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Lately, I've seen a comment appearing on questions that are accused of being off-topic. The comments will say something to the effect of "This situation does not apply to the OP, so the question is off-topic."

Here are a few recent examples:

I'm not arguing here whether or not these are good questions, or even if they are on-topic or not. The question is, are we only allowed to ask questions about situations that we are currently in? I've looked at the guidelines for on-topic questions, and I don't see any language that requires this. Where does this idea come from? Are we allowed to ask personal finance related questions out of curiosity that don't directly apply to us at this time?

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    Wow! I guess I am on the losing side of all three questions. OK guys, I will not vote to close any more no matter how garbagey the question. – Dilip Sarwate Mar 5 '15 at 3:19
  • @DilipSarwate - and yet, the celebrity one has 4 votes to close, so you are not alone. – JoeTaxpayer Mar 5 '15 at 21:41
  • @JoeTaxpayer Actually I think I am alone in this matter since this answer of mine has received 4 negative votes on meta.money, and there are no other downvotes on any other answer to your earlier question. On the the current question, both your answer and mhoran_psprep's answer have received one downvote each (I upvoted both of them). So, I will stick to not downvoting at all. – Dilip Sarwate Mar 5 '15 at 23:17
  • @DilipSarwate: Please do continue to vote to close if the question is garbagey. The point is that being garbage has nothing to do with being asked by someone who is not directly involved. I would say, vote to close based on the quality of the question, not the identity of the questioner. – BrenBarn Mar 6 '15 at 19:04
  • @BrenBarn Absolutely not. I know when my opinions are not wanted. You and Ben Miller can do whatever you want. – Dilip Sarwate Mar 6 '15 at 20:57
  • @DilipSarwate: I welcome your opinion and think you've made a lot of great contributions here. I just disagree with you about this issue, for the reasons I explained in my answer. If you have a fuller explanation of the reasoning behind your position I think the discussion would benefit from your sharing it. – BrenBarn Mar 6 '15 at 21:28
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I'm glad to see this question, as I was just going to ask it myself. This has become a pet peeve of mine. I strongly believe that we should allow questions about personal finance even if they are not directly about the asker's personal experience. To me, the "personal" in "personal finance" means questions should be related to decisions made by individuals about their own individual finances, not necessarily decisions made by the questioner about his or her own individual finances.

There are two main reasons I think this. First, there are many questions not about the questioner's own finances that we do and will continue to accept, and there is no clear, reasonable basis for separating them from ones we wouldn't accept. Second, we do not need to use "it's not you" as grounds for rejecting wild hypothetical scenarios, economics questions, etc.; when we need to, we can reject those questions on the basis of their actual content, not who asked them.

What I mean with my first reason is that "personal finance" obviously includes decisions about people other than the individual asking the question. Consider, for instance, questions about a spouse's finances, children's finances, siblings' finances, parents' finances, elderly senile parents' finances, a friend's finances, a poor-with-no-reliable-internet-access friend's finances, a roommate's finances.

There are lots of valid reasons to ask a question on someone else's behalf. The person in question may not have the ability to ask the question themself. The questioner may be trying to help someone close to them who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not take the time to ask. People don't waste their time asking questions that they don't care about on some level; if someone asks a question about someone else, we should assume that they are asking it due to a personal connection with that person. This question is an example of a highly-voted question that is really about someone else's finances: the questioner is asking about how to help his friends who have poor financial habits, and the (good and upvoted answers) are largely about how to help these friends solve their problem, because the questioner is not in any real financial trouble himself.

The same applies to questions that are hypothetical but may become real in the future. If someone, for instance, asks questions about how to handle issues that may arise when their old and frail mother passes away, are we to refuse to answer until the death has actually occurred? If someone asks whether it's a good idea to buy stocks when they are down, are we supposed to wait until stocks are actually at a 10-year low? No. We should trust that people ask questions that are relevant to them at the time that they ask them.

My second reason is that rejecting questions based on who asks them doesn't really gain us anything. A question like "Is a graduate-student stipend taxable income" is good regardless of whether the person asking it is a graduate student receiving a stipend, because many graduate students receiving stipends do exist and may find the question helpful. A question like "Why won't Switzerland join the Eurozone" is not about personal finance no matter who asks it.

As for hypothetical scenarios, we don't need to reject those on who-asked-it grounds. A question like "What is the safest investment in the event of a meteor strike" has no real answer, even if it asked by someone who genuinely believes a meteor will strike the earth. Questions that are hypothetical but realistic should be accepted, because even if the questioner is not facing them, real people may indeed face them (or may have faced them in the past). For instance, when politicians make noises about changing financial laws (e.g., Obama's recent aborted proposal to eliminate 529 plans), I would consider it reasonable for someone to ask if there are financial actions they should take if the law in question is passed. It's hypothetical, but it's a reasonable thing to consider.

