How to Get Maximum Value out of a Personal Finance Book

My preferred way of preparing new ideas and posts for The Simple Dollar is that, once a week or so, I head off to the local library with a notebook in my backpack. I’ll go to the new release section and grab any books remotely related to personal finance that I see there, and then I’ll snag a book or two from the personal finance, business, and psychology sections that look interesting (along with the latest issues of any financially related magazines). I’ll reserve a study room for a few hours, go in there, get out my notebook and pen and a bottle of water, and just start reading.

My goal, of course, is to extract ideas that I can either research further or think about further or try to implement in my life to see whether or not they work. So, I’ll often browse through the books, reading different passages that look interesting, and write down an idea or two in my own words as anything pops out at me. If I start quoting an idea or I feel it’s really novel, I’ll write down the name of the book and the page I found it on so I can mention it in an article or look it up later.

At this point, I have a very, very good understanding of the basic personal finance advice that I’ll get out of any book. What I’m looking for now are related ideas and fresh takes and approaches that maybe I haven’t considered before.

That wasn’t always the case, though.

It wasn’t all that long ago when personal finance seemed basically impossible to me. I mean, I intuitively understood what you should be doing – a person needed to pay their bills and so on, and there are a lot of opportunities to spend money in stupid ways – but those ideas didn’t really click together into anything meaningful. Instead, I found myself slipping deeper and deeper into a financial mess.

A little later, I was in the same boat when it came to investing. I understood basic ideas like “buy low and sell high” and that you could make money in the stock market, but how did one do that and why? My first baby steps into investing were, at best, stumbles.

In both cases, I managed to figure out my path forward at the local library. Back then, there weren’t many personal finance websites out there that provided things on a level that really clicked with me, so I turned to books. I still think that books are unmatched for learning about a new subject, as they collect and organize the basics of what you need to know about a topic better than anything else, but the internet can definitely supplement that when needed.

The thing is, when you are feeling really uncomfortable about personal finance and go to the personal finance section of your library and look at those books for the first time, it’s intimidating. How do you even know what to pick? And once you have it, how do you not just feel overwhelmed by it?

That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Picking a Good Personal Finance Book for Your Needs

So, you’re standing there at the personal finance shelf at your local library, or in front of the shelf at your local bookstore (if you’re there, I’d encourage you to go to the library instead, but to each his own), or looking at the endless listings on Amazon. How do you figure out which book you should even read?

The first thing you need to do is figure out what you want out of this book. Where do you want to be when you’re done reading this book? Do you want to have a plan in place for getting rid of debt? Do you want to have a bunch of ideas on how to cut back on your spending? Maybe you just want to understand where all of your money is going and why. Maybe you just want to try to get rich.

Whatever the reason is, figure that out before you ever start looking.

People come to personal finance books for a lot of different reasons, and your reason is no more right or wrong than anyone else’s. The thing to remember is that just as people come to personal finance books for a lot of reasons, the books are written for a lot of reasons. Some books are really focused on how to get out of debt. Some books are really focused on helping you build better spending habits. Others are focused on simply forging a better connection between your money and your life choices. Others really focus heavily on wealth building.

Here are a few of my own recommendations for specific niches.

If you’re looking for a book on paying off debt above and beyond anything else, I’d point to The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, which I discussed in a 12-part series in the past.

If you’re looking for a book on building a stronger connection between your life choices and your money, I’d point to Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, which I discussed in a 30-part (!) series in the past.

If you’re looking to learn the basics of investing, I’d point to The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing by Mel Lindauer, Taylor Larimore, and Michael LeBoeuf, which I reviewed at length in the past.

If you’re looking for a book to help you teach your kids about money, I’d point to Raising Financially Fit Kids by Joline Godfrey.

These aren’t the be-all-end-all of choices, either. These just happen to be ones that I found a lot of value in when looking at finances from a particular angle, and they’re certainly not the only ones that are good in those niches. The key is to figure out what you want and pick a book that matches.

The truth is that most of the books you’ll find in the personal finance section of a library are going to offer solid advice that’s perhaps simply tweaked to aim at a particular problem or at a particular type of reader, such as women or young adults or seniors.

There are a few things I recommend avoiding, however.

Don’t bother with books that have outsized claims on the cover that seem beyond reasonable possibility. Books that claim you’ll be a millionaire in short order are probably not worth your while.

Don’t bother with books that “predict” things about the future, like a huge stock market surge or a complete collapse of some market. Those things might be interesting, but they shouldn’t be the basis for sound individual personal finance.

Don’t bother with books that really strike you as targeting people besides yourself. If you’re younger, don’t read a book obviously targeting retirees. If you’re older, don’t read a book obviously targeting people in their twenties. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’ve found a surprising number of people read a personal finance book that isn’t even trying to speak to them and then wonder why it isn’t helpful.

Almost everything else you’ll see in the personal finance section is probably a worthwhile read. Choose one that seems to speak to you and check it out.

Getting the Most Value Out of That Book

So, you have this great personal finance book at home, but what now? It looks long and fairly intimidating, with a lot of pages and probably some charts here or there.

