Updated on 08.04.08

Review: Make Money, Not Excuses

Trent Hamm

Each Friday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book of interest.

make money, not excusesA reader who I’ll call Annie recently told me over IM that she didn’t like personal finance books very much because, in her words, “they’re not very realistic in looking at the lives of ordinary women.” I really thought this was an interesting comment, since I’ve reviewed a lot of personal finance books written by a wide variety of women – Amy Dacyczyn, Suze Orman, Jane Bryant Quinn, and many others – and so I asked her what she meant.

She told me that even the books she’d read by female authors really didn’t seem to “get” what it meant to be a married, professional mother with kids. She told me she felt emotionally responsible for everything in her family but didn’t really have any clue about the financial part of keeping a family together, and she asked me for a book recommendation.

And, frankly, I didn’t really have one. She’d already read the usual recommendation and found David Bach’s book to be “clueless.” As for my personal favorite, Annie described it as “money for hippies” (which did draw a chuckle from me).

So, over the last few months, I’ve made it my mission to try to find the right personal finance book for this reader. I’ve looked at quite a few that might fit the bill, but they all seemed to fall into the traps that Annie described, except for this one. Make Money, Not Excuses, by Jean Chatzky, who also wrote the solid Pay It Down, seems to fit the bill. The book is basically about gaining confidence about managing your money from a women’s perspective, and Chatzky writes in a chatty and approachable fashion. Could this be the right book for Annie? Let’s dig in and find out.

Chapter 1: “I Don’t Know Where to Begin”
The book opens with the perspective that many people are simply afraid to take that first step because it seems like there is so much to do. They’re overwhelmed by the number of financial options in front of them, and the constant noise from financial ads don’t really help either. It seems overwhelming. Chatzky’s response is pretty straightforward – take just one little step, and let that step focus on something relatively simple. Focus on drafting a will. Focus on building up your willpower when shopping. Focus on just downloading your credit report and understanding it. Just one step, because one step is better than none.

Chapter 2: “I Like Money – It’s Numbers I Can’t Stand”
This chapter immediately brought to mind an old friend of mine named Tori. She’s a very, very smart woman, but she has an incredible fear of numbers. She’d utterly destroy you at a game of Trivial Pursuit and knock out prose that could make your jaw drop, but present her with a page of numbers and she locks up. This chapter was written for Tori. Chatzky’s advice is to not worry about the numbers too much, especially at first. Just make it a goal to save a little each month – don’t sweat any math. Then, once you get in the routine, set some big goals and figure out how much that goal will cost, then use that as motivation to slowly – as slowly as you need to – piece through the math to make it work. This whole chapter is excellent advice for those stricken with math phobia.

Chapter 3: “But My Husband Does That…”
This chapter basically boils down to the single piece of useful marriage advice I’ve ever heard: communicate. The big step that Chatzky suggests is simply scheduling a regular financial discussion with your spouse so that you both know that you’re on the same financial page and there’s no areas where you’re both confused about. She also offers a ton of advice on how to handle specific problems such as when one partner is a control freak (give the control freak a sandbox to control).

Chapter 4: “I’m Too Disorganized to Deal with My Money”
Clutter is a direct opponent to financial success: the more clutter you have, the more financial challenges you’ll have, too. Why? Clutter simply means you have too much stuff, and since stuff costs money, you’ve thus spent too much money. Plus, it costs time as well, since it’s hard to find the specific item you need in a cluttered home. Chatzky’s chief piece of advice is to simply start going through your stuff and being realistic about what you actually need. Adopt a reasonable and sane policy about your wardrobe, the papers you keep, and your collections, too – put a cap size on all of them and keep them in order.

Chapter 5: “I Don’t Have Any Time”
If this is your primary reason to not get involved with your finances, Chatzky suggests taking a serious look at what’s actually a priority in your life. What’s more important of a priority than making sure you’re in a healthy financial state? Chatzky argues that personal finances underlie almost everything we choose to do, from our jobs to our home to our cars and the activities we do, and setting aside a little bit of time to make sure things are in order makes sure we don’t lose all of those important parts of our life.

Chapter 6: “I Have Nothing to Wear…”
Here, Chatzky tackles shopping addiction – an incessant need to buy more stuff. In her eyes, the biggest culprit is social shopping: those situations when you go shopping for clothes or other items with a large group who mutually encourage each other (both directly and indirectly) to buy things. Chatzky’s solution is to find social opportunities that don’t revolve around spending money. Engage in activities at home or in the homes of friends, for starters, or look for out and about activities that don’t immediately push towards an outlay of funds.

