Fin-fluencers reach consumers on platforms where they are already comfortable (Getty Images/Oscar Wong)
When Parween Mander started her personal finance journey 12 years ago, she couldn’t find someone that looked like her to turn to for questions. Growing up, Mander was the eldest daughter in a South Asian immigrant household where money was tight and language barriers made it difficult for her family to access financial literacy tools, much less a fancy financial counsellor.
Navigating her own struggles with personal finance inspired Mander, who is now an accredited financial counsellor, to launch her own digital financial coaching company in April 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. She now has 22,000 followers on TikTok where she shares her own experiences with personal finance on subjects such as breaking generational cycles of money trauma along with short clips that break down finance jargon.
But Mander is hardly the only Canadian using social media to educate people about their finances.
Between slapstick humour and dance routines, there’s no shortage of influencers on social media platforms. A financial influencer, or “fin-fluencer,” may show up on your feed with top exchange-traded fund recommendations or how to survive a recession—videos that will either inspire you to check up on your financial health or swipe up in disgust.
Parween Mander runs a financial coaching platform for women of colour (Image provided)
Financial influencers have proliferated with the growing use of social media and a lack of easily accessible financial advice, especially for people who don’t come from a wealthy background or are marginalized. Now, with a recession brewing, more people than ever are flocking to various corners of the internet—from r/PersonalFinanceCanada on Reddit to TikTok to Twitter—for advice on how to prepare their finances. Some preach the importance of actually using your TFSA to invest . Others on how to file taxes on your cryptocurrency gains. But sometimes, a lack of vetted information and the appeal of so-called “get-rich-quick” schemes can put people in tough financial situations, making it all the more important to be able to discern what is and isn’t sound advice.
There’s a lot of appeal to fin-fluencers. For one, it’s easier than ever to access some form of financial education online, be it on Instagram or TikTok. Part of it is about the medium, explains Cristie Ford, the Director of the Centre for Business Law at UBC. “They’re reaching people on these user-friendly platforms that they’re already familiar with. By contrast, finding a financial adviser feels like a completely unfamiliar, clunky and difficult process, right?”
There’s also the community aspect. Coreen Sol, portfolio manager and author of Unbiased Investor: Reduce Financial Stress and Keep More of Your Money, says herd mentality has contributed to the rise of fin-fluencers. “That’s the natural bias to want to belong,” explains Sol. Sol says many people share this idea that if someone is confident or has a big following, it must mean that said person is credible. “Those are the natural biases that lead us to want to follow those influencers.”
Sol explains that the GameStop frenzy that unfolded in January 2021 was an example of herd mentality meets investing. “When GameStop went from $4 to $80, the business didn’t change,” she explains. “The decision to buy those shares was purely motivated by the frenzy. It was purely motivated by wanting to be part of that crowd and thinking that you could make some quick money.”
Ford echoes that sentiment. The community aspect of investing was exacerbated by lockdowns during the pandemic. “I think it felt like a community, and high-profile folks like Roaring Kitty used some of the addictive functions of online engagement to make people feel like they were a part of something.” Roaring Kitty, a YouTube channel run by American financial analyst Keith Gill, has been widely attributed to stoking the meme stock frenzy.
“That’s obviously not something that you’re going to get if you’re sitting in the waiting room of an office to talk with a financial adviser,” says Ford.
Like Mander, Jim Chuong learned about TikTok during the pandemic from his daughter. “I’ve never been on social media before, but TikTok seemed simple,” says Chuong, a financial coach and self-made multi-millionaire investor who has appeared on NBC and CBC, and in The Globe & Mail. “At the beginning, it was like four or five views per video, and then it became like a few dozen and a few hundred, then a few thousand and hundreds of thousands, and I started getting millions of views a month.” Since joining TikTok two and a half years ago, Chuong now has over 344,000 followers and 5.7 million likes from sharing financial literacy advice to his viewers. [Need budgeting and tax tips? Meet the CPAs sharing their advice on TikTok.]
