12/6/2011 1:02 PM ET|
Best tips for fixing your finances
A carefully chosen personal-finance book can make an ideal Christmas gift. Here, some financial experts recommend their favorites.
Here's a holiday shopping tip: Nobody really wants a glow-in-the-dark tie or another set of bath salts. Allow me to suggest a potentially life-changing present: the gift of personal finance.
There's a book out there for everyone on your list: the new graduate with a starter job (or no job) and a ton of student loans; your recently divorced mom, who's never concerned herself much with money; the friend with no idea how to plug financial leaks; a midlife-crisis brother who's questioning the value of his job; and the 30-something cousin who hasn't done a thing about retirement.
Beware: Even a whiff of condescension or condemnation may cause the recipient to toss the book aside. So you need to put your gift in context.
For example, MSN Money columnist Liz Weston says "Your Money or Your Life" is a book that "profoundly changed" the way she thought about finances. If there's a book that spoke to you in a similarly meaningful way, then enclose a note saying so -- for example, "This is how I got out of debt."
You could also address a specific personal situation, such as: "This author speaks directly to Millennials about a life beyond ramen and five roommates."
Does your recipient have a goal, such as starting a business or retiring early? Include a note saying: "I looked through this, and it offers very realistic tips. Hope it gets you closer to your dream."
I asked a bunch of money specialists for books that would address these and other financial matters, plus I threw in a few recommendations of my own. Look for something that will speak to the folks in your life. Even if they wished it had been a pony, they'll be grateful it wasn't a fruitcake.
Blogger J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly likes "Your Money or Your Life" as much as Weston does. Before he could fully appreciate it, though, he had to clear $35,000 in consumer debt, with help from "The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness."
Those are the two titles that "most affected the way I think about money," says Roth, who went on to write his own book, "Your Money: The Missing Manual."
Another oft-cited title is "The Millionaire Next Door." Frugal guru Clark Howard says this book confirms the old saw that rich people don't get rich by giving away their money. Apparently they get rich by paying no more than $16 for haircuts.
"It's what you don't spend that makes you rich over time," says Howard.
Not that he expects you to wait forever. Howard is also enthusiastic about "Living Rich by Spending Smart," which tweaks a basic budget to come up with thousands of dollars' worth of annual wiggle room.
"It deals with the immediate," Howard says. "It's not about cutting out a cup of coffee and ending up $100,000 richer in 30 years."
Frugality expert Mary Hunt was in hock up to her hairline when she read "How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously." The book "was a real turning point for me," says Hunt, now the author of numerous books of her own, including the upcoming "The 7 Money Rules for Life: How to Take Control of Your Financial Future."
For someone who's at sea when it comes to money, financial coach Saundra Davis recommends "Ahoy, Money! How to Chart Your Course to Genuine Financial Freedom" and "The Motley Fool Personal Finance Workbook: A Foolproof Guide to Organizing Your Cash and Building Wealth."
The books above offer solid advice with no unrealistic promises. Davis, who coaches low-income Californians at the Earned Assets Resource Network, notes that some people think that a gimmicky title will provide a fast and easy answer to their money problems. Good luck with that.
"The bottom line is that there are really only three things we can do to address our financial distress: make more, spend less (or) a combination of the two," Davis says.
Hunt likes Weston's recently updated "Your Credit Score, Your Money & What's at Stake: How to Improve the 3-Digit Number that Shapes Your Financial Future." The book takes "complicated and confusing issues and (makes) them easily understood," Hunt says.
Like it or not, your credit scores matter. So does being honest about what your money can -- and should -- realistically buy. "The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke" is not a polemic against working moms but a clear-eyed look at how the cost of living goes up faster than the salaries of working people.
Former MSN Money columnist MP Dunleavey puts that book on her short list of "eye-opening perspective changers and priority shifters," noting that finance isn't always as simple as dollars and cents.
Some people thrive on tracking expenses and making budgets, she says, but others "learn just as much about money by reading about life, priorities, the brain, behavioral economics."
"After all, many of us know the (money) rules, but we're still trying to figure out why we don't follow them," says Dunleavey, the editorial director at the DailyWorth website.
There's a reason we mess up with money -- even if it's not a good reason. Some people are in financial straits because of unconscious money beliefs, for which Davis recommends "Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health."
Financial writer Carmen Wong Ulrich likes "Your Money & Your Brain" as a way to demystify money choices. "It creates an awareness that enables you to change your behavior," says Wong Ulrich, the author of "The Real Cost of Living."
So you want to be rich?
Wealth adviser Barbara Friedberg recommends "The Elements of Investing," a short guide packed with "stellar" advice. Another book that changed her life is "The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need."
"A Random Walk Down Wall Street" had a "monumental" impact on certified financial planner Kimberly Foss. "It forever changed my views about free markets, wealth accumulation and wealth preservation," says Foss, of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville, Calif.
Personal-finance author and blogger Ramit Sethi isn't for everyone; he's incredibly smart but also incredibly opinionated. (You should hear him go off on folks who pinch pennies versus building dollars.) That said, Get Rich Slowly blogger Roth highly recommends Sethi's "I Will Teach You to Be Rich."
And what would Sethi himself recommend? A book that isn't about personal finance. "Mindless Eating" has parallels with the way we handle money.
"You'll find surprising connections and insights by studying the psychology of eating," he says, "including why we overeat (overspend), why we believe we're in control of our food (investments) and surprising solutions to improving our food (and money) outcomes."
For the younger set
Is there a high school junior or senior in your life who wonders how to get through college? "Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents" is an absolute must, according to Hunt.
Both Chatzky and Dunleavey recommend "Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties." Remember, kiddies, that compound interest is your friend.
But life is about more than just piling up the lucre. Blogger Will Chen of Wise Bread recommends "Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing and Giving Back."
The author's writing style is engaging, and she uses real-life examples that help readers connect, according to Chen. "This is my favorite gift for college grads and anyone who needs a friendly intro to personal finance," he says.
As for the really younger set: I think every "tweenager" should read "Not Your Parents' Money Book: Making, Saving and Spending Your Own Money." It tackles questions that some parents can't or don't want to answer, and it encourages kids to think of money as a useful tool rather than a mystery.
Trimming the fat
The financial experts I interviewed tend to recommend bigger-picture titles versus books about daily frugality. I admire the former, of course, but have a real love for the latter. Full disclosure: I do, in fact, wash and reuse plastic food bags. That's why I want to recommend some of my favorite collections of frugal hackery:
- "10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget." Frugality means different things to different people, and this book has something for everyone, from footloose nomads to at-home parents.
- "The Coupon Mom's Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half." Your food budget has more room for compromise than just about any other category. Written by a woman who walks the talk, this book will let you save money on everything from cat litter to organic produce.
- "Living Large in Lean Times: 250+ Ways to Buy Smarter, Spend Smarter, and Save Money." Along with the über-frugal tips (the author makes a disposable razor last more than a year), this book contains incredibly useful advice on travel, electronics, health care, fitness and other big-ticket items.
- Any of the "Tightwad Gazette" compilations. Self-proclaimed "frugal zealot" Amy Dacyczyn started publishing a newsletter in 1990 about how to wring every last drop from your budget. Seven years' worth of thrifty wisdom were turned into books. I got one of her books at a rummage sale for 50 cents. Amy would be proud.
VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
BOTTOM LINE: Only buy for real needs. Eliminate all wants. Know what is needed for your survival. Do not watch commercials. Record all spending. Know when to spend and when not to. Buy only what is necessary. So on, so on.....
Better to tell people not to spend on a book and put their money straight to pay off debt or save it. That's the right tip.
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