If you spend much time at the Ames Public Library, you’ve probably seen me there at some point. I can often be found on the second floor, either at a table or in a study room, surrounded by a pile of personal finance magazines and books and other assorted materials, usually with my laptop open or with a notebook and pen open before me.
Why? To come up with the content for this site and to constantly expose myself to new ideas, I read. A lot. I spend at least a day a week at the library going through their personal finance and investing section and also nabbing books from the business section and the psychology section. I grab the latest issues of many different magazines when they come out as well.
While I don’t do thorough reviews of personal finance books as I once did – honestly, because most personal finance books are pretty similar to one another and I mostly read them to reinforce key concepts and look for new angles – I do sometimes stumble across books that really make me see the challenges of personal finance, careers, psychology, or other related matters in a whole different way.
Here are 10 of these books. All of them are (relatively) new to me and (I believe) all have been published in the last few years. I’ve mentioned a few of them in passing in other articles. Every single one of them deserves your time and attention if you find the topic relevant.
Let’s dig in to what’s new on the bookshelf!
Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day by Leanne Brown
This is a cookbook that is solely focused on using low-cost staples to prepare meals for your family. The goal of the cookbook is to enable families to prepare a full day’s worth of meals at a cost of $4 per day per person, which is a very reasonable target.
Brown does this by focusing on staple foods such as rice and beans and pasta, supplementing them with fresh vegetables that are often inexpensive (such as zucchini) and some inexpensive meats used in reasonable amounts.
Many of these recipes are designed to be flexible, meaning that they are really easy to modify based on what you have on hand or what’s on sale. Many recipes include an “additions” section, which consists of ways to modify recipes by adding other ingredients to the mix.
This is easily my favorite frugal cookbook. Anyone who is truly interested in cutting their food spending by cooking at home is well-served by putting this book on their shelf right next to a really good instructional cookbook like How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.
Good and Cheap is actually available completely for free in PDF form on Leanne’s website, but you can get a very nice book version for $8 on Amazon, which is likely cheaper than printing it yourself if you want a paper version.
The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own by Joshua Becker
The entire premise of this book can be boiled down to a single sentence: Orient your life toward worthy goals that are meaningful to you and get rid of everything else in your life – including possessions – that aren’t related to those goals. What’s meaningful to you? Center your life around it and drop the rest.
What ends up coming out of that core idea is a mix of minimalism and frugality and living a meaningful life, something that I think a lot of people are seeking these days. I know I sometimes feel like I’m drowning in possessions, pieces of projects that I was once passionate about or would like to tackle someday, and I often find myself buying into more and more “someday” projects.
These feelings and responses are natural outgrowths of being a curious and passionate person in the modern world. The challenge is to figure out how to channel those healthy tendencies in a healthy and meaningful direction rather than in a cluttered and expensive direction.
The Art of Money: A Life-Changing Guide to Financial Happiness by Bari Tessler
I have a close friend who is a brilliant and creative person. She generates fresh ideas like a fire hose generates water, cares deeply about the people in her life, and always seems to be there when you need her. She’s an amazing writer with this perfect comedic self-deprecating touch. She’s also terrifically bad at math and prefers never to think about money unless it’s hanging around her neck.
This book was written for her. Again, this is the money book for my friend.
Here’s the thing: Many personal finance books are written for particular audiences. There are ones written for Christians. There are ones written for philosophical types. There are ones written for number-crunchers. There are ones written for environmentalists. There are ones written for conservatives. There are ones written for liberals. There are ones written for college students. There are ones written for the elderly. You get the idea.
Those books really don’t differ in their core advice. Where they differ is in their presentation of that advice. Here, the advice targets what I would call “artistic” people, as it intentionally de-emphasizes the math and focuses instead on the meaning of personal finance choices, treating frugality as much as a form of expression as a tool for saving money. It’s an interesting perspective, indeed, one that I think would click with a lot of people (my friend being one of them, of course).
