For much of my life, I dismissed personal-finance books. If I needed specific financial advice, there was Google, and I definitely didn’t want to get caught reading a self-improvement book on the subway (don’t even get me started on the cheesy covers). But the following books have made rethink my snobbery. First of all, they’re more thorough and trustworthy than most of the SEO-based advice you can find online. Second, they’re not boring; these books approach personal finance as a long-term project — with voice and humor and clarity. As far as I’m concerned they’re required reading for anyone looking to better understand how to be more financially responsible. And while they won’t transform you into a money expert, they will help you get started — which is far more important.
For the minimalist who loves lists
This book makes a simple and comforting promise: Everything you need to know about managing your money can be summed up in ten rules that fit on one four-by-six-inch index card. (And if you don’t count the tenth rule, which is simply “remember the index card,” then it’s only nine!) This theory was born when the book’s co-authors tried it themselves and posted a photo of the result, which quickly went viral in 2013. With one chapter per point, The Index Card is brisk and matter-of-fact, with sections like “You’re not a billionaire, and you can’t invest like one” and “Your financial advisor is not your friend.” Unlike more holistic finance books (see below), you won’t find theories about your own mental patterns and how they might be “holding you back”—this is a just-the-facts operating manual.
If you’re a procrastinator who hopes your finances will work themselves out
Prince Charming was one of the first finance books I actually read straight through — it’s smoothly written and there aren’t any dull, jargon-y parts to skip over. Contrary to what the title may suggest, it isn’t an outdated cautionary tale about the dangers of pinning your financial hopes on a man (although that’s in there — the author’s first husband was a gambling addict). Instead, the metaphorical “Prince” represents any cure-alls that you might fantasize about (“I’ll finally get that raise soon” or “Maybe I’ll inherit money from my aunt”) instead of paying your credit-card bill right now. The book became a best seller in the late ’90s (you’ll want to read the updated version, which came out in 2007), and while some advice is kind of quaint (“pick up a copy of Smart Money magazine”), it’s a classic for a reason: The common psychological and interpersonal reasons why women avoid money are, unfortunately, still widespread.
If you’re a results-oriented achiever who craves a timeline
The writing in this book is about as funny as finance gets (“Index Funds: The Attractive Cousin in an Otherwise Unattractive Family”), but the real selling point of this book is its air-tight structure. Chapters are short, and each concludes with three to four homework assignments — er, “action steps” — which are labeled with the approximate number of hours (usually between one and three) to allot for them. They do take time, obviously, but if you follow Sethi’s directions (which include word-for-word scripts for scenarios like calling a credit-card company), it’s hard to screw up.
You want a smart, responsible friend to tell you what to do
This book is like the Joy of Cooking for personal finance: It’s a soup-to-nuts guide with a streamlined index for easy reference. I’ve interviewed co-author Thakor several times, and she’s like a hybrid of life coach, financial adviser, and friend who has her shit together but doesn’t judge you if you don’t. Broken into easily digestible sections with charts, tables, and “classic traps” to avoid, On My Own Two Feet addresses everything from student debt to credit cards as well as how to negotiate money with your spouse or partner. (Thakor and Kedar have written another book about the latter subject, Get Financially Naked: How to Talk Money With Your Honey, if you want further reading.)
You’re seeking a more cerebral approach to your spending decisions
Technically, this book isn’t about personal finance, but it will fundamentally change the way you make choices about money. The premise of Nudge is that humans are highly susceptible to bias (even more than you think) and easily swayed by the status quo (also known as the default option) when choosing things like health insurance, retirement plans, and what products to buy. In other words, we are regularly “nudged” toward options that aren’t necessarily best for us or our wallets, even when better ones are right in front of our faces. By understanding “choice architecture” — or the context in which you make decisions — we can equip ourselves to overcome the brain’s natural tendency toward inertia.
You’d like a hug with your financial plan
Tessler has an M.A. in somatic psychology, a school of thought that focuses on therapeutic techniques involving mind-body awareness, like deep breathing and touch. It might sound woo-woo, but there’s hard science behind it: Many of these approaches have been shown to reduce anxiety, and Tessler has simply brought them into the personal-finance realm. The cornerstone of her program involves “body check-ins,” a meditative exercise that’s meant to boost self-regulation. If visiting the ATM makes you clammy and light-headed, then this book is worth a look — it’s like having a sweater-wearing, tea-drinking therapist rub your shoulders while you check your bank account.
You worry you’ll never get out of debt (and enjoy quizzes)
Harzog dug herself out out of $20,000 of credit-card debt through a combination of eating peanut butter sandwiches for dinner, and wrestling her spending habits into submission — but she’s the first person to admit that there’s no silver bullet for everyone. Her book offers customizable templates that you can tinker with based on whatever debt pickle you happen to be in, as well as a “Money Personality Quiz” that helps you understand your weak spots and what to do about them. Most important, Harzog is a believer in moderation, even when your problems are extreme — which makes her plan much easier to stomach.
You suspect that you might have a shopping problem
Twenty pages into this book, I began worrying that I had a compulsive shopping problem. Forty pages in, I realized that we all do, to some extent: Almost everyone buys stuff we don’t need, sometimes to excess, and based on emotion rather than reason. Humans are innately bad at making choices even under the best of circumstances (see also: Nudge, above), and in the age of Instagram, most of us are tempted to shop all the time. Whether you think it’s a serious issue or just getting in the way of other things you want to afford, your spending habits could probably use improvement, and this book — by a therapist who specializes in treating more extreme cases of compulsive behavior — offers concrete solutions for becoming more mindful. (And if you really are in trouble, it helps with that, too.)
You want an encouraging kick in the pants
If you’re technically doing okay but feel powerless or overwhelmed when thinking about your financial future, then this book is for you. About 15 years ago, Steinberg was stuck in an unhappy marriage, a job she was tired of, and a bigger house than she could afford, but she wasn’t exactly destitute— she just felt trapped. She went on to create DailyWorth, a media platform for women who want to gain more control of their money, and write Worth It, which came out earlier this year. Part memoir, part data-backed instruction manual with an eye on shrinking the gender gap in personal finance, this book isn’t just a guide — it’s an urgent call for women to claim the opportunities that money brings. It also involves an online assessment for figuring out your “MoneyType,” a useful tool for evaluating your financial priorities.
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