Review: Make Money, Not Excuses

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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