Personal Finance Books – From Best To Worst

The Simple Dollar has had an ongoing series of in-depth personal finance book reviews over the last six months as part of an ongoing 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks project.

We now find ourselves at the halfway point and thus now is a great time to reflect on the books that have been read so far in the series. And given that my readers have often wondered to me how the books compare to each other, I thought that a great way to reflect on the series to this point is to rank all 26 of the books from best to worst.

How do you rank them when they’re so diverse? Basically, I reflect on the book and ask myself a number of fundamental questions:

Did the book make me think while reading it?
Did the book stay on my mind after reading it?
Did the book bring about any changes in my behavior?
Did I actually believe what the book was saying?
Was the book merely a rehash of another book I’d read?
Do I have any interest in reading the book again?

As I went through the books and thought about these questions, a rough ranking of the books became pretty clear.

So, without further ado, here’s a ranking of the first six months worth of the 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks, with the best book at the top of the list and the worst at the bottom.

Your Money or Your Life1. Your Money or Your Life
Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin

The best personal finance book I’ve ever read, it genuinely made me reconsider the value I placed on money and why exactly I was making some of my larger life choices – every single day since I’ve read it, it has popped up in my thoughts in some fashion. In a nutshell, the book focuses not on investing, but on the values in your life and whether the financial choices you make match those values; this could have been a very bad book, but the authors are exceptionally skilled at providing tons of little exercises to really tease out some interesting fundamental truths about money and life. I’ve never read anything like it. Read my full review of Your Money or Your Life.

The Bogleheads Guide to Investing2. The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing
Taylor Larimore, Mel Lindauer, Michael LeBoeuf, and John C. Bogle

So far, this is the best all-around book on investing that I’ve read. It spells out in detail an overall investing philosophy that stretches from your day-to-day personal finance decisions to setting goals to the individual investment opportunities available to you. If you don’t know what you’re doing with investing and you’re scared to dive in because of the risks associated with not knowing what you’re doing, this is the book to read. I might be partial because I like and agree with the investing philosophy, but to see it laid out and explained like this from beginning to end is impressive. This book keeps a proud place on my shelf and I’ve already returned to it multiple times to soak up the ideas. Read my full review of The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing.

What Color is Your Parachute?3. What Color is Your Parachute?
Richard Nelson Bolles

When I first reviewed this book, I honestly didn’t expect that I would favor it so highly, but my mind kept drifting back to the ideas and exercises presented in the book. In short, What Color is Your Parachute? is a book about figuring out what kind of career you want to follow, and often (as I found at two different points in my life) things don’t always point in the direction you expect them to point. This book says that you should follow the underlying values and talents you have and does a great job of teasing those out and showing you how to figure out what the tea leaves are telling you. I’ve turned to it multiple times in my life and I’ll likely return to it again. Read my full review of What Color is Your Parachute?

The Total Money Makeover4. The Total Money Makeover
Dave Ramsey

Of all the personal finance books I’ve read, The Total Money Makeover provides the most straightforward path for getting out of debt, no matter how bad the situation. Dave lays it out in very clear terms anyone can understand and provides a plan for debt elimination so simple that literally anyone can follow it, yet the plan simply works. While I have reached a financial security point where I’m no longer sweating bullets about debt, I still recognize how powerful this book can be for someone who is in debt and doesn’t know what to do. Read my full review of The Total Money Makeover.

Jim Cramer's Real Money5. Real Money
Jim Cramer

Individual stock investing is a piece of personal finance that always seemed like a risky, complicated business, and thus I had little interest in it – until I picked up this book. This is Cramer’s masterpiece – a very clear explanation of how to invest in individual stocks even if you’re completely clueless, as I was when I first read this book. Not only is this a solid individual stock investing book, it places that investing in the context of a realistic life – you shouldn’t risk it all in the stock market and especially not on a single stock, as Cramer preaches. While I have yet to invest in individual stocks, I now feel much more confident about the whole process and I regularly turn to this book as I mull over the possibilities. Read my full review of Real Money.

