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Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry [Hardcover]

Helaine Olen
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 1 2013
If you’ve ever bought a personal finance book, watched a TV show about stock picking, listened to a radio show about getting out of debt, or attended a seminar to help you plan for your retirement, you’ve probably heard some version of these quotes:
“What’s keeping you from being rich? In most cases, it is simply a lack of belief.” —SUZE ORMAN, The Courage to Be Rich
“Are you latte-ing away your financial future?” —DAVID BACH, Smart Women Finish Rich
“I know you’re capable of picking winning stocks and holding on to them.” —JIM CRAMER, Mad Money
They’re common refrains among personal finance gurus. There’s just one problem: those and many simi­lar statements are false.
For the past few decades, Americans have spent billions of dollars on personal finance products. As salaries have stagnated and companies have cut back on benefits, we’ve taken matters into our own hands, embracing the can-do attitude that if we’re smart enough, we can overcome even daunting financial obstacles. But that’s not true.
In this meticulously reported and shocking book, journalist and former financial columnist Helaine Olen goes behind the curtain of the personal finance industry to expose the myths, contradictions, and outright lies it has perpetuated. She shows how an industry that started as a response to the Great Depression morphed into a behemoth that thrives by selling us products and services that offer little if any help.
Olen calls out some of the biggest names in the business, revealing how even the most respected gurus have engaged in dubious, even deceitful, prac­tices—from accepting payments from banks and corporations in exchange for promoting certain prod­ucts to blaming the victims of economic catastrophe for their own financial misfortune. Pound Foolish also disproves many myths about spending and saving, including:
  • Small pleasures can bankrupt you: Gurus popular­ized the idea that cutting out lattes and other small expenditures could make us millionaires. But reduc­ing our caffeine consumption will not offset our biggest expenses: housing, education, health care, and retirement.
  • Disciplined investing will make you rich: Gurus also love to show how steady investing can turn modest savings into a huge nest egg at retirement. But these calculations assume a healthy market and a lifetime without any setbacks—two conditions that have no connection to the real world.
  • Women need extra help managing money: Product pushers often target women, whose alleged financial ignorance supposedly leaves them especially at risk. In reality, women and men are both terrible at han­dling finances.
  • Financial literacy classes will prevent future eco­nomic crises: Experts like to claim mandatory sessions on personal finance in school will cure many of our money ills. Not only is there little evidence this is true, the entire movement is largely funded and promoted by the financial services sector.
Weaving together original reporting, interviews with experts, and studies from disciplines ranging from behavioral economics to retirement planning, Pound Foolish is a compassionate and compelling book that will change the way we think and talk about our money.

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“It's rare to come across a realistic and readable book about personal finance. Most are laden with rosy promises, followed by acronyms and turgid advice. Helaine Olen, a freelance journalist, offers an exception with Pound Foolish.... It’s 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.”
The New York Times
“Have you ever met anyone who has grown rich just by saving? Probably not. But you may well have met someone who has grown rich looking after other people’s savings. That dark secret lies at the heart of ‘Pound Foolish’, Helaine Olen’s excellent book, a contemptuous exposé of the American personal-finance industry.”
The Economist

“A cautionary tale that you need to read.”
The Washington Post
“Dishy dirt on the ‘financialization’ of American life and the hordes of carrion-pickers who swarm us in the hope of lifting still more dollars from our pockets.”
“This thought-provoking book alerts us to important issues in today’s post-recession economy.”

“A highly readable antidote to the snake oil of the personal finance industry. Suze Orman, watch out!”
GREG CRITSER, author of Fat Land
“Wow, does personal financial advice need debunking. And Helaine Olen does it like an old master. Clear, witty, takes no prisoners, and right as hell. Olen will wake you up. There is no financial trick to make you rich.”
JEFF MADRICK, author of The Age of Greed and senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute
“Helaine Olen explains in simple language why most Americans are never going to understand the myriad complexities of investing and borrowing, leaving us all vulnerable to being ripped off in oh so many ways. Combining thorough research with passionate writing, Pound Foolish tells us what to do to protect ourselves and our hard-earned money.”
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Fine Print
“As Helaine Olen shows in this powerful exposé, ‘personal finance’ is the ultimate oxymoron. The financial challenges that most Americans face are not simply personal—they reflect the failure of our polices and our leaders to tackle growing middle-class insecurity. And the advice that self-proclaimed money experts provide is far from sound finance. Too often, it’s snake oil that only adds to the problem.”
JACOB S. HACKER, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University, and author of The Great Risk Shift
Pound Foolish is a fabulously well-reported, lucid, and witty tour of the train wreck that American finance has become. Olen has the rare ability to demystify the countless swindles and frauds that lately comprise the basic operations of the investment scene. As a kind of bonus, she depicts with verve and intelligence the panoramic freak show of personalities who infest the money scene.”
JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER, author of The Geography of Nowhere and Too Much Magic
“In this gripping account, Helaine Olen pulls out the rug from under the finance industry, and does so in time for at least some of us to find alternative solutions to financial security.”
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, author of Life Inc. and Present Shock
“The world of personal finance is an economic sideshow filled with illusionists, conjurers, and snake-oil salesmen of every stripe. Thankfully, Helaine Olen has spent enough time inside the circus to be able to guide us wisely and wittily through the hall of mirrors—and come out smarter on the other end.”
JAMES LEDBETTER, opinion editor, Reuters, and author of Unwarranted Influence
“The cult of ‘personal finance’ sells itself—and preys on pocketbooks—with a wildly false message: that American middle class families only have themselves to blame for their economic troubles. With wit, simple math, and relentless sleuthing, Helaine Olen shows how the personal finance industry has led savers and investors astray, and what you can do to avoid its traps.”
ALYSSA KATZ, author of Our Lot

