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Don’t Listen to Us // Blogs Don’t Tell the Full FI Story

I feel super lucky to have met a ton of financial independence bloggers in the time I’ve been writing Our Next Life, and I’ve learned so much from them. Not a meetup has gone by when I haven’t come away with some nugget of wisdom about finances or blogging, often both. And at FinCon? My brain practically exploded.

But over time, something else has occurred to me: Many bloggers who have reached financial independence — essentially all the “big” FI blogs — earn money off of their blogs. Sometimes serious money.

And that’s awesome! It’s great to see people rewarded for their work and for the ideas they contribute to our collective community.

But it also probably means that almost no one whose blog you look to as an authority is actually putting the 4 percent rule or their own specific early retirement income plan to the test. 

And that’s a problem if we’re all singing the praises of early retirement, trumpeting how easy it is to achieve, highlighting how smoothly it is going for us and leaving it at that. Never looking at the potential pitfalls or risks because that blogging income insulates us from them.

I have no doubt that everyone has saved as much as they say they’ve saved, and that they would still be FI even if their blogs went away tomorrow. But when bloggers are treated as authorities on these things, and we aren’t actually practicing what we preach, we’re putting a skewed story out there.

Readers deserve to know that.

Don't Listen to FI Blogs // Blogs Don't Tell the Full Financial Independence Story

Mr. Money Mustache has been tepidly open about how much he now earns from his blog, product referrals and other public appearances, and I’m not even talking about his level of earnings. (Though rock on, Pete. Good for you!)

Most of us who reach financial independence at a young age do so by keeping our lifestyles in check and controlling our expenses, so we have plenty of practice at that by the time we reach early retirement. It doesn’t take much new income to cover a big chunk of annual expenses in early retirement, reducing or eliminating what you’d otherwise have taken out of your portfolio.

While blogging is certainly not easy money, if you go into retirement with several years of blogging behind you, and a sizeable audience built up, it’s not hard to earn enough to massively offset expenses, even without putting ad network junk on your site.

Take affiliate links, for example. This post on Principles of Increase has a thorough rundown of all the companies that regularly solicit blogger referrals and what they offer in return. The reason you see so many referral links to Personal Capital is that they give bloggers $100 for every person who signs up for investing through that referral link. (And also, plenty of people love PC and would recommend it even without the referral bonus, though I’m less of a fan.)

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it doesn’t cost the person who signs up anything, but it’s worth knowing that there’s a payment attached, so you know when you click the link that you’re willingly putting yourself on Personal Capital’s hard sell list. (They have to make that $100 back somehow, right? They don’t exist solely to underwrite bloggers. I would probably put their affiliate link up if they did!)

If you’re a blogger who has built up a big enough audience that you can get, say, 400 of your readers to click a Personal Capital link and then sign up for investing every year? Well now you’ve just made $40,000, which is in the ballpark of what a lot of FI folks aim to live on each year in retirement. Now you can leave those shares at Vanguard alone, and maybe even reinvest the dividends you had planned to use as cashflow.

That’s great for the blogger, but not always great for the readers.

San Diego Marina // FinCon16 // Sunset

At FinCon16, where bloggers shared their money-making secrets

The Paradox of the Successful Blogger

I get the challenge that’s embedded in all of this. As your audience grows, more and more people want you to put their stuff on your site, and most people like earning a little more money with no more work. (I am fully aware that I am the freakish outlier on this. And that could change if a product that I truly love with no reservations came on the market. But I have yet to find said product, despite the escalating offers thrown our way.)

And I think we’d all agree that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with earning money from something you spend hours on each week and invest a lot of yourself in. Something you nurture and grow, do research for and pay for in the form of hosting fees, designers, etc. If anything, I think the best bloggers deserve to earn more from their blogs, given how much they contribute to the community.

The tough thing is that once you do become monetarily successful, especially if you’re in the post-career stage of life, you’ve essentially violated your founding principle, which was almost certainly some variation of “You can do this because I’m doing it. Follow along and do as I do.” 

Because not everyone can have a widely read blog. And not everyone can be fully retired and still earn enough to cover all of their living expenses.

(Also consider: for those who earn significant blogging income in the first few years of retirement, they eliminate a lot of sequence of returns risk, because they can just let their investments grow. Meaning their chance of later problems down the road goes down that much more.)

FIRE bloggers at FinCon, early retirement bloggers, financial independence bloggers

How many FIRE bloggers can you fit around a fire?

What Do We Do About This?

I’m sure there will be folks who read this and see what I’m saying as fightin’ words. And that’s not my intention. Let me be clear:

I applaud bloggers who successfully monetize their blogs, and think they should be proud of that result. They deserve every penny. 

The problem isn’t that money is changing hands, it’s how we talk about it (or don’t talk about it). And it’s how we all as readers interpret what we’re reading. So to that end, I have two modest proposals:

For bloggers:

We owe it to our readers to disclose when we’re no longer sticking to our original retirement plan, whether that’s reducing what we’re withdrawing or increasing our spending. If we don’t, we misrepresent the prevalence of risks in early retirement that folks who don’t have a successful blog face, because we are in some ways insulated from those risks. And we owe it to our readers to find stories different from our own and share those, including the warts and struggles and all.

For readers:

We can be big fans of someone and still bring a healthy dose of skepticism to our reading, and that’s what we should all be doing. It’s not to discredit what anyone says, but simply to remind ourselves that those ideas come from a certain privileged position, and they may not apply to everyone.

#FinCon16, Embrace Your Money Story

Let’s do as the poster says and embrace our full money stories

What I commit to you:

First, I will disclose if we ever monetize this blog. We do have plans in motion to use this blog as an introduction to us that will feed other work we’ll do outside of the blog, but we won’t put ads, affiliate links or any other monetization method here without telling you first.

Second, we don’t share our numbers, and that won’t change in retirement, but we have shared the concepts that underpin our entire retirement strategy. If we earn income that takes the pressure off of that strategy, we’ll share that here.

Third, I will try harder to share stories from folks who have struggled in early retirement and how they overcame their challenges, whether they were financial or related to the massive life adjustment that comes from completely redefining yourself and your patterns. (If you want to share your story, please email me at ournextlifeblog [at] gmail dot com. Happy to keep stories anonymous if you prefer. You know I can respect anonymity!) ;-) There are certainly some great lessons to be learned from how people overcome challenges, and we’ll all be better off if we hear about them.

Just as I believe that acknowledging your privilege doesn’t diminish your accomplishments or how hard you’ve worked, I feel strongly that acknowledging when you’re able to take pressure off your FI plan in no way detracts from what you’ve achieved.

It simply tells your readers the full story, and lets them head into FIRE that much better informed.

What Do You Think?

What do you wish more bloggers would discuss or disclose? For the bloggers out there, what do you share, and what would you feel hesitant to share about your finances? Who’s with me on being clearer about when and how we diverge from the financial plans we’ve put out there? For the non-bloggers, do you automatically assume that folks are making blog income and not relying entirely on their passive income? So much to discuss! Let’s dig into it all in the comments.

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206 replies »

  1. Thank You for your transparency on this! For me, it certainly adds to your credibility that you are not monetizing your blog.

    • Thanks, Robert! I appreciate you saying that! For me, having some adds or links doesn’t make me question a blogger’s credibility straight away, but I do wish more of us would disclose when they’re earning enough to alter their plans or withdrawal strategies!

  2. This is a really good thought. And I will say that I often wonder how much income these blogs are bringing in. It does matter in the “If I can do it, you can do it” narrative.

    I think a really good example of someone who is very open about the blog income and its role in early retirement is Joe at Retire By 40. He is very open about how the blog income allowed him to become a stay at home dad and regularly updates his readers on the actual numbers for his blog’s revenue, expenses, and net income. I really appreciate that kind of openness, especially in the FIRE space.

    • Thanks, Matt! If you’re making a few bucks on the side, no problem. But if it’s enough to shift your plans, then that’s worth disclosing, even if it’s without numbers. I love that Joe Udo shares his numbers (as I told him a few comments down!) ;-) but I don’t even think that level of detail is necessary. Just saying “I only had to take out half as much this year as I thought I’d need to thanks to blog income” would be great, and would also show readers how a part-time gig or side hustle could help them do the same thing.

  3. You mention what I like to call a “X Factor”. When someone is working on a side hustle, who knows what might come of it if worked on for a long enough period of time.

    Originally, I had just planned to live off my passive income from real estate, dividend investing, CDs, and private investments. It was just enough after leaving Corporate America behind in 2012, along with the severance.

    But given I had so much more time on my hands, I decided to pivot by learning about startups and fintech here in San Francisco given here’s where so many of the new generation of companies reside.. It was awesome to consult at Personal Capital’s marketing department from Nov 2012 – Jan 2014. Learned so much, met some cool people, saw the company grow, and witnessed so many more bloggers get on board with using a no-brainer free app that’s so much better than Excel.

    Never did I anticipate being able to earn money as a corporate consultant. X Factor #1.

    Never did I anticipate Financial Samurai generating a livable income stream either. X Factor #2.

    Keep working on the things you love folks! It’s one of the true gifts AFTER you retire early!

    Sam

    • Hey Sam. I love how much you’ve been able to do post-FI, and that you’ve tried out different things that are interesting to you, and made money along the way. That’s awesome! I think as long as we don’t mislead our readers by saying “Do what I do and you can achieve what I achieved,” but then actually have significant side income coming in that boosts your financial plan or buffets you from risk, there’s no problem.

      • I try my best not to tell anybody what to do. It’s better to just show, than tell IMO. Folks are going to make up their own mind about doing things.

        The best way I can encourage folks to keep on grinding is to keep on grinding myself, posting 3X a week without fail.

        Fight on!

        Sam

  4. I stopped following the monetized blogs (essentially all of them). They have gradually become increasingly disingenuous, in my opinion. For us, the struggle is real, we’re retired and we live in a fixed income, and that’s what I’m interested in reading about. Someone who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars annually touting the latest financial app is not only selling out (even if the app is excellent, they’re being paid for the recommendation and subsequent downloads), they’re actually not retired at all in the classic sense of no longer working for a living. If I have to scroll through ads and sidebars and crawlers, I’m moving on.

    • Hi AR! We’ve been wondering how you guys are doing. Nice to see you back! I haven’t seen many blogs in my reading (which is not comprehensive!) that have gotten quite to that level of disingenuous, at least in my view, but I do think that if we’re going to voluntarily make ourselves the poster children for early retirement, we either have to show the full picture, or we have to disclose the advantages that we have that are buffering us from risks. And yeah, I definitely share your view that I don’t want to have to close a lot of popups or scroll through a ton of ads. Yuck! ;-)

  5. I agree with the sentiment and have similar thoughts. My blog is slightly more monetized then yours, I have Google adsense up and occasionally I give affiliate links on a book I refer to in a post. But I don’t have plans to go to a sizable blogging income model. I’m intent to have my blogging hobby support itself. I feel like it less muddies my message. Otherwise it’s kind of like a commission based finance advisor. Some do recommend great products, but do you ever know if it’s the commission or the product driving the recommendation.

    Beyond that though my opinion is it depends. If it’s part of the message to go start a side hustle like a blog to supplement income then it seems fine. While not everyone can rock out life expenses in blog income anyone can side hustle, so it’s an important message.

    If you can’t tell from this post I’m on the fence.

