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By Paul Schrodt
February 2, 2021
Courtesy of Humphrey Yang / Humphrey Talks

What’s the secret to talking about Money on TikTok? For Humphrey Yang, it all started with a fancy water bottle.

The personal finance guru — who has amassed about 1.4 million followers on the wildly popular social media app and another 69,300 on YouTube — blew up with a viral breakdown of the coveted Hydro Flask in the beginning of 2020. Using his ecommerce knowhow (hint: the manufacturing cost of that water bottle is a tiny fraction of the $45 list price), the post instantly took him from around 10,000 followers to over 100,000. The video “hit the teen demographic well,” he tells Money. After its success, he was hooked.

Yang is far from an anomaly in this new personal finance social media landscape. Search #personalfinance or #investing on TikTok, and you’re inundated with videos that have collectively racked up more than a billion views. Personalities behind top accounts can range from a coupon fanatic to a certified financial planner, but they’re all happy to tell you what to do with your money.

Yang, 33, has developed a trust with his young-ish followers in part because he’s pretty transparent, even nerdy, in his thoughts. He’ll dip slightly into the details of market vs. limit stock orders, but he’ll also swiftly list options for where to invest $100, rattling off pros and cons backed by serious knowhow without the long spiel.

The former Merrill Lynch financial adviser becomes wary talking about many of the vogueish accounts on TikTok that promise more than they deliver. The platform teems with relatively anonymous personalities claiming to show you how they turned $10 into $10,000 or indicating their ability to buy a Bentley at age 18. These posts are often short on details, providing a kind of wealth voyeurism for young TikTok users captivated by luxury. They also tend to lead to links for paid financial coaching programs.

“If you just type in ‘#millionaire,’ you’ll see dumb videos where people are dancing and like ‘This is how I made $1 million before 25,’ but they won’t tell you anything,” Yang observes. “‘Oh, passive income.’ Another one: ‘I own real estate.’ But they don’t tell you exactly how to do that.”

“It’s very shady. As a viewer, you have to figure out for yourself if something is legit, or how someone made their money or if they actually made that much money. So it’s kind of a battle. It’s kind of cringey.”

Yang isn’t here to tell you that you’ll become rich. He doesn’t even want to convince you of one option for your money — he wants you to grasp guidelines when you don’t feel like chatting with (or spending the money for) a financial analyst.

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How Yang Got on TikTok

In his own life, Yang is firmly an entrepreneur.

“I noticed there weren’t many personal finance TikTok accounts. Actually, there was basically none,” Yang says.

So he started posting his content on the rapidly exploding platform in late 2019 on a post-Thanksgiving lark. He decided to make one new TikTok every day for 30 days to see what happened. When his following kept growing, he kept going.

“I made it through 60 days straight of content, thought I might as well go for 90 days,” Yang laughs. “My streak ended at 265 days in a row, and that’s after I hit a million followers, and then I was like, ‘Okay, I want to change gears a little bit.’”

His time at Merrill Lynch from 2012 to 2013 provided him with experience and a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) certification, plus allowed him to grasp how to help people understand money management. But “as a 24- or 25-year-old, not many people want to trust you with their cash.”

The San Francisco Bay Area native then made his way through the local tech scene, working at video game companies, starting the poster business Craft & Oak, and most recently taking up freelance ecommerce consulting.

But he was always demystifying intimidating personal finance concepts for those close to him, which is the approach he holds to today.

“I think that one of the things people tell me is I make things really simple for them,” he says. “I take a somewhat complicated financial topic and explain it as if you’re my friend and we’re just having a coffee chat. I think I’ve realized over this year that’s what I’m pretty good at.”

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How to talk about money on TikTok

Which means, in Yang’s mind, his TikToks should be simple but not “too simple.” Especially in a social media universe where ideas can be flattened to the point of being meaningless.

In the snackable, maximum-60-second format of a TikTok post (he gets luxuriously more time on YouTube), that’s not an easy task. Yang tries to nail a concise rundown of a subject that may be just out of reach for target viewers he estimates are about 18 to 24 years old (while his YouTube channel skews older at around 25 to 34) and haven’t brushed up on all the fundamentals.

One example that struck a surprising nerve is his dive into cyclical stocks, or as he says in his video, “stocks that tend to do well when the economy is doing well” — for example, airlines and hotels. He was aware it wasn’t an immediate concept for his audience, but he knew how to make it sticky.

Yang’s delivery is anything but dry. He’s not just invested $4,000 in cameras and staging (a home desk) for his work. He’s genuinely charismatic on the screen, in his sleek athleisure-forward outfits, and clever editing techniques make it look as though he’s advising a novice version of himself.

However tricked out his videos get, he insists he’ll never give one blanket answer about what to do with a sum of cash.

“With my financial adviser background, you’re not supposed to. Every situation is different and you’re supposed to gauge the individual situation,” Yang says. “I can tell you what I would do, but that might not be right for you.”

But Yang is clear about this: While he’ll try to teach you all he can in 60 seconds or 10 minutes, he doesn’t pretend to be the final word.

“I don’t think anyone can come to my channel and learn everything about personal finance,” he says. “But ultimately what I hope is it spurs them to go on a research binge.”

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