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Financial transparency gets personal

Taking openly about personal finances may be taboo, but some bloggers are putting their most intimate financial details - down to the very last dollar

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Neville Medhora, 22, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, works on his personal finances blog at the Metro cafe across from campus in Austin, Texas at the end of last month. The blogosphere is filled with forums on politics and music, and with intimate chronicles about relationships and sex. But for an increasing number of people, blogging is all about the money.

PHOTO: NY TIMES15N

April was a stellar month for Jim Wang, 25, a software engineer who has kept a scrupulous record of his struggle to save for a down payment on his first home.

Wang, who lives in Columbia, Maryland, pared down his spending on groceries to just US$53.98 for the entire month. He cut back on meals at restaurants and nights on the town with his girlfriend. He trimmed his utility bill by making sure the lights were off when he left his apartment. And despite an unexpected dental bill -- US$50 for the filling of a cavity in his right bottom molar -- he managed to come in 28 percent under his monthly budget of US$1,755. He put the extra US$484.47 into his home-buying account.

How do we know all this? From his financial blog, an online document that manages to be confessional in tone without revealing all that much about his personal life. But it does tell more about his spending, savings and investment habits than many people know about their best friends'. The blogosphere is filled with forums on politics and music, and with intimate chronicles about relationships and sex. But for an increasing number of people, like Wang, blogging is all about the money. (His blog is at www.bargaineering.com/articles/category/personal-finance/financial-outlook.)

Open talk about the details of personal finance may break a social taboo. It certainly seemed so when Wang first did it in April.

"I'm going to take the plunge and join the level of financial transparency that other personal finance blogs are willing to reveal," he wrote. If other financial bloggers can bare it all (and have for quite some time), "I think I can do it, too," he said. "I'll detail, to the cent, my spending this month along with my budgetary targets."

He has done exactly that, while maintaining a considerable degree of privacy. Wang, who works for a military contractor, would not identify his employer, and he is known online simply as Jim. But he has shared details like his net worth -- US$58,520.26, which includes such assets as US$47,057.96 in retirement savings and a 2003 Toyota Celica he valued at US$15,285, as well as liabilities like student loans amounting to US$24,348.77 in May. He has since bought his first home and has kept a record of that process.

His April posting acknowledged the difficulty of sharing such details: He asked readers who knew him in his "real life" to use discretion. "Please feel free to talk to me about it (just not with others)," his blog pleaded.

Others have had the urge to take their financial lives online. In July, for example, three software developers in Portland, Oregon, started networthiq.com, which lets users track their net worth. The site is owned by their company, Fourio. So far, 239 people have registered, though none have chosen to allow their full names to be seen on the site, said Ryan Williams, 28, an executive partner and co-founder of Fourio. One participant, in the under-25 age range, listed assets worth US$1,629. Another, in the 55-to-59 category, listed a whopping US$19,826,216.

"The explicit details of all their account balances amazed me," Williams said. "I thought, `Wow, these people are putting it all out there for people to see.'"

Sharing financial information with an online community is in keeping with the spirit of blogging, said Charlene Li, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, a research firm.

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