When Helaine Olen was first hired to write about personal finance for the Los Angeles Times in 1996, she was certain she’d be called out as an imposter. After all, she knew nothing about the subject. Instead, she quickly became the lead writer for the newspaper’s Money Makeover series, and she realized something about the world of personal finance: it was easy to position oneself as an expert without much knowledge at all. In her solidly written exposé Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry (Portfolio), Olen paints an unsettling portrait of an industry that often peddles myths and misperceptions—at a high cost to everyday people.
In the introduction to Pound Foolish, you refer to “the financialization of our lives.” What do you mean by that?
The idea that we are expected to know so much about various financial instruments—and that it would be important to possess that knowledge—is a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, there really wasn’t that much to know. People had checking and savings accounts, maybe some life insurance. If they owned a home, they had a 30-year fixed mortgage. That was it. When I was born in the mid-1960s, the credit card was less than 10 years old, and many people still didn’t have one—in fact, a married woman would not have the right to her own credit for almost another decade. There were no ATM machines, adjustable rate mortgages, discount brokerages, day traders, or 401(k)s. The financial services industry assumed a huge role in our day-to-day existence over a rather short period of time, and that’s what I mean by the phrase “the financialization of our lives.”
What lies at the root of all the erroneous financial advice that you cover in Pound Foolish? Is the subject of personal finance being overcomplicated or oversimplified?
Can I answer “both”? In one sense, personal finance is quite easy. Of course, you should try to live within your means, and save for emergencies and retirement. The concept behind a mutual fund is not hard to understand. On the other hand, personal finance can be quite complicated, often deliberately so. Why is everything, from financial prospectuses to mortgage origination documents, presented in dozens of small print, single-spaced, hard-to-understand legalese? You think someone might not want you to read or understand all that material? And, of course, it’s hard because even if you can figure all this out, there is still no real right answer to how to handle your monies unless you have an ability to foresee the future.
You note that a lot of financial advice is directed at women, based on the idea that women have a “fraught relationship” with money. Why do you think that idea is so widely propagated?
The truth about women and money is that we earn less and live longer than men. Pretty much everything that’s different about how women and men approach and handle money can be explained by those two facts. But that’s not the sort of truth that’s going to get a woman to turn to someone—and I mean anyone or anything, from a financial adviser to a book—for advice. And we know that women are more likely than men to seek out the services of a financial professional. So the industry has an incentive to propagate the idea that we need special help, even when the truth is that both sexes are quite financially ignorant.
Do you think there’s something particularly American about believing that everyone can become wealthy if they just invest properly? Does this kind of personal finance industry exist in other countries?
Oh, yes, there is something very American about this. Why do we believe anyone can get ahead? I think I could write a whole other book on this topic, but one of my suspicions is that it goes back to how this country was settled. The vast majority of us (and I obviously exempt African-Americans here) are descendants of people who came to this country because they were convinced if they did, they would do better. So we imbibe this belief system from birth; it’s part of our culture. To question the idea that anyone can become wealthy is to question the American dream, as it exists, not just in the United States, but also around the world. As to the second part of the question, yes, the personal finance industry exists elsewhere. Suze Orman, for instance, has a large following in South Africa. But Americans seem more loathe to question what I call the cult of personal finance. If you fail financially, we are much more likely to think it is your fault than people in other countries.
What should people do to get a better handle on their finances? Is it even possible?
The answer is yes and no. Of course we can get a better handle on our finances. None of us is perfect. Some things are almost ridiculously easy. I love apps and e-mail reminders that send out automatic pings a few days before various bills are due. I admit Mint.com has saved me more than once from late payment fees. On the other hand, we need to accept that simply getting a handle on our finances is not enough to ensure nothing will go wrong for us financially. No one plans to lose a job or get cancer. Nor can any of us predict how our investments will turn out. Bad things do happen to the most disciplined and virtuous of savers and investors.