    • I think there would be no problem if you DID go to a bigger blog revenue model, so long as you didn’t let it skew what you share with your readers, and so long as you disclose how it’s impacting your plans, even in general terms. But I also share your view that it can muddy your message or compromise your credibility, which is the biggest reason why I’ve never done that stuff. I love how you compared it to a side hustle, and I think we’d all agree that a blogger who is retired but has a part-time side hustle should share that they have that hustle and are lessening the pressure on their portfolio because of it, they should share that blogging is doing that same thing for them. Doesn’t have to be numbers or anything specific, but just a general disclosure that it’s altering their plans in a good way.

  6. Nice way to voice that perspective! We haven’t tried monetizing our blog yet, but it’s coming, just not sure how. Wait, we did make $50 off of Personal Capital link once, hahahaha. I just keep forgetting to sprinkle them in, or add Amazon links or sit down and figure out how to add in ads without them being obnoxious and a turnoff from the site.

    I saw an article about “Girl retires early at 28” and in the article it highlights her saying, “if I can do it, so can you”. Then someone highlighted that she got an investment property given to her by her parents, then a high paying job job at a non-profit her mom runs, then they sold the investment property, and her mom paid off school loans for her. It was pretty funny that it was written from the persepctive of “she did it, why can’t you?” as if we all inherit investment properties and get well funded jobs handed to us from our parents. lol

    It’s a good point that you bring up about whether or not people are actually living off of the 4% rule or whatever their plan was. After we had talked about it, I could think of a couple of bloggers that are sticking to their plan, but most have significantly deviated. Like even our plan has changed dramatically over the last 2 years, and more so in the last 6 months. While I will still quit work in a year or 2 Prof SSC is going to keep teaching and talk about adding to our cushion of “failure scenarios”. Hell yeah it’s been a boost.

    Our new plan has us almost at a breakeven with her current salary, so we would theoretically only have to touch our investments to cover that shortfall (~$10k/year) and travel – if things work out right. Exciting! But it’s hell and gone from our original assumption that we’d be needing it to cover $50-$55k/yr from investments only.

    • Thanks! And thanks for helping me think this through. :-) I seriously have no issue with monetizing blogs, so it’s entirely about whether the blogger is really doing what they’re espousing. Like if you had a part-time job you were using to pad your retirement income and not sharing that, everyone would say that was clearly a problem, right? And this is pretty much exactly the same thing, potentially. But as long as you disclose it and how it’s impacting your retirement, no problem at all!

  7. I really appreciate this post. You’re exactly right about the paradox: the more financially lucrative a blog gets, the less it can speak to the true FIRE experience. It’s reminiscent of schemes about which I have a very low opinion, like people selling “How to make money at real estate” courses and seminars, when in reality they’ve made all their money selling “How to make money at real estate” crap.

    I don’t object to some amount of monetization from the bloggers I follow. Blogging takes a lot of work and comes with real expenses, and there’s nothing wrong with getting paid for that. Personally, I’ve experimented with a little bit of advertising and a few affiliate links for things I would recommend regardless of compensation. And if it makes anyone feel any better, my blog is still financially net-negative. Ultimately, that’s never been the reason for me to write — and so long as potential income doesn’t start skewing my perspectives and recommendations, I won’t be concerned. That’s the catch for the reader, of course — discerning when you’re getting an honest opinion and when you’re not. Sometimes it’s obvious; other times it’s really hard to know.

    • Thanks, Matt! And totally agree that I have no issue at all with bloggers trying to make money (or at least cover their costs!) so long as it doesn’t skew what they’re recommending. I think the hard thing is actually KNOWING whether you’re recommending it because you love it, or because they offer a nice incentive. Which is why I don’t do those links, because I’m not good at blurred boundaries. ;-) But I’m sure others are better at knowing their motivations, and so no problem. But yeah, your real estate seminar is a pretty perfect analogy for the potential problem.

  8. I take everything I read – almost regardless of who it’s from, with a grain of salt. While I believe there can still be wisdom to be gained from those who preach about frugality but enjoy a sizable income, I do agree that the two don’t seem to match up all that well. But then again, I respect the fact that bloggers make a little cash along the way with the stuff they put so much of their time into. Especially bloggers who started out like you and me, just trying their best to put something together and live frugally. One thing leads to another and, as your following builds and opportunities expand, you quickly find a world of additional options out there to pursue.

    I know you aren’t trashing people who make an income with their blogs. All you want to see is that information disclosed. If someone’s pulling in $250k a year and claims to be living on only 4% of their investments, that’s very different from, say, someone like me who *might* pull in $10k a year post-retirement – on good years – and living on 4% of ours.

    As far as monetization is concerned, I have no problem with it personally as long as it’s not in my face. In fact, I have a lot more of a problem with blogs who shove an email signup form in my face and expect me to fork over my email so they can send me updates whenever they throw something up. Or sites that *only* seem to publish product reviews, for which most are – naturally – favorable and compensated. If your only true goal is to make money, I think that tends to quickly become apparent.

    One thing I like about your blog, other than your sheer authenticity, is that you’re clearly in this for the thought-exercise. That’s something that you don’t often see these days. You don’t talk numbers. You talk thoughts.

    Speaking of numbers…

    I’m excited for our net worth to go live on Saturday. People will get to see exactly what we’re working with as we start our new adventure with full-time travel. I agree that transparency makes for a better reader experience, so I’m hopeful that this’ll help. I appreciated knowing all the numbers when I first got into the personal finance game. (Our net worth has always been published over on J$’s net worth tracker).

    • I’m totally with you in having no problem with monetization as long as it’s ethical, but likewise, I hate those email popups and generally stop visiting sites that use them. Maybe it’s just a basic “do unto others” thing, but I don’t understand why folks think readers want to see those things. And thanks for your nice note about authenticity, and you’re totally right that the thought exercise aspect is what I love best. :-D I’m excited to see your net worth go up! I think you’re doing readers a huge service by sharing that. It’s going to be awesome for folks to see how possible it is to do what you’re doing without have $10 million in the bank!

      • I think that you’ve inspired me, Ms. ONL, to write yearly – maybe bi-annual – income reports for the blog. I think *monthly* reports are exceedingly boring, but a couple times a year should be enough. At the very least, yearly. That, along with my net worth, should give people the transparency they’d need to judge for themselves whether or not my situation is anywhere near there’s.

        It’s funny…we used to publish monthly cashflow posts, but those got too laborious to write – and they were BY FAR the least popular posts that I’d publish. I’d get maybe a quarter of the hits on those posts that I would on my regular posts…so, I figured people just didn’t care. But, perhaps if they were bi-annually instead, it would draw more attention because the numbers would be larger – and there would be fewer of those types of posts to read?

        Hmm…might be time to experiment!

        • Awesome, I love that! Or if you think that folks won’t find it interesting, you could always just mention that you have other income streams (blog, RSF, etc.) whenever you talk about your net worth, how much you’re taking out of your investments, etc. Because if someone just sees your number and then thinks they could do exactly what you’re doing, they might be in for a rude awakening! ;-)

      • I agree about those DARN email pop ups, I refuse to use them on my blog and try not to visit sites that have them. Ugghhhh, no thanks.

  9. Thank you for this honest article. There could be a slippery slope with blogging. Some say that if you go from being a teacher to a landlord or a blogger or a book writer, you are not really “retired” but a small business owner who simply changed occupations. There are both sides of the coin on this opinion.

    I also wonder about the levels of disclosure from people. I do not know if I can trust everything I read. If we engage in a slippery slope way of thinking, are there certain items we omit to make our story better? For example, there was a blogger a couple of years ago, who claimed they made all of their money themselves. It turned out most of it came from an inheritance. Also, if I only claim to spend $40,000/year, but then I get invited to a conference in Hawai or in Europe to speak about Financial Independence, it is unclear to me how to classify correctly if that is income, expenses or something else.

    It is also true that if you earn $40K/year from your blog, have a portfolio worth $1M, and spend $40K/year, you are better off than a person who spends $40K/year and has a $1M portfolio. On the other hand, if I were to the level where I was earning $100,000 – $200,000/year blogging, and someone disagreed with me, I would likely be unhappy about that and see it as a personal threat to my livelihood.

    I agree that successful blogging is incredibly hard. There is a high level of burnout – so I would say do blogging only if you would love posting even if you made nothing for years. I would say that only a select few make more than $1,000/month. Most of the rest who want to blog for money fail – I think you may have a better chance of earning money by greeting people at Wal-Mart.

    I personally earn money from my site, and I am not ashamed to admit it. It is first a labor of love. If I were all about the money however, I would have made more of it greeting customers at Wal-Mart (for the time I put in it). Of course, I have been writing for a decade, and I really write to make myself do the work to form an opinion. Otherwise, without the discipline of the blog, I would likely lose discipline with my nest egg, diet, work etc.

    • I sometimes wish we’d call what we’re doing “work optional” or something like that. Because I do think there’s a huge distinction between working because you have to and working because you want to, and that’s what’s at the heart of this semantic argument of whether someone is “retired” or not. Someone consulting after 65 still gets to say they’re retired, and people understand that, but there’s a weird barrier for people younger than that.

      But as to your larger point, I do agree that it’s tricky to know what to disclose or how to categorize things like freebies or side income. I think even just saying that you only took out half of what you’d planned from your portfolio in a given year, because of side income, is enough. The important thing is that readers understand that just doing what you write about won’t necessarily net them the same results, because you have other income coming in. The earning isn’t itself the problem (and good for you for earning money from your blog!), it’s how we represent our financial solidity in light of that. Thanks for the thoughtful comment (and email!).

  10. My ER plan has always included my online income. I was hoping for maybe $500/month when I first started, but it’s much better than that now.
    It’s best to put off withdrawal as long as you can so I think working part-time is the way to go after you retire early. Working a little bit is good for you and I’ve always advocated that. It really helps the marriage too if your spouse still work.
    I share our blogging income every month now and occasionally share our net worth.

    • I have always appreciated that about your blog, Joe! I think transparency is always a good thing. And I agree that some work is a good thing, so if a blogger sets out a plan that includes some post-ER earnings and then matches that with blogging income, I see zero problem. It’s only if they espouse the 4% rule but then don’t end up touching their investments and don’t say that’s what they’re doing.

  11. Wait. Wait. Wait. You mean not everyone absolutely loves Bluehost? I kid. (::cries in the corner a little bit because I still have two years left with them::)

    I think it’s really important for people to share the gray areas and the nuances, not just of FI but of the entire journey. That’s what makes a story worth reading. I don’t want everyone to look and sound the same. I was to see what makes them them, if that makes sense.

    • Hahaha. And here I am, not even self-hosted. Such an amateur! ;-) And I totally agree on sharing all the warts and wrinkles, as well as just not misleading people. I think we sometimes paint too rosy a picture, and that’s ultimately not helpful to those coming along behind us!

  12. I love this post, both as a reader and a blogger.

    I think that using as much transparency as is possible (or, you are comfortable with) is definitely the way to go. Not only does it give everyone the REAL story, it can also inspire people to follow in your footsteps. If we’re trying to guide them on the path to FI, why not show them every single step we take?

    I love Julie’s blog, Millennial Boss, for this reason. She publishes income reports that show her blog earnings and even specify which affiliate she earned the income from. That’s transparency at its best! No doubt there are other bloggers who do the same thing, and I commend them as well!

    • There are definitely plenty of bloggers who are fully transparent, and like you, I really appreciate that! It’s not an issue to me of blog revenue at all, but just whether a blogger discloses that in talking about how they’re funding their retirement. And I agree with you — it’s valuable to show readers all the different ways you can fund your life!

