How to Read a Personal Finance Book

I read a lot of personal finance books. I do this because I learn best by reading, and because I like to review the available literature for readers of this site. When I recommend a book, it’s because I think there’s something valuable there, maybe not for everybody, but for most people. Books are only valuable, though, if you are willing to do your part.

Be an active reader

You, as the reader, must be an active participant. You must question what you read. You must try to discern the author’s motives, and decide how those might cloud the advice she gives. You must analyze the advice and decide how it applies to your life. Most of all, you must act upon what you read. Books are not magic bullets; they won’t automatically eliminate your debt. You eliminate your debt by incorporating the lessons you learn into your own life.

It does no good to read Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover, for example, if you’re only going to read it. For it to have value, you must apply its principles. Not all of the principles, but those appropriate for your situation. As always, do what works for you.

Filter the unimportant

Another important reading skill is the ability to filter. Dave Ramsey’s advice is excellent for everyone, Christian or atheist. His writing is filled with Biblical references, though, and if you approach his work ready to be offended by the religion, you’ll deprive yourself of some great lessons. Learn to filter. If the religion bothers you, ignore it.

Conversely, if you’re a staunch conservative, you’ll need to employ filters when reading books from authors like Elizabeth Warren and Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich, especially, is prone to gratuitous sermonizing. It’s important to draw the core ideas from each author’s work, and to ignore the extraneous information. Don’t let the author’s viewpoint prevent you from seeing the good he has to offer.

Suspend judgment

I’ve found that with personal finance books, it is often crucial to suspend judgment until you’ve read the entire book. Earlier today I reviewed The 4-Hour Workweek. If I had been unwilling to suspend judgment, I would have set the book aside after the first twenty pages. Or when I reached the section on automation, I would have condemned the whole book for those weak chapters. Instead, I made a point to finish it, and, along the way, to look for the things that applied to me. In the end, the good outweighed the bad, and by a wide margin.

Next week I’ll review Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity. This is a rare book that I strongly dislike — I think it contains too much dogma and not enough actionable information. But when I began to read the book in Ireland, it amazed me. The first ten or twenty pages were great. I raved about the book to Kris. My enthusiasm died, however, as I discovered the book was less about voluntary simplicity and more about the author’s political agenda. Don’t judge a book until you’ve finished it.

Look for the good parts

It’s almost always possible to get something constructive from a book you dislike. In the case of Voluntary Simplicity, the first chapter is worth reading and worth sharing with those who are interested. Also, rather than cast aside the entire simplicity movement because of one lame book, I did further research. I found additional articles on the subject, and even found an online book with lots of great tips. (You’ll have to wait a week to see it, though.)

Even the best books have weaknesses. For example, many people have noted that the investment advice in Your Money or Your Life is dated, and not applicable to today’s financial markets. Yet it would be a mistake to discard the book based on this single flaw. YMoYL is one of the best personal finance books I’ve read. It’s easy enough to mentally substitute alternate investment advice to replace that which is in the book. (Also, as I mentioned last week, a little digging on the web reveals that co-author Vicki Robin has published revised advice.)

Read synoptically

As you read a personal finance book, pause to compare similar passages in other books. When you read Dave Ramsey’s recommendation to build a $1,000 emergency fund, research what other authors advise. When you read Robert Kiyosaki‘s advice that the mutual funds are for losers, find out what other experts have written on the subject. Once you’ve compared sources, return to the book you were reading.

Don’t be afraid to look things up. If you don’t understand a term, hit the web. Google is your friend. Read with a pen and a piece of paper. If you own the book, make notes in the margins and underline important passages. If the book is borrowed, use sticky notes to mark places you’d like to re-read or to share with your spouse.

Know thyself

Reading can be an excellent way to broaden your understanding of personal finance, but to get the most out of a book, you must be an active participant. You know better than anyone where your financial strengths and weaknesses lie. As you read, watch for advice that will help you to achieve your goals, and don’t let the other stuff distract you.

For those interested in this subject, I recommend How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This is a classic text for serious readers. I intend to read again shortly.

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