For decades, the conventional wisdom about personal finance has rested on a strong message of self-deprivation: if you’re in debt, the narrative goes, it’s because you’re spending on frivolities and neglecting necessities. A bevy of new books posit that this thinking is out of touch in a world where student debt has spiraled out of control and home ownership is out of reach for many, and where valid anxiety about money spurs some to make poor financial decisions.
It’s the system, stupid
The days of personal finance gurus admonishing their acolytes to brew coffee at home are over. “A lot of personal finance books are really frustrating,” says Emily Wunderlich, senior editor at Viking. “They push personal discipline and grit, white-knuckling your way to managing your money, and make assumptions about how much money people make or spend. They leave a lot of people out.” Her acquisition Finance for the People (Penguin Life, Feb. 2022), which Paco de Leon, founder of the financial firm the Hell Yeah Group, wrote for creatives and freelancers, “takes into account a more diverse set of financial circumstances. A lot of the ‘habits’ other books mention are short-term; this is about feelings and beliefs. We’re all weird about money. This is about untangling those weirdnesses to help you live better.”
Several editors PW spoke with for this feature touched on the fact that financial challenges aren’t created in a vacuum; systemic issues have an enormous impact on how we earn, spend, invest, and save. Condescending advice about tracking pennies falls flat in an era when the dollars are out of reach.
“The days of personal finance books offering platitudes that are supposed to work for everybody—the coffee thing—are over,” says Kate Zimmerman, senior editor at Sterling. In Financial First Aid (Apr. 2022), Alyssa Davies, author of The 100-Day Financial Goal Journal, “acknowledges the systemic issues that people are dealing with, the difficulty of finding steady employment, the precarity of the gig economy, the difficulty of finding health insurance if you’re a freelancer, the expense of childcare.”
Many of these systemic problems disproportionately affect women. “There are so many forces in the world that make women feel like they’re not good with money,” says Helen Healey, editor at Portfolio. “Can you really blame people for falling prey to the insane financial system we live in?” Healey acquired Kumiko Love’s My Money, My Way (Feb. 2022), based on the author’s self-published budget planners, which, she notes, have sold more than 140,000 copies in total.
Love seeks to help women understand the emotional components of their financial troubles, and to use that understanding to get out of debt and spend their money in a way that’s meaningful to them. “Some of the universal-standard finance authors make readers feel that they’re the problem,” Healey says. “Miko makes them feel like they’re the solution.”
Like Love, Kimberlee Davis found herself struggling after her divorce when she had to provide for her children alone. “Women’s financial situations have always been tenuous as compared to men’s,” says Ariel Curry, who worked as a developmental editor on Davis’s Power to the Purse (Wonderwell, May 2022). “And even more so now; 80% of the people who’ve left the workforce during Covid are women.” Davis’s advice: don’t let someone else own your financial future.
A first step toward financial peace can be talking openly about financial fear and anxiety. Women Talk Money (Mar. 2022), an anthology edited by Rebecca Walker and containing essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom and Alice Walker, among others, offers women writers of many races and gender identities the opportunity to share the reality of their situations. “Even in 2021, women are uncomfortable speaking openly about money,” says Simon & Schuster assistant editor Hana Park. “This collection seeks to dispel shame and break that barrier.”
It’s my bank balance, and I’ll cry if I want to
Understanding the emotional roots of money troubles is the first step toward resolving them, according to financial therapist Bari Tessler, author of The Art of Money Workbook, a June release from Shambhala. “There’s a lot of fear and confusion around money,” says Beth Frankl, executive editor at Shambhala. “This book uses the reader’s relationship with money as a training ground for compassion, confidence and self-worth.”
By contrast, Matthew Partridge, senior writer at the U.K.’s MoneyWeek magazine, suggests that removing emotion from investment decisions can be the key to wise investing. In Investing Explained, which Kogan Page is publishing in February, he “talks about behavioral psychology, and how readers can take advantage and profit from the irrational behavior of others,” says Isabelle Cheng, senior commissioning editor at Kogan Page.
Nick Amphlett, who edited the April William Morrow release The Anxious Investor, notes that the already unpredictable economy is driving many to take a crack at the stock market. “There was a lot of fear about finances and what was going to happen; would they still have jobs, what was happening to the stock market,” he says. “We realized that there’s a hole for a book about what investor psychology is and how to understand it.”
Hit the road, Jack
This same economic upheaval also drives new books that advise readers against counting on their nine-to-fives to keep them employed and solvent. “Covid has given people an opportunity to reassess the way they’re living their lives, how they’re approaching life goals like sending their kids to college,” Amphlett says. “There’s definitely a lot of chart-your-own-path, entrepreneurial stuff.”
In Money Magic—a January release from Little, Brown Spark that PW’s starred review called “a must-read for anyone concerned about their financial future”—economist Laurence J. Kotlikoff discusses, for instance, why becoming a plumber may be a better career choice than becoming a doctor; they make similar money, but plumbers do it without the crushing medical school debt.
“People are interested in financial freedom,” says Marisa Vigilante, senior editor at Little, Brown Spark. “How can you create your own wealth so you can be more independent? A lot of these conversations originated in the FIRE [financial independence/retire early] movement; we’re seeing this resonate in a new light with the Great Resignation, as we see more people who don’t want to work unless they’re being compensated correctly. Workers in general are feeling that they have more rights than they did before.”
And they don’t feel blindly loyalty to their employers. “Younger professionals don’t want to stay in their jobs for 20 years, but they still want to be financially secure,” says Jeanenne Ray, executive editor, trade publishing, at Wiley. “We’re seeing proposals on figuring out how you’re going to buy a van to live in, how to travel full-time and work remotely, how to buy a place in Mexico and freelance to support a new minimalist lifestyle.” Ray’s acquisition Financial Adulting (Mar. 2022) by Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, founder and CEO of the Fiscal Femme and author of The 30-Day Money Cleanse, aims to help young people make good financial decisions.
This kind of training can start in high school, according to Dan Sheeks, who wrote First to a Million based on his experience as a high school business teacher. He wants to teach teens about finance, and also to offer alternatives to the “work until age 65, then retire” maxim. Kaylee Walterbach, operations manager at BiggerPockets Publishing (which is releasing the book in December), notes that this is the first foray into YA nonfiction for the company, whose primary readership is real estate investors. Among that group, she says, “we’re seeing people who say, ‘I don’t want to quit my job; I want the flexibility of knowing I could if I wanted to.’ ”
It’s an empowering sentiment, and one that’s in line with the spirit of many of the season’s personal finance titles.
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product developer living in Washington, D.C. Her memoir Never Simple will be published by Henry Holt in March 2022.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of copies Kumiko Love's self-published budget planners have sold.
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