In all of my early posts, you will only see shadows or my back in photographs. I started blogging anonymously because it seemed like a safe place to start. It definitely felt easier to share financial information if my name wasn’t attached.
I have since shared my name and net worth numbers with the world, which has spawned a lot of introspection in myself and curiosity from others. Even in my one year review, people submitted questions asking about how I felt about anonymity. Questions keep coming, and I figured it’s a topic worth addressing.
Blogging The Way I Wish Others Would Blog
I have one main blogging philosophy: blog how I like others to blog. I hate pop ups when I am on sites, so I don’t have any pop ups on this blog. I love to read from a full list of posts, so I made sure to set up an archives page right away.
One thing that bothered me while reading were photos with the faces cut out. For some reason the headless bodies and distracting emojis really put me off. Because of this, there aren’t any photos on the blog of me or Mr. Mechanic with our faces cut out– just photos where we are in the shadows naturally, or covered somehow.
Sharing My $ Numbers
Stemming from my main blogging philosophy is another that impacts my transparency in a big way: I love reading other blogger’s financial numbers. I remember reading Mr. Money Mustache’s post where he outlined his net worth increases over the years. While I appreciate that advice can still be gleaned without concrete figures, when I found personal finance blogs it was the first time I had ever seen real finances shared.
Instead of a shroud of mystery, these numbers gave me real goals to shoot for. I could figure out what people generally spent on their groceries, and what was considered a decent amount for car insurance. Even though my situation is quite different in a lot of ways, it was incredibly helpful to have some data points for reference. With that in mind, I shared my net worth for the first time. I believe that we would be better off financially if more people broke the money taboo and shared their numbers more easily.
Since then, I have shared my spending and my salary. Overall I think more information is better— it tells a more complete story.
What Is In A Name
I didn’t splash my name on the blog (and still don’t) because it really doesn’t matter. Who cares if my name is Alex or Taylor? It doesn’t affect my story or the things I have to share, unlike sharing my numbers.
In the same vein, what does it matter what I look like? I preferred blogs that went straight to the content rather than a splash page with a larger-than-life face telling me they can make me rich, so I trashed the traditional ‘homepage’ so readers could go straight to the latest content. I tried to share photos that told a story without my face in them.
In fact, in general I’d rather not share a name or a face simply because of the implicit biases we all carry around. I would prefer my words be taken at ‘face’ value, without the impact of my actual face changing the way you think.
With this in mind, I ran across my first conundrum when media outlets asked for my name and a photo.
Deciding To Be Non-Anonymous For My First Media Feature
In my first year blogging, I talked to a reporter at MarketWatch about investing in 401(k)s. I talked with Mr. Mechanic before the call and asked if I should keep up the anonymity. In general, publications prefer that you provide a name (preferably a full name) so that an article will flow, have more authority, and be fact-checkable.
I watched other bloggers grapple with how to handle their identities. Some didn’t want friends and family finding out how much they had hoarded, while others were concerned about their employers finding out about their early retirement plans.
Personally, I wasn’t worried about people accidentally finding my blog. There are hundreds of thousands of blogs out there, what are the chances that a friend or someone I work with will come across it randomly? I didn’t know about Get Rich Slowly until last year, and he’s been blogging since 2006! J.D. is a pretty cool dude but the truth is that the internet is vast and in the same way that it took me ages to discover any FIRE bloggers, I think the chances are slim anyone I know will stumble on this relatively-minuscule-blog accidentally.
One article in particular struck me as it talked about how we smother our authentic voices because we care too much what others think. The author, Tim, made this great illustration to show how little people think of us most of the time:
How we think things are:
How things actually are:
So when the reporter asked for my name, I gave it. Besides, people with my name already crowded the front page of search results. There is an attorney, a professional photographer, and even an IMBD page for people with the same name as me. (This is no longer true, I now dominate the first page of Google.) I also never Google people, so perhaps I underestimate how often and in what situations people might search for me online.
Even if I did gain some sort of notoriety from my writing, it would be small potatoes. There are thousands of people already in the public eye from actors, musicians, to reality TV stars. Maybe I’m thinking too small, but “famous” exists on a spectrum, and I expect to stay on the “most people don’t give a second thought about me” end.
If we are talking about our hobbies while at a work lunch, I mention finances and maybe even mention that I write a blog. Believe it or not, nobody bothers to ask for the URL. You might think that everyone is clamoring to find out my thoughts on index funds and finding fulfillment in life but turns out they aren’t.
