Over the last 15 years, I whittled down close to six figures of debt I acquired from living beyond my means. In that time, I alternated between ignoring it, agonizing over it, and finally, taking action; I became debt-free last year. Along the way, I read lots of books about money. Since April is National Financial Literacy Month, I wanted to share these nine books about personal finance that each taught me something valuable about managing my money.
The first few are more about the emotional aspects of money, which is where I faced my biggest financial stumbling blocks, while others get into the nitty-gritty of managing your money. I haven’t followed any single book to the letter, which would be impossible since some give contradictory advice. I also don’t necessarily agree with everything each of these authors writes. I have, however, gained confidence and knowledge I’m using to keep my finances on an upward trajectory. I also learned what doesn't work for me. I know reading any single book can't make money simply appear in your bank account (though wouldn’t that be wonderful?), but diving into the topic helped me grapple with the ways I treated money that I wanted to change.
This was one of the first money books I read. I was drawn to Kate Northrup because she had paid off $20,000 in debt; while my debt was several times that amount, I at least felt like she understood where I was coming from and wasn’t going to judge me. That alone was hugely freeing because while many people have debt, talking about it can feel mortifying if the person you’re telling isn’t empathetic. So reading this book helped me feel less guilty about my self-created debt and better able to visualize a life without it. Rather than just relying on a vague, scary number, Northrup helped me get clear about exactly how much money I owed, where my spending was impulsive, and how I was chasing a feeling that I could probably fulfill in other ways.
Financial therapist Bari Tessler has a three-part strategy involving what she calls Money Healing, Money Practices, and Money Maps. If this already sounds a little woo-woo to you, you’d be right — but that’s just what I needed. After reading her suggestion of doing a body check-in where you “notice any sensations, emotions or patterns around your money,” I certainly noticed when my heart rate sped up whenever a royalty statement landed in my inbox. Money Practices include things like Money Dates which, again, might sound hokey, but helped me when discussing money with my partner in conversations that otherwise could have been highly charged. Tessler gives great examples of how couples can navigate different approaches to spending by exploring not just what they’re buying, but why they’re buying it, and what benefits those purchases provide. A money map involves getting specific about how much your desired lifestyle costs, and exactly what that ideal life looks like — which may be very different from what we’re taught to want.
This guide is a peppy tour through figuring out what things and experiences you value most, and how to adapt your spending to finance those priorities. I’ve read other books that advocated extreme measures to get out of debt by spending absolutely nothing — which can work, provided you stick to them — but I found Farnoosh Torabi’s way more practical for myself. The biggest takeaway I got from this book was clarifying my needs versus my wants, which sounds easy but in practice is much more challenging when, say, concert tickets for a favorite band go up for sale that I haven’t budgeted for (in the pre-COVID days of concerts). She also offers good advice about how to fix a bad credit score, what types of makeup and clothes are worth splurging on, and all sorts of everyday situations where we might be faced with spending a lot or bargain hunting.
Bad With Money, inspired by the podcast of the same name, is a refreshing look at why so many people might be “bad with money,” including societal forces, and what to do about it. Dunn is totally upfront about her own financial successes and failures, offering up her spending in one random month — including $600 on Amazon on books, random items to give friends, even a humidifier she buys on a whim. Dunn gives practical advice on things like how to find a therapist on a sliding scale, with a mix of her own personal story and examples from the news and experts. By being so open about everything from her own mental health issues (and how much they’ve cost her) to money and relationships from someone who became an expert by living it and interviewing people, Dunn makes everyday money situations seem much more manageable.
Barbara Huson (formerly Stanny) defines an underearner as someone not earning up to their potential. When I read her 10 traits of underearners, I found I identified with almost all of them, including talking as if I’m trapped and living in financial chaos. This book is essentially a high-powered pep talk centered around money and standing up for what we think our value is. Huson encourages readers to write down what they want to earn in a given year, and then work on steps to make that happen. I admit I often found myself resenting the advice in this book: If “earning more” is so easy, wouldn’t everyone do it? But that’s not actually what she’s saying. She’s arguing that people who feel they aren’t worth more than what they’re currently earning, and who talk themselves out of actions that could help them increase their earnings, need to change their money mindset first — only then can you move forward with plans to actually up your bottom line. I’ve thought about this book every time I said no to a low rate or asked for a fee that could seem greedy.
After getting my finances on the way to being in order, I wanted to learn more about how investing worked. My dad sent me Invested, which is written, appropriately enough, by a father/daughter duo, mainly from Danielle’s perspective about learning about how to invest in a very specific way (they also have a podcast). This book has a lot of detail about how the stock market works that, I’ll be honest, I couldn’t always follow — no fault to the authors; it’s just complicated — so my big takeaway was that while part of me wanted to follow in Danielle’s footsteps, I just don’t have the dedication it truly takes to do so. I did appreciate the fact that the authors don’t try to pretend picking stocks is easy; there’s a huge amount of ongoing research that goes into it. Knowing this helped me look at alternatives.
Erin Lowry, founder of the website Broke Millennial, breaks down every step of the investing process in easy-to-understand language. I’m not a millennial, but I found this book helpful as a very new investor. She answers everything you could want to know, from exactly what data you’ll need handy to start a brokerage account, to expense fees (and whether they’re worth it), types of stock orders, and what robo-advisers are. I especially appreciated that she offers advice for people who are self-employed, like me, because our options are often different from those with full-time jobs. This is a thorough and comprehensive book, the kind you want to take your time with and refer back to once you figure out which type of investing you want to do.
I read this book last fall when I finally had a decent (for me) chunk of money to work with in my retirement account to get more ideas about how to use it smartly. Bola Sokunbi, who runs the site Clever Girl Finance, lays out all the different ways investing can work, with an encouraging tone and real-life examples — including a woman who started by investing just $50. As someone who began with the impression you needed thousands just to dip your toe into the stock market, I found reading real-life investor profiles refreshing. Sokunbi lays out the main and most common routes for investing, along with pros and cons of each, and explains why women especially should be investing. She also offers examples of index funds and an overview of how they’ve performed. I found her chapter on simple investing strategies the most helpful, because she breaks down what diversification can look like in practice.
The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn't Have to Be Complicated by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack
The hook of The Index Card is that everything you need to know about personal finance can fit on an index card, an idea created by Harold Pollack, a professor who was struggling with his own finances, and backed up by journalist Helaine Olen's research. Some advice applies to everyone, like saving 10% to 20% of your income and paying your credit card in full every month. Others depend on the specifics of your situation, like only buying a home when you’re financially ready. The authors are deeply critical of the financial services industry (the subject of Olen’s prior book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry) and lay out what exactly to ask a potential financial adviser. They also argue you should never buy individual stocks, with many examples of why that’s folly. They give a breakdown of their ideal investing strategy — a mix of index funds and bonds — suitable for those who want to be passive about their investments but still build up solid retirement savings. While many of the books I read are geared toward those in their twenties and thirties, this book is useful for anyone older who still feels mystified about money.