It's often said that talking about money is the last taboo. But our cash coyness appears to be disappearing along with the growth of personal finance Web logs, where writers share their money mistakes and take us on their journey toward financial enlightenment.
Bargaineering.com, getrichslowly.org and thesimpledollar.com are listed among the top 10 personal-finance blogs based on traffic. The three sites are so successful that their founders were able to leave their 9-to-5 jobs a year ago for full-time blogging. Each of them gets at least 500,000 unique visitors monthly.
"Those are huge numbers for blogs," says Jim Bruene, editor of Online Banking Report.
Jim Wang of Columbia is founder of bargaineering.com, which until recently was called Blueprint for Financial Prosperity.
Unlike some blogging peers, Wang wasn't mired in debt and didn't grow up in a household clueless about money. (His father persuaded him to open a Roth IRA when Wang was a teen.)
He started the blog to learn about finances.
His first post appeared in early 2005, when there were fewer than 10 personal finance blogs, the 28-year-old says. The site started gaining traction later that year after Wang was featured in a New York Times article about bloggers revealing financial details.
Newly married and on his wife's health plan, Wang quit his consulting job with Booz Allen Hamilton a year ago to blog full time. Today, his site gets a half-million unique visitors a month, and Wang earns about $10,000 each month through ads on his site.
His blog "follows the things that I do in my life," he says. So lessons he learned buying a house and getting married are blog fodder.
The personal touch is part of his blog's appeal. "You are going through the same things that everyone else is going through," he says.
His philosophy: Save money on things you don't care about, spend it on things that are important to you. He learned that from his parents, who kept the thermostat low to save for visits to their native Taiwan, Wang said during an interview in his chilly home office.
Wang will team up this month with blogger J.D. Roth to launch an online radio show, the Personal Finance Hour.
Roth, of Portland, Ore., is founder of getrichslowly.org. The 39-year-old says he didn't learn money skills growing up, and by 2004 had racked up $35,000 in debt.
"It petrified me," he says.
Friends gave him personal finance books, and Roth started the blog in 2006 to chronicle his efforts to erase debt by cutting expenses and boosting income with freelance work. He sometimes slipped up, such as when he spent $2,000 on comic books. "I love comic books," he says.
A year ago, Roth left his family's corrugated-packaging business, where he earned $42,000 as head of sales. He spends his days writing, doing interviews, and pursuing advertisers and publishing partnerships. He earns more than $5,000 a month now.
His site averages more than a half-million unique visitors a month.
"It gives me stage fright, to be honest. That's a lot of people coming to see what I have to say about money," he says.
Roth says his postings have evolved since getting out of debt in late 2007. He still writes about managing debt, but he posts more now about investing.
Trent Hamm in rural Iowa founded thesimpledollar.com three years ago, shortly after he and his wife faced a financial crisis.
"We had nothing in checking and savings, and had five bills due before we got any more income," Hamm says. "That was really a big wake-up call."
The two decided to pay off about $70,000 in debt from credit cards, student loans and car loans. They consolidated debt to get a lower interest rate and sold belongings on eBay, including Hamm's prized baseball card collection.
Within a year, all but a student loan were paid off.
For Hamm, 30, the blog also is an outlet for his love of writing. "I wanted to be a writer since I was in high school," he says. He wrote short stories and a novel, with no success.
"This one worked," he says about the blog that gets about 700,000 visitors a month.
He had been earning about $40,000 as a lab technician for the Department of Agriculture. He earned about $50,000 last year from blogging and an advance on his book, 365 Ways to Live Cheap!
Hamm dismisses criticism that people shouldn't be learning finances from those who made mistakes.
"I say what I did wrong. It resonates more with people. 'I messed up. Here is what I did wrong and please learn from it.' "
He gets irritated at CNBC personal finance experts without money problems lecturing the rest of us on how to pay off credit cards. "I don't find it compelling," he says. "I find it annoying."
Blogs are about sharing, and many readers write in with tips. Some have good ideas. Others, like the guy recommending worm farming, not so much, Hamm says.
So what would happen if the bloggers struck it rich?
Wang and Roth would keep blogging.
"I would end the site," Hamm says. "I would have nothing to contribute if I'm not writing about something that most people can relate to."
But he quickly adds, "We are far from that."