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This San Francisco TikTok Star is Revolutionizing Monetary Literacy

Humphrey Yang’s personal finance videos — which many viewers first discovered via her TikTok algorithm — can sometimes feel like an informative oasis amidst brain-dead scrolling.

Much of his content focuses on breaking down complex financial terminology into easy-to-understand metaphors.

His explanation of short selling uses the example of an iPhone as an asset, which is borrowed and sold up front at a higher price before being bought a year later at a lower price, allowing the seller to pocket the difference.

“That’s the common thread that runs through all of my content: break it down and make it easy for people to understand,” Yang said

Yang has always been interested in money and how it moves in the world. His first business venture was selling sodas to his classmates in elementary school.

A composite image shows Humphrey Yang (left) in his office recording TikTok videos about finance and a detail photo of “The Taxable Investor’s Manifesto” (right). | Justin Katigbak for The Standard.

Since then, he has held various professional positions, including in the video game industry, as a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch, and as co-owner of an online printing company. Before he became an online finance guru, he was the guy his friends could rely on for money advice.

Yang said that as a viewer, he had always been fascinated by video artists and decided to use his personal expertise to help others.

Like any successful entrepreneur, Yang begins to branch out. He has launched a business news substack newsletter and is working to shift his time, energy and audience to YouTube, where he has grown his subscriber base to over 1 million people.

“As a creative, there’s a constant need to diversify because you don’t want to rely on just one platform,” Yang said. “If it gets killed, you’re screwed.”

Yang said he appreciates the opportunity to delve deeper into subjects in addition to the financial benefit. While TikTok videos often have a wider reach, the actual monetization of the content is done through sponsors. Yang said that one million views on TikTok cost less than $10.

On YouTube, the process is much simpler; Ads appear in the video, and the creator gets a share of that share. From about 15% of his revenue from YouTube ads last year, he’s jumped to 40% this year.

“You build a real audience because people choose to watch the content, whereas on TikTok you just get it,” Yang said.

Yang started trying to make YouTube videos in 2019, but his first attempts failed. While scrolling through TikTok (mainly teenagers performing choreographed dances at the time), he searched under the hashtag “Personal Finance” and found basically nothing.

“So I started making videos on TikTok in late 2019 and caught on super fast,” Yang said. “I think in my first post I explained what a credit score is. It’s a really shitty video, but it still got like 10,000 views.”

He has set himself the goal of shooting a video every month. At the end of 30 days, he had around 120,000 followers.

Last year, Fortune Magazine profiled Yang, citing a Consumer Affairs poll that found he was the personal finance guru most trusted by Gen Z, edging out Warren Buffet among others. Yang was surprised – if flattered – at the honor.

“I don’t have $100 billion,” Yang quipped.

Nonetheless, he takes his responsibilities as a financial advisor seriously. Yang said he had been cautious during the meme-stock and crypto hype waves of 2021, turning down a sponsorship offer from FTX ahead of their surge, a decision he now describes as a “hidden blessing.”

Humphrey Yang is sitting in his San Francisco office on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, where he is recording videos about finance. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard.

“I think the younger generation doesn’t have that much confidence in investing. They don’t think there will be returns 40 years later,” Yang said. “They also have suspicions about what will build their wealth.”

It makes sense. Yang cited statistics showing that the vast majority of young people are living paycheck to paycheck and that college tuition and real estate prices have far outpaced wage increases.

Still, he said everyone can take their first step towards a better future by confronting their financial reality. Yang recommends entering all expenses and income in a ledger to find out how much is going in and out.

“We want to teach you how to fish and give you all the framework and basics to figure out your personal finances,” he said.

Yang recently moved from Redwood City to a location in San Francisco’s Marina District, a few blocks from the waterfront. So the relevant question is: why does it make financial sense to live in San Francisco?

“That’s really not the case,” he said. “But I was just looking for a social change, and things are a lot easier up here.”

But he also made a really good deal for his rent-controlled apartment, he noted.

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