The young couple beaming in the square-shaped image of their big day could be just another post on Instagram — but the snap was also a personal finance lesson in disguise.
“I wore a second-hand dress that was £70, Steph wore a free dress that her mum had worn to get married two years earlier, we DIY’ed and made the best of what we had,” posted Lisa Garwood-Cross, the 28-year-old behind the @living_thrifty account.
Making a bouquet of paper flowers from a vintage comic book (cost: £1.58) is one way she’s been sharing the story with her 11,000 followers on the picture-sharing app of how she stuck to a £2,500 wedding budget.
The “Instagram generation” may be criticised for loving consumption-fuelled images of designer clothes, expensive brunches and exotic holidays, but the platform is increasingly providing the “inspo” for those looking to save money, learn to budget, start a retirement fund or get out of debt.
Amid the deluge of selfies, “content creators” around the world are bringing financial education into the social media mainstream.
FT Money swiped through the growing online finance community to see how it is transforming young people’s relationship with money — and the underlying tension of the platform’s growing commercial potential.
A good influence
“In the early days of Instagram, there was more of a focus on discussing new products and taking the ‘perfect’ shots, but that has evolved,” says Eva Caiden, a trends expert at Instagram.
Tips on how to budget, start investing or bridge the gender pensions gap might not be what you’d expect to encounter scrolling through your Instagram feed — but these topics are finding traction with young people seeking to nurture better financial habits.
Facebook acquired the platform for $1bn eight years ago and Instagram now boasts more than 1bn active users, 500m of whom use the platform daily.
Far from viewing discussion of money matters as a social taboo, users are captivated by posts from people happy to share their real-life experiences of managing their personal finances — warts and all.
“The vast majority of creators find that content which gives a realistic view of everyday life performs best with their followers,” adds Ms Caiden.
Nevertheless, a platform where top influencers can make big money endorsing products or services (see below) might seem an unexpected place for this to evolve.
The growing Instagram money community in the US and UK is friendly, casual and typically positive. It is formed largely of people with zero professional interest in managing money sharing their insights with like-minded people. In any case, the young age profile of Instagram users means they would be unlikely to be able to afford a financial adviser.
“The dominant cultural message is that we should be spending our money, keeping up with the Joneses and showing off all our expensive things,” says Lisa, who started posting as @living_thrifty in resistance to this.
“I found myself thinking: no. I should save up and get that a bit cheaper because I want to share positive things with my followers so that they can see it is possible.”
Thrifters, scrimpers and frugal types who promote tips and ideas about how to live well for less are just one example of what buzzword-loving content marketers like to call Instagram “tribes”.
Tribes are micro-communities on social platforms that share similar goals and values, spreading their ideas using hashtags (it is now possible to follow hashtags as well as individual accounts on Instagram).
Many use colourful stationery and calligraphy to get their message across — or Inspo-gram as some call it.
Others use tangible budgeting methods such as the “envelope system”, apportioning a set amount of cash to cover different monthly expenses.
On a visual-centric platform, these savings strategies resonate with audiences.
Washington-based Kumiko Love, aka @thebudgetmom, has an Instagram grid filled with colourful doodles and inspirational quotes (such as “small steps to success are still steps in the right direction”) designed to spark an emotional response.
“I think we are all looking for motivation, to feel something as we navigate finances in our lives,” she says.
Her 450,000 followers love her open approach to money — she even lists her savings balance on her profile (currently $404,000 and rising).
She recently posted pictures of her “goals board” showing her financial aims for 2020, which include saving $20,000 towards her “dream house”, another $10,000 into her seven-year-old son’s college fund.
One follower replied #teachmeyourways in response. Visitors to the Budget Mom website could pay $3.99 for a “Where did my money go?” print-at-home worksheet to track their income and expenses.
Annie Atherton from @thefinancialdiet, which describes itself as a “media/news company” and boasts a similar number of followers, says she doesn’t think that people are actively seeking financial content on Instagram.
Instead, by using visual inspiration, money advice is like a “Trojan Horse” or the “medicine in the cheese”.
“It’s less that people are seeking money content on Instagram and more that they are already there, and we are giving it to them in a way that feels natural to the platform,” she says.