About the Author

HELAINE OLEN is a free­lance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Forbes, Business­Week, and elsewhere. She wrote and edited the popu­lar Money Makeover series in the Los Angeles Times. She lives in New York City with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @helaineolen.

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
While this book refers mainly to the details,costs and value of financial advice from money managers and self-styled experts in the US, the information is absolutely applicable to the Canadian scene.
It demonstrates,using many examples, that most of the advice from professional financial advisors is designed to lock the client into a variety of funds that provide the advisors and their companies with the highest possible ongoing income and eats up most of the profit that the client should be earning from his or her investments.
The book demonstrates particularly well how poorly women are treated. They are held in low esteem by the financial professionals and their ability to manage their own money is scorned, though this position is entirely unsupported by any hard data.
It is fun to read and will be appreciated by investors who manage their own funds; though I suspect it will confirm what they already believe .
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Rob Slaven TOP 50 REVIEWER
I received this book as part of a GoodReads drawing. Despite that kind consideration I give my candid feedback below.

The simple premise of this little treatise is to tear everything you know about finance limb from limb. All the rot designed to help you with money from self-help to Dave Ramsey to the latest stock market guru is nothing but a fraud designed to get you to pay for something. Anybody who claims to know something you don't is just selling something.

The author has a point and she very skillfully illuminates it for us. She methodically goes from one financial fad to the next and very neatly deconstructs them. She's even polite enough to tear everything down and at the end NOT really present us with an answer. There are some liberal leanings in which she suggests that government regulation is the real answer to our problems but even that, she admits, isn't a panacea.

To summarize, since I have little else to say, Pound Foolish happily tells us all what we long ago suspected about the financial services industry. Nobody really knows the answer to how to get rich excepting through an inordinate amount of faith in straight up luck or perhaps getting your own talk show to sell your wares. The book is at times rather ponderous and redundant but ultimately informative with its most important take-away being the attitude of realism which accompanies it rather than any specific detail the author provides.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eye opening March 29 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I used to work in the financial industry, and after reading this, I felt dirty. During that time, you are fed the hype and you believe you have the elixer to solve all the clients' problems. But after some years and not really seeing people's lives improving, I got out of the business. So after reading this book, I feel more vindicated about my decision to get out.
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By Stephen Pletko TOP 50 REVIEWER

"[This book] will tell the story of how we were sold on a dream--a dream that personal finance had almost magical abilities, that it could compensate for stagnate salaries, income inequality, and a society that offered a shorter and thinner safety net with each passing year.

[This] book will tell the tale of how that fantasy was sold to us by people, organizations, and businesses that had a vested monetary interest in selling to us.

Finally, it will tell the story of how we allowed ourselves to be convinced that the personal finance and investment industrial complex would save our collective financial souls--and what comes next, now that it is clear it never could."

The above is found in the introduction of this informative and shocking book by Helaine Olen. She is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several major newspapers and magazines such as "The New York Times" and "Forbes."

I think this book's title should be explained. The phrase "pound foolish" alludes to William Shakespeare's play "The Merchant of Venice" (written circa 1595).

The stand-out character in this famous play is "Shylock," a person shrewd in his business dealings. At the beginning of this play, Shylock agrees to lend some money without interest to Antonia (a Venetian merchant) under one condition: Antonio must sign a bond that stipulates that after a specific time has elapsed that "the forfeit [of the bond] be nominated for an equal pound of [Antonio`s] fair flesh to be cut off and taken in what part of [Antonio`s] body that pleaseth [Shylock]." Antonio foolishly signs the bond since he's confident he will be able to pay back the loan within the specified time period.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Believer in the EMH May 6 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I have a background in finance but found the book to be insightful in that you never really learn the darker side when you study such things in school. The book turns most of what is taught to Investment Advisor (or what theyre told to tell you) on its head. It also also confirmed some of my deep seeded beliefs such as the Efficient Market Hypothesis and what goes on behind the scenes of the investment industry.
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