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I see there's another current meta question about the recent car buying questions, but I have a specific point I felt needed to be addressed. Here's the current question that triggered me into asking this:

Buying new car at 18

We regularly get questions asking if something (usually a specific purchase or budget decision) is a "good idea" or not. To me, these questions are inherently opinion based and hence off topic, unless the asker gives some qualifications over what counts as "good" from their perspective.

Or, we get questions where someone is asking how to do something (get a specific loan, make a specific purchase) but the answers take on a tone of discussing whether or not that thing is worth doing, instead of addressing the actual question of how to accomplish a specific goal.

I think the problem stems from the fact that budgeting is inherently personal, and things that one person feels important (buying a car, making certain investment or savings choices, and so on) might seem like a "waste of money" to other people.

At best, people get answers to these questions that contain good thought points for the OP to consider as they make their decision. At worst, these questions sometimes seem to draw frame-challenge "no, don't do that" answers that are justified by the answerer's own opinions about their own budgeting decisions as if they were uncontested truths, without addressing the subjective nature of answering such questions.

So - I basically have two related questions:

As a community, how do we make sure we understand the asker's criteria, or how do we handle opinion based questions with no criteria? Or, if they asker clearly has different critera than we do, how do we still write an answer that's in their context?

Secondly, how do we handle balancing two things that sometimes compete: directly answering a question, versus giving advice on why it may or may not be a "good" idea to do the thing that's being asked about?

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    There should be a badge for multiply-upvoted questions sitting for a week or two with no comments and no answers. :) – Lawrence Jan 24 at 13:50
  • For reference, What is the XY Problem?. – Nij Jan 24 at 21:19
  • @Nij - thanks for the link. Personally, I am cautious to apply "this is an XY problem" judgements to things that are inherently subjective or personal in nature. In software, or other technical fields where solutions to a problem can be evaluated somewhat without having to consider subjective influences, personal preference, or personal strategy, I do think XY problems are common and identifying them is helpful. – dwizum Jan 27 at 16:12
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    @dwizum - for what it's worth, I added the 'featured' tag to this question, and it's had nearly 400 visits. But in this week, no new answers or comments. An important question, in my opinion, but not much member interest to offer input. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Feb 14 at 12:09
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    @JTP-ApologisetoMonica thanks for doing that. Maybe it will at least get people thinking even if they don't add anything here. I do think we got answers that covered part of the question (literal "is this a good idea" questions) but not really the second part (a legitimate on topic question that happens to draw a lot of opinion-based feedback, i.e. people answering "is this a good idea" even when that wasn't what was asked). – dwizum Feb 14 at 13:28
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I'll go to a more extreme point than Lawrence did: I think "Should I do X" questions should be explicitly off topic, preferably with their own close reason. Other sites do this - look at Workplace, for example. We're not here to make your decision for you; we're here to explain the things that go into making decisions.

Should I buy a new car?

Off topic.

What criteria can help me decide if I should buy a new car?

On topic.

Do I put more money into my 401k?

Off topic.

What factors might lead me to not want to increase my 401k withholding?

On topic.

Etc. Anything that is specific to that one decision is off topic, because it's just too complicated to answer personal questions, and too opinion-oriented. Questions that encourage the answerer to teach the poster how to fish, so to speak, should be on topic. This avoids the whole problem OP here is point to, and gives us higher quality questions and answers!

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As a community, how do we make sure we understand the asker's criteria, or how do we handle opinion based questions with no criteria?

The simplest solution is to vote to close the question as unclear.

A more helpful solution is to ask the OP. There is the danger of getting pulled into a financial counselling session, but as participation is voluntary, people can always stop interacting once it stops being productive. And they can still vote to close the question at any time.

Sometimes, older and wiser folk can anticipate what makes for good criteria better than the OP. This can go into the answer as part of its context-setting.

Secondly, how do we handle balancing two things that sometimes compete: directly answering a question, versus giving advice on why it may or may not be a "good" idea to do the thing that's being asked about?

In the end, the only good reason to contribute answers is to be helpful.

As you note, personal finance involves value judgements. If the choice between cars is 'cheap and workable' vs 'not so cheap, but wow', then the helpful thing would be to bring out other factors that the OP might have overlooked: How long would it delay their rainy-day fund? How long will the 'wow' last? Can they really afford the wow car? Is the workable car really workable? and so on.

What makes a good answer to an is this a good idea question? Well, the OP asked because they are torn by the choice. A good answer would try to expose why the choice is so hard, and provide additional factors to consider that push the answer more firmly either way.

  • Thank you for the answer. I think this makes a lot of sense. But I also think it slightly misses the issue I was wondering about, which admittedly I didn't explain well in the question. As a more specific example, if someone comes here asking about getting a car loan, do we focus writing answers about getting a car loan? Or do we give them a list of reasons why they might or might not even need to buy a car? Or why they should buy a car with cash? And so on. – dwizum Jan 27 at 16:15
  • I guess my point is this: how do we deal with the slippery slope of "giving advice" (telling someone: maybe you don't even need a car when they're asking about getting a car loan - which seems to happen in comments or answers nearly every time "car loan" appears in a question) versus just literally answering the question? Is it possible to actually do both well? – dwizum Jan 27 at 16:17
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This answer is in response to my fellow Joe's excellent suggestion, but will be too long to post as comment.

If I could wave that magic wand and get members to adhere to this guidance, I would. This answer should be part of our tour and general FAQ regarding the stack. But. The devil, in this case, is in the implementation. When that "should I" question pops up, is it closed for the OP to update or will a kind member make this change via edit. As a community, we run the risk of being accused of being too pedantic and potentially lose the new member who otherwise might have become long-term.

Now, back to the title question - we do have the 'vote to close' choices which include opinion-based. So, the concern shared here is not so much a dramatic shift in policy, but a plea for a bit more adherence to the policy already in place. (correct me if I am wrong).

As a community, how do we make sure we understand the asker's criteria, or how do we handle opinion based questions with no criteria? Or, if they asker clearly has different criteria than we do, how do we still write an answer that's in their context?

By using comments to ask questions to clarify. And perhaps more important, to delay answering until the question is solid. I observe a tendency for members to post answers well before simple things are made clear. A tax question for the which the country is unknown, 3 great US-centric answers, and an hour later, OP states she is in India. I suppress my urge to just delete those posted answers, as that would seem unkind, but, you get the idea.

Secondly, how do we handle balancing two things that sometimes compete: directly answering a question, versus giving advice on why it may or may not be a "good" idea to do the thing that's being asked about?

While strongly valid, this is not a new concern. As a community, I don't think we have consensus on this. I believe that sometimes "How do I....." really deserves an answer "You really don't want to do that, here's why...." and yet, that answer isn't quite right, and subject to closure.

(I may return to edit/expand this, but ) keep in mind, the members that participate at this meta level are few, 3 days in, and only 87 views. We can 'feature' this, so it gains more attention, but in general, these issues of a shift in how we handle questions take time, twice. First, for the active members to agree this is good, but then a bit more for the 'enforcement' part to become a routine.

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