  13. Glad to see this post :) Yes – I agree with most of this. I always look in blogs for other peoples ‘lessons learned’ so that I can learn from their mistakes…. but often times blogs just talk about the rosy rainbow side- I guess selling the dream of FI and making it seem easy is what gets readers. Having a side income is NOTHING to be be ashamed about, and it would be nice if it was more obvious. I wish there were more blogs of people who were actually FI that still talked about their budgets, and the hardships, and what goes on in their thoughts as they are planning for the years to come. And there are lots of people out there who retired from their initial career path but now are essentially professional bloggers… you get paid for it, its a job…. and that is just fine with me, as long as they say they have a part-time job.

    • Thanks for helping me think it through! Glad I actually hit publish. :-) And I think you put it perfectly: Having a side hustle is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s something that everyone should probably have in retirement. The problem isn’t the having it, it’s the not acknowledging it, like you said. And I hope to be able to talk about the thoughts and hardships (though fingers crossed there aren’t big ones in our future!) as we get into ER, whether or not we make any side hustle money. :-)

  14. Let’s battle! Just kidding ;-).

    When I started my blog in 2006, it was with the idea of trying to figure out how I could retire when my military fiancee (now wife) could at age 43. Who wants to work 22 years more than their spouse? In late 2006, I started to make money from my blog and I wrote about it pretty early… even disclosing how much I make. Today, I write monthly updates about how much I make from dog sitting, blogging and other things. I think it’s fairly transparent.

    I estimate that I’ve given up nearly a million dollars in earnings over 10 years of moving to blogging. I was making more than 100K as year a software engineer. So while I do have ad networks (which are awesome!) on my site, I lean to what you are saying in that it is cool for bloggers to get paid for their hours spent.

    On the other hand, my readers who are not bloggers don’t need to spend the hours I do on their blog. They have the time freedom to devote to another money-making hobby. I think most FI bloggers say that you should have a “second act” and most of those make money in some way. I wonder how many people in early retirement really put the 4% “rule” to the test?

    The Personal Capital depiction is a little off from my experience. I’ve had more than 300 clicks this year and presumably some have signed up. They only pay the commission when people add $100K of assets. My total earnings from those 300 clicks is $0. I wish I had made $30,000 from it.

    I still recommend Personal Capital because it is better than anything else out there and it is free.

    • Thanks for the clarification on PC — I updated how I described it here. (I’ve never done it myself, so had incorrect info! And I know some bloggers have different deals.) I think you hit on it exactly in sharing your experience — just disclosing that you’re doing some income-earning work (including blogging) is helpful for people to see, and I commend you for disclosing it! There’s so much talk of passive income funding everything, that it’s only fair to share with readers (even if only in principle, not in dollars) when you’re not living totally on passive income and are in fact actively earning. This need is more true for the bloggers who push passive income as the end-all-be-all, not for folks who cover the gamut of finances, or who talk about supporting a semi-retirement in multiple ways. :-)

  15. It’s so interesting when someone takes a truly candid look at what goes on behind the curtain. There is nothing wrong with earning money from blogging (I would love to!). I think that blogs like yours, which are very thoughtful, also have thoughtful readers. Those readers can take the insights they learn here without being 100% literal. I have no intention of retiring early because with two kids and rent to pay in an expensive town, it is not realistic for me. But I still find real takeaways at ONL. Even Mr. Money Mustache, who I love and who started me on my money journey, like so many other people, simply cannot be taken literally for me. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t put forward legitimately important ideas that continue to be life-changing. But for most people, it does not literally translate into attempting to live on $20K a year. A portion of his readers, I’m sure, but I doubt very much that the majority are attempting to literally adopt his numbers. Your readers will not be left in the desert if you make some well-deserved profit, I am certain.

    • You raise a really good point, and it makes me want to clarify that I don’t think that making money on your blog means that you aren’t adding value or contributing takeaways, but more that we might be inadvertently selling an overly rosy view of early retirement if no one who is retired and blogging about it is having any challenges. Those challenges would be interesting to share and learn from, but they aren’t happening, because people aren’t actually having to test out their retirement financial strategies, because blogging income is bolstering them. Really we just need more voices in the space who can speak more directly to the ups and downs of early retirement, and right now that’s largely missing, at least from the high profile blogs.

      And I agree 100% (maybe 110%?) ;-) that we have the best and most thoughtful readers, which I’m grateful for every day. And I totally trust that you all don’t take everything literally or without question. But I still think we should all be transparent as much as possible to avoid overselling what we’re all proponents of.

  16. Very interesting way to take a hard look at the fundamentals that get you there and then sticking to them after the fact. Your honesty and determination is commendable and will be eye opening for many to watch. The hard thing is that many FI people are industrious and optimizers, if easy money is to be made or found you can guarantee they will. BUT, I completely agree that they should then disclose that. That is exactly what Steve did at @thinksaveretire stating he works more now than he did prior to retiring. I guess many achieve the Financial Independence but then don’t want the Retirement part. Freedom to control your own path is the biggest calling and is what guides me.

  17. I often wonder whether some FIRE bloggers are funding or supplement their retirement with blog income but I think I also always assume the big names are doing so. I enjoy reading Joe at Retire By 40 most because I don’t have to wonder, I know!

    I also wonder whether it’s reluctance to be fully transparent (I think Michelle from Sense of Cents and Crystal of Budgeting in the fun stuff are super transparent about online and other income and spending, though they aren’t FIRE bloggers) or not realizing it appears to be hiding potential conflicts of interest that holds other FIRE bloggers back.

    I haven’t figured out what level of numbers transparency I’m comfortable with but I also make an incredibly negligible couple of bucks a year that never covers my expenses. Before and if I ever do cover expenses and replace regular income, whether from blog money or investments, I do share my intent to replace my job income instead of just flat out retiring because we’re still quite a ways from my lowest number, or the number you suggested, in investable cash and assets, in every net worth report though. Like you, I don’t intend to show all my numbers because that’s not useful in the greater thought and philosophy exercise.

    • I really should have titled this post something more like “Let’s all be more transparent” because that’s what I’d really like to see, not fewer people earning money on their blogs. (Quite the opposite!) I don’t think you’re obliged to be transparent about every cent if your blog revenue is small, and especially given that you’re not preaching the gospel of passive income or claiming to be retired, and especially especially because you talk about replacing your income.

  18. Without adblocker, there are many ER blogs that I would no longer be reading. And sometimes as people approach ER, the posts become more and more fluff without much real content. Thanks for this article. It needed to be said. The most authentic ER blogs are the ones without the Personal Capital links :)

    • I have to say, I can relate to the fluff comment, because there are moments when it feels tough to figure out what I haven’t already written about. ;-) Trying hard to keep this thing interesting until we actually pull the trigger! But yeah, hooray for ad blocker!

  19. The ability to earn money from the blog does present something of a conundrum when we talk about living solely off our investments. I think as long as we’re transparent, the income shouldn’t change the message.

    I was financially independent before I thought about starting a blog. If they believe the math behind a low SWR, readers should be able to achieve FI and retire with our without a “side hustle.”

    Some of us monetizers are doing good works with the money. I donate half of my profits, and I believe Grant @ Millenial Money donates all of his. If I hadn’t chosen to monetize, I’d have tens of thousands of dollars less to give to charity.

    I know I don’t need to defend myself, but it kinda felt like you called out those who monetize their blogs and then said you weren’t doing that.

    I was glad to see you allude to the fact that you’ll likely be using the site to promote books you plan on writing. It’s a different way of monetizing, but the book(s) will undoubtedly sell more copies as a result of the audience you’ve built here. And that’s a good thing. You’ve got a great message.

    Cheers!
    -PoF

    • Hey PoF — If it came across as a call out, I’m sorry, because I truly didn’t mean this that way. My plea is simply for those who talk all about passive income to acknowledge when they are receiving active income that protects them from risks that passive-only earners might face. As for what you’ve done with your blog income, I’m a huge admirer of that. Not sure if I ever actually told you this, but your big check to your DAF was a big inspiration for us, and was one of the biggest reasons why we made peace with working this full year. We realized that we could make a similarly large contribution to a DAF to allow us to keep giving in retirement if we stuck it out, and decided that’s worth it to us. So we’re big fans of yours and your approach to monetizing your blog! :-D

      • That’s awesome about the DAF — I didn’t know that was a factor in your decision-making. It’s a great reason to have / justify OMY syndrome. I’ve actually donated > 200% of blog profits so far, but I expect the income to catch up eventually.

        Best,
        -PoF

  20. I always joke that nobody retires, especially early retirees.

    I have no problem with people earning money from their websites. I haven’t monetized mine because I can make more money writing for other people right now.

    But you’re right, people take the Trinity study as gospel truth when they haven’t even read it. And many ER bloggers don’t put it to the test because they make too much money from their blogs.

    • Can I steal that joke? ;-) It’s especially funny because a year or two ago, I would have told you that WE would be the exceptions, and would never work again, but the closer we get, the more I realize there’s no way in heck we’ll never work. More likely, we’ll always work, even if it’s things that pay nothing. So yeah. :-D

      Like you, I have no issue with people earning blog revenue. Just an issue with those who sing the gospel of passive income earning active income and not saying so.

      • It will NOT be true for us, at least not the working harder than now, only because that would be almost impossible. ;-) But we’ll for sure work to some extent, it’s just a question of whether it will make any money! (More on this tomorrow…)

      • If by “work harder in retirement” you mean “surfing and stand-up paddleboarding” then I’d agree.

        But otherwise I’m working way less in retirement than I did on active duty and, better yet, I no longer have to show up for department meetings or mandatory training.

        If you’re doing ER right then you’ll have no idea how you ever found room in your day to go to work… and you’ll be extraordinarily protective of your time.

    • I would put a bit different spin on this nobody retires idea. I began thinking about it a lot after listening to one of the very earliest episodes of the Radical Personal Finance podcast episodes where he pointed this out. Everyone from Tim “4 Hour Work Week” Ferriss who always has fifty different projects going at all times to MMM who “retired” to home construction and blogging businesses to Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme who of all things took a 40 hour/week job in the finance industry after retiring from his original career.

      Nobody who can retire, actually retires in the traditional sense of the word. Knowing this, why do we bother to fret about sequence of returns and 4% WD rates, etc, when nobody follows them anyway. I know in our case, we absolutely plan to make income and fully disclose in our plans that we hope to maintain a 50% savings rate in our retirement by making enough to provide our expenses while fully reinvesting our investment income for quite some time.

      As for the original point of the post, we do plan to turn our blog into a hobby business which will be part of our retirement income, but until that point we share the sentiments of “ickiness” of making money by recommending services like personal capital and robo-advisors just because they offer generous affiliate programs while we do not use or truly endorse them.

      • I think is IS super instructive that a lot of those guys who were the early cheerleaders for working less are now working so much. That said, I don’t think we can conclude based on the super self-promoting and outspoken few that no one retires early. As some of the commenters here share that they really do wish to quit working forever, and it makes sense that folks who truly want that wouldn’t be the ones writing blogs about it, while those of us who voluntarily take on a hobby like blogging (and therefore “have the mic”) wouldn’t be satisfied not taking on new projects. So that’s why I think testing the 4% rule or any other principle is still important. Unfortunately, those of us who shout the loudest about it are probably the least likely to test it out! ;-)

        • Ok, so seeing Nords comment makes me realize that to say that NOBODY retires is a stretch. ;) That said, he is a small minority, and I think that is a good thing for most people. Not only does some work tend to provide people with income to smooth the ride, it provides a sense of purpose in life which is vastly underrated in this community IMHO which tend to assume lack of work equates to happiness. I simply don’t buy that. Being familiar with Nords work and having recommended it to members of my family in the military, he is certainly not w/o meaningful work and purpose, even if it does not make him any income. He is the amphibious version of a “dirtbag millionaire” and a role model for us for sure.