Chapter 7: “I’d LOVE to Start Saving, but I Don’t Know How”
Although the title is ostensibly about saving, it’s really about setting big goals and figuring out how to get there. Saving itself isn’t really much of a goal for most people – what’s the point when you could do something with your money? The piece that makes it really click is setting a big goal for yourself. Do you want a new house – or even to buy your first one? Maybe you want to stop working in ten years. Whatever it is, define that goal as carefully as you can, then break that big goal down into bite-sized bits that you can start tackling. It’s a lot easier to convince yourself to save $100 a week if you see it as part of a big goal to build your dream house in ten years.

Chapter 8: “I Can Deal with My Money – It’s Investing I Can’t Stand”
Chatzky’s solution here matches up quite well with the first chapter – take baby steps. First, figure out your goals: do you want to retire? When? How much will that cost? Then, start putting money away for those goals, but don’t worry about the perfect investment choice. Choose a money market fund or something else without risk at first just so you can start saving and stop losing the years of eligibility and potential matching funds from your employer. Then, when you’re ready, the money is waiting for you to put somewhere – preferably in a very diverse portfolio. Very sensible stuff – just take it one little step at a time.

Chapter 9: “I’m Too Old – It’s Too Late for Me”
It’s never too late. Being a bit older just means you have to adopt different tactics. For starters, you have to start saving more – a lot more. This is easier since, theoretically, you shouldn’t have children in the home at this stage (or, if you do, they’re on the way out). It’s much easier to live cheap and save a lot when your nest is empty. Second, the goal you’re facing is more urgent and immediate – retirement seems much closer at fifty than it does at thirty.

Chapter 10: “I Don’t Want to Think About It”
Make Money, Not Excuses closes with some thoughts on estate planning – in other words, how are you planning for the inevitable? Most people don’t want to think about it, but it’s one of those things that, once you deal with it, you rest a little easier at night. It really is worth spending the time to write a will and plan for that future.

Some Thoughts on Make Money, Not Excuses
This book heavily targets a female audience. From the choice of words to the choice of examples, it’s pretty clear that the audience for this book is female, roughly ages twenty five to fifty five, and mostly married (although much is applicable to non-married females, too). I felt like an outsider.

Underneath it, though, the advice makes sense. If you strip away the examples and the language choice, though, the book makes a lot of sense. Take a little step at a time. Set some big goals and break them down. Communicate what you’re thinking. This is really good stuff – the keys of personal finance, in my opinion.

The chapter on math is an excellent one. To me, it was the standout – a topic I hadn’t seen handled with such focus and maturity in a personal finance book before. I was glad it was there and it alone is enough to make me recommend this book to some potential readers.

Is Make Money, Not Excuses Worth Reading?
Make Money, Not Excuses is a great “first” personal finance book – a book for people who are searching for reasons not to worry about their money or have no idea where to start. In almost every chapter, I saw a person that I know – someone who is using some sort of an excuse to keep themselves from having to get serious about their money.

If you’ve already figured out the game and are already turning your financial life around, Make Money, Not Excuses won’t be that much of a help. This book is clearly targeting the “first step” crowd – those who need to start making a change, but don’t know where to begin.

Obviously, this book targets a female audience – and it’s even more obvious from the book layout and the choice of language throughout. As a thirty year old male who has already started to turn the corner, I’m pretty far from the audience this book is written for. But it’s written so well that pieces are inspiring even to me – I’m willing to bet if some of the chapter titles above struck a chord with you, there’s something worth reading in here.

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  1. Shanel Yang says:

    I’d also recommend “Nice Girls Don’t Get Rich” by Dr. Lois Frankel, which I summarized in my series called “Money Lessons for Nice People” at http://shanelyang.com/2008/04/01/money-lessons-for-nice-people-self-test/

  2. gnorten says:

    Oh boy, I’m about to step into a minefield with this post, but here goes…

    I don’t understand the complaint of the original IM claiming that the personal finance books/authors out there don’t “get” what it’s like to be a professional woman with kids. What does her being a woman with kids have to with anything?

    It’d be like me complaining that the Accounting 101 book I read in college didn’t “get” what it was like for me to be a single man.