The Millionaire Next Door6. The Millionaire Next Door
Thomas Stanley and William Danko

This is a very interesting book that spells out the exact paths that the financially stable upper middle class have used to reach that point – in other words, people who have spent their lives becoming millionaires. In great detail, and derived from extensive research, this book lays out exactly how you can turn an ordinary salary into a million dollars – but the road isn’t an easy one. My only real nit with this book is that there’s something of an age bias – it almost assumes the reader is forty years old or above. Read my full review of The Millionaire Next Door.

7. America’s Cheapest Family
Steve and Annette Economides

The key word here is frugality. This book is the book to get someone who has finally realized that they need to start trimming some serious fat from their spending. It basically walks through various dimensions of domestic life and outlines tons of ideas and concepts for trimming financial fat and living a frugal lifestyle. While many of the ideas in here will seem like common sense to people with a natural frugal touch, there’s plenty of meat in here to cut any budget down to size. Read my full review of America’s Cheapest Family.

8. A Random Walk Down Wall Street
Burton J. Malkiel

This book provided the most clear description that I’ve ever read of how Wall Street works. With a name like that, and also with the size of the book, some people may be intimidated, but if you really want to understand how it all works – and why most analysts consistently fail to beat the market – this book is well worth reading. The investment advice is rather limited, but it contributes a huge amount to really comprehending stock investment advice from other sources. I thoroughly enjoyed it and plan on re-reading it in the future. Read my full review of A Random Walk Down Wall Street.

9. Smart Couples Finish Rich
David Bach

The brilliance of this book comes from the fact that it focuses on the special financial situations of people in committed relationships, which are often quite different than the needs of single people. By focusing exclusively on this situation and addressing both the financial and emotional aspects of it, this book goes from being a ho-hum review of financial options to something well worth reading for people entering into a committed long-term relationship. Read my full review of Smart Couples Finish Rich.

10. Rule #1
Phil Town

This is another enjoyable book on individual stock picking. This book is basically a distillation of the value investing concepts of Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffett – Town takes these ideas and boils them down to a series of tools that anyone can use to identify good value stock investments. The focus here is pretty narrow, but the writing style is quite enjoyable, and one can easily go to financial websites and try out the whole procedure to decide for themselves if it works. Read my full review of Rule #1.

The Money Book11. The Money Book For The Young, Fabulous, and Broke
Suze Orman

This book focuses exclusively on the financial situations of young adults. While the design of the book is a bit overwhelming, the material inside really does hit home with the target audience. The advice is written in bite-size pieces and really makes basic personal finance quite accessible to people just starting off in their adult lives. If only the book didn’t look like someone’s electric blue and green dream. Read my full review of The Money Book For The Young, Fabulous, and Broke.

12. The Number
Lee Eisenberg

This book is a very interesting cultural read. It does a great job of explaining the cultural nuances of the obsession that Western society has with retirement and the amount of money it takes to simply walk away from our everyday jobs. However, this book lacked severely in the area of concrete advice on figuring out what you need to retire, and also had an obsession with the upper middle class. It’s very much worth reading for a great cultural overview of retirement and retirement needs, but you may want to look at retirement planning and investing books for specific advice. Read my full review of The Number.

13. The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom
Suze Orman

This book is the definition of “middle of the pack,” as it offers good advice, but doesn’t really do anything to stand out from the pack. This is definitely worth reading if you enjoy watching Suze Orman’s show on CNBC, but there are many other general personal finance books out there. It’s a good book, but it doesn’t have anything that makes it truly stand out from the crowd. Read my full review of The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom.

14. Mad Money
Jim Cramer

Mad Money is nothing more than a supplementary sequel to Real Money, which you’ll find way, way up on this list. This is not really a bad book on its own, but it is clearly a supplement to a much better book. This one’s well worth picking up if you enjoy the individual stock picking advice of Real Money, but if you haven’t read the former, wait a bit on this one. Read my full review of Mad Money.

Generation Debt15. Generation Debt
Anya Kamenetz

Much like The Number, which I mentioned just a few spots up, this book is a great cultural explanation of a personal finance situation – in this case, an explanation of how Generation X and Generation Y are being dealt a much different hand to start off with than the Baby Boomers in terms of their financial lives. It’s a brilliant read if you want to understand this divide, but not so useful if you want to know how to do anything about it. Read my full review of Generation Debt.