All this to say, I don’t want to overthink things too much when it comes to the blog. The important thing to me is to share my story and help others on their own adventures to financial independence. If acquaintances, friends, family, and strangers find my blog, I’m more concerned about it helping them with their finances than what they will think of me personally for it. With that in mind, I shared my name to the reporter and an article went out for the first time with my name and blog linked.
Lots of people asked what happened afterwards, and to be honest the answer is: not much. While some might imagine a tsunami of attention after a mention in a major publication, I experienced a raindrop. One previous co-worker reached out to me to tell me that he saw it and that he is a listener of ChooseFI podcast and is planning to retire soon. As I expected, not that many people are tuned into my every media mention.
There are lots of things to consider when it comes to going non-anonymous, so I asked what people wanted to know on Twitter. Here are some of the questions I got.
7 Reflections Via Questions & Answers
1. OneFrugalGirl asked, “If you plan to have children, (I realize you may not), do you think you will feel differently about the choice to reveal yourself?”
I don’t plan on having children, so this hadn’t crossed my mind. As it stands, I doubt I would feel differently. I love following Mrs. Frugalwood’s adventure into motherhood, for an example of a non-anonymous mother sharing her life. While keeping my hypothetical kids’ names (and our location) under wraps would be important, my general approach to anonymity wouldn’t change.
2. OneFrugalGirl also asked, “Is there a point at which you will stop revealing your net worth?”
I share my net worth to provide context on my journey to financial independence. Seeing others’ concrete numbers helped me set my own goals. I do think that once I’ve reached financial independence, the actual numbers cease being helpful to people. Personally, the most helpful topics would be drawdown strategies and logistics, and how folks emotionally manage the fluctuation of the market and pulling from their nest egg rather than adding to it. I don’t think specific numbers are necessary at that point.
In general, I don’t care if a blogger has $2M or $113M, I’m more interested in how he or she spends it! So I do think I will stop revealing my net worth after reaching FI at $1.2M, but if it is still helpful I may continue sharing expense reports.
3. Joney (and many others) asked, “How did your employer/colleagues react?”
The short answer is: they didn’t.
One thing I learned from the first MarketWatch piece is that news coverage doesn’t actually get much more traffic. In general, I saw about 30-50 extra referrals from mentions in MarketWatch, MSN Money, and CNBC. The exception is a feature piece that I wrote, which brought in record traffic after being the #1 story on CNBC Make It.
Fewer people come across this blog than you might think
My main traffic is organic. I share posts through my blog accounts, but not on my personal media accounts. Mostly I don’t share anything but pictures of my cat on my personal accounts, although I do share links directly to friends and family who might be interested. I prefer to let folks who care and are curious find my blog rather than putting it out there for acquaintances I met at camp in 7th grade. However, they might happen upon it if it does end up trending online like my CNBC piece.
Four people I knew in real life reached out to me after that article hit the front page. One was Mr. Mechanic’s friend from college I met once over a summer long ago. Two were acquaintances from university, a friend’s roommate and someone who joined the same club as me. Lastly, a more recent friend from Thursday board game nights shot me a Facebook message to tell me he saw it. All four were very friendly and generally congratulatory, but it’s not like my blog is flinging to every corner of Facebook and sliding across my coworker’s desks.
I have job security and try to write with integrity
Many bloggers fear ramifications at work if their employers were to find out about their net worth or blogging side hustle. They are concerned that they might be the first to go in a layoff or that their boss might think differently of them and decide not to give them certain projects.
I work in a profession with rather high salaries, so I’m not sure that my net worth would really rock the boat. I’m also buoyed by a bustling job market that needs people with my skills. I also have a large financial cushion so I don’t feel like I have to worry as much.
Plenty of folks have reached financial independence and continue to work because they love what they do. As long as the blog doesn’t impinge on my ability to do my job (it doesn’t) I am not worried. Ultimately, I try to write with integrity, share honest numbers and stories, and stay true to what I believe in. I’m not ashamed of what I write and thus don’t feel threatened by the possibility of a boss happening upon my work.
4. Mod Millionaires asked, “Do you have any remaining fears about your identity being out there? Specifically with regards to it being attached to your true net worth numbers?”
I hope that sharing my journey with the world helps people, but I am not naive to the potential risks. Putting a number out there attached to my real name makes me a target. This is one of my biggest concerns, but ultimately I think the added risk is rather small. We are under attack all the time, whether our net worth is known or not.
