Michelle Singletary: Financial-advice gurus: Whom can you trust?

Posted: January 09, 2013

WITH ALL THE financial-advice gurus on TV and the Internet these days, how do you know whom to believe? Now comes a book urging caution about everyone from best-selling personal-finance authors to financial advisers to the sponsors behind financial-literacy initiatives.

The book is by Helaine Olen, a former personal-finance journalist for the Los Angeles Times. Financial information sold and even given away comes under scrutiny in her book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry (Portfolio, $27.95).

Olen writes that personal finance has gone "from aid to ideology, with practitioners certain that if we could teach people the right skills, they would get it right ... We believed the mantra that if you lived a good, healthy financial life, success would be yours. Bad things didn't happen to good savers and investors."

Except that this wasn't true for many people.

"We lost jobs at inopportune times, made ill-advised investments, or suffered health crises that no amount of planning could predict," she says. "Bad things did happen to good savers and investors. No amount of personal initiative and savvy could guarantee anyone an exemption from broader negative economic and social trends."

Starting with a history of Sylvia Porter, a columnist for the New York Post who started writing "breezy and easy-to-understand" personal-finance columns in the 1930s, Olen quickly moves forward in time to critique the self-help advice doled out by Suze Orman, David Bach, Dave Ramsey and Robert Kiyosaki. Even Porter was not without critics, who took issue with her simplification of complex topics, Olen writes.

Some other Olen observations:

* On what she calls the Tao of Suze: "As our collective finances got tighter over the first decade of the millennium, Orman's New Age-oriented financial advice became increasingly hectoring."

* About Bach, author of The Automatic Millionaire: "According to him, the Starbucks latte is one of the leading sources of our money woes."

* On Ramsey: "Debt is Ramsey's latte factor, his claim to fame. Ramsey's take on borrowing money is both simple and extreme. Just say no. No to credit cards, 30-year mortgages, home equity lines, car loans, and anything else that permits you to live beyond your means."

* On Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad Poor Dad, which advocated getting rich through real-estate investing: "Kiyosaki's not howling at you for being in debt like Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, and David Bach are. He's howling at you for being in the wrong sort of debt. Greed is good, he tells us."

But even Olen writes that we have to talk about money. "When it comes to money, the vast majority of us are nuts ... We engage in so many self-defeating behaviors it's impossible to list them. We don't open our 401(k) statements. We 'forget' to pay our bills or file our taxes until the last minute."

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