    I can understand that people in different stages in life, and income, could need different advice, but most of the personal finance books out there, regardless of the sex of the authors or target audience, have basically the same message.

    “Live on less than you make, and save as much as you can.” The advice doesn’t really change if your a man or woman, or if you have kids or not.

  3. Jessica says:

    This book has been recommended to me by women I respect. Thanks for the review (and the reminder). I think I’ll buy it – I find that I reread and reference non-fiction enough that the purchase is worth it. :)

  4. Sarah says:

    From your description, this book sounds like the PF version of the talking Barbie that said, “Math is hard.” Ugh. And I’m really tired of books targeted toward women automatically devoting a chapter or two to shopping or a shopping addiction.

    It sounds like reader Annie might get a lot out of Suze Orman’s “Women & Money” — so much of it addresses the intersection of finances and the feeling of being emotionally responsible for everything that happens in one’s family.

  5. Trent,
    Thanks for the review.
    I do have to find a good finance book that my wife will read – maybe this is the one?
    – Tyler

  6. Matt R. @ YFNCG.com says:

    You know between all your book reviews and your real-life stories and strategies, I feel I like I know all I need to know and have I the tools I need to be financially responsible. All these books seem to be saying the same thing in different ways.

  7. akinoluna says:

    I read that book. It was good for beginner finance info but I’m a woman and even I got annoyed by all the shopping and overly female-targeted wording. I do think many women would find it useful though.

  8. Jesse says:

    I actually read a few chapters of this book in the book store the other day and I can say fairly unequivocally if you are a male this book is not for you. Not that its not a well written, thought out book (it is) but the target audience as Trent said is most definitely female.

    For women I think it speaks well to the ‘uninvolved’ or ‘mostly uninvolved’ with money crowd. I couldn’t help but read chapter 6 because I have a fiance with 3 closets full of clothes :)

  9. carolyn says:

    I actually just bought this book last month. When I was single I worked in the savings and investment group of a large bank in CA. I would hear women on the phone all day long who didn’t have a clue what to do now that their husbands had passed away – they didn’t even know where their money was invested or if they had an account with us. It was so sad. I swore I would never end up like that. Well, fast forward 20 years, 2 kids and all that entails and it was easier to let my husband deal with everything on the financial side. This is my year to re-focus on our finances and give my husband a break and work more as a team. This book has helped me get my self-confidence back and get motivated.

  10. I think I’m an unusual specimen of the female species. In our marriage, I’m the one who does all the finances(although we do communicate regularly about them), I don’t mind numbers, and I’m not at all a big shopper. So, I don’t know that this book would do me much good! I have to say, though, I was drawn to the pink cover.

  11. Tabs says:

    So happy I discovered your reviews on Fridays, I think Jess may be right about the tone of the book, maybe she is trying to connect with the “Sex in the City” crowd. I was hoping the book would not be as overwhelming as Suza Orman’s Courage to be rich but not as ridiculous as having a chapter called “But My Husband Does That.” I am sorry but that would be an insult to the SITC crowd.


  12. Jules says:

    I’m glad to see that I’m not the only woman who’s kind of miffed (was going to use a stronger word) at all the books that purport to “speak” to women. Personally, I find it offensive that such books exist–that there even has to be a separate category of non-fiction that’s somehow magically written so that we can understand it. Because the cover’s pink.

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “maybe she is trying to connect with the “Sex in the City” crowd”

    I think that’s actually pretty accurate.

  14. I think she is trying to connect to the Sex AND the City crowd because she is part of that crowd in NYC. I have noticed a heavy slant from several female finance writers in NYC toward shopping and fashion. Jean Chatzky’s protege Farnoosh Torabi also spends a lot of time talking about designer labels and money in her book You’re So Money.

    I guess you write best from your own experience and surroundings.

  15. db says:

    It just shows that different books connect with different women. I don’t care for Chatzky’s books because them make me feel like I’m being talked down to. I haven’t read Orman’ “Women & Money” because I was afraid of finding that patronizing too, but I did actually really enjoy Bach’s book for women.

    But nothing rocks like YMOYL. Generally, I don’t really need a book that treats me like I need to be talked to differently because I have different plumbing. But then, I’m a single 40-something woman, independent and the master (mistress) of my own household. It all falls on me.

