In the early days of the Christian church, splinters of people all over the place began teaching slightly different versions of what Jesus taught, and what had been taught for centuries before through the Old Testament. As these deviations from past teaching became more magnified and the splinters became more numerous, one became an especially troublesome thorn in the side of the orthodox believers. One of them was a group of people that we have come to call the “Gnostics,” which comes from the Greek word for knowledge. There was a lot going on in the Gnostic church, but the main thrust of their teaching was that instead of God being a distinct Person that we as humans should worship apart from ourselves, they taught that God was in every one of us, and that all you needed to do to sort of unlock that God-ness was a certain knowledge. Of course, only Gnostics had this knowledge, so you had to join them or pay up or whatever else they asked you to do in order to learn it for yourself. Ordinary people couldn’t hope to learn it on their own, and if they tried to live a righteous, spiritual life outside the Gnostic church, they’d ultimately just fail and keep going about their material, evil ways.
This idea of a certain group of people holding knowledge that the rest of us need makes for a highly lucrative business model, but terrible ethics. After all, if you have knowledge that, in the Gnostics’ case, would literally save the souls of your friends and family, wouldn’t you be shouting it from the rooftops rather than charging money or putting a “Members Only” sign on your door? But like I said, where there’s money to be made, public interest seem to be less important, and that’s even the case with financial advice. Take the Personal Finance section of Amazon’s bookstore, for example. In 30 seconds of clicking through the Best-Sellers list, I found these titles:
- Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong
- The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich
- Living Well, Spending Less: 12 Secrets of the Good Life
- Secrets of Six-Figure Women: Surprising Strategies to Up Your Earnings and Change Your Life
- Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money – That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!
Now, before I get all high and mighty on these books, let me put a disclaimer on what I’m about to say. Of these five books, I’ve only read one, and while I personally didn’t care for it, I know that it’s helped a lot of people gain control of their money. I have no idea what’s in the rest of them; it could be really valuable information. But do you notice a theme among them? Every one seems to imply (or outright states) that there is secret knowledge about money that you don’t have, and you’ll never be rich, or live the good life, or be successful if you don’t learn them yourself. Great tactic for parting someone with a $20 bill, but is it really true?
I’m not knocking book authors in general, because I fully believe that reading a book is one of the most effective ways to learn. And for some people, maybe some of these “secrets” really will help to change their life. But as an 18-year-old kid just learning about money, I was entirely too absorbed in what people like these authors had to say. I lost sight of the fact that they were just people, and I took whatever I heard about what I “had” to do to be successful as gospel truth. The TL;DR version of how that turned out? I had $80,000 worth of debt before I turned 27.
The problem comes when we start using this Gnostic approach to capture hurting, desperate people, and try to sell them a book, sign them up for a credit card, or send them to a free seminar instead of truly help them. I still listen to regular old news radio on my morning drive to work, and I can’t tell you how many commercials I hear every day for free seminars on flipping houses or timing the market, or for shady investment firms that “handle the boring stuff for you.”
Money isn’t a new concept, people. There isn’t much in our world today that differs from 1918, or 1518, or just plain year 18 when it comes to money principles. There are certain people that have come along in our time that can explain things in ways that make sense to the citizens of 2018, but the basic nuts and bolts have always been the same: spend less than you earn, distinguish between your needs and your wants, save for a rainy day, and don’t buy stuff you can’t afford.
Hey. Listen to me. You, reading this right now, are not stupid. There is not some magic to money that you just can’t hope to ever grasp. There’s no secret knowledge that will mysteriously change your life if you just read it while wearing a velvet robe standing in a dimly-lit, smoke-filled room with candles all around. Please, seek out ways to improve yourself. Learn from the example of people who have succeeded with money. But stay away from sensational, outlandish claims that pressure you into doing stupid stuff with your money, all while claiming it’s an enlightened path.
P.S., Your library is a great place to learn how to improve your finances without spending them in the process.