Personal Finance 
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TED Videos: Ariely on Cheating, Gilbert on Value Miscalculation

From time to time you’ll see me post links to videos from TED.com (Schwartz on incentives, Wallace on buying happiness, Lee on American Chinese food). I find a lot of their videos to be absolutely fascinating. Today I watched two videos I wanted to share with you all, one from a behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, and another from a psychologist, Dan Gilbert.

(Click to continue reading…)


 Personal Finance 
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Best Personal Finance Books for Your Library

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

The Wealthy Barber by David ChiltonThe Richest Man in Babylon by George ClasonYou 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.

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William DankoAnother 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!).

Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki RobinFinally, 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.

Managing Debt

Dave Ramsey The Total Money MakeoverI 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.

You’re Broke Because You Want to Be: How to Stop Getting By and Start Getting AheadIf 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.

Investing

A Random Walk Down Wall StreetBenjamin Graham The Intelligent InvestorNo 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.

The Little Book of Common Sense Investing<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.

Frugality

The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy DacyczynThe 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.

The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy DacyczynOne 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.

Behavioral Economics

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. DubnerThis 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.

Predictably Irrational by Dan ArielyFrom there, you can’t miss two other books that I’ve read and enjoyed – Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford.

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 by Tim HarfordThe 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!


 Personal Finance 
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Star Trek: How We Will Abolish Money

My wife and I are avid fans of Star Trek (no surprise there right?). Having grown up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and continuing on to Deep Space Nine and even a little Voyager, but recently we’ve been watching the four seasons of Star Trek Enterprise. It’s the one with Scott Bakula as Captain Jonathan Archer of the NX-1 Enterprise (there it is to the right) and the only one set in the near future. I have no idea how the seasons were received when they aired but we’re really enjoying them because it’s not set hundreds of years into the future, only a hundred and fifty. In future Earth, we’ve developed warp drives, transporters (though we’re not comfortable using them), and have made contact with alien species (no universal translator, just a really good translator).

One of the interesting aspects about Star Trek is how it treats money. Even a mere 150 years into the future, there is no concept of money. People do their jobs because they take pride in their work, satisfaction in their accomplishments, and work hard because they don’t want to let down their peers or their society but receive no monetary compensation. While they get all of their needs satisfied (food, shelter, entertainment), no one is saving for retirement because there’s nothing to save.

It was always difficult for me to see the logical jump from society today to anytime in the future where money is obsolete. Entire industries exist solely because money exists (mortgages, finance, banking to name a few) and you can bet your last dollar they’ll do anything it takes to make sure money keeps on existing. So how are we supposed to get from our money driven world to one where money has no meaning?

By having social norms overtake market norms. It’s an idea I first read in Predictably Irrational. In one of the chapters of Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely talks about how in the workplace we’ve replaced a bit of the market norms with social norms. In the days of Ford and the assembly line, workers punched in and punched out. They worked for the paycheck, trading in their time, effort, and expertise for money. It was a clear trade, punctuated by the sound of time card machines. As we’ve moved away from a labor based economy to a service based economy, social norms have begun to replace market norms.

I have friends who work 40+ hours a week but are compensated for only forty, the extra being spent “to get the job done right.” I routinely worked a few hours over forty myself to get the job done because I didn’t want to let my team down (I was very fortunate to be on very strong teams that didn’t find ourselves under the gun or behind on deadlines). I didn’t work those extra hours out of the goodness of my heart but I also didn’t do it for direct compensation. I worked those hours because I knew I had an obligation to both the project’s clients and my teammates. It was the social norms, not the market norms that compelled me, and so many others, to work without direct monetary compensation.

It’s an interesting idea and while it clearly doesn’t explain everything, it’s the first time I’ve read of an idea that will even take us in that direction. Eventually social norms can overtake market norms, a social support infrastructure will be put into place, and we’ll have abolished money, developed warp drives, met alien species, and find ourselves cruising among the stars!


 Debt 
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Debt Bloggers in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational by Dan ArielyIf you’re a fan of behavioral economics (think Freakonomics and Undercover Economist), you should pick up a copy of Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. I reserved both the print and audio book versions (I didn’t know which would be available first) and have been listening to the CDs in my car as I drive around.

