When a student of mine recently asked for a reading list that could help satiate her budding interest in the intersection of money and life, I was pleasantly surprised and inspired to aggregate a list of titles that met the following criteria:
1) Not boring
2) Not long
3) Not salesy
As you may have suspected, these criteria ruled out the vast majority of those books written in the subject matter, and forced me to expand my search well beyond prescriptive how-to books. The list is bookended with two novels, but every entry utilizes a fair amount of narrative to communicate its message. This is vitally important, because regardless of how much the financial industry lobbies to make your financial peace contingent on its proprietary products and processes, personal finance will always be more personal than it is finance:
Master storyteller, Jim Stovall, has sold over 4 million copies of this book that was turned into a movie and spawned a series of associated books and movies (one of which was co-authored by yours truly). The original is a novel about a billionaire who dies and attempts to save his grand-nephew from destroying his own life with money. Although it was never intended to do so, The Ultimate Gift attracted a cult-like following among financial, estate and tax advisors who bought the book en masse to give away as…gifts, pun intended.
Simplifying and Downsizing
Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money
This book is written by a good friend of mine, Carl Richards, who, in additional to being a great financial planner, also writes for The New York Times. He uses simple drawings to distill the complexities of personal finance in a way that is practical and approachable.
You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap)
This book is written by Tammy Strobel, a woman who previously worked in the financial services industry and then went on a quest to radically simplify her life. I doubt that many of us will take it to the extreme that Tammy has, but if you could take just a few of her principles into account as you craft your existence, I think you’d get more out of money and life.
Need your butt kicked into financial shape? This book, by radio/TV superstar, Dave Ramsey, is my first recommendation for people who are in trouble with debt. Dave’s message has helped thousands (millions?) get out of debt and live true financial freedom. And even if you’re not in debt, this book helps lay out a foundation for making sure you stay that way, save enough and keep your priorities straight. Dave tends to oversimplify some financial disciplines to a fault—like investing—but nobody gives a better kick in the pants to those ready to receive it.
You don’t have to like chicken sandwiches to enjoy this book—and even have it change your financial life. Truett Cathy is the 90-something founder of uber-successful fast food giant, Chick-fil-A, and while he does have a tendency to sermonize, he does so lovingly, and heck, he’s earned it. (You can read my review of the book and hear an interview I conducted with Mr. Cathy by clicking HERE.) In addition to much of his own wisdom, he shares feedback he’s received personally from other notable luminaries, like a guy named Warren Buffett, whom I’ve heard knows a few things about money as well.
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
This book, written by Michael Lewis (bestselling author of Moneyball, The Blind Side and others) is the best explanation of how the financial crisis really played out that you’ll likely find. And because he’s an amazing author, it’s also very entertaining. Please be aware that this is Rated R for language—the default vernacular under the pin-striped exterior of the financial industry. (You can read more of my thoughts on this book HERE.)
Reminiscences of a Stock Operator
This book may be considered THE classic on security trading, but while it is the most technical of my selections, it’s actually a novel based on the life of famed trader, Jesse Livermore. [Spoiler alert] The hero actually died—at his own hand—virtually penniless after making and losing at least four fortunes. But while this book was written as a cautionary tale, many in the financial industry have strangely deified it, still handing it to new recruits as a how-to. The morale of the story, in my opinion, is actually that beating the market is exceedingly difficult and that the voracious pursuit of money leads to, at best, a big pile of money and at worst, death. Although it’s a great deal longer, I do recommend the annotated edition by Jon D. Markman, which embeds this fascinating story in historical context.
Life Planning—The Most Important Part of Financial Planning
This is a very short book—more like a manifesto—by a guy named Derek Sivers. Derek was a rock star who started a company, CD Baby, to help musicians sell their music online. It became huge and he sold it for millions of bucks…but he donated all the proceeds to charity and moved on to his next project [insert screeching record sound]. You’ll love this short volume.
Chris Guillebeau is a lifestyle/travel blogger—not a personal finance guy—but this is a great book for opening your eyes to the type of career and life you want to have.
Speaking of non-conformity, meet Tim Ferriss. This book has turned into a phenomenon and a “4 Hour” series by Tim Ferriss. Read it and you’ll see why.
Let’s finish up with a break from all that wisdom and practical advice to enjoy this brilliant re-telling of a true-story in novel form. This is really a book about greed and spiritual awakening, co-told by an adulterous big-shot art dealer and a homeless man. This will break your heart…and then warm it. Enjoy.
Oh, and I almost forgot…
Yes, the one financial book that every one of my students is required to read[i] I did co-author, with the aforementioned Jim Stovall. It’s intended to walk you through a comprehensive personal financial plan in the spirit of The Ultimate Gift’s timeless truth with timely applications you can use to the benefit of your todays and tomorrows, personally and financially.
Most of these books are pretty short and fast reads—I’ve got a touch of (depending on who you talk to) A.D.D. and it takes a really gripping book for me to make it through, but all of these passed the test! I’d love to hear your thoughts if and when you read any of these, as well as your suggestions to be added to this list that meet the three criteria.
[i] The other required text for my class is the Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the short classic writing/grammar book, because one thing most educational institutions forget to tell their students is that if you can’t communicate well, your degree is WORTHLESS!