from other kinds of financial privilege? How does poverty fit into this conversation?—and we all have our own definitions of these terms. This is my opinion, from my soapbox, and yours might be totally different. That’s OK. In fact, I’d love to hear it.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, my bank book from 2000. Bank book! Don’t you miss those?! I couldn’t find my first one from when I opened the account but you better believe I have it around here somewhere because if there’s one thing I am not… it’s a minimalist. 

financial literacy privilege kate smalley 1

financial literacy privilege kate smalley 2

P.S. Mum, if you ever find yourself on my corner of the internet reading this, thank you.

When did we decide being “good at money” meant not spending it?

Here’s a question…

When did we decide being “good at money” meant not spending it?

When did that become the goal. The badge of honour. The sign you’ve made it. Congratulations, you’ve arrived at your destination, please exit to your left, the end.

I can’t seem to get far into a personal finance blog without reading the words, “I’m going to lose my personal finance card this, but…” or, “bad personal finance expert, but…” because they’d just spent money on something they—or perhaps more accurately they worry others—deem expensive.

They ate out when they could have eaten at home. They got the pricier hotel room. They bought a new purse. A fancy one, with a label and everything.

Sometimes it’s said as a joke. But often it reflects a sincere guilt that frankly, I find concerning.

Where did this narrative come from? Why is that our conditioned response? Why is the personal finance community feeding this culture of judgment we’re trying so hard to get away from?

If there’s one thing personal finance doesn’t need, it’s more shame.

Being good at money doesn’t mean you don’t spend it.

And not spending it doesn’t make you good at money.

Frugality isn’t some virtuous badge. It can just as easily be a crutch, a vice, a way to hide. A box to tick without actually tackling the underlying habits, emotions, and fears that drive you.

Being good at money has very little to do with tangible indicators like budgets and account balances. It’s a mindset. An internal process. And it’s constant.

There’s no endpoint. No definitive, Aha! Look everyone, I’ve made it.

People don’t like that. Because it can’t be measured. It can’t be boiled down to visible, laddered achievements. It’s not fun to talk about. It doesn’t fit neatly in a box.

It’s a lot like being happy. You’re the only one who knows if you are.

Though we try our damnest—with happiness, money, and anything else in life worth pursuing—there’s no external yard stick we can point to and know we’ve made it. No formula, metric, or app can tell you where you are on that journey. You and you alone have the answer.

Which is why self-awareness is so important. Why it’s important to teach people to cultivate that, not just teach them hard and fast rules like “keep your spending under x percent of your income”. To do that we need to look far beyond the boundaries of what we think personal finance is.

We need to empower people, not rules.

We need to teach people how to think, not what to do.

We need to teach people what questions to ask, not what answers to look for.

Ya. It’s uncomfortable.

It means you can’t just throw a template over it and bam *dusts hands together* you’re sorted. Disagree? That’s fair. But with all the readily available resources and budgets and frameworks… why isn’t everyone getting this stuff? Why isn’t everyone saving and investing and feeling good about their money? If the content’s all there, why aren’t people implementing it?

Obviously, it’s not that simple. There’s more to it.

So even if we don’t have answers, can we acknowledge there’s room in this industry for better questions and start asking them?

We need to lean into this discomfort. Because ignoring it isn’t serving anyone.

Oh look, a winding muddy path to a beach which could be delightful or entirely disappointing and we won’t know until we’re there. Fitting, yes? Taken at the Scarborough Bluffs in, well, Scarborough, this summer. 

Nobody cares about budgets

Welcome to my Saturday morning stream of consciousness.  Excited? You should be.

Why don’t more people care about their money? Specifically millennials. With so many personal finance blogs and books and other content out there (with gifs! there are so many great articles with gifs) why aren’t more people taking action? Why don’t they see what an impact this would have on their lives, their futures! *passionately shakes fist*


Well, maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that so many ‘intro to personal finance’ books and articles open with Budget! BUDGET! Thou shall not proceed without a Budget!


