Is Most Personal Finance Advice Useless? Author Exposes Industry’s ‘Dark Side’

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Jim Cramer from CNBC's financial program, Mad Money.

According to a new book digging into the curious history and modern-day big business of personal finance, much of the advice doled out by “experts” in books, on Oprah Winfrey‘s couch, and on their own TV shows is simplistic, misleading, contradictory, or otherwise useless.

Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, and Jim Cramer are among the boldface-name financial gurus who are skewered in Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, the new book by Helaine Olen, a New York City-based journalist and former personal finance columnist herself. The book was recently described by the New York Times as “a take-no-prisoners examination of the ways she says we have been scared, misled or bamboozled by those purporting to help us achieve financial security.”

Below, Olen answers our queries about her new book, the state of financial literacy, and the worst personal finance advice she’s ever heard, among other things:

TIME: Many of the critiques in the book concerning personal finance gurus involve the way they spread the (unfair) message that basically says: If you’re not rich, it’s your own damn fault. Look in the mirror rather than blaming the economy, health emergencies, job layoffs, or any outside circumstances. But sometimes, isn’t it largely the individual’s fault that he or she is deeply in debt or hasn’t saved a penny for retirement? What about the people whose closets are overflowing with rarely or never-worn clothes, and the families with smartphone bills over $300 a month?
Helaine Olen: Our salaries are stagnating or falling, and our net worth plunged by 40% between 2007 and 2010. That didn’t happen because people had a $300 a month smartphone bill. Give me a break. Are there financially irresponsible people out there? Of course there are. Always have been, always will be. But if we are going to tell people to look in the mirror, we need to take a hard look at the precariousness of American life and the predatory nature of our financial institutions as well.

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After all your research and experience covering the world of personal finance, what’s the worst — or perhaps just most misleading — piece of advice you’ve ever heard from an “expert”? What’s the worst product you’ve ever seen recommended?

This is hard for two reasons. First, advice rarely comes in a one-size-fits-all variety. What’s right for one person might well be wrong for another. Second, there is so much ghastly advice out there! I mean, where to start? Buy multiple houses with little money down? Use your funds to take part in options and FOREX trading schemes that promise riches? Don’t declare bankruptcy?

My main argument is less with the specific bad advice, and the fact that we are being told that if we live responsibly, and follow the advice of various gurus or personal finance columnists, we will be fine if we encounter an economic ill wind. That’s just not true. I wish it were.

The book discusses the dismal state of financial literacy in the country, and the many shortcomings of financial literacy classes. Do you think financial literacy is really getting worse? Or is it that the products and contracts — and life in general — are growing more complicated?

As Steve Utkus at Vanguard’s Center for Retirement Research told me, there never was a golden age of financial literacy. There was just a lot less to know and a lot less ways to get in trouble. Most people had a basic savings account, a fixed-rate mortgage, maybe some life insurance – and no one was surveying them to know if they understood that stuff. As I always say, the year I was born, the credit card was less than ten years old and a married woman had no right to her own. There were no ATM machines, adjustable rate mortgages, or 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts. Brokerage costs were fixed and, needless to say, the concept of day trading was unheard of.

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Needless to say, our financial lives have grown more complex and complicated since then. The mystery isn’t why people’s financial literacy is so low. It’s that we ever expected it would be better.

Related issue: Do you think the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is on the right track, in terms of trying to simplify legalese and eliminate “gotcha” products? What areas would you like to see the CFPB step up its game?

I applaud any effort to end financial bafflegab, as the late Sylvia Porter used to call it. But sometimes disclosure isn’t enough and the CFPB can’t do it alone. One of the major problems out there is the never-ending fight by the Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Labor (which has jurisdiction over retirement plans) to expand the fiduciary standard that is the idea that a financial “adviser” needs to act in our best interests. The vast majority of so-called advisers are, in reality, glorified stock and insurance salesmen with a duty to direct their clients to financial instruments that are merely “suitable,’ a rather loose standard that leads to all sorts of less-than-ideal advice.

While your book is focused mainly on the industry’s boldface names (Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, etc.), there are a huge number of personal finance bloggers out there, some with substantial followings. These are folks who might not have much, if any, real experience with finance at all. Are you worried about the advice and overall message they’re spreading as well?

Obviously, there are better and worse personal finance bloggers out there – and let me take this moment to put in a plug for my favorite on-again, off-again blogger, the pseudonymous Frank Curmudgeon at Bad Money Advice — Come back, Frank! I miss you!

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However, I think very few of the personal finance bloggers hold themselves out as experts. Instead, most are attempting to share their journey and, if some of them glorify gurus like Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey, so do some in the more traditional, mainstream media. My greater concern is that at least some of them are so wedded to the concept of self-help that they are blaming the victim for greater economic trends.

Finally, a common critique about the tips passed on by Jim Cramer, Orman, and others is that they’re far too simplistic and don’t stand the test of time. But do you know of any fairly simple, time-tested guidelines the average person should be following to help avoid financial ruin? If yes, could you share?

There is no one tip that is going to save you. That’s the point of my book! Obviously, living within your means and saving as much money as possible will greatly improve your chances of a good financial outcome, but even that’s not a guarantee. And, moreover, that’s a lot easier to do if you are a multi-millionaire personal finance guru, than if you are, for example, someone working a minimum wage retail job that’s highly unlikely to come with a predictable schedule or health insurance.