A final point is that, since we have no way to verify that anyone actually has the issue they mention, trying to restrict questions on this basis is pointless. If the person who asked the celebrity banking question edited it to add "P.S. I am a celebrity but won't say which one to protect my privacy", does that mean we should then answer it? If someone asks the meteor strike question and says "P.S. I'm asking because I looked up at the sky with my telescope last night and saw a meteor approaching", would that change our stance towards the question? As long as the questioner can provide enough plausible details to admit of the possibility of an answer, I think we should assume they are drawing the details from their experience rather than their imagination. There is no way to really know.

So basically what I'm saying is that I think "personal finance" is a topic, and the topic restriction is a restriction on questions, not questioners. Questions that are about personal finance are on-topic even if the person asking the question is not the central party involved, as long as the question describes a situation in which there would be some central party making a personal finance decision.

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    +1 well articulated. I'd be happy to see a codification of this part of the board's On Topic wording. I have no very strong opinion either way, I've jut been enforcing what I read as the current intention as written. – JoeTaxpayer Mar 3 '15 at 20:39
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From the help section / tour:

Focus on questions about an actual problem you have faced. Include details about what you have tried and exactly what you are trying to do.

It's still a grey area. I personally haven't voted on the Celebrity one, but I agree with Dilip's quote in your question. And with 4 close votes, it seems others agree.

The second question was brought up by me in Meta, and left open. The question seems valid, what prompted my meta question was the "if I won the lottery" approach, but the question wasn't touched, just discussed.

In my opinion, the line is grey because there are valid questions about goals. "I'm saving at this rate, when I get to $xxx how do I ...." might be a good question, or it might not.

The insurance question was written by someone with an agenda. He placed multiple answers in a short time, and when I commented, inviting him to produce data but cut back on the rhetoric, I saw no response. He was pushing a product but offering no facts to support his position.

From the quote above, the board is about helping people solve actual issues they face, it's not a discussion board. Keep in mind, the mods frequently get flags to address off-topic questions, and since our vote actually closes a question, it's sometimes a tough call.

It seems that a situation you might face can be on topic, but it's a matter of degree. This is my opinion, it's not like mods have a special extra manual to consult. If there's a closed question you'd like re-opened, you can vote for that as well.

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    Thank you for pointing out the wording on the "tour" page; I hadn't noticed that. The phrase you pointed out is the standard text for every SE site. Here it is on SciFi.SE, where it makes absolutely no sense. I think, rather than trying to explain what is on topic, it is just a general tip for writing a good question. I can't really argue with it, because I think the best questions come from personal experience. But I don't think it should be a litmus test for on- or off-topic. – Ben Miller Mar 3 '15 at 23:52
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    @BenMiller - It didn't occur to me that the wording wasn't board specific. Again, it may be time to have a longer discussion of the nature of what's on-topic here, although I suspect grey will always remain. – JoeTaxpayer Mar 4 '15 at 12:30
  • A correlation I have seen is that questions that aren't about the question-asker's real life can tend to be more hypothetical than practical. For instance money.stackexchange.com/questions/47738/… where the question doesn't give enough detail to generate a good answer; that detail doesn't exist because it's a hypothetical situation the poster made up. Of course the flip side is that questions based on personal situations can be too specific to be of general interest. – stannius May 6 '15 at 21:33
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"This situation does not apply to the OP, so the question is off-topic."

The questions I vote to close that would fall under that category are ones that are either highly speculative, or seem to be looking for a debate.

The insurance for billionaires question was by a person with an agenda.

The Value of credit score if you never plan to borrow again question is similar to one on the front page right now: Defaulting on early termination charges out of a phone contract. These are impossible to answer because even if you can list 5 bad things the OP will just say those aren't important. Or modify the scenario to be even more impossible.

Another category of question I watch out for is the asking for a friend, but there is likely a hidden agenda. An example is Avoid exorbitant costs when forced to break a lease. The title of the question calls the costs exorbitant, but the cost may be in what is specified in the contract, and what is allowed by state law. Of course we will never know because the OP doesn't have the contract. Nor were they a witness to what was said between the landlord and the renter. The only answer is to review the contract and the information from the state. That info from the state will also specify what the landlord has to do try and re-rent and how the renter can challenge the landlord.