Newsflash—not a selling point. Like, no I don’t want to sit down and put numbers into boxes why do you think I’m avoiding my bank statements in the first place?

And I know (I know!) budgeting doesn’t have to suck. There’s a template for seemingly everyone’s taste and it can be as simple as you like and oh goodness did you know how life changing it is?!

None of that matters.

It doesn’t matter because people aren’t going to get that far. They’re going to shut off as soon as they skim the word ‘budget’, they’re not going to stick around to hear you defend it.

If we’re trying to get peoples attention—to sell them on the magic of caring about their money—maybe we should stop leading with budgets.

Not because budgets are bad, or useless, or unimportant (they’re none of those things) but because nobody cares.

Not at first, anyways.

I mean think about it. That person you know (friend, colleague, family member) that’s ‘bad with money’, do you honestly think all they’ve been waiting for is someone to tell them to get a budget and open a retirement account? If that were the case, wouldn’t they have done it already?

Now before you petition to have me kicked off the interwebs, let me be clear, I’m not against budgeting. I have a budget! I just don’t think they’re the starting point, and I certainly don’t think they’re the be-all-end-all.

If we want to get (and keep!) peoples attention, maybe we should try opening with some different material. Let people get through the door, take their coats off, offer them a drink, before we hit them with the hard stuff.

So where should we start, Kate?

If budgets are out—and retirement, but that’s for another post—how should we get people interested in money? Talking like this I must have the all answers, right?

Nope! (You hate me don’t you?) I think our relationship with money is a good kicking off point, but I don’t exactly know what that looks like.

But this is important. Really, really important. And I want to talk about.

I believe the sticking point with financial advice right now isn’t so much the content, but how it’s being presented.

Rethinking the delivery… That’s the key.

What do you think?

P.S. In lieu of a somewhat-passably-relevant stock photo… Please enjoy this snap I took of pretty red stuff growing on the side of a building in Huntsville, Ontario this fall.

Why finance needs better teachers

What makes someone a good teacher? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I don’t mean teacher in the traditional chalkboard and apple sense. We’re all teachers. We all have to explains things we understand to others who don’t.

So what makes someone particularly good at that?


The best teachers remember what it’s like to not understand. They remember the questions they were too embarrassed to ask. They remember the sticking points.

The best teachers make you feel like they’re in the thick of it with you. They talk to you, not down to you. They make it okay to be exactly where you are.

The finance industry needs better teachers.

There are plenty of advisors, writers, and bloggers who know their stuff but aren’t great teachers. They assume this baseline financial literacy that, let’s face it, most of us don’t have. (Looking at you, education system.) Sometimes it feels like they’re just catering to other finance nerds. But what about everyone else? What about the people they claim they’re trying to serve?

By using fancy words to explain other fancy words, it creates an environment where it’s really hard to stick your hand up and say, “I don’t get it.”

And that, my friends, is dangerous. That’s how we get gaps. That’s how we get ‘us’ versus ‘them’. When this happens, we all lose.

Nowhere is this gap more obvious than at the cocktail hours advisors throw to get new clients (yes, I go to those for kicks). You can literally see it widen with every PowerPoint slide. No one’s going to interrupt Cindy mid-pitch and ask for clarification on, “Wait, where did that number come from?” because that would be embarrassing.

I don’t think it’s intentional (not always at least). I think they honestly forget what it’s like to not understand annuities because to them it’s second nature. But if you want to build trust and lasting relationships, you’ve got to know your audience so that you know where to start.

“RRSP contributions will lower your taxable income!” isn’t a selling point to someone that doesn’t know what taxable income is.

Do you see what I mean here? Just because it makes sense to you explained like that doesn’t mean it makes sense to someone else. You’ve got to be conscious of who you’re talking to (or rather, who you want to be talking to) and use language that makes sense to them.

Remember what it’s like to not understand.

That kind of empathy is really, I mean really, powerful.

P.S. In lieu of a somewhat-passably-relevant stock photo… Please enjoy this snap I took in Chinatown, New York. Note Mr T, he knows a thing or two about teaching…