Readers sometimes ask me, “Which personal finance magazine do you recommend?” This isn’t an easy question to answer. None of the Big Three — Money, Smart Money, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance — are exceptional, though each is good in its own way. Which is best for you depends on your financial objectives. Here are my impressions after subscribing to each for the past year.

Money ($10/year)
The most popular personal finance magazine in the U.S. — and the one that tries hardest to be “hip” — is Money. The magazine’s typography and layout drive me nuts, but the articles are varied and well-written. There are too many stock recommendations for my taste, but all of these publications are guilty of this. The July 2007 issue of Money included:

Money offers a good variety of articles and has some fine columnists. (Walter Updegrave is one of my favorites.) It’s not without weaknesses, however. This issue features an inane article on how to marry a billionaire — it’s seven pages of nonsense. Most Money articles are easy to find on-line a few weeks following each issue’s publication. This magazine seems to be targeted at those just beginning to take control of their financial lives.

Smart Money ($12/year)
This magazine is not for people struggling with money; it’s for those who have already mastered their personal finances, and who are now looking for ways to maximize their returns. The magazine is published by The Wall Street Journal, and much of the content is not applicable to the average American. This month’s issue, for example, features an earnest article discussing the merits of “entry luxury” vehicles: which is best, the Mercedes C-class or the BMW 3-series?

Other articles in the September issue include a profile of a $300 chef’s knife and a conversation with Antiques Roadshow‘s Keno brothers (the twins who gush over six-figure furniture pieces). Two pieces stand out, though:

  • An article from Pulitzer-prize winner James B. Stewart on the investment strategies of Ivy League colleges, and how the average person can duplicate them with index funds.
  • The cover story about living debt free is interesting, but even it offers advice that’s impractical to most GRS readers: “If you make $1,000 monthly payments [on your credit cards], rather than the $250 minimum, you’ll save more than $3,000 in interest.” Right. If.

Though each issue features stories about high-end personal finance, Smart Money is mostly filled with investment advice. The magazine isn’t bad, but for it to be useful, you should be well on the way to meeting your financial goals.

Kiplinger’s Personal Finance ($12/year)
Kiplinger’s is my favorite of these magazine, but even it has too much mind-numbing stock advice. (I’ve never figured out why these magazines promote stocks instead of index funds.) Fortunately, it also contains lots of information I can use, which in August included:

  • An article featuring “savvy ways to tap your retirement savings — great strategies to make your money last a lifetime”.
  • A piece on purchasing health insurance if you’re not already covered through your employer.
  • A discussion of how debit cards compare to credit cards.
  • A list of 30+ ways to use $1,000: buy stocks, boost your career with professional classes, buy driver safety training for your kid, fight poverty with microloans, and, best of all, earn a guaranteed 18% by paying off your high-interest debt.

Unfortunately, this issue also contained an article I loathed: James K. Glassman creates a stock portfolio in hindsight, and then gushes about how great it would have performed. “I’ve come up with a ten-stock portfolio that includes some of the best companies in the world…Over the past year to June 1, every stock has produced a positive return and, as a while, the portfolio has handily beaten [the S&P 500].” Lame. (If you don’t know why this is lame, let me know so that I can write an entry about why this sort of thing is worthless.)

Kiplinger’s is hit-and-miss with me. I’m not a fan of the stock-picking advice at the front half of each issue, but I generally like the articles in the back, the ones that explore real-world finance for average people. Most of the advice here seems to be geared toward those who are well into middle-age.

If you read magazines and can afford to subscribe, any of these is a source of good information. Unlike personal finance blogs, the articles in these publications are written by professionals. The stories are well-researched and published in a magazine that has a vested interest in maintaining credibility. Subscriptions aren’t very expensive — gleaning a single idea over the course of the year will pay for the subscription. Best of all, magazines are portable. (You can’t read a blog in the bathtub or on your business flight to Denver.)

Really, though, if I weren’t running this site, I wouldn’t subscribe to any of them. I’d rather peruse my favorite personal finance websites, including blogs like this one. The web is more personal. Unless you specifically seek an investment blog, you’re not going to be deluged by constant stock news. Blog content seems much more focused on real-world issues.

Where would I get my personal finance information instead of magazines? My favorite professional columnists on the web include:

The personal finance blogs I read most often include:

There are many other great pfblogs — it’s impossible to list them all.

One final note: Please don’t base your investment strategy on the stock tips you find in personal finance magazines. Your best option is to purchase low-cost stock index funds. If you do set aside a small portion of your portfolio with which to purchase individual stocks (as I do), it’s okay to use magazines for ideas and research, but don’t blindly place your trust in the stocks they profile.

This post was inspired by a question in the Get Rich Slowly discussion forums.

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