Beth wrote recently looking for help:

I’m a public library worker, and my library needs personal finance advice!

We feel strongly that we need to keep a personal finance magazine in circulation, but the ones we’ve subscribed to in the past have been met with the deafening silence of complete disinterest. We’ve had Money for a year with no checkouts; before that, we had Fortune for two years with no checkouts. We’re thinking about replacing Money, but really, with such an overwhelming lack of response, we need to make a compelling argument to management to keep this subject heading at all.

The library is in a poor, historically working-class county with a lot of minimum-wage workers, retirees and near retirees, so the general level of knowledge is pretty low. We need a magazine that will appeal to people looking for very basic information. Is there something on the market — maybe between a home economy mag and a traditional finance mag — that might appeal more to this group of users?

This is a great question, and comes at the perfect time. I’ve been grousing to Kris lately about how out-of-touch the Big Three personal finance magazines can be. They write too much about buying Hot Stocks Now (which I call financial porn), and not enough about saving money at the grocery store. Both are important parts of personal finance, but guess which one we deal with more every day?

Last year I reviewed a handful of personal finance magazines. Here are updated reviews, including evaluations of several additional titles.

Money ($20 for 12 issues a year)
Based on conversations with Get Rich Slowly readers and other financial bloggers, it would seem Money is the reigning champion of personal-finance magazines. I like it, but it’s not my favorite. I feel like it’s too investing-centric, and that it has a tendency to go for sensationalist headlines. Still, over the last year, I’ve grown to appreciate Money for articles like these:

  • Take charge of your health care (April 2008)
  • Life without plastic (July 2008), a story about families who don’t use credit cards. (By Donna Rosato, one of my favorite money writers.)
  • 21 good things to do in a bad market (September 2008)

Money has big-name financial writers and slick production values. Though this magazine seems to be targeted at those just beginning to take control of their financial lives, I learn something from each issue. Most Money articles are easy to find on-line a few weeks after publication.

Smart Money ($12 for 12 issues a year)
I don’t care for Smart Money. It’s the weakest of the publications in this article. For one thing, it’s not targeted at the average person. It’s targeted at people who have a lot of money and are willing to spend it. Each issue includes articles like:

Smart Money is especially bad at hyping stocks and mutual funds, and the magazine’s once insightful “10 things X won’t tell you” feature is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Ten things museums won’t tell you? Ten things celebrity chefs won’t tell you? Celebrity chefs? Time to pack that feature in, folks.

I’ll renew my subscription to this, but only because (a) it’s cheap and (b) I write a blog about money.

Kiplinger’s Personal Finance ($12 for 12 issues a year)
Kiplinger’s doesn’t get a lot of respect, which puzzles me. Many finance bloggers consider it the weakest of the Big Three, but I like it. I find the content down-to-earth and accessible. The articles are varied and go beyond just investing:

Kiplinger’s certainly isn’t perfect. Like Money and Smart Money, it cannot resist articles like “the biggest and best funds to own now!” In fact, the most recent issue (September 2008) contains nineteen pages ranking mutual funds. As an index fund investor, this sort of thing is worthless to me. I actually think it’s worthless to most investors. Most of the time, however, Kiplinger’s does a good job of tackling a variety of topics.

The AAII Journal ($45 for 10 issues a year)
If you’ve decided that you’d like to be an active investor, your top magazine choice is probably the AAII Journal from the American Association of Individual Investors. This 36-page publication is not for novices, however. Its content is often technical and it’s geared toward picking individual stocks. Still, the AAII Journal contains some of the best articles on investing that I’ve read.

The AAII web site allows you to freely sample the “best of” the AAII Journal. Examples of recent topics from the magazine include:

  • What graduates need to know about making financial decisions (January 2008)
  • The role of diversification in an individual stock portfolio (April 2008)
  • The market and the media: Turn it on, but tune it out (May 2008) — the basis for my article about why it pays to ignore financial news
  • Optimizing retirement income: What works and why (August 2008)

The AAII Journal is excellent, and I recommend it without hesitation to those interested in an active approach to investing or for those craving thoughtful in-depth articles on the subject. The downsides? This magazine isn’t for novices and it’s expensive.

(The American Association of Individual Investors also publishes the bi-monthly 28-page Computerized Investing, which is all about various computer programs and web sites for investors. This magazine is mostly useless to me.)

Consumer Reports ($26 for 12 issues a year)
For my money, the best personal finance magazine available in the United States is Consumer Reports, the venerable publication from the non-profit Consumers Union. Most people are aware that Consumer Reports publishes detailed ratings of various product classes (the best kitchen faucets, the best televisions, the best macaroni and cheese, etc.), but each issues also contains other tips for managing your money.

Recent topics covered include:

  • How to buy and sell a home
  • How to protect yourself from identity theft
  • When to buy organic produce
  • How to boost your credit score
  • And, of course, the credit card jungle article I’ve linked to four times this week

The online version of Consumer Reports includes all of the magazine’s content and more. It costs $26, the same as the print subscription. However, it costs $45 to subscribe to both. Some of the web site’s content is available for free, but the selection seems random. There are a variety of Consumer Reports blogs that offer free content, however.

Consumers Union publishes several other magazines, including:

  • ShopSmart ($23/year) is like a “hip” Consumer Reports aimed at women in their twenties and thirties. Though each issue features articles like “Lip color that lasts” (June/July 2008) or “The perfect bra” (April/May 2008), most of the articles offer great tips for women and men. Because most personal-finance magazines seem to be male-oriented, I’m happy to see something targeted at women. I find ShopSmart’s content to top-notch and accessible. That last point makes it a great choice for the average person.
  • Consumer Reports Money Adviser ($29/year) is a monthly 16-page newsletter focused on saving and investing. Money Adviser features solid information and (as with all CR publications) no advertising. Each issue contains two or three in-depth pieces about topics like protecting your identity, long-term care insurance, and coping with unexpected financial crises. Each issue contains a variety of shorter articles, too. The middle two pages always contain a “money lab”, which answers questions like, “Can socially-responsible investments offer decent returns?”

I like all of the magazines in the Consumer Reports family.

Bottom Line Personal ($39 for 24 issues a year)
Bottom Line Personal is a 24-page newsletter/magazine filled with information about building health, wealth, and personal relationships. It’s not really a financial magazine, although there are plenty of money articles in every issue. I think of it as Lifehacker in print form. Sample articles from recent issues include:

  • Taming the bear market: A top strategist’s forecast and stock picks now (ugh — I hope that by now you all realize this is the sort of article I hate)
  • Heart attack warning: What we can learn from Tim Russert’s death
  • Why your not-to-do list is more important than your to-do list
  • Seven foods proven to fight cancer
  • The ultimate cheapskate’s simple tricks for spending much, much less

I like Bottom Line Personal, but often I feel like it’s magazine clutter. I can barely keep up with the publications I’ve listed above — this one is the straw the broke J.D.’s back. I’m unlikely to renew my subscription.

My recommendation
Each magazine will attract different types of readers. For some, Smart Money is the best choice, although it’s my least favorite of the bunch. But if I were trying to choose a magazine for a public library, I’d go for the one with the broadest appeal.

Beth’s library already subscribes to Consumer Reports (a fact I cut from her question). I think its sister publication, ShopSmart, would actually be the best choice in this case. It has top-notch content and it’s accessible. That latter point is huge. The articles are easy to read, and they’re filled with content relevant to everyday life.

Which personal finance magazines do you read? Do you subscribe to any publications? Do you borrow them from the library? Do you share them in a magazine exchange? Which would you recommend to Beth and her library?

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