Over the years, I’ve read tons of books covering topics that intimidated me and I’ve figured out a few ways to turn them from intimidating tomes into something really useful that I’ve been able to base a lot of ideas and personal choices on. My goal with such books is always to absorb as much information as possible into my way of thinking, even if it takes quite a while. It can sometimes take me a long while to read a book I’m really trying to understand and absorb, and that’s perfectly fine. That’s what library renewals are for.

Here’s what I do.

I set aside some time each and every day to read the book. Every single day, there’s a chunk of time I’ve set aside for reading a book that I’m trying to absorb and understand; usually, it’s a book that’s verging on “over my head” when I pick it up for the first time. I set aside an hour each day for this because it’s really important to me. If this isn’t something that’s natural for you, I suggest setting aside 15 minutes a day to start with. Set a timer for this if you think it’ll be helpful – pretty much any smartphone in the world can do this. Also, regarding your smartphone – put it in “do not disturb” mode (here’s how for Android and for iOS) and put it screen-down on the table so you’re not distracted by it.

When you sit down to read, grab a notebook and a pen and have them open beside you. The reason for this is that you’re going to be writing down things in your own handwriting. You’re not going to type them or just try to remember them. Why? Taking notes by hand has a huge benefit for absorbing the information into your thinking and recalling it later. It absolutely blows away not taking notes at all. It absolutely blows away taking notes by typing. Do it by hand. It’s worth the time.

As you read each section of the book, start a new section in your notes. If the book is broken down into short chapters, have a section for each chapter. If the book is broken down into longer chapters with subsections, have a section for each of those chapter subsections. I usually just write down the name of that section and draw two boxes around it so that it stands out as a new section in my notes.

If you see a new idea you want to remember, write it down in your own words. Don’t just copy it out of the book. Think for a bit about the idea and read it a few times if needed, and then write it in a way that feels more natural to how you describe things. This will make you think about the idea and that will embed it in your brain. I usually start off the writing down of a new idea with just a little dash to separate it from other notes.

If you have a thought that you come up with on your own, write that down, too. So, if you’ve read a few ideas and they’re clicking together with something else in your head, write that down, too. I usually preface those with a + sign instead of a dash, because that means it was my ideas crossing with what I was just reading about.

If you see something you want to take action on, write that down, too! Noticing a theme here? As before, when you see that idea that you want to take action on, rewrite it in your own way so that it makes the most sense to you. I preface these things with a big ! so I can look for things I might actually do later on.

If you have a question or a word that you don’t understand or an idea you want to know more about, write it down. Lead that one off with a ? so you can quickly see that it’s something you don’t know about.

At the end of a section or a short chapter, summarize it in your own words. I usually do this by writing SUMMARY and surrounding it in a box, then following that up with one or two sentences outlining the main point of that section in my own words. A lot of personal finance books like to include a summary at the end of a chapter, and that’s fine, but it’s still worthwhile to do it in one’s own words.

When the timer goes off, stop. You can keep going to an obvious stopping point if you’re close, but at that point, just close the book and notebook and put them aside.

Sometime later on, when you have a few minutes, look through your notes. Look up the answers to any questions you may have had and jot down an answer in your own words near that question. If you have any potential actions, add them to your to-do list or take care of them. Other than that, just read the notes.

Then, just repeat all of this, each day.

When you’re done with the whole book, put the notebook aside for a week or so. Return the book and let it breathe.

Then, spend some time going back through all of the notes after a week or two has passed. Think about all of that stuff, and then, at the end of all of your notes, write several sentences summarizing the book as a whole.

If you do this, you are going to remember the book really well. The ideas in it are going to burrow deep in your head, and you’re much more likely to start taking natural action based on the ideas in the book. That’s exactly what you want from a personal finance book. You want it to alter your thinking a little and move you to a natural mindset that’s more responsible when it comes to your finances.

The thing is, this takes time and patience. At fifteen minutes a day, this will take a few months to get through a reasonable book. That’s fine. It’s not a race. It’s far better to actually read and absorb one good book than it is to flip through the pages of ten without remembering anything about it.

When I’m completely finished with a book, I’ll often take pictures of all of the pages of notes and save them in Evernote for long-term storage. Evernote makes the notes searchable. I have an Evernote notebook for almost every nonfiction book I’ve ever read since I started doing this. It also means I don’t have to physically keep the notebooks if I don’t want to – I usually just fill them up and then toss them.

Final Thoughts

Remember, the purpose of reading a book is either for entertainment or to absorb the ideas, or possibly both. I’ll assume that if you’re reading a personal finance book, you’re probably looking to absorb ideas, and if that’s the case, this structure will do a fine job of that. It works incredibly well at embedding ideas in your head that will stick around for the long haul, which is what you really want when you’re trying to make changes to your financial life and gain a deeper understanding of your finances.

This process will take time, but you’re going to get far more value out of the time spent really absorbing one book than the time you would spend rapidly reading two or three books. Do a deep dive – you won’t regret it!

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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