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    These may all be bad questions, but the reason they are bad is not that they don't apply to the OP. If you aren't given enough info to answer the question, vote "unclear what you are asking." But don't state that the reason is that they are not allowed to ask the question because it is not about them. – Ben Miller Mar 4 '15 at 12:43
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    @BenMiller - mhoran quoted your question "does not apply to the OP" but went on to say that "[these] are ones that are either highly speculative, or seem to be looking for a debate." In other words, there are question in the 'do no apply' category, but are left, as good questions. It's when the other issues come into play they are voted to close. It seems to me you'd like "not apply to OP" and "hypothetical" to not be cited as a close reason, and this logic has me agreeing with you. It would take mhoran's other reasons to prompt a close. Agree? – JoeTaxpayer Mar 4 '15 at 15:20
  • @JoeTaxpayer I think I have misread some of this answer, so I'm going to delete one of my earlier comments and restate it. – Ben Miller Mar 4 '15 at 15:52
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    For the "Defaulting on early termination" or "value of credit score" questions, the fact that the "OP will just say those aren't important" doesn't mean that the question is unanswerable. Remember, your goal in answering the question is to give the best answer you can, not to give the answer that the OP wants to hear. This is why it is okay for a question to have an agenda. The voting will ensure that the best answer is near the top, even if the OP doesn't like it. – Ben Miller Mar 4 '15 at 15:55
  • @JoeTaxpayer I think I agree, but rather than take up any more comment space here replying, I've written my own answer. – Ben Miller Mar 4 '15 at 16:35
  • I agree with Ben Miller's first comment to this answer. If the answer is "you need to review the contract/talk to the landlord/hire a lawyer", then that is the answer. If a better answer could be given with more information, comment asking for more information. Either way, give the best answer you can given the available information, or close as unclear if there is too little information to make any reasonable attempt. The problem is if the question lacks pertinent information; the reason for the lack of information is not relevant. – BrenBarn Mar 6 '15 at 18:59
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I think we need to be careful about closing questions, and clear about the reasons we close when we do. There are limited reasons to close questions:

  • Duplicate question
  • Unclear what you are asking
  • Too broad
  • Primarily opinion-based
  • Off topic (doesn't meet the requirements on our on-topic page)

That's it.

Not included in the reasons to close:

  • The question is not interesting.
  • I don't think anyone on this site knows the answer.
  • The OP doesn't know what he's talking about.
  • The OP already has an answer in mind.
  • Too localized - I don't think enough people will have this question again in the future. (Note: This used to be a valid close reason, but it was eliminated.)

Many of the questions we are talking about here are worthy of closure. Some are unclear: because the situation doesn't apply to the OP, not enough information is given on the situation, and it is unclear what he is asking. Some are too broad, because the hypothetical situation set up by the OP does not give enough detail to be answered in a concise manner.

But I think that, too often, the reason being cited for closing these questions has been "This situation does not apply to the OP, and therefore is not allowed to ask the question." This is not, and should not, be a valid close reason, and doesn't help the OP learn how to ask a good question.

Remember that if you don't like a question, if you think a question is not interesting, will not help people in the future, or you think will not generate good answers, but you can't find a valid reason to close it, downvoting the question is always an option. It's easy and it doesn't even cost any rep to do. If you want to be helpful, a comment explaining your downvote is usually appreciated, but this isn't even required.

  • And yet, the "opinion based" has always been a struggle for me. I accept that I have a view of things, and other answers than mine might be good even when they contradict. So to me, 'opinion' is a grey area as well. And a "should I do A or B" will often have multiple answers on either side. By the way, a DV costs a point, for what that's worth. – JoeTaxpayer Mar 4 '15 at 17:00
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    @JoeTaxpayer I see opinion-based, in the context of personal finance, as a question like "Will the stock market go up this year?" or "Which stock is better: ABC or BCD?" Questions can be controversial without being off-topic, as long as the answers can be defended. Here is an example of a good question with two answers that have differing opinions. – Ben Miller Mar 4 '15 at 17:17
  • @JoeTaxpayer Downvoting answers costs a point, but downvoting questions is free. – Ben Miller Mar 4 '15 at 17:18
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    Thanks, good clarification of 'opinion' reason to close. – JoeTaxpayer Mar 4 '15 at 17:22
  • I think what counts as "opinion-based" varies from one SE site to another. A vast number of questions on this site are opinion based. Things like "how do I reduce credit card debt", "should I buy or rent", "what proportion of my portfolio should be stocks vs bonds", etc. --- these are all opinion-based, but people keep asking them and people keep giving good answers. I agree that there is a major difference between questions that ask for an evidence-based opinion and ones that are free-for-all opinion polls. – BrenBarn Mar 6 '15 at 19:03

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