Reading the Financial Facelift (Online)

Every morning, I sit down to breakfast, say “what’s going on in Canada?” either to myself out loud to Carrie, open the iPad and read the news online. Reading newspapers online is not entirely satisfying but enough so. We are trying not to subscribe to a paper while here. But reading online leads to another experience–comment threads. I normally steer clear of these things, but lately I have become fascinated with them.

Especially enjoyable in a driving-by-a-car-wreck sort of way is a Saturday column in the Globe & Mail called “Financial Facelift.” The premise of the column is that a person, couple or family submits their finances to a financial planner who offers free advice through the column. It is very much a cross between a classic advice column and what I imagine goes on in those home improvement reality shows.

Some features of Financial Facelift are fairly predictable: the planner always assumes a good rate of return on the portfolio regardless of the reality of the market or its outlook, and if the subjects of the week have debt, it must be cleared, unless it is a mortgage. If they are spending a lot on what appear to be optional things, the planner will tell them to put that money into investment (never savings) regardless of implications for lifestyle, and so forth. From week to week, the subjects differ. Sometimes it’s young people starting out, sometimes it’s people close to retirement, sometimes it’s people who have their acts together, sometimes it’s people who don’t.

But since reading it online, I have actually become obsessed with the comments thread that goes with each article. Now, it is well known among journalists and people who write for online publications (I am not including blogs here, which have a whole other things going on) that comments threads attract a certain sort of soul in disproportionate numbers. And indeed, each week, regardless of who the subject of the Financial Facelift is, they will be treated to a torrent of derision for their financial choices. It is a festival of financial resentment, combined with extreme judgementalism and a Protestant ethic. Some people haven’t saved enough, or should be sending their children to private school, or shouldn’t. They give too much to charity or not enough. If they are public servants, they are definitely making too much money and have too good a retirement plan (especially jaw-dropping to me was the case of a military couple who wanted to retire at what I take to be normal military retirement age, and who got the same “public servants are paid too much” — nobody would dare say that about a military person in the US). I suspect the anti-tax lobby is overrepresented in the comments as well.

Now, you’d think that I would hate this sort of thing and find it annoying and offensive, and intellectually I do. But for some reason that is probably best left unexamined, I find it hilarious. The predictability of the comments somehow is a note-perfect harmony for the predictability of the column itself. Both are outrageous, but in totally complementary ways.