None of these books are new, they’ve been around for years and they’ve been considered by many to be the best personal finance books out there. The topics they cover will vary and their approaches will be sometimes very different, but each has value and as a student of personal finance they all have something to offer to a reader. Many of these books will sound familiar and I challenge you to make an argument that one of these books shouldn’t be on a list like this.
General Personal Finance
You can’t describe this category without listing the book I consider to be the defining book in this cateogry – The Richest Man in Babylon by George Clason. This book was written in the 1920’s and is a fiction story that teaches simple personal finance lessons. It’s a tiny little book that you could probably read in less than two hours and the lessons it teaches are simple. There are several other books that are like this, teaching basic personal finance concepts, such as The Wealthy Barber by David Chilton, but this one was the first and most celebrated.
Another ground-breaking book that deals with general personal finance was The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko, first published in the 90’s. The reason it was ground-breaking was because they showed how many millionaires actually lived. So many of us see the flashy lifestyles of celebrities and sports figures, thinking that’s how millionaires live. Stanley and Danko interviewed millionaires and discovered that most do it by spending less than they earn and by being smart with their money. When this book was released, it really surprised some people and I think it was exactly the type of wake-up call people needed (and still need today!).
Finally, the last cornerstone book in general personal finance has to be Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. This book is lauded by many a personal finance blogger and it’s very popular because it helps you re-examine your priorities. Instead of living to work, they help you re-prioritize so that you’re working to live. If you do feel like you’re trapped in the constant struggle between working, bills, and expenses, this book can certainly help you sort everything out.
Bonus book: A book that I haven’t read yet but is also well recommended is Napolean Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, which also happens to be free and in the public domain. I haven’t read it yet, doing so now, but it was written during the Great Depression so it might be helpful during our economic malaise.
I haven’t read it but so many people have told me about Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. I’ve been very fortunate never to have fallen into the credit card debt hole but after I wrote my post about how Dave Ramsey’s Snowball Debt payoff method was brilliant, I’ve gotten several emails from readers telling me it has worked for them when other methods failed. If you are in debt, check out Dave’s book (at the library!) because it goes into much more than debt repayment, it’s an entire overhaul of your financial life.
If Dave Ramsey hugs you, then Larry Winget slaps you in the face. Depending on which type of motivation you respond you, Larry Winget’s You’re Broke Because You Want to Be: How to Stop Getting By and Start Getting Ahead is either perfect or will make you feel depressed. While I haven’t read Ramsey’s book, I have reviewed You’re Broke Because You Want to Be and I thought that it was a good book but might be a little too tough. It has a lot of very useful information and it has an answer for any excuse you could possible have about debt.
No list of investing books would have any credibility if it didn’t include these two most important texts: Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street and Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor. The basic gist of A Random Walk is that a blindfolded monkey can select stocks as well as a professional. The random walk refers to the actions individual stocks prices can take in the short term and Malkiel recommends index funds the entire way. Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, on the other hand, is the seminal text of value investing, where you buy stocks in down and out companies with a long view in mind. If it’s any comfort, Warren Buffett was Benjamin Graham’s protégé at Columbia University.
I also have to recommend The Little Book series which include several books on investing. They each cover a different part of investing and different scenarios, but they’re all written by very accomplished authors and written very well. My favorites are The Little Book of Common Sense Investing by Vanguard’s John Bogle, The Little Book That Makes You Rich by quantitative investment expert Louis Navellier, and The Little Book of Bull Moves in Bear Markets by Peter Schiff (in part because we are in a roaring bear market).
Finally, I have to give a nod to David Bach’s The Automatic Millionaire because it teaches one very important lesson – set it and forget it is one of the most powerful lessons in retirement investment planning. Save in your 401(k) and IRAs by making automatic regular deposits and you’ll be happy in retirement.
The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn is the book on frugality. If you were to ask any frugal blogger for their list of the top three books on saving money and frugality, this book would be in that list with no exceptions. This is also one of the most actionable books on this entire life. When you read a book like the Wealthiest Man in Babylon or the Automatic Millionaire, you come away with solid personal finance information but nothing you can actually do. The Tightwad Gazette is the polar opposite, you can make it through a handful of pages without getting an idea of what you can do to trim. Want a hint of what’s inside? Money Saving Mom listed ten painless ways to save $100, pulled from the book.
One of the easiest ways to be more frugal is to simplify your life. One of the easiest ways to simplify your life is to get a book that has over a thousand ways to simplify all aspects of your life – The Joy of Simple Living by Jeff Davidson. This is another one of those extremely actionable books where he goes through room by room by room, giving suggestions on how things could be simpler.
This category isn’t one that is often discussed when looking at personal finance books but I think behavioral economics is something we should all be familiar with. Behavioral economics refers to “research on human and social, cognitive and emotional factors to better understand economic decisions by, say, consumers, borrowers, investors, and how they affect market prices, returns and the allocation of resources.” The book that introduced me to this type of economics was Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I don’t really know how to describe Freakonomics other than to say that the authors took a bunch of interesting economics stories that applied to everyday life and tied it together into a book. You’ll read about cheating teachers and cheating Sumo wrestlers, you’ll read about impact abortion has had on crime, and a dozen other interesting stories that will do nothing but pique your interest for more.
Predictable Irrational seeks to explain why we, as supposedly rational people, make such irrational decisions. The best example is how customers often behave economically irrationally whenever free is introduced to an equation, people often go after the “freebie” or “add-on” when it doesn’t make rational sense to do so.
The Undercover Economist is slightly different, it explains, among other things, how you can glean information from situations where you don’t think information can be gleaned. The best example I can remember is one where Starbucks began offering fair trade coffee at a higher price. Starbucks charged a higher premium for that coffee than what it agreed to pay for fair trade coffee. In other words, Starbucks was profiting from fair trade (it wasn’t simply higher by the net increase in fair trade versus non-fair trade coffee). The information it provided was invaluable in that it identified how likely Starbucks customers were willing to pay more for their coffee – it showed how elastic the price truly was.
Those are the books that I think would make a fantastic library for the personal finance enthusiast. I’m absolutely certain I missed some great books out there, so if you have a favorite that I didn’t list, please leave a comment so I can be sure to check it out!