        • I don’t disagree with you at all about the benefits of post-FIRE work. But I want to make sure we don’t fall prey to selection bias, meaning that we only look at those who are sharing their stories, not the ones who read blogs but never comment, and the bloggers might tend to be those more likely to crave work or a feeling of purpose in retirement. But then there are also some cases of people who stopped blogging once they hit ER, and while we can’t really know why they did, it could be that they truly didn’t want to work anymore! I’m not arguing necessarily, I just don’t think we can say that we know, because there’s a huge chunk of our readership (and probably yours, too) who we never hear from.

  21. What a great and audacious post.

    During meetups with other people on the journey, it is a topic we discuss… Living on the 4 pct rule when you make a blog income. And to be honest, it sounds super good! It shows you have. A good blog and now how to serial your RE…

    What holds true for me is that a lot started with the 4 pct rule. That part of the story inspires me. Getting there… They all worked hard and had a good plan.

    Then, i like the blogs a lot that openly post all income they have post FI. To me, that shows the power of FI and working on your own terms. As you know, in the end, it is my goal to reach that point. As long as it is disclosed, i am fine with that. I can learn from that.

    Quite soon, i realised for myself that the true goal is FI, not early retirement… So, i read most blogs with that in mind.

    What is really needed: blog police that bans pop ups to subscribe to a news letter… Aaaaarghh….! 😱

    • Thank you! And I completely agree — it DOES sound good to lessen the pressure on our investments by having some side income, especially if it’s from something I’m already doing anyway like the blog. So I totally get why many bloggers do what they do, and I have no criticism for that. Just important to tell your readers if that’s happening. And you remind me that I still think part of the problem in all of this is the meaning of the word “retirement.” Many people assume it means no work, and some of us intend it to mean no work, but it rarely does. I still think ER and FI aren’t actually different things, but it completely depends how you define retirement.

      And YES! Let’s turn the retirement police loose on those blog popups instead!

  22. I started writing MrFireStation.com over two years ago and 125,000 reads later, I haven’t earned a penny.

    My sole motivation was to share my experience & understanding of FIRE – both how to get there and how it feels once you are there. That said, I realize how behind the times I am when almost everyone I talk to asks me how much money I make on it! ;-)

    I see a good deal of traffic each month, but haven’t cashed in – I view it as a volunteer activity. I did think about running ads and donating the money to charity, but I think if I monetized the site it would impact what I write about and how it is perceived.

    I think your comments are a good watch-out for both publishers & readers.

    • I love that you view your blog in a service lens, and I think of this the same way. And I agree that adding ads to your site WOULD change how it is perceived, and not that that should be your deciding factor, but it’s good to know before you make the leap!

  23. You always need to take things with a grain of salt, as they say, and unless someone is truly faking it (saying they’re only spending 4% when they’re really not – or some other deception) it doesn’t bother me. That said, I’m not an FI blogger and so I don’t know the scene as well, so I don’t know how having more (undisclosed) income challenges the credibility from the average reader’s perspective.

    That is enlightening is that this issue, that of monetization a blog, seems to come up every few years and people seem to fall all over the range in response. Some people hate it, some don’t care – it’s fun to watch! :)

    • I actually don’t think it’s a credibility issue, but more one of overselling how easy or attainable or challenge-free early retirement is. We’re all essentially sales people on behalf of FIRE, and if we only show the rosy side of it (e.g. when someone has enough passive income to support them but doesn’t use it as planned because they have adequate blog income to cover that or in other ways reduce their risk), we risk misleading people about the true ER experience. It’s a whole other issue, but it’s also potentially problematic that most of our ER blogs have sprung up since the financial crisis, and so none of us have yet been through a big recession as early retirees or as savers, which also risks giving a more myopic view vs. a big picture view.

      • Ahhh yes, I see what you mean – having not experienced market volatility (which, as you said, can be smoothed over with a little side income) makes the process seem fantastic… since you’re only experiencing the fun side of FI. :)

  24. I appreciate this article so much! I’ve been reading ER blogs since JD Roth was paying down his debt at Get Rich Slowly, so I’ve “grown up” financially with quite a few bloggers who are now happily retired. I realized a couple of years ago that hardly any of these folks are really working their plan without the help of blog income, though, and that bugs me a little. How are we regular non-blogging folks supposed to know if the plan really works long-term? I am not a blogger and never will be. Part of what drew me to your blog is that you’re still working, and that your blog doesn’t seem to be the type that’s raking in tens of thousands of dollars. I look forwards to seeing where your journey takes you, and I appreciate the transparency and humility. :-)

    • This is where I am, too, Sarah. I used to chuckle along with Mr. Money Mustache when he’d talk about the “retirement police”, but now I see that those people don’t necessarily object, per se, to him or anyone else have additional streams of income. They just really want to know “Where are the truly retired people?!” I don’t have a side hustle, I’ve tried a few that have failed and brought me no joy at all. I may find something post-FI, and that would be fine, but I don’t particularly want to. One of the big reasons that I want to get to FI is to be able to take better care of myself due to a chronic illness that frankly makes my work life a really big challenge some days. I’d really like to just retire. Really retire, and not worry about work for a long while – at least a few years. But I have really no examples of people who have successfully done this. It’s slowly dawned on me that not one of my FI/RE role models is actually doing this. And one starts to wonder – can it really be done? Do I need to save more? Work longer? Man, I just CRAVE one blog of one person who’s really, truly, retired. No side income, living on the 4% rule.

      • This is the best example I know of a couple who is truly doing what they said they’d do in retirement: https://ournextlife.com/2016/01/13/interview-with-robert-robin-charlton-authors-of-how-to-retire-early/. As far as I know, their only side hustle is their e-book and tiny projects here and there. But I totally hear you on your bigger point, and I think it’s a problem that we don’t have many stories to look to of people who have truly stopped working after ER and are putting their financial plans to the test. And I don’t know if we will be that case study either, given that some things are starting to develop on our front that we’ll do post-career. But people pursuing FIRE really need to know the answer of whether the 4% rule really works for early retirement, not just 60+ retirement, and right now that’s a huge void.

      • Me too! So often I read about “start a blog, do a side hustle”. Umm, no, I want to RETIRE, not change careers. I want to be able to do what I want without concern for money. So I’m on the 50% savings for 13 more years plan, blech.

        • You guys are exactly why I think this transparency is so important! Not everyone wants to hustle forever (raises hand!), and though I absolutely understand how folks who started out intending to never work could start finding active income things they want to do, we owe it to readers to be clear about that so we’re not selling the no-work dream but then doing something else.

      • Check out Darrow Kirpatrick’s site. I believe it’s can I retire yet?
        He does make some money from his blog I think, but it doesn’t seem to be the level of MmM, madfeintist, or frugalwoods. Also go curry cracker. He makes income off his blog and I think it’s a little too ad heavy, IMO, but he seems to save it all and live off 4% of his investments.

    • Thanks, Sarah! And you point out exactly the central question. How can non-blogging readers know if the conventional FIRE wisdom really works if no one who is writing about it is testing it? And you guessed right — we are earning negative dollars on the the blog. ;-) Fortunately, we can afford that, and it’s maybe my favorite hobby ever (and pretty cheap, as hobbies go!). I don’t know if we’ll actually be testing the 4% rule because we have other projects in the works, but if we don’t, we’ll come out and say that and explain why!

  25. I share a lot of our numbers, but not everything. But I wouldn’t say we are truly FIRE bloggers. Mostly because we love working. So our theme is more “create more financial freedom” because that is something that everyone can benefit from and improves quality of life across the board. Beings we never earned a high income 4% withdrawal was never the plan. I gave a talk last week to families living under the poverty line, and that message was the same as what I talk about on the blog to folks who just want more freedom and flexibility. I don’t earn money directly from the blog, but it does help create work. I try to be open about that as a way of showing how if a person keeps low expenses and has some passive income, there are a lot of ways to earn a bit of money doing work you love and fits your lifestyle.

    • I think transparency is the important part, not whether or not you earn money on your blog or the opportunities it brings you. Readers just need to know if what you write about will give them your results, or if your results come from doing what you write about PLUS this other stuff that earns $$.

  26. This article is essentially the crux behind the lil debate I had on twitter last week. I blogged for two years without monetizing it. I’ve struggled to find a balance between losing my authenticity and covering the costs of the blog. I’m happy to include affiliate links to products I use and love. I will never include an affiliate link just because they pay to do so. I know however, that I will never again be considered neutral when recommending things. I like to be upfront about it all.

    I also haven’t factored in blog income to my FIRE plans. I don’t know if I’ll be blogging after I retire, so I don’t want to bet on any income that has such a high potential to disappear.

    • I don’t think this is a debate at all about monetizing your blog (I think that’s a valid but different question!), but rather about whether to disclose whether your blog income has a material affect on your ability to save for FIRE or to live your retired life without depleting your investments. Basically: If your readers do what you write on your blog, will they be able to get your same results? Or are you results bolstered by side income that you don’t disclose? If it’s the former, then you’re all good!

  27. ONL this post is awesome. It is like you read my mind. I am not a blogger and have often thought exactly what you said, how can I see a blogger’s experience as a good example when they have the cushion of blog income. Another point is how many bloggers started before a real bear market (2008) and lived through it without any other income sources to support their portfolio and calm their fears? I love some of their inspiring stories – but are their journeys really battle tested?

    I would add to this that the FI blogging community has become very much a discussion among themselves in some cases. Look at the comments, mostly other bloggers (which to be fair is a large part of who this post is written for) so the feedback has that bias.

    For me I look at every story with a critical eye and would absolutely want to know if their FI was supplemented or guarded by other income. The examples of people who have survived on only their investments and managed their money through a trial of a bear market are few. Can we name any bloggers who truly have? Not saying their are not – just not sure who they are?

    • Thanks, Fortuna! You make SUCH a good point about the particular era we’re in, and that virtually every FIRE blog launched after the recession. So we have no test cases for making your portfolio last through a major market correction or recession. And if on top of that we have no test cases of people even following their original plans without the assist of blog income, then we truly have no full stories out there. And that’s a problem!

  28. Love this post and the mindset that it represents. I follow many FI blogs, and several of them have become increasingly sly/sleazy in the way they try to “help” (sell) you. Like you mentioned, I have no problems with someone earning a living off of their blog and intellectual property….but I DO have a problem when their marketing practices are questionable. Thank you for your integrity! P.S. Stories of real life people struggling towards FI would be awesome….those are the ones that hit close to home.

    • Thank you! I haven’t come across too many of those sly sales attempts (other than the newsletter popups which we’d all be happier without), but I do wish more people would disclose whether they have any extra boosts making their plan work. And thanks for the feedback on sharing more real-life stories — I’m going to work hard on that!

      • You are welcome! For what it’s worth, real life for us is married with three home-schooled kids, as a single income family. Lots of websites keep telling me I need to save huge percentages of my paycheck, but they are either single bloggers or dual income bloggers with no kids. I have yet to find someone in our situation who isn’t independently wealthy or already earns $100K (which we are way below that). At this point, we are saving 23% of our income, and I feel proud of our family to accomplishing that!

  29. I think transparency is important and kudos to you for being very transparent (other than not sharing actual numbers lol). It’s all about stay true to yourself and stick with authenticity. If you lose that then you’ll probably start losing your audience. It’s all about building a personal brand. Some bloggers do great jobs at pitching products and having sponsor posts to earn money… but that just doesn’t line up with my image and how I see things, so I’m not doing that. It all comes down to what you’re comfortable with. :)

    • Thanks! And haha, yeah, I know I’m a bit of a hypocrite asking for transparency and then not sharing numbers. ;-) I admire that you’re aligning your blog revenue model with your values and who you are. That’s super important. And I think for readers what’s most important is just knowing whether you have any behind-the-scenes boosts that are keeping your plan afloat when others who do what you espouse are struggling a bit more. We just don’t want to mislead people considering FIRE that it’s all puppy dogs and rainbows! :-)

  30. Well timed. I had to laugh at MMM latest post. Etsy business.

    Fine, great. Note to self, they suck at “retirement”. :-)

    For the most part everything everywhere is selling something. I applaud your honesty.

