Green shoots of hope: 5 great books for women on money and what they get right

Books on finance seem to be an evergreen source of advice and wisdom. About one in every five households reported relying on media including books for information to guide their financial actions and decisions. Yet, when one wades through the huge number of books on money whether they are targeted at women or not, it’s hard to find the few that stand out by taking a truly innovative and effective approach to an admittedly complex and intimidating topic.

Here then is my roundup of five books that stood out specifically because of something fresh they brought to the table, in a way that is especially helpful to women dealing with money. Surprise! Only one of them is targeted specifically to women. The books follow an order roughly from the most tactical and beginner-friendly to the more philosophical and strategic (but never overly complex)

The top 5

The Financial Diet: A Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Good with Money – Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage

Coming in at the top of the list is this charmingly written beginner’s guide to everything money by the founder of The Financial Diet site and YouTube channel. The book is disarming from the get-go, and gets the reader in a “let’s-chat-over-coffee” mood instantly, with Ms. Fagan detailing her own adventures with money and her education over money matters in frank and humorous terms. It’s hard not to relate to her life experiences with making mistakes aplenty even if you haven’t made just those precise mistakes yourself.

The book is explicit in targeting fresh graduates and young adults and is written in a style that’s likely to engage women more than men, although it’s not targeted at women.

What this book gets right:

  • Use of eye-catching graphics layout to remove the typical sense of anxiety, tedium and boredom typically expected in a book about finance.
  • Chapter organization into topics that are more intuitive to the human mind; for example, budget, investing, career, food, home.
  • Short, to-the-point, non-threatening and actionable.

Bonus recommendation: Ms. Fagan seems to have cracked the winning code with young women even more with her YouTube channel also of the same name. The channel now boasts more than half a million subscribers, and is an excellently organized resource with short and tight videos on a wide variety of financial and semi-financial topics.

The Infographic Guide to Personal Finance – Michele Cagan and Elisabeth Lariviere

Continuing the theme of easy-on-the-eye, visual approaches, “The Infographic Guide to Personal Finance” was the only infographic-themed book that I was able to locate in my search. Written by a CPA with excellent support from the design artist, the book makes light work of getting across key concepts from compound interest all the way to portfolio allocation – quite a feat. And it manages to do this all in a lighthearted yet friendly and informative way that had me at least waiting to crack open a fresh new notebook and a newly sharpened pencil to start getting my finances in shape! Best of all, this book is aimed at a general audience, making it useful and informative across the board.

While the book may not be sufficient in itself to manage the entire spectrum of one’s financial life, it’s supremely effective in getting someone who’s diffident and nervous to take their first tentative steps on the journey.

What this book gets right:

  • Infographics, infographics, infographics – enough said!
  • Effectively combines the “what” of topics, as well as the “how-to” in an effective and easily readable format
  • Covers even topics that are not strictly “personal finance” but will have a significant financial impact in your life. For example, not only does the book talk about mortgage loans, but also provides tips on how to safeguard yourself when making a home purchase.

Smart Women Love Money: 5 simple, life-changing rules of investing – Alice Finn

Moving up the experience and complexity spectrum, we come to the best book I have yet encountered specifically on the topic of investing. Many of the books I have read on the topic tend to one of two directions: dumbing it down so much in an “us-girls” tone as to border being irritating, or skirting the topic completely and talking about important, but less impactful topics such as budgeting, saving money etc., or at best, providing extremely basic and non-actionable advice on the topic. “Smart Women Love Money” is a refreshing change from both of these approaches, and devotes itself solely to the topic of long-term investing.

Written by an experienced and well-recognized industry insider, this book gracefully balances the theoretical robustness of established approaches such as indexing and portfolio asset allocation, while yet forcefully and powerfully addressing the unique vulnerabilities and risks unique to women, as for example, the reluctance to invest in “risky” equity assets. Best of all, the book boils down effective investing to 5 simple and “Pareto principle”-friendly rules that can get anyone started with investing, regardless of how inexperienced or apprehensive they are.