  16. Karen says:

    Another book to address the “special” problems women have with money. I don’t like math, I spend too much, my husband takes care of it and on and on. My own gender disappoints again and again on this topic. Stop with the excuses ladies and grow up. You will have lots of time to study math, stop shopping and handle your own finances when your widowed/divorced and eating cat food because you failed to save enough for your retirement.

  17. Lois says:

    I haven’t read the book, and it doesn’t sound like I will. I also do the money in my house, and have done so since our marriage. What I would like to find is something that addresses the real issues many of us face. For instance I have a teenager still at home, and am helping raise four of my grandchildren, three of which live with me. Our financial future is of concern to us, but we can’t ignore the needs of young children who have nowhere else to turn either. We also have elder family members who require time and monetary help, along with a daughter who has been struggling with serious health issues that have caused very difficult financial situations for our family. These type of things do happen to people, and, at least personally, I haven’t seen it addressed. By the way Trent, thanks for the motivation. I have been “remotivated” by your site, and have referred others here as well.

  18. Jennifer says:

    I read this book earlier this year and I have always enjoyed seeing Jean Chatsky speak on the Today Show and Oprah; however, I was less than thrilled with this book. I am 38 and felt like she must have been speaking to a generation of women who were at least 55 or over. Too much of the “Leave it to Beaver” mentality, as if women were helpless when it came to finances. The information is good, but so very basic that I did not find it to be of much use. I hope Jean will write more books in the future that are geared toward both males and females and simply deal with getting your arms around finances and preparing for a life that allows for a comfortable retirement.

  19. Kim says:

    Anyone who would use the word “clueless” to sum up David Bach’s “The Automatic Millionaire” might have problems with any PF book.

    Sounds like the problem is with the reader to me.

  20. Nancy Dailey says:

    Women are different when if comes to personal finance. We have to manage a matrix of personal relationships that greatly impacts our ability to manage our money and/or the family money. I am an economic sociologist and I have to say I always learn something from Trent’s Simple Dollar. But I started my own blog recently because I still haven’t found a place where women can learn from each other. I hope Womensmoney.com and my blog Dr Nancy: what I tell my kids about money.

  21. H says:

    I don’t really need a book that treats me like I need to be talked to differently because I have different plumbing.

    Right on.

    Beyond that, what irks is this assumption these authors make that all women have the same lives – middle-class/upper-middle-class lives with dual incomes, husbands, excess income for those shopping sprees and kids. Oh, and who think vagina-ownership inevitably = attitudes such as ‘maths is hard’, ‘numbers are intimidating’ and ‘tee hee, my husband does that!’. Ugh. That’s finance for halfwits, not women! As a woman who thinks that numbers are actually easy, dude, and who doesn’t have financial support from a partner, isn’t seeking any, doesn’t think of shopping as a hobby and who absolutely does not want kids in her life, I find all these books purporting to be for me simply on the ground of vagina-ownership tedious, patronising and useless.

    Plus, anything that’s described as ‘chatty’ (read: dumbed right down because maths is scary, dude) needs to be thrown out of the window ASAP.

  22. H says:

    I am 38 and felt like she must have been speaking to a generation of women who were at least 55 or over.

    Maybe, or maybe as I said before, she’s confusing halfwits or maybe dorrmats, with women. My mother is in her seventies and has always had an equal role in controlling the finances in her marriage.

    Anyway. My old female boss’s mum died recently. Her husband, my boss’s father, was left not only grieving but incapable of managing his own affairs – he’d never written a cheque, paid a bill, or had any control over the finances in his entire marruied life and he’s in his early eighties. My point is that financial cluelessness is not confined to gender or generation.

  23. guinness416 says:

    I’m normally on the eye-rolling we need different material why? bandwagon too (as though “women” doesn’t encompass about fifty different demographics), but I didn’t mind this one so much. It seemed pretty honest about the type of women it was targeting rather than pretending to be for ALL women (like the godawful David Bach “women’s book”).

    The content is way basic for me as usual, but it was REALLY nice that the target demographic was young urbanites and therefore the author actually treats us as able to read beyond a six year old’s level. And I liked the way the content sort of jumped around a bit. Many of the popular personal finance writers either can’t really write very well or are edited to appeal to idiots with bad eyesight and low attention spans, in my opinion.

  24. bakednudel says:

    I was just wondering today if there was a PF blog out there somewhere for people like me: Single (never married) and older and crawling out of debt (credit cards).