    • I finally concluded that anyone inspired enough to write a FIRE blog and stay at it for years and years would certainly be bored in ER if it truly meant not doing or making anything. So these side hustles and blog income streams don’t surprise me, but the readers who are aiming for actual retirement need to know all the ways that these altered plans with extra income don’t reflect the same reality they’re living!

  31. Great post, ONL team. You touched on a huge FIRE blog pet peeve of mine. I hate it when people prescribe a 4% SWR (or 3, or 3.5%) and then live the FIRE lifestyle on 0-X where X < 4% SWR. Blog monetization resulting in a lower SWR is great, just please be upfront about it. Let me know that you chose a 4% SWR but now you live on 1% due to blogging income. Even while taking it with a grain of salt, I think it can be misleading to prescribe one thing and do something else.

    Myself and probably several other folks are looking to the FIRE community as a guidepost and an example to follow. Not being upfront can have one of 2 effects: 1. People trust the prescription, and if the prescription is wrong, they don't save enough and end up with a high risk of eating cat food in their old age. 2. People realize the additional income and the prescription is correct, but don't trust the prescription and end up over-saving since we can't watch by true example how FIRED people are really living. I'm not going to risk choosing the 4% rule if I see most bloggers living on 0-2% SWR!

    One could argue that the burden of choosing the correct SWR is wholly my responsibility, but please know that the FIRE blogosphere is extremely influential and people make decisions based on examples, not just math. Thanks to everyone for being honest about your actual SWR while taking into consideration side hustles and blog income, I appreciate your honesty!

    • Have you seen how expensive cat food is?!?! ;-) You just gave a perfect articulation of why the disclosure matters so much. Whether any of us bloggers see ourselves as role models, as you said, plenty of folks are hugely influential, and this is not small stakes stuff we’re talking about. We’re talking about enticing people to make a life-altering decision based on math that none of us are really testing. So I totally agree with you — just disclose what you’re doing that’s different from what you’ve preached.

  32. Well said ONL.

    I am of the belief that any audience should always maintain a healthy scepticism about what they are being asked to believe. Trust if they choose to, but always verify what they are being told before acting upon it.

    Blogs by their nature are unsubstantiated opinion pieces, the ramblings of some random person on the internet. The audience has no way of knowing if the author offering advice is a 14 year old girl writing from her bedroom, or a Nobel laureate in economics.

    The audience lacks a reliable means of verifying whether any financial numbers a blogger may post are fact based or pure fantasy. They have no way of checking whether the back story a blogger presents is just a little sugar coated, or whether they are playing a character who makes a little (or a lot) money selling their audience a seductive message.

    That said if the audience wanted reliable tax advice they should go and speak to a qualified accountant, who meets continuous professional development requirements to (in theory) stay current, and who holds professional indemnity insurance to back up any advice they give.

    If they wanted reliable financial advice they should go and speak to an independent financial advisor, who again has professional indemnity insurance backing up what they say.

    What they should definitely not do is blindly follow the advice of some troll on the financial independence reddit or a sponsored FIRE post found on a blog someplace.

    In summary I don’t think the main issue is undisclosed affiliate links and sponsored posts, or even those super annoying pop over email harvesting forms.

    I think the main issue is actually the vast quantities of ill-informed self appointed “experts” who are happily churning out (mostly bad) advice about topics they actually know very little about.

    • Thanks! And LOL — safe to safe I’m neither a 14-year-old girl nor a Nobel laureate. ;-) I do sympathize with folks who would LOVE to follow your advice and go to a fiduciary financial planner, but have had frustrating experiences with people not being willing to think outside the box enough to validate an early retirement plan (I say this from experience). And so it can feel like this blog space is the only refuge. I agree that it’s a problem that so many folks profess to be experts with no training, but I do think there’s enough consistency across enough blogs to suggest that certain things are “truth.” Validation by critical mass. And that’s, to me, the bigger problem, especially if most of the commonly read blogs have this inherent conflict of interest.

  33. Very well said! The inspiration and motivation one can get is really great, but the purely financial advice is potentially a lot less useful when coming from bloggers who make so much money that they can afford to make foolish decisions with their investments. Case in point, the 4% rule (as you mentioned) or the cringeworthy endorsements of Roboadvisers.
    I defnieley appreciate your “business model” of not making too much of a business out of your blog. Always stay true, Mrs. and Mr. ONL!!!

    • Yeah, the roboadvisor recs totally get me, because I personally would never recommend them, or at least not as they’re currently functioning. (Especially if, as it currently appears, Obamacare is here to stay — roboadvisors can totally mess with your income by making a bunch of trades and incurring taxable events, and could push you off the “subsidy cliff” as Justin @ Root of Good calls it.) And thanks for the encouragement on our “business model” (or maybe “unbusiness model” is more like it). ;-)

  34. I was thinking about another side of blogs not telling the full story (Including my own) on how it’s not always as easy as it seems
    Shit happens, plans don’t work out, promotions/jobs fall through and those should be written about as well.

    As for transparency on income after retirement, 100% agree with the disclosures and highlighting that you still have an active income (not even a blog specific income, income from any active source). I compare that to not being honest about your path in general – leaving out a windfall (inheritance for example) that aided your current position.

    • Totally agree with you on both counts! On blog income, I don’t think anyone has to say where the income comes from or how much, but just acknowledge how it’s padding their planning, even if just conceptually. And on the full journey stuff, YES! I think we all want to show our successes because they’re so much more fun, but it’s important to show all sides of the journey so prospective FIRErs know what they are getting themselves into!

  35. Ohhhhh, this is an angle I never even contemplated!

    Man those Personal Capital affiliate links are eeeeeverywhere though. I actually LOLed at a Billfold comment yesterday where someone was like ‘I just want to find a blog that isn’t pushing Personal Capital in my face’ (which is totally me because I’m not in the US!)

    • I swear I have nothing against the PC links, nor anyone who promotes them. It’s just worth knowing that they can be lucrative, which could have an impact on whether a FIRE blogger is truly living off their investments as planned or not. As long as they are transparent about it all, then no problem. (Although, agreed — we’d all love to see fewer ads and affiliate links!)

  36. Here, ONL, I’ll drop a gauntlet.

    My family and I have been living happily for 15 years on the 4% SWR, which included the Internet recession of 2000-02 and the Great Recession of 2008-09. Sequence of returns hammered our high-equity portfolio, but we handled it and came back bigger than ever. I discuss the techniques on The-Military-Guide and I’ve shared our numbers on a lot of forums, including podcasts with Paula Pant and Mad FIentist. I’ve shared our net worth with a number of Mustachians and on the Rockstar Finance forum.

    I’ve earned money (and paid taxes) on my royalties and my blog. I’ve donated it all to military-friendly charities ($15,041.48 to date) and we’ve donated an order of magnitude more to charities out of our own assets. I don’t charge speaking fees and I’ll give away my writing revenues as long as I’m writing. I’ve also spent hundreds of dollars more on writing expenses and marketing, but that’s all part of our 4% SWR spending.

    I spend more money on USAA conferences & events than they’ve spent on me, but I’ve learned a ton about insurance (from the best) for my next book. I write plenty of reviews for USAA products & services, yet I think their execs would agree that I’m also among their harshest critics (*cough* business checking *cough*).

    The current owner of The-Military-Guide (another military retiree) is totally motivated by the site’s earnings. He donated a huge pile of money to charity as his “purchase” price, and now he keeps all of the revenue he can earn. That’s given him the income stream to revive the MilBlogging brand, including its conference just before FinCon17. He’s Exhibit A to my readers for the power of military entrepreneurship.

    Ironically, the vast majority of the site’s visitors use adblockers. He has ads on the site, and he earns money from them, but very few readers actually see the advertising.

    Meanwhile I know that he’s doing everything possible to maximize the site’s up time, and he’s marketing my books for free. His revenue maximizing also means that the site ranks on the first results page of searches for military personal finance terms, so his pursuit of his revenue helps me reach even more new military readers.

    My writing credibility depends on not profiting from it. I’d also hate to enrich myself from young servicemembers who are starting their own journey to financial independence. And finally, sharing my numbers helps them to follow my lead (if they choose) while understanding that the math works for everyone– not just for persistent submarine officers.

    • Hey Nords. I don’t see this as dropping a gauntlet at all, unless it’s with other bloggers. ;-) I think what you’re doing is the ideal way to do it, namely being transparent about it all. Even if you kept all that money to yourself, the fact that you talk about it makes a world of difference. And the fact that you donate it all is 1.) AWESOME, and 2.) Proof that the blog income isn’t changing your retirement financial plan, meaning that folks can trust that what you promote is replicable. I also think it sounds like a pretty ideal gig to have the owner of the site promoting it, with you getting to do the writing, so there’s an “editorial buffer” if you will which further boosts your credibility.

      • Thanks. We’re perpetually seeking more military personal finance bloggers there, and it makes it easier for more authors to have a voice without having to run a blog.

        Judging from the comments, FinCon should have a lot of interesting discussions this year…

  37. The other thing is income reports when people say ‘I made $10000000 from my blog this week/year/month!’ Often a huge chunk of that is from FREELANCING and IMO that does not count as making money off your blog.

  38. Great post. I’ve been a blog follower for about a decade. I think. Very new to actually having a blog. When i first found ONL about a year ago, I almost found it odd that you didn’t have any sort of advertisements. So that’s where i’m coming from. I have always felt that folks who are running a blog that spends a great deal of time discussing personal finance and specifically your own personal finance it is disingenuous to not discuss your blog income. I like to see blogs where they are open about it. Now blogs that are on separate topics, i don’t share the same thoughts. On Making money, i say go for it. Capitalism! Yah! I do think blogs that are over advertised start to look funny and can turn readers off. Affiliate links don’t really bother me. Have ya seen Making Sense of Cents blog and income reports. I mean come on. She has tons of affiliate links and it doesn’t seem to stop countless people from clicking on them and visiting her blog. More power to her. If i was your trusted adviser i would suggest that you seek advertisements from specific organizations, associations, or companies that you like. See if they will advertise. Heck throw up an ASPCA donation advertisement. Anything. Ha ha.

    • I like that idea of advertising for charitable causes! What a cool idea. (Maybe your million dollar idea, to create a nonprofit ad network??) That’s about all I’d consider, and only if it doesn’t slow down load time. ;-) And that’s interesting how you first reacted to ONL not having ads — did it make me seem less legit? (That’s just me being curious!) And I have seen Making Sense of Cents and her income reports, and I think that’s awesome for Michelle! She’s not a FIRE blogger, so not selling a specific, prescribed mode of financial planning, which I do think makes a huge difference. Plus she discloses it all anyway, so no issue there!

      • Charitable advertising….i like it. You seemed legit by all the comments and by the content of your writing. The opposite is true when there is a new blog out there with a ton of adds. It just seems out of place. I understand and agree about Michelle not being a fire blogger. I think a few simple adds with an openness about wanting to make some money and pay for some of the costs is totally acceptable.

