Dobrow Attempts to Get His Financial House in Order

Media Reviews for Media People: Personal Finance Advice From AOL, MSN, Yahoo

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For the first time in 11 years, I find myself a member of a household that includes more than one occupant. While I've embraced the teamwork aspect of the arrangement with great enthusiasm, I haven't exactly distinguished myself as a contributor. There are already restraining orders in effect that bar me from changing batteries or light bulbs, entering the kitchen, toggling between "bath" and "shower," and engaging delivery people in light banter about the weather.

Yahoo Finance's personal-finance page showcases content designed less to inform than to rack up page views.
Yahoo Finance's personal-finance page showcases content designed less to inform than to rack up page views.
One area where I've assumed substantial responsibility, however, is in the managing of finances. As a skinflint who'd sooner sweat until I require fluids intravenously than turn on the air conditioner, it's a role I was born to fill. Recent triumphs include winnowing two Netflix memberships into one and a ninja-efficient redemption of a 20-percent-off coupon at the dry cleaner's.

At the same time, I aspire to owning property of some sort, perhaps a bike or even a saucepan, someday. To achieve this lofty goal, I must tidy my personal financial house. Big bad internet: whatcha got for me?

In terms of volume, a whole lot. In terms of credible, actionable information, not so much. To quote one of the great songwriter/motorists of our time, it's a matter of trust. If you're willing to put your faith in strangers who have a winning way with words, the web offers a veritable cornucopia of financial advice. If you're not, well, just hope that the crony steering you towards can't-miss deals isn't audacious enough to demand cash upfront.

Me, I'm paranoid and insular, which rules out seeking tips from any online entity with a low-rent look as well as anyone I've seen on TV. Well, except Meredith Whitney, and that's only because she recently completed a connubial merger with a pro wrestler. Over the last few weeks, then, I've mostly hit the sites affiliated with big honkin' portals.

Why Yahoo has it right
Yahoo Finance's personal-finance page is the most useful and practical of the lot. Like many of the others, it showcases content designed less to inform than to rack up page views. Still, it boasts the most intuitively organized home page: calculators, how-to guides and sections devoted to college & education, career & work and retirement in plain view up top, and easy-to-parse "things to do in ..." and "word of the day" modules slightly further down.

Occasionally, Yahoo Finance delves deeper, like in the thinkpiece-dealie that frames overspending in the context of our Darwinian impulses and in Ben Stein's wise, wonky "How Not to Ruin Your Life" dispatches. When it does, the site takes pains not to weigh readers down with complex terminology. It strikes the smart/simple balance just right.

AOL's WalletPop, on the other hand, is too clever for its own good, or at least for the task at hand. There's nothing wrong with using humor to engage -- the deeper-thinking Motley Fool has tickled more involved investors this way for years -- but a site like WalletPop demands a greater seriousness of purpose, especially at a time when so many prospective readers are struggling financially. The cheap link-bait gets tired fast.

Too, the site is prone to overgeneralizations. The profiles of bargain hunters pinched from Kiplinger's Personal Finance offer little information that anyone with an iota of common sense hasn't long ago figured out -- and if you're going the man-on-the-street route, it wouldn't be a bad idea to ask somebody besides comely white people for their hints. I'd also watch out for blog entries that uncomfortably straddle the edit/ad line. Factor in the pieces that are entirely extraneous to personal finance, and WalletPop needs a serious pruning.

Uninspired video
As for video, few of the personal-finance sites offer anything more than repurposed, half-timely segments contributed by their content partners. This is why I was so eager to check out the Microsoft Enterprise Solutions-backed, death-defyingly high-profile "It's Everybody's Business With Jack & Suzy Welch." Don't waste your time: it traffics in leadership buzzwords and mostly exists to steer Welch cultists towards Jack's other ventures. (Am I "ready to become a confident leader and inspire change in organizations, societies and others"? Am I ever!)

It's worth noting that none of the sites I surveyed feature much in the way of big-brand advertising. As much as financial companies might want to get in front of money-minded audiences -- as witnessed by the presence of ING Direct, Lending Tree and Scottrade in many a primo upper-right-hand-corner slot -- I can't help but think they're wasting their money. Yes, individuals who visit personal-finance sites are more inclined to invest than the population at large, but after the last ten months they're probably not susceptible to trust-us pitches from an industry that's been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Mass-market retailers like Target might be a better fit.

Anyway, in conclusion, most everybody purporting to share game-changing personal financial advice on the web is full of crap. The internet is an excellent place to read about animals and admire pictures of shoes, but a dangerous place to trawl for information that weighs on your wallet. Just do whatever Consumer Reports says and apply basic common sense, and you'll probably be better off.

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