    I love your blog, Trent, and get a lot of information from it, but I do sometimes miss the perspective of a single person without a second income, without a lot of time for saving for retirement (I’ve already decided I can never retire, but I don’t regret my travels and working overseas).

    I don’t need to know about saving $$ on diapers and communicating with a spouse about money issues–nor do I have the advantage of a second income.

    Please don’t get me wrong–I read all your posts and Get Rich Slowly every day, and there is a lot that I can take away from them–thanks for all you do on The Simple Dollar.

    I just wonder if I am alone in my situation.

  25. bakednudel says:

    I meant to add that a lifetime of working for nonprofits means that I’m not the ‘rich single person’ you may be imagining. You would probably be shocked at my age and my annual salary. One is high and one is low!

  26. Sarah says:

    While I don’t think this book would be suitable for me, either, I just wanted to take a second to suggest something for you to think about, Trent:

    “From the choice of words to the choice of examples, it’s pretty clear that the audience for this book is female, roughly ages twenty five to fifty five, and mostly married (although much is applicable to non-married females, too). I felt like an outsider.”

    Now imagine having this feeling when you are confronting, say, most books on personal finance. When the default audience is male, the effect is not neutral. It’s exclusive. I noticed someone above referring to not needing different books for different demographics, but, if considerable thought isn’t given to the matter, the book that’s written for the “universal” demographic is actually written for the straight white male demographic. It’s just harder to notice that because we’re taught that that’s the default. Your woman correspondent noticing it isn’t demanding special or different treatment, she’s asking for the same treatment that the white male reader gets.

    Not a criticism of this post–just something you might want to kick around in your head, since I think you’ve unintentionally framed it well here.

  27. H says:

    We have to manage a matrix of personal relationships that greatly impacts our ability to manage our money and/or the family money.

    Speak for yourself. Seriously.

  28. H says:

    I was just wondering today if there was a PF blog out there somewhere for people like me: Single (never married) and older and crawling out of debt (credit cards).

    Well, there’s plonkee, who sometimes comments here. She is single, British, financially capable and smart. Not in debt, I don’t think, and relatively young but her posts are always thoughtful and interesting. No posts about cloth nappies, dual income smugness such as honking on endlessly about ‘net worth’ down to the fact one’s spouse bought one a really swank house back in the day or other irrelevancies to scroll past, obviously.

    Myself, I’d like to see something aimed at people – male, female, trans, whatEVER – that doesn’t assume one is welded to the Life Script of marriage, kids and a house in the ‘burbs. I’d like decent advice on investing and financial products for people who have modest incomes and inspirational stories about people who’ve made it without, say, a low-profile spouse with a really well-paid job to support them, an inheritance or other get-out-of-jail-free card. them being around my age – late thirties – would be nice too.

    As it is, I look through any number of sites and blogs and just try to reap what relevant nuggets of wisdom I can from them and apply it to my life. Mostly I read just to be ‘around’ people who like me, want to save and save and be financially stable, rather than serial-spenders and debt addicts.

  29. tightwadfan says:

    I too find these books condescending towards women. Pink covers, ugh! these books treat women like idiots. everyone’s situation is a little different but basic personal finance advice applies to anyone.

  30. Sophia says:

    What’s frustrating about the finance books geared towards women is that they address long standing stereotypes with seriousness- “ok, ladies, now stop that spending!” or “ok, now, get your hubby to show you how to balance the checkbook!”. These are completely outdated and offensive.

    What I would appreciate is a personal finance book geared towards women that address actual, quantifiable differences in money. For example, differences in earning potential, the unfortunate reality of “the mommy track” when you take off time for children, more diverse and frequent needs for healthcare and the costs, etc. Take real world, proven problems that largely affect women only and give real solutions and advice. Swerving off into validating stereotypes or the perfect heterosexual marriage where the wife is a financial nincompoop just distracts women from the actual challenges they face in money matters.

  31. Sophia says:

    As an aside, I found the Price of Motherhood to be on of the more useful books addressing women and finances due to social economics. She (Ann Crtitenden I believe) veers off into some things I disagree with, but it was an interesting look into the “mommy track” problem and the effect it has on women and financial security. Oh, and when it came out many vilified her for daring to say there was a “price” to motherhood- again, don’t address real issues women face, just say that women should stop buying shoes, that’s the problem :/

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