WASHINGTON — With all the financial advice gurus on TV and the Internet these days, how do you know whom to believe? Now comes a book urging caution about everyone from best-selling personal finance authors to financial advisers to the sponsors behind financial literacy initiatives.
The book is written by Helaine Olen, who herself writes about money and was a personal finance journalist for the Los Angeles Times. Financial information sold and even given away comes under scrutiny in her book, “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry” (Portfolio, $27.95), which is the first Color of Money Book Club selection for 2013.
Olen writes that personal finance has gone “from aid to ideology, with practitioners certain that if we could teach people the right skills, they would get it right. … We believed the mantra that if you lived a good, healthy financial life, success would be yours. Bad things didn’t happen to good savers and investors.”
Except this wasn’t true for many people.
“We lost jobs at inopportune times, made ill-advised investments, or suffered health crises that no amount of planning could predict,” she says. “Bad things did happen to good savers and investors. No amount of personal initiative and savvy could guarantee anyone an exemption from broader negative economic and social trends.”
Starting with a history of Sylvia Porter, a columnist for the New York Post who started writing “breezy and easy-to-understand” personal finance columns in the 1930s, Olen quickly moves forward in time to critique the self-help advice doled out by Suze Orman, David Bach, Dave Ramsey and Robert Kiyosaki. Even Porter was not without critics, who took issue with her simplification of complex topics, Olen writes.
Some other Olen observations:
— Her take on what she calls the Tao of Suze: “As our collective finances got tighter over the first decade of the millennium, Orman’s New Age-oriented financial advice became increasingly hectoring.”
— About Bach, author of “The Automatic Millionaire”: “According to him, the Starbucks latte is one of the leading sources of our money woes.”
— On Ramsey: “Debt is Ramsey’s latte factor, his claim to fame. Ramsey’s take on borrowing money is both simple and extreme. Just say no. No to credit cards, 30-year mortgages, home equity lines, car loans, and anything else that permits you to live beyond your means.”
— On Kiyosaki, author of “Rich Dad Poor Dad,” which advocated getting rich through real estate investing: “Kiyosaki’s not howling at you for being in debt like Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, and David Bach are. He’s howling at you for being in the wrong sort of debt. Greed is good, he tells us.”
Olen is also highly critical of the authors who are paid to promote financial products or services, making it hard for them to remain unbiased. It’s a fair criticism.
But even Olen writes that we have to talk about money. “The financial therapy movement has hit on one universal truth: When it comes to money, the vast majority of us are nuts. … We engage in so many self-defeating behaviors it’s impossible to list them. We don’t open our 401(k) statements. We ‘forget’ to pay our bills or file our taxes until the last minute.”
That’s why I continue to look for and recommend personal finance books to help people address their issues. And I’ve found plenty that I think can motivate people to change their bad financial habits, save more, spend less or take action to hedge against a financial calamity. Whether you love or hate Orman, Bach, Ramsey or Kiyosaki, at least on some level their materials have helped people take action about their finances.
“Pound Foolish” does deliver on the promise to show the flaws in the personal finance industry. Even if you get the best financial planning and advice, it can’t shield you from “stagnant salaries, income inequality, and a society that offered a shorter and thinner safety net with each passing year,” Olen writes.
Her book provides a cautionary tale that you need to read. The overall message is that you should always be asking what’s the motivation behind the money advice given.
I’ll be hosting a live online discussion about “Pound Foolish” at noon Eastern on Jan. 31 at washingtonpost.com/conversations. Olen will join me to answer your questions. Every month, I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book, which is donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of this month’s book club selection, send an email to email@example.com with your name and address.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.