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.”
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 Suze Orman, David Bach, Dave Ramsey or Robert 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.