Jim Chuong is a self-made multimillionaire financial coach (Photograph by Joshua Best)
In the 1980s, pre-social media and TikTok dance routines, Chuong went to the library to learn how to become financially independent. He pored over books and magazines, soaking up information. “I think the same issue exists today as back then, which is there is too much information that is too complicated, and you don’t know where to start,” he says. “It’s like taking someone to the gym with thousands of pieces of equipment and saying, ‘get in shape, everything you need is here.’” [Check out CPA Canada’s financial literacy resources.]
Instead, he says many people gravitate toward others who have gone through the same or similar financial challenges, obstacles and problems and eventually found a way out. “Because you don’t know where to start and you don’t know what you don’t know, that’s the best you could do,” says Chuong. “That’s the position I was in [during] the eighties: You don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know where to start.”
This notion of not knowing what you don’t know made Bassem Zahili the go-to person among his friends, peers and relatives for all things personal finance. Zahili is a CPA and uploads finance explainers and how-tos to his YouTube channel, which boasts an audience of more than 17,500 subscribers.
If Mander, Chuong and Zahili have one thing in common, it’s that each creator has noticed a dire need for financial education in Canada.
Check your sources
Early in his YouTube tenure, Zahili gained just 10 subscribers to his YouTube channel per day. That changed during the meme stock mania of 2021, when retail traders gobbled up shares of GameStop and AMC Entertainment, driving their prices up. The short squeeze was largely fueled by various corners of social media, the most notable—and meme-focused—one being r/WallStreetBets. Then came the GameStop stock frenzy. “I probably got the most amount of subscribers in a day from a GameStop video I posted,” says Zahili. His YouTube channel gained around 150 subscribers per day during that time. He adds that the meme stock frenzy was an opportunity where a small number of people made a lot of money, and so-called financial gurus took advantage of retail traders. While some people reaped millions of dollars from stocks like GameStop, AMC Entertainment and Bed Bath & Beyond, these returns are an anomaly.
“It’s your money, so you have to do your own research,” says Zahili. “You can’t just blindly trust people on the internet.”
Bassem Zahili is a CPA, part-time real estate agent, and YouTuber (Photograph by Erin Laydon)
Get-rich-quick schemes look tempting with their bright, large-font titles promising gigantic returns, some creators use clickbait to reel viewers in with false promises. Mander and Zahili say people should automatically be wary of outlandish promises. Zahili says this is how some YouTube channels make the most amount of money in as little time as possible. Zahili doesn’t make outlandish promises and stays away from clickbait tactics. “When I say I could help you make 10 per cent a year, that’s a realistic amount,” says Zahili. “If someone is guaranteeing massive returns or something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
If you’re debating whether someone is credible, Mander recommends searching the creator to review their credentials and qualifications. She also recommends viewers never solely rely on social media for financial education; it can serve as a tool, but should complement other resources, like books or advice from a professional.
Meanwhile, Chuong simply thinks you shouldn’t fully trust anything you see on social media. “Never consider any of it as financial advice and whatever idea you get from social media, you should bring to your financial advisor to talk it out,” he explains.
A diverse perspective
As of September 2022, there were around 17,000 certified financial planners, or CFPs, in Canada. But according to a 2021 survey by FP Canada, just four per cent of CFPs can speak French, Mandarin or Cantonese, and just one per cent speak Hindi, Punjabi or Italian. Mander, who grew up in a Punjabi household, believes her background as a woman of colour is why many people turn to her content in particular.
“There are different levels of systemic discrimination and accessibility barriers to financial literacy and resources,” she adds. To her, money was often associated with anxiety and subsistence. “I’ve kind of carried that mindset into my early adulthood with money as I was frugal with finances,” says Mander, who encourages women of colour to take control of their finances through one-on-one coaching.
When asked about the most rewarding part of creating content on social media, Mander says it’s her ability to give her clients and viewers the confidence to kickstart their personal finance journey and to validate their experiences when it comes to managing their own money.
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