Capital Control: Personal Finance Books 2019
New books focus on paths to personal richness rather than material riches
Millennials indulging expensive breakfast habits while straining under ruinous debt: it’s become such a favored trope among financial writers that the Wall Street Journal, in late 2017, felt compelled to issue a mea culpa of sorts. Acknowledging that it had been using the word millennial as a “snide shorthand,” the paper committed to more nuance in its reporting as it grapples with the generation’s widening influence. “We are writing for and about a group of people who are building major companies,” the paper’s stylebook editors wrote, “altering the way we work and live and challenging long-held notions of family and society.”
Publishers, too, have taken note. Personal finance titles due out in 2019 acknowledge shifting attitudes toward work, money, and happiness, and urge readers of all ages—not just millennials—to confront their financial fears, examine ingrained beliefs, and mine their most basic desires for emotional resonance before even broaching the topic of bank statements.
Millennials Level Up
For the first episode of the Bad with Money podcast, Gaby Dunn, who was not quite 30 at the time, asked customers at a coffee shop about their favorite sex positions; everyone gamely answered. Then she asked how much money they had in their bank accounts; people gasped. In the January 2019 Atria release Bad with Money, Dunn aims to strip away this reticence, courting readers’ trust by baring all of her financial misdeeds and mishaps, as well as those of her parents. “Welcome to the first honest conversation about money you’ve ever had,” she writes. (For more on Dunn, see “The Last Taboo.”)
In Broke Millennial Takes on Investing (TarcherPerigee, Apr. 2019), Erin Lowry, another liberal arts graduate just entering her 30s, picks up where Dunn hopes to leave her readers—with a sense of control over their spending and saving habits. Following up on 2016’s Broke Millennial, Lowry tackles her generation’s queasiness with financial markets as an instrument for building wealth. Their hesitancy, she notes, isn’t for nothing: many millennials watched their parents suffer through the crash of the late aughts.
“This generation is interested in having money in a different way,” says Megan Newman, v-p and publisher at Avery and TarcherPerigee, which have several forthcoming titles that target millennials. The goal, she says, isn’t to accumulate for the sake of having more, but, ultimately, to be freed from the traditional workplace.
Sure, millennials with access to employee-sponsored retirement accounts are taking advantage of them—about 41% of millennials do so, according to a Bank of the West study. Lowry wants to give her peers the confidence to invest more aggressively, especially before taking on mortgages or having kids. “You are grown-up enough,” she writes. Most important, a young investor has the benefit of time: “It helps you grow your wealth while sustaining future drops in the market.” Investing early also alleviates pressure to earn a higher salary later in life in order to retire, she notes in the book. “In fact, you can retire earlier if you learn how to master investing in your 20s instead of your late 30s or, heaven forbid, your 40s.”
Grant Sabatier, on his Millennial Money website, writes that “the old school retirement narrative” no longer needs to hold true; it’s possible to achieve financial independence at a young age. As with other millennial-focused titles, Financial Freedom (Avery, Feb. 2019) starts when Sabatier is at a low. In 2010, the 24-year-old was living with his parents, and after trading 4,700 hours of his life for $87,000 after taxes, all he had to show for it was $2.26 in his bank account. He’d graduated from college into a cubicle with a commute that started at 4:50 a.m, he writes. “Welcome to the real world,” his dad told him. Then he got laid off.
Five years later, Sabatier had accumulated more than $1 million in assets and felt liberated from working in an office for someone else for the rest of his life. “Despite all the pessimism surrounding the financial prospects for so many people today, it’s actually never been easier to make more money, manage your own money, and live a life free from the typical nine-to-five,” he writes.
The book details the strategies that Sabatier used in what he describes as his quest to maximize the value of his time, much of which involves using the internet to both monetize interests and generate income. “Most of what’s in this book wasn’t even possible 10 years ago,” he notes.
Millennial Money Makeover (Career Press, Jan. 2019) similarly opens with a tale of woe. Despite Conor Richardson’s professional financial experience as a CPA, in his mid-20s he suffered what he describes in the book as a “calamity of errors” that forced him to make major financial changes. The chain of events that was once the hallmark of defining American adulthood—“spouse, house, kids, and lifelong careers”—has disappeared in tandem with rising financial disarray, he writes.
To help fellow millennials start over, Richardson offers a six-step sequence that begins with changing one’s relationship to money and eliminating debt and ends with leveraging technology to generate passive income and automate money flows.
In Their Debt
Acknowledging how big the debt burden is on millennials, many financial books geared toward them devote at least one chapter to the question of whether it’s more important to invest early and often or to pay down debt.
David Carlson, who launched the Young Adult Money blog in 2012, wrote an entire book on it. In Student Loan Solution (Mango, Mar. 2019), Carlson, who’s gained a 40,000-strong Twitter following by writing about millennial debt, offers a grim set of statistics: more than 40 million people have student loans in the U.S., totaling over $1.5 trillion in outstanding debt. As a result, even cutting expenses by a quarter won’t prevent some borrowers from living paycheck to paycheck. In an effort to help them gain control, Carlson’s book lays out the variety of repayment and forgiveness options available.
The youngest millennials may be the most in need of getting a grip on their finances: the average amount of debt for a borrower in the class of 2017, Carlson writes, was more than $37,000. To help simplify the task, Elise Williams and Meleah Bowles, who describe themselves as the “professional 20-something” creators of Earn Spend Live, a career and finance website for young women, have put together Common Cents (Rock Point Gift & Stationery, Jan. 2019).