Two Examples of Serious Privacy Breaches
In one Medium article, The Most Expensive Lesson Of My Life: Details of SIM port hack, the author details how hackers stole $100,000 from him in a 24 hour time span. I get a knot in my stomach while reading through the timeline and how quickly the author was rendered powerless against the attack.
Susan Fowler wrote a blog post about sexual harassment at Uber that went viral, and recently followed up to write about the unexpected consequences of going public. Her online accounts were under attack constantly and she even realized she was being followed.
Sometimes it might feel like the online world is separate from our tangible world, but they can intersect in terrifying ways. Fowler doesn’t regret what she wrote as it brought to light an enormous issue that many women face, but she still wasn’t prepared for the backlash. Similarly, I don’t regret sharing my identity as I hope that my writing does more good in the world than harm to me, but it’s still crucial that I prepare for the worst by protecting my privacy.
The important thing, whether you are anonymous or not, is to take security seriously.
Protect Your Personal Information
I have gone through steps to make my accounts more secure, like setting up a private e-mail, adding extra security steps to my accounts, using a Google Voice phone number, and freezing my credit. Learning from Fowler’s example, I try to be prepared for unforeseen risks in sharing my name and net worth (although I think we can all foresee the main risks here). We are all in a balancing act of sharing information while protecting ourselves from potential fallouts.
Ultimately, we are all at risk as our data streaks through the interwebs, stripped of security by breaches to Experian, Target, and that old yahoo email address you forgot you had. Javelin Research from 2017 shows that cyber criminals stole the identities of 6.4% of the general public, but that number jumped to 8.1% for high net-worth individuals of $1 million or greater. I might be a tiny bit more susceptible because I shared my name and net worth but when it comes down to it, everyone is in danger.
Attacks (generally) aren’t as person specific as much as data-specific. For example, if your name and credit card number could be accessed through a data breach at Target, you are already at risk whether or not the world knows you have $200 or $200,000. It’s not a matter of if you will be under a cyber attack, it’s when. If you use Netflix and Spotify, you could be at risk just as much as me sharing my net worth in a headline for CNBC.
5. Thewahman asked, “If you were living in a country where it was easy to find your address based on your identity, would you have still done it?”
I do live in a country where it is easy to find an address based on your identity. This information is available, and all it takes is a single Amazon delivery to put that information into the world. Tim Ferriss mentions this on his post 11 Reasons To Not Become Famous:
If you’re doing anything public, you should never have anything mailed to where you live. If you violate that even once, it’s likely that your name and associated address will end up in company or government databases. Those mailing lists are then rented and traded as revenue streams, and it all ultimately ends up searchable.
I have moved a lot in the past few years, and I have some moving ahead of me as well. This makes this information a little less terrifying (but it is still pretty terrifying). In our next move, I will look into using an off-site mailing site or UPS store for my mail.
Nothing feels completely anonymous as it is. I suspect that there would be other ways to ferret out my identity if someone were really intent on it. Did you know photos often carry imbedded GPS information on them? If you don’t remove it, people can find out exactly when and where the photo was taken. Besides this example, there are several breadcrumbs we drop without realizing it. Even if you are writing anonymously there is a chance that a diligent person could track down your identity.
Being non-anonymous means you likely have more breadcrumbs than most, so it’s important to tidy up your online life. I’ve been considering deleting my personal Facebook account for a while as part of this, and my passwords AND security questions are made up. For example, in my password manager, I store my mother’s maiden name as something like fnqF1yG$S$*8PnG3. (No wonder she took my dad’s last name.)
6. Contrarian Saver asked, “Did the people you wrote about in your blog recognize themselves?”
I am all for storytelling, but I sometimes wonder about bloggers telling stories about people in their lives making bad money decisions and how their friends might feel after discovering those stories.
I can only think of a couple of posts that involved other people aside from Mr. Mechanic. One was about a flood and one on living life on hard mode. I sent the flood story to my roommate to see if she remembered it the same way, and I’m sure my other friend would chuckle at the ‘hard mode’ story, although he hasn’t read it. I try to talk about people on the blog as if I were talking about them in real life. A blog is not a diary, so I don’t write anything that I wouldn’t want someone else to read. So far, no one has recognized themselves just by happening upon the blog.
7. Anonymous said, “I have fears surrounding family/friends expectations around money (like them expecting us to pick up all bills when going out), have you had any thoughts or experiences related to this?
My parents definitely put up way less of a fight at the Indian restaurant when I offered to pay, I will give you that 😉. Mr. Mechanic shared the CNBC article with some family and someone joked that we could take them out to dinner. The nice thing is– we can take them out to dinner and we want to. We have friends and family who love and support us, covering the occasional dinner is the least we can do for all they have done for us over the years.