One of Instagram’s most popular financial hashtags is #debtfreecommunity which has featured on more than 850,000 posts. Users sharing their experiences of paying down debt are a powerful tribe. Many use Instagram to document their journey towards a debt-free life, recounting how arduous, but ultimately rewarding, this process can be.
She says that even when posting a simple message that she had paid off a small chunk of her debt, the level of supportive comments from users on the site kept her going.
“I still have so many people in my DMs [direct messages] saying that they have just seen my story and that I have inspired them to add up all their debts and make a plan to start paying it off,” she says.
“Micro-influencers” with between 10,000 and 50,000 followers on the platform have deeply connected audiences with high engagement rates.
Other money-centred hashtags that have originated from these communities include #financegoals #frugallife #budgetlife and #totalmoneymakeover.
Parents are an important part of the community, posting how they manage money while bringing up children.
British money blogger Ricky Willis who posts as @skintdad has devised a “1p savings challenge” for his 14,000 followers, saving tiny amounts every day to amass nearly £700 by the end of the year.
Francesca Henry, aka @the.moneyfox, shares posts with her 22,000 followers on budgeting, being a parent and paying off her debts.
“A few years ago I was in a really bad place financially — I was in a really unhappy marriage, I had a little girl, and I ended up getting in debt,” she says.
She decided to use Instagram to share the personal finance advice she had to teach herself — advice that is not always easy for people without wealth to access.
“When I went looking for something to help me, a resource, I couldn’t find anything that could help me specifically,” she explains.
Her most popular posts — all with a pink theme — detail her budgeting process and beautifully illustrated spending diaries, which she also sells via her page as a “side hustle”.
“If you’re afraid to look at your bank account, taking these steps will be a game changer for you,” she recently posted alongside a list of how to start budgeting:
“Income minus expenses =? Any money left over needs a purpose.”
In interviews with Instagrammers for this article, four words came up frequently: honesty, vulnerability, authenticity and, more surprisingly, loneliness.
The link between money problems and mental health issues is now well established, but many micro influencers say they started posting about their money problems to combat feelings of shame, social isolation or not knowing what to do.
“I think when you’re in that place, it feels quite lonely and everything feels like doom and gloom,” says Francesca.
Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, who posts as @thefiscalfemme, adds: “We don’t realise that other people don’t understand [their personal finances] either and are trying to figure it out. [Knowing this] can make it feel a lot less lonely.”
Beyond saving and debt
Instagrammers also offer plenty of ideas for those looking to take their finances to the next level through learning about investing or starting a retirement fund.
Popular hashtags include #investing101 and #wealthbuilding but one that really resonates is #financialindependence. This stems from the US “Fire” movement (financial independence, retire early) that encourages extreme forms of money-saving with the aim of stopping work or achieving a better work-life balance.
Its adherents may well be earning a big salary or have considerable wealth behind them, showing the many shades of the Instagram money community.
San Diego-based Jeremy Schneider posts as @personalfinanceclub and has 55,000 followers. His emoji-strewn profile says he retired at 36, loves index funds, frugal living and is an avoider of debt. Like many investment bloggers, it also includes an “invest at your own risk” disclaimer.
“I haven’t had a full-time job since I was 36, I think retired is a corny-loaded word, but I put it there on my bio to pique curiosity,” he says.
He shares small, bite-size infographics such as his “rules of building wealth” which include “live below your means” and “invest early, and often”.
One of his early posts, headed “How to become a millionaire” is still among his most popular: “Invest $250 a month in an S&P500 index fund . . . and then wait 40 years.”
“I think that sort of bite-size, compelling message speaks to people,” he says. They’re like, ‘wait, $250 a month, that’s not a crazy number’ . . . it’s selling with curiosity.”
Whereas some content creators are selling an idea, others find that as their followers soar, they can sell much more than that.
Larger accounts commonly link to blogs and websites offering everything from personal coaching, linked promotions for fintech apps and even subscription investment services.
Bola Sokunbi, @clevergirlfinance, has moved from an interest in frugal living and saving into investing and recently published her first book — one of a growing number of Instagram finance faces in the US to do so.
As a child of immigrants in the US, she says learning about personal finance gave her the opportunity to create the sort of wealth her family did not have when she was growing up.