In a workbook swathed in pastels and punctuated by cartoon pop-ups of the authors, Williams and Bowles provide monthly budget trackers for readers to fill out and real talk on how quickly credit card interest rates can spiral. Their website and book arose from their frustrations as recent college grads seeking financial guidance online; as they write in the book’s introduction, much of the advice centered on “skipping our morning lattes and avocado toast.”
The same healthful impulse that popularized the concept of clean eating is extending into personal finance advice aimed at readers at various stages of their financial lives. In The 30-Day Money Cleanse (Sourcebooks, Jan. 2019), Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, whose Twitter bio describes her as a money coach and financial nutritionist, writes that money is “strikingly similar to food,” with associated behaviors “tied much more to our emotions than to facts and figures.” She leads readers through a series of meditationlike exercises to discover the whys behind their spending, as a way to zero in on their most essential joys. The cleanse is a way to budget, she writes, and also “a movement to live an incredible, meaningful, and mindful life now, while also saving for long-term goals.”
Grace Menary-Winefield, associate editor at Sourcebooks, says that rather than assume readers have already failed in some way, Gerstley’s book aims to empower them to improve.
In Happy Go Money (ECW, Jan. 2019), Melissa Leong expresses a similar goal. When her husband suffered a health scare and subsequently fell into a depression, Leong, a financial journalist with CTV in Canada, became “a joy ninja,” she writes, poring over books on the study of happiness and positive psychology. She found plenty of manuals with mantras and mood-boosting diets but nothing about finances, and she realized that the only reason she was able to focus on happiness, and her husband on healing, was because they were financially secure. Her book combines research from the emerging field of happiness psychology with personal finance basics, urging readers to clarify what “really makes you happy” and showing them how to achieve that through smart budgeting.
“This isn’t a millionaire book,” says Jennifer Knoch, senior editor at ECW. “The goal isn’t to be as rich as possible,” but to live a life as rich as it can be.
Today financial editor Jean Chatzky also brings psychological and behavioral studies to bear in Women with Money (Grand Central Life & Style, Mar. 2019), in order to help readers direct their finances in a more purposeful manner. Coming a decade after Make Money, Not Excuses, in which she encouraged women to take control of their finances, this book is aimed at women who feel secure with their money and who are looking to do more than just sock it away for retirement. “We are mindful of the fact that we can, intentionally, use our financial resources to create the world we want to create,” she writes.
Risk and Recovery
Despite the focus on making money less fearsome and more approachable, there are still titles that warn readers that some financial mistakes can be catastrophic and offer advice on how to prevent the worst consequences. In The Dumb Things Smart People Do with Their Money (Ballantine, Feb. 2019), Jill Schlesinger, an investment adviser and former Wall Street trader, cautions that even the brightest financial minds can make stupid mistakes that cost them a fortune, and she makes clear that some mistakes can’t be undone. “We sometimes can take action to save ourselves,” she writes. But in what she describes as “oh shit moments,” it’s usually all we can do to “mourn our losses and carry on.”
A decade after the Great Recession, Schlesinger writes, smart people still make the same “tragic” mistakes—failing to take out the proper insurance, for instance, or spending too much in early retirement years—because of emotional blind spots and biases that leave them vulnerable to dishonest actors. She looks at a range of financial decisions a person will face over a lifetime—including college financing, purchasing real estate, and retirement—and examines the underlying psychology behind common errors. By understanding why these mistakes happen, she proposes, readers armed with basic financial tools can avoid committing them.
In Safe and Secure (Regnery, Jan. 2019), Fran Tarkenton and Rick Gossett detail 10 steps senior citizens can take in order to protect against what they call potential “thieves and scammers.” Tarkenton, a Hall of Fame quarterback turned entrepreneur, is founder and CEO of Tarkenton Financial, which focuses on retirement income strategies; Gossett is a former CPA. Acknowledging the shifting landscape of retirement, they make clear their book is geared toward senior citizens who have reached typical retirement age, and who, after a lifetime of carefully squirreling away assets, may now be “the perfect mark.”
No amount of preparation could have readied Chanel Reynolds for the death of her husband in 2009, but as she describes in What Matters Most (HarperWave, Mar. 2019), she remembers standing by his bedside in the ICU and thinking to herself, “I don’t have my shit together.” Her mind raced with financial questions. Could she keep the house? Did they even sign their wills?
The book follows Reynolds as she cobbles these answers together in the aftermath of his death, weaving her personal grief with hard-earned advice. Reynolds published what she learned in 2013, on a website she called Get Your Shit Together; within a week, thousands had flocked to her page and responded with their own stories of grief and hardship, and she was featured in the New York Times.
At the time, some financial advisers cited in the Times article were dismayed by the “coarseness” of Reynolds’s tone. But, says Hannah Robinson, associate editor at HarperWave, Reynolds’s irreverence and candor throughout the book were key to illuminating the prescriptive portions. “It’s not just a warren of checklists,” Robinson says, “but a real guide with a human presence through all of the numbers.”
That personal touch is a hallmark of many 2019 titles. By exposing their own struggles, financial authors are offering authentic as well as authoritative guidance on getting and keeping it together.
Jasmina Kelemen is a freelance writer and former Bloomberg editor who splits her time between Houston and Caracas.
CORRECTIONS: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Jennifer Knoch, senior editor at ECW, and misstated the affiliation of Melissa Leong, who is with CTV in Canada.
Below, more on the subject of personal finance books.
The Last Taboo: PW Talks with Gaby Dunn
The author of ‘Bad with Money’ explains why people feel shame around the subject of personal finance.
Fire Starters: Personal Finance Books 2019
Whoever said “don’t quit your day job” might feel differently after reading these books.
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