Get Rich Slowly’s Tax Rate Embarassment

As readers of this blog probably know, Get Rich Slowly is one of the most important and widely read blogs in the personal finance space.  Wise Bread ranks it #8. It has more than 81,000 subscribers and a Google PageRank of 5.  (That’s good, trust me.)

Early yesterday morning it posted a guest post from CJ at WiseMoneyMatters entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Keep a Mortgage Just for 1040 the Tax Deduction.”  It is not, to say the least, a work of great insight.  Filled with breathless explanations of the painfully obvious, it contains such gems as an explanation that a tax deduction reduces your taxable income not the taxes you pay.  And it makes some remarkably unfounded generalizations, such as that the reader is unlikely to itemize deductions in the absence of mortgage interest.

But what made the post worth discussing here is something that it lacked, or at least lacked by the time I read it yesterday evening.  Apparently, as originally posted the piece contained an “offending section” that betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of how income taxes work, specifically the difference between marginal and average tax rates.

We can only infer from the comments and apologia from Get Rich Slowly’s main author, J.D., what was in the offending section, because J.D. deleted it.  (Which, as even newbie bloggers know, is bad form.  Usual practice is to strike text out [and if necessary make clarifications inside brackets.])  We are left to assume it was really embarrassingly wrong.

[Speaking of brackets, since the post went up I have learned (see comments) that the section deleted was rather long so using strike through would have been both pointless and goofy.  I apologize.]

The situation was not helped by the post’s author, CJ, making an apologetic comment just after 6am (PT).

As a few people have pointed out, there is a mistake with the marginal tax rate. I’m not an accountant so this post (as with every post I put on my site) is simply me learning personal finance and putting it on paper. I actually only learned about how the marginal tax brackets work a few days ago while listening to Dave Ramsey. Well after I had submitted the article.

Wow.

CJ’s site, WiseMoneyMatters, although not nearly in the same league as Get Rich Slowly, is a reasonably successful blog with a PageRank of 3.  If it was on the WiseBread list I estimate it would come in at #166.  So even without the megaphone of Get Rich Slowly, CJ has a significant number of readers of his own.  Do they realize that he is making this up as he goes along?

For his part, J.D. has apologized and admitted great embarrassment.  He has also gone to pains to make the case that the tax bracket thing confuses lots  of people, posting an explanation of it this morning.  That post implies that J.D. himself only came to understand the material recently, something of which I am doubtful.

I have trouble relating to this.  I understood tax brackets in grade school.  To me, how income taxes work is just a basic part of modern life, like driving on the right side of the road.  Then again, being a cynic, I am ready to believe that there are millions of people out there who do not understand it.  But none of them have any business writing personal finance blogs.

Bad Money Advice, by the way, has a PageRank of 0.  I’m working on it.

17 Comments

  • By J.D., March 12, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

    Howdy. I’ll try to clear a few things up.

    First, the offending copy was up for several hours, and all subscribers to Get Rich Slowly saw it. It was basically CJ’s attempt to use tax brackets to bolster his argument. It was long, but included text like this:

    Let’s take a look at how much someone would save if they went from the 35% tax bracket to the 33% tax bracket. In 2009, you would have to be right on the border of making a taxable income of $372,950. So we will run the figures for someone who has $372,951 taxable income after the standard deduction compared to someone who has $372,949 after a mortgage deduction of $2 above the standard deduction.

    Standard Deduction without a Mortgage
    Taxable Income: $372,951
    Tax Bracket: 35%
    Total Interest Paid: $0
    Total Taxes Paid: $130,532.85
    Total Money Paid: $130,532.85

    Mortgage Deduction of $2 above Standard Deduction
    Taxable Income: $372,949
    Tax Bracket: 33%
    Total Interest Paid: $11,002
    Total Taxes Paid: $123,073.17
    Total Money Paid: $134,075.17

    You would pay almost $4,000 more by having a mortgage.

    Now, CJ may have just learned about marginal tax rates recently, but I’ve known about them for a long time. All the same, I did not catch his error here. Nor did the people I showed this to, including an accountant. Why not? Because we were focused on the concept and not the numbers. We were trying to be sure that CJ’s theory was sound, and not his individual example.

    Obviously, this does not excuse the error. It merely explains it. The way I tried to describe it later is that it’s like somebody giving me a story to read and asking me to give them criticism on the plot structure. Just because I ignore the grammar errors doesn’t mean that I don’t know what correct grammar is; it just means I’m focusing on the plot. However, in this case, I made the mistake of publishing the “story”, grammar errors and all. My bad.