I was delighted to hear, somewhere on the third CD, and then confirm in print, on page 122-123; Ariely mentioned a New York Times article written by John Leland that featured several debt bloggers I know: Tricia of BloggingAwayDebt.com, Stephanie of PoorerThanYou.com, Him and Her of MakeLoveNotDebt.com, and a blog called We’re in Debt (I thought I recognized the URL but it resolved to a landing page – oops).

Here’s what the passage said, it was in reference to how you could force yourself to save and control destructive consumer spending behavior:

John Leland wrote a very interesting article in the New York Times in which he described a growing trend of self-shame: “When a woman who calls herself Tricia discovered last week that she owed $22,302 on her credit cards, she could not wait to spread the news. Tricia, 29, does not talk to her family or friends about her finances, and says she is ashamed of her personal debt. Yet from the laundry room of her hom in northern Michigan, Tricia does something that would have been unthinkable — and impossible — a generation ago: She goes online and posts intimate details of her financial life, including her net worth (now a negative $38,691), the balance and finance charges on her credit cards, and the amount of debt she has paid down ($15,312) since starting the blog about her debt last year.”

It is also clear that Tricia’s blog is part of a larger trend. Apparently there are dozens of Web sites (maybe there are thousands by now) devoted to the same kind of debt blogging (from “Poorer than You” poorerthanyou.com and “We’re in Debt” wereindebt.com to “Make Love Not Debt” makelovenotdebt.com and Tricial’s Web page: bloggingawaydebt). Leland noted, “Consumers are asking others to help themselves develop self-control because so many companies are not showing any restraint.”

BLogging about overspending is important and useful, but as we saw in the last chapter, on emotions, what we truly need is a method to curb our consumption at the moment of temptation, rather than a way to complain about it after the fact.

The book is very very good and provides great insight into how predictably irrational we are.


 Debt 
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Banking, Credit Card Debt & The Paradox of Choice

The paradox of choice is that the more options we are given for a particular choice, the less likely we are able to make a choice. Penelope Trunk discussed it in her article about taking a job, any job and references Dan Ariely, an MIT behavioral economist, and his book Predictably Irrational. In the book, Ariely discusses a study about how people ended up buying more jam when given six potential samples versus twenty four. Twenty four potential samples was simply too much and people ended up not deciding, even though they had more information.

How does this apply to banks and credit cards? Too much information paralyzes us. It paralyzes me. In the case of jams, there’s no pain in not buying a particular flavor. In the case of credit card debt, there’s a significant pain in not paying down a card. With a bank, there’s a bit of pain in interest not earned and a bit more if you overdraft because you forgot which account held how much (or you forget how much you need to keep in an account to avoid fees because you have too many accounts). Too much information, like juggling many balls, hampers our ability to make good decisions and causes us unnecessary pain.

The solution is the simplify your finances.

If you have credit card debt, pay down the smallest amounts first. This may sound similar to Dave Ramsey’s Snowball technique and that’s because it is. However, rather than focusing on the psychological benefits (yay! another debt conquered! let’s get the next one!), I argue that removing one headache from your life, even if it’s not the most financially distracting one, is beneficial. Next, try to consolidate bigger debts into as few accounts as possible without sacrificing the interest rate. By not sacrificing the interest rate, I mean don’t consolidate lower interest cards to higher interest cards (which sounds obvious but sometimes we make mistakes). The number of credit cards offer zero fee 0% balance transfers are dwindling but they often have a fee transfer cap that could be to your benefit.

With banks, don’t keep accounts you no longer need. I kept an old employer’s credit union account open for a year and a half and it cost me $20. I had transferred money into that account from my Emigrant Direct account and written a check. The check didn’t get cashed for several weeks and before it could be cashed, I went into my account and saw some money sitting around. Not remembering why the funds were there earning a low interest rate, I transferred them back and got dinged with an NSF. While I was able to get the NSF removed, it was entirely my mistake but caused by keeping an account I didn’t need or use anymore. There are no negative credit impacts of closing bank accounts, so close the ones you don’t need anymore and drop juggling that ball.

Simplify your life and reduce the number of things your brain has to manage, you’ll be happier and richer for it.

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On a happier note, my post on the Top 5 Online Banks made it into this week’s Carnival of Personal Finance hosted by Canadian Dream.


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