What this book gets right:

  • Founded on solid theoretical principles that emphasize low-cost approaches like indexing, and portfolio allocation and re-balancing
  • Emphasizes specific areas of risk for women, such as low presence in equity asset classes
  • Boils down a complex topic into 5 easy-to-grasp rules without losing the essence of an effective investment strategy

The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things With Money – Carl Richards

Ahh, behavioral finance. The challenge with most investment and finance advice is that most if not all of it sounds outstanding on paper, but is very hard for real humans to carry out. This is not just because of laziness or an unwillingness to act either. As we have seen in a prior post, invisible behavioral biases exert a very powerful and almost impossible-to-counteract effect on human behavior. And perhaps no area is as much at risk as the area of personal finances because most “rational” actions require us to negate or oppose this natural hardwiring in some way or other.

The Behavior Gap takes this risk head on, and in a pithy, engaging and very actionable way, provides ten simple (not easy) guidelines to circumvent or co-opt our natural human biases to maximize our financial wellbeing. Carl Richards, the author, is a financial planner and has written other books as well, but this is my favorite because of the choice of topic, its readability, and special relevance to women.

One of the best aspects of the book is the literal “back-of-a-napkin” graphics to illustrate and reinforce not only traditional finance concepts like risk and reward, but also key behavioral rules, such as the relationship between “Chance a fund will stink” and its expense ratio! hard to put a book like this down.

What this book gets right:

  • Enough can never be said about the KISS principle – this book follows that principle almost to a fault, but never loses the bite of its message
  • Covers the findings of academic research, explains their relevance and weaves them into the action tips at the end of each chapter
  • Conversational, friendly and personable tone that women value highly and look for in their financial advice sources

The Geometry of Wealth – Brian Portnoy

Of the tens of thousands of books published on the topic of money, and its various sub-chapters including, How to Make It, How to Keep It, How Not to Lose it, and How to Make It Grow, few attempt, leave alone successfully, to integrate money with the larger picture of a life well-lived. One of the best books I have found on the topic is “The Geometry of Wealth”. Written by Brian Portnoy, who has had an interesting journey starting from being an academic, to an investor, and then back to an educator, this book brilliantly and gracefully connects the dots between money, meaning, contentment and a life well- lived.

Using the simple elegance of three elementary geometric shapes, a circle, a triangle and rectangle, the book weaves together a satisfying and effective approach from the “Why” (Purpose), through the “What”(Priorities) all the way to the “How” (Tactics). The underlying thread that the author seeks to keep consistent at all times is the relationship between two fraught topics: money and happiness. The book is an elucidation into each of these three important topics, with context, background, as well as actionable advice to help the reader implement it all into their own lives.

What this book gets right:

  • It’s been shown repeatedly that goals, purpose and values are extremely important to women in any conversation about money, and that most money conversations that don’t focus on these topics are likely to derail quickly. This book nails purpose head on, ensuring that women fully understand and enthusiastically engage in the rest of the journey, because the burning question has been addressed upfront.
  • Informed, educated but extremely friendly and accessible tone that’s likely to appeal to women and address one of their biggest beefs with the finance industry – the jargon and condescension.
  • Incorporates research from psychology as well as finance for a holistic and satisfying look at what’s needed to get the role of money right in a well-lived and meaningful life – a one-stop-shop for money AND life.

So what: the space is still wide open

There are undoubtedly many more books and sources to help different types and personalities of women (and men) get their financial lives together and on firmer footing. Yet, what even this cursory review has shown is that it’s still inexcusably difficult for already-overextended women to search, evaluate, find, read and then to implement all this great advice in addition to managing all the other complexities in their lives. Sources that integrate, simplify and make actionable sound financial advice in a palatable, friendly and accessible way will meet a huge and unaddressed need to contribute significantly to the financial well-being of millions of these women.

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