    As penance, I posted an article on how marginal tax rates work. I was surprised to learn that I’m not the only one who has let this slip through editing. Outlets as large as ABC news have done the same thing. That’s some small comfort, but again does not excuse the error.

    If anything, this is just going to make me more vigilant moving forward.

    Finally, I do take exception to this: We can only infer from the comments and apologia from Get Rich Slowly’s main author, J.D., what was in the offending section, because J.D. deleted it. (Which, as even newbie bloggers know, is bad form.)

    This is ridiculous. Websites large and small make corrections to copy all the time. I continuously revise my posts — even those that are three years old — to make sure the information provided is the best that it can possibly be. In some cases I do use strikethru, but most of the time that’s unnecessary. And in this case, it would have been a blight, because the offending section was HUGE. There is nothing nefarious or “wrong” about removing content from a post. I have been blogging for eight years, and have been following this practice for eight years, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about it until now.

    My goal is to provide the best financial information I can, to help people improve their financial lives. But I do suffer from an important limitation: I’m just an average guy, and not a financial expert. I’ve never pretended to be an expert. Does this make me unqualified to write a personal finance blog? I guess it depends on what you expect from a personal finance blog…

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, March 12, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

    Let me apologize unreservedly for the strikethrough comment. I assumed that the section was shorter. Of course striking through that much text would have looked really stupid. I let my purient desire to see the missing text get the better of me. Again, I apologize.

    And I hope that I made it clear in my post that you have done an admirable job of taking responsibility for this, possibly beyond what would be expected of someone who was the editor rather than the author of the text involved.

    But I think you do not do yourself justice by saying you are not an expert. You know as much about this stuff as Suze Orman or David Bach or any of the others, you just admit to being a mere mortal.

  • By CJ, March 19, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

    I also must chime in and mention that I fully disclose in my “About” page that I’m not a financial professional. Here’s a copy of a particular portion. It hasn’t been edited in many months. Well before the article submitted to Get Rich Slowly.

    “I am not, however, a financial professional. I’m just your average Joe who got deep into debt and wanted to change something about it. I’ve spent the last several months reading financial books, financial blogs, and getting advice from people who have shown the fruit of their labor. This blog is as much a journey for me as it is for each of you.

    I hope you can learn some great ways to get out of debt and become wealthy through this blog, but since I’m not a professional, please don’t take any information here as professional advice. I cannot be held liable for any advice given on this site.”

    So while I’m not “making this up as I go along” as you put it so frankly, my blog is an outward expression of my learning experience. I know I will make many mistakes in the future as I’ve only started taking the time to learn about all aspects of finances.

    I’m not an accountant nor am I a financial professional. I’m just some guy who blogs about his money experiences. And that’s all it is. So I will continue with my personal finance blog and learn along the way.

  • By zdog042, March 19, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    I must admit, I’m 24, and I love to be an armchair economist. However, I had never even HEARD (I would use italics there, but not sure if these comments will do it!) of marginal tax rates, let alone actually seen what the tax brackets are. We did economics in high school, and we didn’t cover taxes at all. We had a class in college about taxes and what to expect in the field I got my degree in, and the only thing they told us was “get a professional”. Nobody who I know knew how tax brackets work. Frank, I’m not sure if the knowledge about tax brackets is as wide spread as you make it sound.

    Full Disclosure: I subscribe to GRS and saw the full article, and I think I’m going to be subscribing to this blog too.

  • By Nate @ Money Young, March 19, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    I must agree with CJ, just because a blogger isn’t a ‘certified finanical planner’ doesn’t mean he can’t share his experiences?

    I also agree with Zdog that I didn’t learn about Tax brackets in school. Not sure what school you went to but the only finance course in my HS was for business accounting.

    We need people sharing personal finance experience. And we need guys like you who fix their mistakes. But to say JD or CJ shouldn’t have a personal finance blog because they don’t know some aspect of finance is crazy. I wouldn’t want them on CNBC… then again after the Jim Cramer fiasco… maybe CJ would be perfect for CNBC.

    -Nate

  • By Four Pillars, March 19, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

    It must be fun to write posts criticizing other bloggers for any errors they might make. Truth is – I’m jealous – I wish I would have thought of it! :)

  • By Ross Williams, March 20, 2009 @ 1:02 am

    1) There is a lot of bad financial advice out there without taking out after this particular column, which was actually pretty good advice even if he got the example wrong.