        • Seriously, if you create the charitable ad network, let me know, and I will reconsider my approach here! And thanks for that nice compliment. :-D I’ve wondered before if the lack of ads makes me look like not a “real” blogger (and of course sometimes I don’t feel like a “real” blogger just because that seems like a lofty label!). And I totally agree with you — just talking about how the ads either cover your costs or that they actually impact your ability to save or how much you have to withdraw is all that most blogs need to be transparent.

  39. In general I totally agree with your points. As a matter of fact the money I’m making from my side gig (which happens to be a blog, but not my personal finance blog) is 100% part of my financial independence plan. I actually crafted an abbreviation for that: KoFI (Kind of FI), which is the state where my investments + my side income cover all my expenses. That’s where I am right now, and I make it clear on my blog.

    As for my personal finance blog, it’s currently in the negative as the hosting costs are more than what I make back with advertising :)

    • I love that approach! Disclosing it all is the key, and you’re doing that in a way that sounds completely perfect and makes it easy for your readers to know what you’re truly doing. Bravo!

  40. I’m becoming a big fan of your blog – you’re so thoughtful.

    Blogging seems like it would be hard work! I’ve happily clicked through a blogger’s site because I value the blogger’s insights and I want them to get paid.

    I do, however, have a slight problem with bloggers that want to steer readers to financial products that involve real risk or may not be in the reader’s best interests. One high profile blogger likely made many hundreds of thousands from Lending Club referrals, and many of those investors, myself included, are disappointed in the results. And my personal belief is that over the long haul readers aren’t going to be well served by blogger’s endorsements of Betterment. It’s one thing to collect a referral for a service that’s clearly win/win. It’s another to steer people to services that may be win/loose.

    • Thanks so much, Dale! And yeah, I would be pretty upset, too, if I felt like I had been steered to a particular product by a blogger and then it didn’t live up to its promise. You’ve just given me more reason not to recommend products, even if there’s no compensation involved!

  41. ONL — I think you’re letting some bloggers off the hook here because you’re obviously nice. I get the transparency issue and you’re spot on. Bloggers should disclose the reality of “retirement” when they are working 20 hours a week to monetize their blogs. Call that criticism #1 of FIRE blogs. It’s not retirement. It’s professional part time blogging.

    But I think most people get this and don’t begrudge it. Most FIRE bloggers are fairly transparent. The much deeper problem in my opinion, call it criticism #2, is THE FORMULA.

    I’m new to blogging but it quickly became apparent that there’s a formula to monetizing a blog, easily seen within the FIRE echo chamber. What is it? It’s turning your blog into a tutorial about blogging. And I can’t think of a more boring ponzi scheme than blogging about blogging.

    It’s like an Amway pitch. “Hey, thanks for reading this blog. Look how well I’m doing. You know what? Let me tell you about a great opportunity. You can do what I’m doing too! Write a blog! Here are the 10 steps. Just click here and here. Thanks!”

    Maybe a blogger started with interesting content and good writing. Fair enough. I think we all love writing and reading about personal finance and that’s why we do it. At first. But then every post devolves into blog recruitment, a how-to primer, another great reason to sign up with such and such. The disclosure should really say, “The purpose of this post is to get you to click an affiliate link, because the words surrounding the link are pretty much what I wrote last time.”

    Sorry to be blunt, but someone had to say it. I think people are afraid to say it because the only way to build readers is to get noticed by blogs that are already popular, which is why bloggers are always commenting on popular blogs, even when the blog post in question is super boring. I know because I’ve done it myself. My new vow to myself is to only comment if I actually like the writing. And to only write if I like what I’m writing. You did us all a service by getting this conversation rolling.

    Full disclosure before I get slammed for these opinions. I’ve made $0, I’m not looking to retire early. My blog, as far as I can tell, is read by a few other personal finance bloggers and my wife, and that’s about it. So no one should listen to me either! Ha. I link to Amazon products because I actually love books and use Amazon personally for almost everything. I add the disclosure statement so I won’t get sued. Apologies for the long rant.

    • OMG, that comment is awesome and spot on! Full disclosure, I am looking to “retire early” but it will be more like I’m a stay at home dad while the wife still works now. That’s why we called it a Lifestyle Change and got away from talking about FIRE. We don’t want to wuit, we just want a better lifestyle.

      Thanks for the laughs though, I loved reading about how blogs devolve from being useful to pitching links, products, and Teslas and everything their blog seemed to stand against, lol.

      Spot on with how that devolves, loved it!

    • This is a super interesting perspective, Rich! In my experience, the web hosting affiliate links don’t pay much (like $4-5), so it hadn’t occurred to me that that would become anyone’s business model. But maybe you’re right! And re: whether what bloggers do is considered “retirement,” I think you’ll enjoy tomorrow’s post! ;-)

      • Looking forward to your next one! Really got me thinking, obviously. As far as the web hosting, I think that’s a big part of THE FORMULA — it’s the hook, if you will.

        What you’ve identified, in my mind, is the parallel messages at play. One message is out front and explicit (early retirement, meeting a goal, whatever), and the other message is implicit (pssst, set up your blog this way and look how much “passive” income you can make). I think it starts with good intentions but degenerates into click bait drivel, the PF blog equivalent of “9 Foods That Will Make Your Teeth Sharper.” Believe me if I had a link you’d be clicking! I have the urge to click myself and I just wrote it.

        • Thanks! Tomorrow will have a similar but different thought starter. ;-) And I agree 100% that we risk communicating parallel narratives, and that’s where the slippery slope can lead!

      • Oh, it’s like $65 for Bluehost referrals (which, coincidentally, seem to be very popular amongst bloggers, despite bad overall reviews). ;)

        It’s such a bugaboo of mine as well. I don’t care if people are transparent and explain the deal. It’s when they push and say, “Oh, what a wonderful way to make money. You should do it too. Just use this handy dandy link.”

        • Is that EACH?! I thought I remembered when they reached out to me it being like that much for an ad, flat rate, which made me LOL. (I also think no one loves Bluehost and everyone uses them because some other blogger recommended them and they got suckered into a long-term plan.) ;-)

        • Just checked – That is for each referral, per their website. “For every visitor who clicks through these links and signs up, your [sic] receive $65. Help others learn why Bluehost is so great. The more you do so, the more you make!”

          Yeah… XD.

      • The web hosting conversions are more significant than suggested here. The public BlueHost offer is $65 per sale. They were willing to give me $80 per sale. I turned them down.

        • I think it tells you what a baby blogger I was when I got my Bluehost offer. They offered $80, and I thought that meant TOTAL, not per conversion. Hahahahaaha

  42. Very interesting post, and certainly something to ponder.

    There is a personal finance/travel blog that I love. This blogger is early retired and living the lifestyle we one day dream of. Numerous times, they have asserted that they actually have “too much” money- they are incredibly comfortable.

    And yet, recently, their blog has become very commercial in my opinion. You go onto the blog and immediately a box pops up asking you to sign up to their newsletter and about every two paragraphs there is an ad. It’s actually at a point where the pop up and the ads are so frequent it has made it quite an annoying site to read in terms of format.

    I really want to tell this blogger “hey I think your attempts to monetize are coming across very commercial” but I am pretty sure the response will be “if you don’t like it, don’t read the blog” which is fair enough. I just wish they would actually stand by what they say- that they have enough and stop trying to earn more or at least tone it down so it isn’t such a burden to the reader.

    I think MMM and Frugalwoods have a good balance- sure they have affiliate links but at least you’re not bombarded with ads as soon as you get onto the site.

    A great, thought provoking post.

    • Thanks! I think it could be worth emailing that person just to share your feedback. I think most people are afraid to offer that level of feedback, and though it can be tough to hear sometimes, I always appreciate hearing it. For what it’s worth (and you don’t have to take my advice), you might find it goes over better if you focus on what YOU take away from the blog experience instead of what you think this person should do. Saying “I’m a long-time reader, and I’m just finding the message about having more than enough money to be confusing when mixed with the popup and ads on the site. Also the ads are now making the site take longer to load…” or something like this might go over better. But I don’t know who you’re talking about or anything about that person, so you’d be the far better judge! ;-)

  43. Man, these comments are as exciting and thought provoking as the original post. Loved reading them. Lots of great take aways from all kinds of perspectives. Thanks for putting that narrative out there!

  44. This is very interesting conversation. You’re even getting me to read all these comments while on vacation. :) That’s how much I’m enjoying it.
    We never mention blog income because we don’t make enough of it to cover its cost. And making a profit from it has never been our goal. But I can see from this post that bringing it up can help so that the reader doesn’t wonder if extra blog income is helping our numbers.
    We do plan to report on how much we’ll withdraw from our portfolio to cover expenses while in retirement to show a full picture.

    • That’s saying something, if a post makes you want to read all the comments! Thanks! ;-) I don’t think you have to disclose blog income if it’s less than what the blog costs you. But you do if it’s impacting how much you have to withdraw in retirement, because then it becomes a risk mitigation. But otherwise, no worries! Enjoy the rest of your vacation!

  45. We all should strive for transparency. Bloggers owe it to the readers and should inform the readers if blog income supplements their FIRE life style. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with the blog providing income. However, the 4% rule, cash flow from real estate or dividends becomes less stressed. We of the blogging community do not want to mislead or falsely present information. Rather, we strive to inspire and share our stories.

    Personally, I’m a small fish in the
    Blogging world and do not have plans to make money off my site (could change; would let me readers know if it does). My number one goal is to share with the world how the cash flow from real estate can provide financial independence.

    • You just said it all a lot more succinctly than I did! :-) I think your blog mission sounds great, and then you’ll answer the question for yourself when you get to ER of how to talk about your income/expenditures then. As long as you stay transparent, it’s all good!

  46. I don’t have a blog (yet :), but I’ve been reading PF blogs for probably 10 years now. I’ve seen many come and go, but I hope yours never does. I will say that as a reader, not a blogger, I tend to not visit the blogs that are loaded with ads, links, etc. nearly as much as I do others. I also find that some people’s blogs have a very late 1990s-type design–and honestly, if you don’t have a pretty modern, readable, clean design, it makes me a little suspect of your content. And if the ads and bad design are both in effect, I likely won’t visit the blog ever again. I don’t mind a few affiliate links here and there, or even a sponsored post every now and again, but if it starts to become too frequent, disillusionment sets in.

    • Aww, thanks Bonnie! You made my day. :-) And I’m totally with you on all of this, though it’s often not conscious. I am a big fan of clean and readable (and pretty if possible, though that’s not a requirement), and I won’t revisit sites that force me to dodge popups and ads, or that have a hard-to-read font or background color, or that have massively long blocks of text. (I do wish I could get my blog template to be a bit more responsive so that the text column could get wider and readers could scroll less, but not willing to pay for a template that would accomplish that!) ;-)

  47. I’m all over the place on this topic to be honest. I always liked that some, not all FI bloggers held off with a ton of affiliates and promotions. I like good stories, good content, good people, if you check those boxes I’ll take a read.

    I always tell myself i’m taking down Google adsense and then I get a check, forget for a month or two and tell myself I’ll cancel the next time it reaches the payout (I make almost nothing so it takes a while) .

    Personal Capital, has helped me so much in terms of saving time and getting an overall picture, I almost feel obligated to share in every post that it could help the reader and the fact that I get a check every once in awhile because someone signed up after I mentioned it actually feels really good.

    It’s funny though nobody gets mad or says anything when someone recommends Vanguard who has no affiliate program, so I understand that it’s tough to know the motive behind it when money is involved.

    It’s a fine line with Fincon as well, if monetizing is not your thing you might get turned off by affiliate this and monetize that. I really enjoy the people, even if someone requested for me to put on a mask and look like a serial killer with her, ONL .