16. The Little Book of Common Sense Investing
John C. Bogle

This book does an absolutely amazing job of spelling out an investment philosophy, that of investing in index funds and riding the tides of the overall market. In terms of teaching the philosophy, this book is stellar, but in terms of doling out investment advice, you’re much better off reading The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing, which is number two on this list. Read my full review of The Little Book of Common Sense Investing.

17. The Wealthy Barber
David Chilton

Take some basic personal finance advice and wrap it in the form of a simple story in order to make the pill sweeter to swallow and you have this book. The advice itself could be given in ten pages – there’s no real meat here – but it’s a pleasant and easy to swallow read if the idea of reading most of these books bores you to tears. Read my full review of The Wealthy Barber.

18. The Richest Man in Babylon
George S. Clason

I group this one pretty tightly with The Wealthy Barber because it takes basic personal finance ideas and wraps them in a story, this one telling of ancient Babylon. For me, the advice here was a bit better than that barber book, but the language was a bit harder to read (though still quite easy). Read my full review of The Richest Man in Babylon.

19. The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need
Andrew Tobias

Here’s another title that’s great if you’re looking to be entertained while reading about personal finance. For me, this book was entertaining, but it tried so hard to be entertaining that it often covered up the advice that it was trying to give out. In other words, for me it was a light, fun afternoon read that I basically forgot about fifteen minutes after reading it. Read my full review of The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need.

20. Yes, You Can Get A Financial Life!
Ben Stein and Phil DeMuth

At this point, we’re getting to the relatively bad stuff. Although I seriously enjoy Ben Stein’s writing, this book felt like it was mostly written by the other author and is fairly boring; even worse, the financial advice can easily be found elsewhere. I was disappointed. Read my full review of Yes, You Can Get A Financial Life!

21. Financial Peace Revisited
Dave Ramsey

This book is a poorly organized first draft of the much cleaner and much more worthwhile Total Money Makeover. There’s a bit more information in here, but it wanders around so much and is so directionless that you might as well read Ramsey’s other book and forget about this one. Read my full review of Financial Peace Revisited.

22. Make Your Kid A Millionaire
Kevin McKinley

When I first read this book, I didn’t think it was too bad, but after reading other titles, it becomes clear that this book is really light on the content – it actually stretches a small amount of information a very long way. While the information isn’t bad, it’s just covered everywhere else with a lot fewer words. Read my full review of Make Your Kid A Millionaire.

23. The Automatic Millionaire
David Bach

Much like the book above, this book is nothing more than a rehash of another, superior book by the same author. In this case, there is absolutely nothing here that isn’t already done (in some cases, almost verbatim) in Smart Couples Finish Rich, even if you’re not in a committed relationship. Read my full review of The Automatic Millionaire.

24. Making the Most of Your Money
Jane Bryant Quinn

Here, we reach the worst of the worst. This book is far too long and detailed, and because of the overly detailed explanations (do we really need 200 pages of dense type explaining different types of insurance?) the book was outdated as soon as it hit the shelves. Instead of teaching concepts, the book just makes tons of big collections and lists that are old and never really go anywhere. Read my full review of Making the Most of Your Money.

25. Rich Dad, Poor Dad
Robert Kiyosaki

This book is inspirational, but there are so many factual and psychological flaws within it that I find myself not believing any of it and mistrusting the whole thing. It’s great to be inspirational, but don’t make things up (like, for instance, the title and premise of the book for starters) or dispense bizarre advice and expect that to be good enough. Read my full review of Rich Dad, Poor Dad.

26. Nickel and Dimed
Barbara Ehrenreich

I had hoped that this book would have some insight on how people living paycheck to paycheck could work to raise themselves from the condition, but instead it was a white rich elitist guilt party. Yes, indeed, a working class life is pretty rough. Thanks for telling us. Read my full review of Nickel and Dimed.

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  1. amy says:

    I agree ….Your Money or Your Life is the best book I have read on money and life choices. I read it a long time ago and still feel it is the best book out there!