A certified financial education instructor in the US, she decided to start a blog to share personal finance tips that worked for her. “I have continued to save and invest over time, and my friends are always asking me questions about investing and money,” she says.
A recent post asks: “Why should you want to be financially successful?” She tells her 249,000 followers: “It’s not all about acquiring things — it’s about giving back, helping others and leaving a lasting, positive impact for those you care about.”
As well as her blog and social media accounts, Bola has been able to monetise her brand by offering courses where she provides one-to-one mentorship.
Learn as you earn
One of the reasons people turn to Instagram for financial inspiration is because of a lack of financial education elsewhere.
Even though personal finance has been on the national curriculum in English schools since 2014, four out of five students still say they are not being taught enough practical money lessons.
By sharing their own personal finance journeys, Instagrammers are seen as real and relatable. They have a powerful influence, but social media posts are a far cry from regulated financial advice.
“It’s striking how Instagram is bringing together people the traditional financial services world has overlooked, especially women and young people,” says Jason Butler, the FT’s Wealth Man columnist, who has worked as a financial adviser for over 25 years.
“While it’s great that people are engaging with their finances, never forget that the internet is the Wild West. A lot of the ‘advice’ is style over substance, with similar ideas being shared, but these won’t be right for everybody — and people might not be who they say they are.
“Always ask yourself, what are this person’s intentions — honourably sharing their experience or turning me into a customer?”
Annie from @thefiancialdiet stresses that her posts are by no means financial advice, but explore the “emotional side of money”, trying to “take out the taboo” and encourage conversations.
Ashley, @thefiscalfemme, who was previously an investment banker in New York, admits that despite her background she was at a loss when it came to her own finances.
“A lot of the materials [provided by the finance industry] were very daunting and boring and I felt like they were keeping me out of the club, like they didn’t want me to understand,” she says.
“If we are going to be on Instagram to keep up with our friends, we might as well follow things where we can learn, get inspired.”
Damien Fahy, who posts as @moneytothemasses, set up the free website of the same name because he believed that his financial qualifications were being wasted on affluent people who could afford his services.
He uses Instagram to connect with an audience hungry for free tools and tests, such as his “Money MOT”, sharing a wealth of financial knowhow.
“It’s empowering to ask why and allow people not to feel stupid,” he says.
He thinks Instagram could be used to close the financial advice gap and that the regulated advice industry needs to be more willing to engage with people, at least at the beginning, for free.
There is also a “keeping it real” theme to the site’s paid-for subscription service offering investment research, which tracks the progress of Damien’s own £50,000 portfolio — albeit with heavy disclaimers stating this does not constitute regulated financial advice.
For now, mainstream financial brands are gaining limited traction — with the exception of app-based challenger banks.
Monzo’s highly Instagrammable coral pink payment card is a popular focus point for the 50,000 @Monzo followers, but the bank’s posts have evolved into data-based insights into young people’s spending habits.
The UK’s Starling Bank tags #sidehustle in posts promoting the moneymaking side projects of its users, including selling cupcakes and an R’n’B themed kitchenware business.
Whether you’re spending money, saving it, investing it or earning it, Instagram is set to have considerable influence over our finances in the future.
Don’t fall for an Insta-scam
Instagram has been criticised for spawning the cult of the influencer — celebrities in their own right who flog products to their armies of followers and make money through advertising revenue.
Plenty are willing to boast of their success, but real financial dangers lurk in the pursuit of the “Insta-perfect” dream.
A joint investigation last year by HuffPost and BBC Radio 5 Live found young people were getting into thousands of pounds of debt trying to recreate an Instagrammable lifestyle.
Images showing the trappings of wealth are also a potent tool for scammers who have used the platform to promote fraudulent “get-rich-quick schemes”.
Last year, UK fraud authorities warned that hundreds of Instagram users aged between 20 and 30 had been suckered with the promise of high returns, losing nearly £9,000 each on average.
Instagram’s help page contains reporting tools for users to flag anything that looks suspicious. It details eight common types of fraud including false investment scams promising “unrealistic monetary benefits”, loan scams offering a low interest rate for an advance fee and job scams using “misleading or fake job postings to try and get your personal information or money”.
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