    I started out as a resource for myself to share my story and I still see my blog as that, maybe I will write when I reach FI, maybe I will shut the whole thing down, either way it will be my decision.

    • I seriously have no issue with the monetizing or the affiliate links. My only issue comes when someone makes sizeable blog income after saying they will live off their investments, and then they don’t say that that’s happening and essentially give the impression that they’re living off their investments when really the blog income is providing a huge cushion, extra risk mitigation, full out income, or whatever it might be. My beef is only the lack of transparency, not the earning! But it’s a good point about Vanguard, and I think the reason many of us feel comfortable recommending them is because there is no ethical quandary there, because we stand to gain exactly nothing in recommending them. And while you looked like a serial killer, I looked like a terrorist. So I’m sure I can expect my door to be broken down any day now! ;-)

  48. Ha ha ha, guilty as charged. :) I guess I fall into that “successful FIRE blogger making $40k/yr off his blog, spending most of it and not pulling much from the portfolio.” And admit it totally unapologetically :)

    However I also disclose everything I make from my blog (and from dividends and other little hustles), along with all my spending. I try to be transparent and honest (and when i fail it’s the fault of my negligence, not an attempt to obfuscate). I think it shows what you can do in FIRE in terms of generating a profitable side venture without devoting anywhere near 40 hours to it. And I don’t approach the blog as a hard core profit making venture other than throwing up some affiliate links and google adsense stuff.

    As far as Personal Capital, I’d say I get a 10:1 or 20:1 ratio of positive to negative comments regarding PC (which does pay pretty well as an affiliate!). It’s hugely popular as a free way to track investments and spending/income, and a life-changer for those seeking a free tool to get a handle on where there money goes each month (probably because the tracking is automated by linking to credit cards, bank accounts etc). The few negative comments I receive are (1) it glitched or didn’t do what they wanted, (2) they call me once every 6-12 months and I have to politely decline their offer to discuss money management services, and (3) OMG my passwords are all at PC – are they safe? All legitimate concerns and all I have alongside my readers :)

    Back to the main point of your article, I have a draft outline of a post in the hopper waiting for some fleshing out and refinement surrounding our early retirement plans and how they didn’t turn out as planned. Reality is actually much better than our conservative financial plan for several reasons, including good market returns and the blog income among other things.

    Not a negative FIRE experience, quite the opposite. But it illustrates how planning for worst case scenarios usually leads to positive outcomes since everything can’t go wrong all at once (can it?).

    • I think you’re one of the few doing it right, because you DO disclose what you’re earning. And I think you’ll be doing it even MORE right when you go live with that post about how you’re deviating from your plan (as well as reminding folks of that stuff in your financial updates). I love that you’re doing that, and appreciate the example you’re setting for those who share numbers. We need more folks doing what you’re doing! It’s a post for another day, but I also think it’s interesting that virtually ever FIRE blog started post-recession, and most of us also started saving post-recession, so we’ve all benefited from an abnormally long bull market, and it’s hard to see how that’s *not* skewing all of our views to some degree. But either way, it’s always so awesome to know how much better you’re doing that you’d projected, while living the life that makes you happy. :-)

  49. This is such a true post! When I first started blogging, I read those How-To-Blog posts and their emails were, frankly, annoying. I did learn, but I quickly unsubscribed. The hustle is fine, but do it less intrusively, when possible. My blog may never pay for itself via adsense nor amazon links for things I own and love, but it is paying for itself by helping me to focus on my finances and get them in order. If no one reads, it will still have had value in my life.

    • I love how you see it that way. I feel the same way about blogging (I guess obviously, since I’ve never done the ads) and also the journey to ER. Even if we don’t ever get there, it will still have been a worthwhile journey. I mean, of course we’ll have to get over the huge letdown, but we’d get past that. We’ve learned so much, met so many great friends (like you, at least virtually, so far) and it’s all completely worth it. :-)

      • It’s a great journey. I do have some less-invasive monetization ideas percolating, in case AdSense never gets to that $100 mark to cover the hosting fees.

        But yes. Blogging is almost entirely about the journey for me. It makes it even stranger when “readers” pitch writing for my blog. Dude, it’s personal. They never pitch a “hey, I’m also LGBT and money impacts me X.” It’s always a pitch for writing up credit cards. They don’t even mention putting RuPaul on the card.

        • Oh yeah, totally. And I get these pitches that are like, “I saw you took one guest post ever, so I’m positive you’d love my post on this totally off-topic thing even though I’ve never talked to you before!” Hahahaha.

        • They always swear they are readers. No twitter or facebook likes or interactions. No comments. The pitch is for wildly inappropriate content based on your actual blog. Then they follow-up since you ignored their attempts to contact.

          There has to be a better way. ;)

        • Hahahahaahah. Totally. “I love your blog so much, and I think your readers will really love my post on how to find the best deals on Viagra online.” ;-)

  50. Actually, I totally understand why many bloggers would want to leave out part of the story. As much as “transparency” is the buzzword of the day, we all like to have some privacy. Nobody wants to be an open book because there are always bad people (e.g. hackers) out there who are looking to harm others.

    • I think we’re poster children for that! I am not asking anyone to disclose numbers (which we don’t do ourselves) but to disclose whether they have sufficient side income to not actually follow the retirement income strategy they’ve espoused.

      • And sometimes, people might have a personal reason to not follow a plan that they espouse (e.g. maybe the guy is going through a tough divorce, maybe his kids are problematic). There are too many factors to say. But just b/c someone doesn’t follow his own advice, doesn’t mean that it isn’t good advice.

        • Totally true. However, I do think that if we are going to put ourselves in the position of representing the movement (e.g. writing a blog about early retirement) then we take on the responsibility of making sure that we are at least to some degree transparent. There’s tons of stuff that we don’t share here, and I fully support everyone’s right to keep plenty of things private, but even just acknowledging that you’re not following the rules that you set forth, even if you don’t explain *how* you’re not, is better than not being transparent at all.

  51. Love this post, could not agree more. But that being said, in some case there may be T&C’s that prohibit bloggers from divulging their incomes. Have just posted our blog income too, well negative blog income actually ;-)

    • Thanks! I am definitely NOT asking anyone to divulge their income (that would make me a huge hypocrite! haha), but just the fact that their blog income or whatever side hustle income now provides whatever percent of their living expenses, and therefore they aren’t actually doing in retirement what they said they’d do. That’s all. :-) But totally love that you just posted your blog income! Way to lead by example!

  52. Thanks for this interesting post. I’m sure there are early retirees who are purely living off passive income/savings/4% SWR who don’t have blogs but as they don’t have blogs, we don’t know how they’re doing!

    My blog is monetised but income isn’t factored into my FI plans as it’s pitiful! I can’t be bothered with analytics, SEOs, amassing Twitter followers etc. I’ve made a grand total of £60 from Adsense in nearly 3 years, closing in on my second payment – woo hoo! :-) As I’m in accumulation phase, anything I earn from my blog via ads or affiliate links is invested, which is documented in my monthly updates, so I hope I’m being transparent.

    I used to read many more FI blogs but stopped reading the ones which just tell you how to start your own blog to make money.

    • You’re welcome! :-) And yeah, I really do wish more folks living off the 4% rule would share their stories! And I’m with you — I put my time into writing the blog, but can’t be bothered with the SEO and other optimization. Blech! ;-) And I don’t think you need to worry about transparency if your income is in that range. It’s only if it starts impacting how much you withdraw in retirement that you need to be clear about it. But it’s admirable you share that now!

  53. I love the idea of more transparency by bloggers. While we are at it, how about bloggers adding in all expenses in the expense report including disclosing freebies scored or paid for by their blogging business such as an electric bike, travel, donations, hosting fees, computers, cameras, etc. Would make it easier to compare to why my expenses are higher knowing I have to pay for things they get free. I have no problem when bloggers monetize especially to cover costs, but when the articles are more paid fluff than real content I become much less interested…

    • I think a lot of us feel that same thing with some blogs — it’s easy to sense when they’ve gone from fun hobby to actively trying to make money, and the quality and authenticity almost always suffer. And I think disclosing freebies is a great idea, though I’m not sure how many bloggers would go for that! In my case, there’ve been no travel or blog freebies. I picked up some swag at FinCon that was available to everyone, and Charles Schwab bought me dinner to hear about their services, which I’ve never blogged about, because that ain’t my style, and that’s my full disclosure statement. :-)

  54. Thanks for all these great thoughts Mrs. ONL (and thanks for the nice email reply you sent a few weeks ago!). I very much appreciate you raising the issue of transparency, and also how the FI blogger community isn’t necessarily (perhaps at all) representative of the FI community in general. You raising the issue helps highlight a frustration/worry of mine. We’re nearing FI, with hubby longing to quit soon. He brings in the income, and I’m pretty sure he will not be into side hustles post FI. So-how might ER look? I look to blogs for evidence/possible scenarios, but given that almost all I’ve seen are making some to lots of $ in FI, their usefulness seems limited in that regard.
    And also for that reason I see transparency as absolutely essential, so as to not mislead, just as you argue for. :)

  55. Spot on post Ms. ONL. Some bloggers do it right like ROG and laid out their plan but then admit income has “showed up” that they weren’t expecting/banking on. My FIRE plans are totally based on the 4% rule but I also 100% plan to have some sort of income in the future. I’ll have too much time and energy not to make some money :)

    • Thanks! Totally agree that there are some select bloggers doing it the right way, and being fully transparent. And I think on your blog, you have made clear that you always plan to earn other income. So keep up the good, transparent work! :-)

  56. Quite the polarizing article here ONL. My goodness. This is my first time on your site and I think this was one heck of an article to start out with.

    I understand where you are coming from, but I didn’t at first. I read your exchange with Financial Samuri and it clicked. This is the part I am talking about. “I think as long as we don’t mislead our readers by saying “Do what I do and you can achieve what I achieved,” but then actually have significant side income coming in that boosts your financial plan or buffets you from risk, there’s no problem.” Trust me, I have realized early on that there isn’t an instant “start a blog and retire early” mold. Starting a blog and getting it to the point of monetization is only possible because you have spent years of hard work, producing content that draws visitors, and establishing genuine interactions with a lot of people in the community. Without that, you would be lying to people telling them that all they have to do is buy a domain name and they can retire early.

    I don’t think there is any issue whatsoever with monetizing your blog to make the most out of it. Heck, if someone can make a few extra dollars through affiliate income by introducing people to products they use on a regular basis, then by all means go for it! I think that is the key though. I am not going to write an article about product X just because they have an affiliate rate that will produce some nice income. I will discuss a product I use, the benefits, how it has benefited me, and introduce it to as many other people as possible to show that it is something they can do as a side hustle. If there is an affiliate link in that process, sure. I’ll use it. But that isn’t what is driving our discussion of a product on our website. Hopefully this makes sense. Monetization is one thing, but that shouldn’t be what drives the content on your website. The substance of the content should ALWAYS come first. That is what finally clicked when I read your exchange with Samurai and changed my perspective on the article.

    Again, thanks for the amazing read today!

