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Reconsidering the advice in 3 popular personal finance books

A review of three of the most popular finance books of the last 15 years

By Paul B. Brown / New York Times News Service and Uma Asher

  • Published 13.10.19, 4:12 PM
  • Updated 13.10.19, 4:12 PM
Suze Orman’s “The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom”, Dave Ramsey’s “The Total Money Makeover”, and Robert T. Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” all have a glaring omission: a lack of substantive advice on investing
Suze Orman’s “The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom”, Dave Ramsey’s “The Total Money Makeover”, and Robert T. Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” all have a glaring omission: a lack of substantive advice on investing (Shutterstock)

In times of economic stress, it is good to know the basics of personal finance.

Many people turn to books for help, so we decided to go back and review three of the most popular finance books of the last 15 years: Suze Orman’s “The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom” (Currency, $16.99); Dave Ramsey’s “The Total Money Makeover” (Nelson Books, $26.99); and Robert T. Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” (Plata Publishing, $8.99).

They all have something worthwhile to offer, but after rereading them, I found that all had a glaring omission: a lack of substantive advice on investing. You will have to go elsewhere for an in-depth discussion of how to set up a portfolio and choose among stocks, bonds, exchange-traded funds or mutual funds.

What all three books do emphasize is the need to buttress your finances by doing such things as reducing debt and expenses. And they share a constant refrain: You are ultimately responsible for your own financial success.

The authors have different takes on how to succeed, though. Orman says trust your instincts. Ramsey says relentlessly eliminate every last shred of debt. And Kiyosaki says emulate the rich, who have figured out how to “have money work for them.”

Oddly, for books centered on bolstering wealth, all three advocate contributing to charity. They say this is the right thing to do in itself, but they also say it’s worth doing on a spiritual level: The more you share with the universe, they contend, the more the universe will share with you.

Why have the books been so popular? The spiritual content may account for some of it. But the powerful media presence of all three authors has certainly helped.

Orman had a show on CNBC for more than a decade and now makes corporate speeches on personal finance. Ramsey has a syndicated radio show, and Kiyosaki appears frequently on television and conducts seminars.

As for quality, Orman’s book is the best of the three for standard financial issues, though each has an undeniable appeal.

The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom

The good things about Orman’s book start with her ability to reduce financial planning to its basics, and with her sensible suggestions on how to reach your personal goals.

“Unrealistic budget cuts, like unrealistic diets, never work,” she writes. Pare back modestly here and there, she says, rather than try to make big trims. And Orman emphasizes often-overlooked aspects of adult life like writing a proper will and appointing someone who will be able make health care decisions for you, in case, at some point, you can’t.

While she doesn’t offer detailed financial advice here, Orman, a former stockbroker, does recommend that you own index funds and diversify your holdings.

Unfortunately, the book is a bit out of date. It was first published in 1997, hasn’t been revised since 2012 and contains references to events like the Dow closing at 11,000. That last happened in 2010.

Her tone is supportive and intimate, and it frequently veers into the ethereal.

Most unconventional idea: “Money is a living entity and it responds to energy exactly the same way you do. It is drawn to those who welcome it, those who respect it.”

Questionable advice: “Even if you own just one mutual fund, your money is still quite diversified, because you own a little of everything they’re invested in.”

That depends on the fund you own. If your only holding is an actively managed small-cap mutual fund, all you own are parts of small-cap companies preferred by that fund manager. You are far from diversified.

Representative sentence: “When it comes to money, freedom starts to happen when what you do, think and say are one.”


The Total Money Makeover

Ramsey has one major theme, which he hammers home until you want to scream. “To the exclusion of virtually everything,” he says, eliminate debt.

The only possible exception he allows is a small mortgage that you can easily afford (even then he urges that you pay that off quickly).

If you have any debt, even if your employer will match the first 3% you put into your 401(k) annually, Ramsey says, you should not take advantage of the match. He says it is better to put that money toward what you owe.

Financially, that makes no sense, unless you are paying interest charges of greater than 100% on what you borrowed. If your employer is matching your retirement contribution, you are getting a 100% return on what you put in. Yet Ramsey says that while he understands the math, being debt-free is more important.

I don’t agree. Advising people to forgo their company’s retirement match is one of the many things I didn’t like about the book, which was originally published in 2003 and has been updated several times since. The last revision was in 2013.

Ramsey seemed to have trouble finding enough to say. On the bottom of every page you will find this line: “If you live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”

That epigram would be just fine, if stated once. But the constant repetition seems contrived to fill space, as does the unusually large type. (Yes, it was nice that I did not have to use my reading glasses, but still.) Even with those features, the book is barely over 200 pages, not counting 20 pages of worksheets and an index.

His tone is consistently stern and no-nonsense.

Most unconventional idea: Pay off your smallest debt first, even if the other money you owe has a higher interest rate. The “quick wins” will help you build momentum.

Questionable advice: You can withdraw 8% of your retirement savings annually and not outlive your money.

Most experts say a safe annual withdrawal rate is much lower, no more than about 4% or, using careful rules, perhaps 5%.

Representative sentence: “I was given a calling: to show people the truth about debt and money and to give them the hope and tools necessary to set themselves free financially.”


Rich Dad, Poor Dad

Kiyosaki reminds me of Ayn Rand. He says you should focus relentlessly on achieving total independence from the crowd — financial independence, in Kiyosaki’s case.

He presents his financial tenets in a narrative structure that resembles a novel, contrasting what he learned from his biological father (“get a secure job, work hard, play it safe”) and his other “dad,” a rich entrepreneur who forged an independent financial path while living below his means.

The book was first published in 1997 and updated, most recently, in 2017. As it unwinds, you see Kiyosaki, who served in the military, shift from a job as a Xerox salesman to his vocation as an investor, ending up squarely on his “rich dad’s” path. He soon buys real estate to minimize his dependence on a paycheck and begins to shelter income and minimize taxes by setting up corporations.

Own things that generate wealth, he says. In addition to income-producing real estate, he says, that includes stocks, bonds and royalty-generating intellectual property (inventions, books and the like).

Despite the brisk narrative, the book has a ponderous tone: It reads like a lecture from an economics professor.

Most unconventional idea: Don’t focus on your job or career. Think primarily about building personal wealth.

Questionable advice: “With low interest rates, and an uncertain stock market, the old adages of saving and investing for the long term make no sense.”

Saving and investing for the long term are exactly what most experts say you should do.

Representative sentence: “The main cause of poverty or financial struggle is fear and ignorance, not the economy, the government or the rich.”


How useful are these books?

While the lack of detail on investing is disappointing and the perspective is often quirky and sometimes questionable, all three books offer sprinklings of solid counsel: Eliminate debt. Live below your means. Look for ways to supplement your income.

That’s always good advice.

As is this, which came from my immigrant grandfather: Dig your well before you’re thirsty.

What he meant was prepare for the inevitable while you have time.

These books are flawed, but if they teach people that much, they have real value.

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