    2) Marginal tax rates are not really simple, as the discussion at get rich slowly demonstrated. While there are income tax brackets, they apply to what people make after deducations. Someof those deductions phase out as income increases. On the other hand, social security taxes are only paid on the first $100,000 of gross income. This means someone who makes $33,000 bracket is probably taking home less of each additional dollar they earn than someone making 150,000.

    Marginal tax rates, as they are generally understood, are misunderstood. And they are not easy to really understand.

  • By mapgirl, March 20, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    I take issue with commenter Ross. I’m not sure what is hard to understand about marginal tax rates. Really, if you’ve passed math in school, you can get the concept if you bother to try. DC and VA make their tax bracket chart fairly easy to understand.

    The main problem is that everyone refers to the top marginal bracket without doing the actual calculations on the tax itself. No one actually pays the top bracket as their tax rate. It’s conceptually not very hard to understand. It’s just ignored.

    I will gladly walk someone through those charts if they need it.

  • By Erin, March 20, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    Well I’ll admit it. I’m 37 years old, I have an MBA, and I never knew about marginal tax rates until I saw the correction on JD’s site. I understood it perfectly well when I read the explanation, I had just never read or heard before that that is how taxes work. I thought all income was taxed at the rate of the bracket in which your AGI falls.

    Very glad I know this now.

  • By Mark Wolfinger, March 20, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    Some blogs are excellent, others are trash.
    It’s up to the reader to determine which is which. But your post today helps.

    Wishing you a boost in page rank,
    Mark

  • By Jon Blakey, March 20, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    All in all, I think the consensus would be that the main point the article tried to make is GOOD advice: It IS a bad idea to keep a mortgage around just for a tax deduction.
    The main advice was not bad, just the math.
    The main advice was sound.

    This site is called BAD MONEY ADVICE, so I say it’s a stretch to say the GRS article qualifies as bad money advice.

    And it’s kinda sorry to demonize either the editor or the author of the post…especially when the fact was cleared up, something of which you gave him little credit for.

    Heaven forbid you make a math oversight in your blog.

    All that said…..all of this made me find this blog, and I plan to subscribe :)

  • By Stephanie, March 21, 2009 @ 6:59 am

    I follow Get Rich Slowly and have been inspired by the fact that J.D. was in debt and chronicled his success in digging himself out of the financial hole he was in. I am trying to do that same thing. The point of his blog is not to provide professional training, it is to give the rest of us who are trying to accomplish what he did a road map. The success of his blog is a tribute to the fact that he is doing just that. I think that what you are trying to accomplish is also a good thing-there is a lot of bad advice out there. I think that if you spent time really reading the GRS blog you might change your mind about the validity of the advice J.D. offers.

  • By My Journey, March 24, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    I just thought marginal tax rates were known by any adult who have done their own taxes once in their life?

    Maybe I am just making too big of an assumption considering I have an education based in this “world” and currently work in the financial/tax world..

  • By Justin, March 25, 2009 @ 8:03 am

    I’d argue that, even having done your own taxes (which I do), the way the progressive tax system works is not immediately obvious. I say this because you simply look up in a table the amount owed, which provides no insight as to how that amount was derived. To be brunt, this is simply a fact of life that few people actually need to know. Or, in other words, what advantage in life does knowing this particular piece of information give you? Lets treat it as an evolutionary trait; would you use it or lose it? I’d submit the proposal that it really doesn’t do anything to help make your life better or easier, and so therefore you would lose it. But I’m open to be enlightened.

    As a side note, HRBlock, as of this year at least, now gives you the marginal and effective tax rates in their online offering. I liked seeing those numbers for once.

  • By Jean, June 8, 2011 @ 2:20 am

    I have to admit that I agree with CJ and perhaps other bloggers.
    There’s no limit for bloggers to share their experiences and knowledge, even though they are not ‘officially’ professional in the field.

    In this case, I should also agree with Mark, it’s up to the readers to choose and decide. But, I think bloggers should also give some descriptions about their background and expertise to avoid reader misunderstanding.

    Anyway, it’s always interesting to find pro – kontra issue.

  • By coalition of religious communities, July 20, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

    It was just a mistake and he took it down. He had a great idea and I learned a lot from his post.

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  1. Bad Money Advice ∞ Get Rich Slowly — March 19, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

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