    Bert

    • You showed up on a good day! Hahaha. Most of my posts are NOT like this, but I think it’s important for folks who read early retirement blogs to know that what a lot of the folks they’re emulating are espousing doesn’t actually happen the way they talk about. Honestly, I don’t care if someone wants to do sponsored posts and affiliate links for products they don’t actually like. I almost certainly won’t keep reading their blog, but it’s THEIR blog and they can do what they want with it. The responsibility we all have, however, is to disclose where blog income (or ANY side income, really) takes pressure off the financial plans we’ve previously shared on the blog. Like if you’ve said “We’re going to live on 30K a year in retirement!” and then you end up living on 50K but don’t mention that and just say “retirement life is great, and we don’t spend all our money every year!” that’s clearly misleading. And that’s why at we all have to be careful not to do! ;-)

  57. This is why I make the distinction between financial independence and early retirement. I plan to keep working on something, so I can’t say we’ll truly know what it means to make it on 4% alone. If we were “retired” from work, then I’d feel we have to share our finances and whether or not we’re successful in living off of our REI alone. I hope some early retirees takes you up on your offer to share their stories…

  58. Love this post. Your heart is in just the right place – *really* admire that! It’s clear you want to help people and treat them as humanely and uprightly as possible, while still recognizing the great contributions (and due rewards) of many contributors in the community (such as MMM – so great Pete’s killing it!) who brought us here.

    For what it’s worth, keep an eye on our blog and progress: I don’t expect the blog will become profitable since that’s not its purpose (I’ll be thrilled if it pays its own hosting costs one day), but we’re cataloging our FI/ER journey and are just beginning…

    I look forward to arriving, and reporting back on how our plan survives battle-testing. You hint at this, but I suspect that the “problem” you’re addressing goes far beyond blogs, because simply unleashing people to pursue their true passions (or “holy discontent” as one book describes it) will lead to some financial gain almost by nature…

    For instance, I suspect that we’ll continue earning a little even in retirement since we’ll continue pursuing our passions, and I strongly suspect that that itself will lead itself into monetary opportunities… (I’ve been doing so lately in free hours, and it’s making money even though I didn’t expect to. Not enough to compete with a day job, but I could imagine doing more such things – just for kicks – once “retired,” or, actually, just independent, and who knows where it would lead…)

    • Thanks! I absolutely value the role many folks have played in inspiring a lot of us to pursue FIRE in some form, but it’s still important to be transparent when we don’t practice what we preach. And as for you, if you suspect you’ll earn money in FIRE, then I bet you will!

  59. I have seen some blogs that just stopped blogging upon FI, they just lost interest. So we have a conflict here. If you are successfully FIRE’d, and want to pass on your know how, successful blogging is one way to do that. If blogs didn’t make money, no one would share their secrets or tricks and most would view it as a waste of time.

    I, for one, am proud of the tens of hours and money I have poured into my blog. I will not, I REPEAT, will NOT BE ASHAMED OF THE $4 I HAVE MADE SO FAR BLOGGING for three months and 40 hours of work (sadly, at least). So haters hate, I am proud of my blogging income, even if it is a negative profit so far.

    And grandma, thanks for supporting me early on. Please stop clicking on those ad links, or I will get booted out of the program.

    Sincerely, FP

    • LOL — No shame in the $4! ;-) (Though there’s at least one case study of a blogger sharing this stuff not whatsoever for the money. :::ahem:::) If your income is negative, you certainly don’t ever have to disclose that, and not even if it just covers expenses or provides a little pocket cash. But you do owe it to your readers to share if (or when!) your grandma’s clicks pay off and you hit a level when your blog income significantly alters the plan you’ve espoused. :-)

  60. Great post here ONL. We are all charitable in different ways, and I believe in contributing a big chunk of my expenses to charities. This is very important to our family and a key point among the ‘Ten Factors’ I mention on my website. But that doesn’t mean if we get offers for site sponsorship or paid guest posts (with thoroughly vetted content, of course), a blogger has to deny it. Running a blog, while not expensive, is not free either. Charitable giving has nothing to do with earning money from honest self-effort. But I agree that if you are blogging about frugality or live case of SWR, you have to come clean if your blog’s income defies all that you write about.

    Not all monetizing is bad, but I agree that you should state what your blog makes and whether that income is meaningful for your retirement. For most bloggers, me included, blog income is insignificant because we didn’t create the blog with the intention to monetize. Also, in a recent interview with Top Money Hacks, I said clearly that my blog is not part of my retirement plan. I blog for passion and in the interest of serious readers out there to show it’s possible to reach FI without starting a successful business or inheriting serious money – just disciplined saving, careful investing and some elbow grease along the way is all it takes.

    Like you, I also don’t believe in sharing net worth numbers just to get ‘street cred’. By the sheer quality and value of the content you put out there, people should see you as having “been there and done that” and know that you are FI. What difference does it make to a reader if I am FI with $1 million or FI with $3 million?

    Like you, I also solemnly swear that I will never pitch Tesla on my website! :-) Straight-from-the-heart article you have written here. Best wishes in your 10! journey.

    • Sounds like we’re in total agreement! I truly have zero issue with anyone profiting off of their blog. It’s simply as you said: it’s important to disclose if it’s defying the plans you’ve preached. And couldn’t agree more on the insignificance of any one person’s FI number. Steve and Courtney at Think Save Retire just retired with less than a million, and others might feel they need many multiples. It’s all relative. (And thanks for pledging never to hawk Teslas!) ;-)

  61. Interesting thoughts here and I fully agree although I filtered out all of the offending blogs you are probably thinking of years ago so I don’t tend to think about it much anymore, but you definitely have a strong point here.

    Most of the blogs I read either fully disclose their income including blogging and other side hustles or at least tell you if those hustles are part of their plan. MMM is pretty explicit that doing some fun work and making side hustle income in ER is a great idea and he fully endorses this, I can’t imagine anyone digging into his blog even just a little bit and not realising this (there are many hustles and fun income earning opportunities outside of a 9-5 that do not involve blogging)

    I have no interest in reading blogs that tell me how easy it is to retire early by saving 80% of my income (which is actually really really hard for most people!) while the blogger is making $10,000 a month in affiliate income if they are not upfront about this.

    Similarly I have no interest in reading a blog that tells me how easy it is to make $10,000 a month by blogging, and oh by the way here is my affiliate link to blue host, just sign up and create your blog, it’s easy! (In fact these jokers are far worse than just an FI blog who may not reveal their full blog income, IMO)

    In conclusion I would be very surprised if anyone has been into the FI scene for any length of time without realising that some form of income after ER would be helpful in smoothing out the peaks and dips of the stock market, especially in the first few years. It has always been part of my plan from a very early stage and I’ve told everyone about that on my blog from the offset (Blog income was not a necessarily a part of this as there are loads of other ways to hustle a small side income, but obviously I won’t turn any blog income down if it does make any!)

    • I agree that quite a few bloggers do an excellent job of disclosing blog income or at least disclosing that they have income from it, which goes a long way toward maintaining trust and credibility. (And yeah, I don’t care for the blog pushiness either, though I do sense that quite a few folks encouraging others to blog are doing so out of general enthusiasm, not purely for the bluehost referral bonus… though I don’t buy that that doesn’t at least subconsciously influence them!)

  62. What a discussion! I can say that conversations like these are as important (and useful) as the disclosures you’re espousing only because it pushes those of us in the accumulation phase to really squint at what we read, and factor in that our plans may need to have a little more meat than the “25x expenses and you’re free!” message that most lucritive PF blogs tout while not truly living out.

    Sorry for the paragraph-long sentence. Having read through all the comments (!) I know how you feel about uninterrupted blocks of text. ;-)

    • I love how you put it! Yes, we should all SQUINT at what we read, do our own math, double check it, add contingencies, triple check it, etc. Sometimes bloggers make it seem a little *too* easy.

      AND, I completely love all comments and the discussions they start, so no worries about long sentences or blocks of text. :-)

    • Absolutely — no issue with side income! Just with saying you’re sustaining yourself one way when you’re actually doing it a different way that you aren’t disclosing.

  63. Just found this article. And let me say that I find it very refreshing. I’ve been reading another FI blog and I recently confessed in a comment my fear that maybe many FI bloggers are making money and this is making the plan to live off 4% a little easier. My expression of my fears wasn’t well received even though I didn’t intend to be critical.

    As you pointed out, if an FI happens to end up making money despite not working or even because they are FI (through a blog, fame, book deal etc) , that’s wonderful. But be honest with your readers who are only following you because they hope to do what you are doing one day themselves.

    • So glad you found us! And thanks for your note! I think the fear you voiced in another forum was COMPLETELY justified, both in theory and in actual reality. It’s great for folks to make money on their projects (of course!), but there aren’t many voices out there showing the real ups and downs of living off investments — the ones doing it aren’t blogging about it, and the ones blogging about it aren’t doing it! ;-)

    • Ditto. I once asked the same question on a message board and was bombard with essentially hate mail for even raising the issue. I think the FI mentality is such a big change for people that they embrace it (and the bloggers espousing it) almost at a religious level. Hopefully, one day asking questions and critically thinking about things without others thinking you’re trying to tear everything down by scratching the service of ideas will come back in vogue.

      • That upsets me but doesn’t surprise me in the least that you got attacked for asking a completely legit question. I do think you’re right about that religious fervor in some corners, and it’s deeply unfortunate how judgmental many folks have become through that influence. This whole movement is about questioning conventional wisdom, right? Not just rejecting one set of conventional wisdom for another.

  64. Thanks for posting this. I always felt this was that elephant in the room when it comes to FIRE bloggers. Honestly, this should be a disclaimer on every FIRE blog out there.

    I believe it was the Mad Fientist I heard on a podcast who actually called himself a “wimpy entrepreneur” rather than an early retiree. He said now that he has a lot of money saved up he can “retire” from his day job and work on projects he enjoys, which I’m sure make him quite a bit of money.

    In reality, many FIRE bloggers are saving enough money so they can quit their day jobs and become full/part time bloggers. Not much different than anyone else who wants to quit their day job and start their own business. Managing a FIRE blog just happens to be your business.

    And there is nothing wrong with that of course. The problem occurs when the average Joe reads these blogs and thinks he can retire at age 35 on his $40,000 income out of college and nothing else. While trying to support a family. And dealing with market ups and downs. There is just too much risk involved if you don’t have a source of income.

    • Agree with every word! We are irresponsible bloggers if we sign the praises of an approach, don’t follow that approach ourselves and then don’t disclose that we actually deviated from what we espoused. I believe readers of FI blogs are smart and savvy people, but it’s still so important to be transparent about what we’re actually doing if we’re potentially leading others down (what they believe to be) a similar path.

  65. Hi! I’m a new reader to your blog but want to thank you for this extremely honest post: my family has been FI for years but haven’t made the FIRE jump just yet. I’ve pondered this FI Blog unspoken reality from day 1 and you’re the first blogger I’ve seen actively address this aspect of the community. My job is research and validation heavy so after reading MMM’s blog for a day (which is great by the way), I pulled the article in which he “tepidly” disclosed his blog income. The funny thing is he’s rightly earned every penny of his blog money but now buys electric cars and buildings, etc. while at the same time telling folks cars are generally evil and to live simply. I can’t handle the cognitive dissonance there and stopped actively reading his site (and a few others). Other folks like J. Collins, Root of Good, Millennial Revolution, and the Mad Fientist are up front with blog income (e.g. affiliate links, etc) and I tell everyone I can to support those sites. Thank you again and I look forward to following your journey.

    • Hi Rick — So glad you found us, and that this post spoke to you. Transparency is super important to me, if not in terms of actual numbers, at least in principle. You’ve instinctively sensed the challenges inherent in blogs, and I love that you notice who is good about disclosing their blog income!

  66. Another interesting thought I have had on a parallel subject: the successful financial bloggers are not only making money, but have both community and a sense of purpose during their retirement as a result of their blogs. My guess is that the senses of identity and worth are hard for the non-blogging retiree to replace post-retirement, and I would love to see that set of issues addressed in case studies of “real” early retirees.

    • What a HUGE point! So glad you raised this, Lisa! And that will absolutely be true for us — we already know we have some of that purpose and community piece locked down, and we’re not even retired yet.

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