This is not the case for everyone, so I completely understand the hesitation around sharing net worth numbers. There may be friends who come out of the woodwork asking for money or decide not to pay you back for things because ‘you can afford it.’ Mr. Mechanic and I live far away from any friends or family, so this is essentially a non-issue. As it is, I am so very thankful to say that we don’t have friends who would take advantage of us that way. If any were to come to ask for money, I feel comfortable that I would be able to set boundaries and also feel confident in my own right to simply say no.
It is an enormous privilege to be able to share my numbers transparently without worrying about friendships turning sour or family reacting negatively.
The Unexpected Positives of Going Non-Anonymous
The main reason I can see that people choose to go by their real name and share their identity is because it builds trust. For a society built on face-to-face contact, putting your face out there makes you seem more reliable.
Besides simply building trust, putting your byline on articles adds to your overall credibility. As someone who plans to write a book someday, that “writer’s cred” is valuable. Because of the blog, I have a byline with CNBC, which means I have an “in” to start freelancing on the side. And who knows, maybe down the line I’ll finally get around to getting a book deal!
Sharing my identity has already strengthened personal connections when people find my writing. Some have reached out to tell me about their own FIRE plans and one who recognized my voice on the BiggerPockets Money podcast told me all about his real estate ventures. I hope I’ll find more secret-FIRE enthusiasts when my ChooseFI episode launches next month. Friends have reached out for negotiation advice and I’ve helped them get their offers up by 10% or more. Some have opened HSAs, called me for advice about buying a property vs. continuing to rent, and others text me to talk them out of buying 500€ Patagonia jackets. My parents went from quiet about their income to openly sharing their retirement plans. I find that vulnerability begets vulnerability. Sharing my own experience with money makes others more comfortable to share their own experiences and money numbers.
Sharing my salary with some select coworkers meant that when one left to go to a different company, he told me his new salary. It was double what we were making before, and helped me get up the courage to job hop. In fact, talking about money this way means that I know the salaries of 4 other folks in the company at different levels, so I have a better picture overall of what to expect when I move up the ladder. One of my friends and I bounce money thoughts off of each other: Should we increase our 401(k) contributions, when should I start saving to put a down payment down on a house in Portland, and how the heck does he spend so much money on food every month?! Conversations around money can still be a bit awkward in the beginning, but I’ve found every conversation to be fruitful and overall helpful information as I navigate my own financial life.
There are several reasons to separate one’s life from one’s work. From avoiding backlash from friends and family to the serious threat of cyber or physical attacks, it makes sense that bloggers want to keep their identity obscured from the public eye. If I have any advice for a new blogger, it’s that “winging it” in terms on anonymity like I did is probably not the best approach. It may be more helpful to decide what you want to share before you start, as Purple advises in her post about blogging anonymously.
In my case, I started writing anonymously but didn’t feel particularly strongly about staying anonymous. As it stands, I use my full name in media features in order to tell my story to more people. Sharing my name adds a small amount of credibility to the site. However, I prefer to go by my moniker Mechanic on the blog and in the FIRE community, I just like the ring of “Mechanic” better than my real first name. I have also begun posting photos that sometimes show my face, and I am transparent about my net worth in the hopes of inspiring and being a helpful data point for others.
It has certainly been an interesting dance, and while I haven’t experienced any negative reactions from sharing my name and thoughts with the world, I still want to be cognizant of the potential risks. It is important to take security seriously whether or not someone blogs anonymously. The way I see it, the risk is there whether or not you have your name on a byline or in a media article. I am not concerned about what people in my personal life might think of me for having this blog and sharing my thoughts. On the other hand, I make it a priority to protect the privacy of my personal data from the public.
The ultimate goal of this blog is to share my own journey to financial independence and the steps I take to get there. Sharing my finances provides more context for anyone following along. Sharing my name lends credibility that I’m a real person, so I can share my story with even more people. Through publications like CNBC, MarketWatch, and MSN Money, several people have reached out to tell me that my story inspired them. I hope it has inspired you, too.
What Do You Think?
What are your feelings on anonymous vs. non-anonymous blogs?
Where is the balance of transparency vs. privacy for you?
What would you rather guard: your name, your $ numbers, or what you look like?
Let me know in the comments below!
*Ironically, the woman in the featured image is not me. It’s an image by Chris Ralston on Unsplash