  2. Amber says:

    Trent,
    Thanks for the recap… I want to get started reading some of these books, but going back through the archives to figure out which to try first was a little daunting.

  3. Tyler says:

    Thanks for your hard work in putting this list together! This will be my go to list for the rest of the year (books to read).

  4. clkl says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you so much for compiling this list, and for all of your reviews.

  5. Shawna says:

    I am totally with you on Nickel and Dimed. I bought when it was first out thinking it would be somewhat enlightening. I was wrong. As I read it I kept thinking, ‘thank you captain obvious.’

  6. Rob says:

    I was surprised you reviewed Nickle and Dimed as a personal finance book. When I worked at a bookstore we always shelved it under Sociology – the opposite end of the store from Finance. Without commenting on the content of the book I’m not surprised it had very little value within the context of personal finance, I don’t think that was ever the author’s intention.

  7. lorax says:

    I have to disagree with two entries:

    – Millionaire Next Door – despite undoubtedly intelligent researchers, the conclusions from the survey in this book would have never passed peer review in the physical sciences arena. They forgot to poll non-millionaires! It’s quite possible that there are many penniless people walking around that did exactly what the millionaires did. The book is fun to read, but the conclusion is flawed. (In fact, I know a few counter-examples myself.)

    – Making The Most Of Your Money – this book is in a completely different class than the others, it’s a reference book and not meant to be read as a simple plan for how to managed your finances.

  8. Heather says:

    I read Nickel and Dimed in college four or five years ago. It was required reading for my Sociology class, and it’s value to me is immeasurable. I’m a white girl from a middle-class suburban (broken) family. I went to college in North Philadelphia, where all around the “borders” of campus people lived in run-down homes and shootings were the norm. Being there and reading Ehrenreich’s book showed me the world in a different light. Although her book deals with personal finance, I believe her intention was with educating those of us in shoes we bought new, not second-hand, of the real-life disadvantages of others.

  9. chris says:

    The Richest Man in Babylon, I LOVE THIS BOOK!!! BUT, I do recommend not reading it, but listening to it. I got it from our library and put it on my iPod. It is the single greatest most interesting and most entertaining book I have ever listen to on CD. Mix Shakespeare with money principals and you got yourself a great read/listen.

    I agree that it is more for beginners, but it has some great principals.

    Thanks Trent

  10. ck_dex says:

    I agree with you on “Your Money or Your Life”. It’s far and away the best and most balanced personal finance book addressing getting out of debt, realigning values and setting financial independence as a goal.

    Another terrific personal finance book (specifically addressing a system for getting out of debt and budgeting) is Elizabeth Warren’s “All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan”.

    I agree with your readers who say “Nickel and Dimed” is not in any way a personal finance book. Anymore than James Scurlock’s new book and movie “Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders” is a pf book. Yet both are compelling sociological pieces. To me, a personal finance books must have some systematized method for addressing the basics: budgeting, debt, how to think about money.

  11. Trent, I hope you get a chance to read Personal Finance for Dummies… it’s both one of the best of the Dummies series and one of the best PF books I’ve ever read… I highly recommend it.

    In the meantime, thanks for the 26 you’ve already reviewed! Great stuff!

  12. Linnet says:

    Personal Finance for Dummies? Well, I guess it was mildly interesting.
    Trent, what about Jane Bryant Quinn’s other book?–the one about managing money for busy people?
    Interesting list–thank you. Interesting comments–thanks for those, too!

  13. Linnet, I’m curious as to why you found PFfD merely “mildly interesting”… in my case, it was the first book I’d read that gave the big picture of PF, and I thought the author did a nice job of balancing the big picture and the need for some degree of detail. I read it after I read Ramsey’s TMM, and I thought it nicely rounded out what Ramsey doesn’t cover.

    I’m curious about your thoughts.

  14. Kevin says:

    Well if you ever want to do well in the stock market you best forget everything you ever read by Cramer.

    I’d recommend these…

    1-Beating the Street….by peter Lynch
    2-One Up on Wall Street….by Peter Lynch
    3-How to Pick Stocks Like Warren Buffett….by Timothy Vick
    4-Wall Street on Sale….by Timothy Vick
    5-The Warren Buffett Way…by Robert Hagstrom
    6-The Intelligent Investor….by Benjamin Graham
    7-Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America…by Lawrence Cunningham
    8-The Little Book that Beats the Market….by Joel Greenblatt
    9-The Dhandho Investor…by Mohnish Pabrai
    10-Damn Right….by Janet Lowe
    11-Buffett: The Making of an American capitalist…by Roger Lowenstein

    Cramer is madness. The bulk of his wealth is in the IPO stock for his company TheStreet.com…as well as his earnings from CNBC. He was also in sales at Goldman Sachs for a period. He did run a small hedge fund for a period. The results of that fund have ben debated, and documentation of his track record has been difficult to verify accurately. I would study Buffett. The majority of his wealth was made picking stocks and buying businesses. he never did a TV show and never wrote a book. Cramer is a great writer and entertainer. Sorry you liked the book. He is nothing more than Wall Street’s version of Robert Kiyosaki.

  15. Kevin says:

    P.S…the flaws in Cramer’s ideas is that he doesn’t invest in stocks using pure and raw business principles. His methods depend to a large degree on market momentum and cheerful forecasts of which no one can really be sure of. His ideas are lacking any true margin of safety, and requires one to be too focused on price quotations. There is no focus on value in Cramer’s framework. Buffett said…”Why risk what you have and need to get what you don’t have and don’t need?” Buffett also says…”Rule no. 1 Don’t lose money, Rule no.2 Never forget Rule no.1″

  16. James says:

    I think you have to look at which authors have a conflict of interest. As a Chartered Financial Consultant, I avoid any books from any author that is selling something besides their books and their expertise.

    Orman is the pinnacle of a conflict of interest. She touts on her show that you should be financially responsible (money before things) yet she goes and produces commercials for GM stating it is financially correct to buy new cars. If she said it on her own show at least a few times (which I have never seen her say the times I have watched her show pre-GM commercial), the commercials become a moot point. She is then consistent in her advice.

    She clearly did those commercials to build her bank account yet she bankrupted her professional ethics. A good financial advisor has no conflicts of interest. They will present all options without influence of personal or company means.

  17. Jay Cee says:

    A bit late for a reply, but I just want to add my own recommendation, what I’d consider a #1 personal finance and debt-eliminating title:

    “HOW TO GET OUT OF DEBT, STAY OUT OF DEBT, AND LIVE PROSPEROUSLY”

    I just “shouted” the name of the title because I really, truly highly recommend it. The steps are invaluable, and there’s also a bit of spiritual and 12-step content, with the goal of changing your thinking/attitude, and uplifting your lifestyle while getting out of debt.

  18. apennysaved says:

    Would like to hear if anyone has read Jean Chatzky (the financial person who is on the Today Show)’s books about debt. Also Oprah’s Debt Diet (it’s on her website—-not a book but a bunch of information & worksheets, etc., based on a series of shows she had, with various panelists, including Jean Chatzky, about debt).

  19. Barb says:

    I agree that “Your Money or Your Life” is the best book there is for just about every aspect of money, period. I read it years ago, and want to re-read it. Your whole list was fascinating. I’d heard of or seen most of the books, and enjoyed your take on them. I also agree that “Personal Finance for Dummies” is a very good basic book, a great place to start.

  20. Finomist says:

    Thank you for the list, also I have already bought two books from your list :-)

    Thanks for the ONE PAGE booktoo..i have taken a liberty to add that in my blog too!!

  21. Tina says:

    Dave Ramsey puts common sense practices into every day use. He explains things in a way that can make even a child understand. My husband and I have followed his plan (teeny bit modified) and it works!

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  23. Kristina says:

    Aw, this was a very good post. Spending some time and actual effort
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  25. Josh says:

    When reading number 19. I suddenly reminded of book with similar funny name: “I will teach you to be rich”

    However, I believe these books should be on everyone’s list:
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/0984358102/
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/1591845610
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KPH0KSU

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