The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less by Emrys Westacott
This book is really a philosophical look at frugality, written by a philosophy professor. The book tackles one seemingly simple question: why do people perceive frugality as a virtue, and why do people equate it with good living and happiness? That’s a thread that has appeared in writings for thousands of years and almost always taken as a given, but why? Even more interesting, why do people rarely follow that advice? Why is simple living and frugality often perceived as being outside the norm?
Westacott digs into those questions with rigor and insight, coming up with a lot of interesting conclusions. He digs into the difference between happiness and contentment, asks whether or not extravagance is really a path to lasting joy, and what the impact of frugality is on the broader world as compared to contentment.
As any good philosophical work does, the book steps carefully through the thought process that leads to a reasonable conclusion, but you’re supposed to question it and think about it. This isn’t a book of answers. This is a book intended to feed thinking. It’s a book that’s supposed to make you ponder the connection between frugality and good living – does it really exist? Why?
If that appeals to you, this is a must-read book. This book bridges the gap between the practical realities of frugality and the larger world of philosophy and manages to do it in a very readable and clear way. If you like turning ideas over in your head, this is well worth your time.
The Debt Escape Plan: How to Free Yourself From Credit Card Balances, Boost Your Credit Score, and Live Debt-Free by Beverly Herzog
Most of the time, when personal finance books attempt to adopt a sense of humor, it comes off as really corny and unrealistic. I often walk away not laughing, but thinking the person is rather… odd. The humor just falls flat.
This is perhaps the only book I’ve ever read on personal finance that employed humor on any level that actually works. It manages to successfully weave a light humorous tone together with solid personal finance advice in a way that doesn’t really undermine either one, something that really is a trick.
The book doesn’t really strike any new ground in personal finance thinking. Instead, it’s on this list for successfully bringing a fresh direction in writing about the usual strong base of personal finance advice. It blends humor and personal finance writing incredibly well, and that makes it a very good “overview of personal finance” book for someone who likes humor in what they read.
This is a very goal-focused personal finance book. Most personal finance books talk about goal setting but then end up essentially guiding people down a financial path toward goals that the writer already has in mind (often, those are either goals that are loved by the writer or goals that match the “average American family”).
Jason Vitug goes against that process here. His entire focus is on setting personal goals. The entire book is oriented around thinking about where you want your life to be in the future and then orienting the tools of personal finance to serve those goals. Everything is explicitly oriented toward the personal goals that the reader sets for himself or herself.
I really dug the goal-oriented approach of this book and how it treated personal finance as a set of tools to achieve goals rather than this standalone process that you must follow to achieve “success.” Many personal finance books fall short of treating personal finance as a tool for achieving goals and instead end up making personal finance feel like a goal to its own ends.
If you’re a goal-setting kind of person and mostly want to consider personal finance as a series of tools for achieving your own life goals that aren’t strictly finance-oriented, this is going to be a very good read for you.
The Recovering Spender: How to Live a Happy, Fulfilled, Debt-Free Life by Lauren Greutman
As I said earlier, most personal finance books are written for a specific audience. The person loaded with debt. The young person. The philosophically minded person. And so on.
The specific audience here is an interesting one. I would call the audience here the “recovering materialistic person.” This is a person who, at some point in the past, was heavily focused on material things but at some point became at least partially disenchanted with it. That person might still find some attraction in some material things, but their desires are pulling them down a different path at the same time, one that’s oriented toward building a strong financial foundation.
That change can be triggered by many things: personal growth, having a child, getting married, starting a tough career. Whatever that change is, Greutman speaks to that person in transition, a person changing from a materially-focused person to a person focused on other life areas, and she does it with a truly kind and gentle and non-judgmental touch.
It’s not easy to undergo that kind of sea change, and the author is really aware of that. Usually, such a drastic change in underlying life philosophy has ripples throughout all areas of life, and the book does deal with those changes while still focusing on debt repayment as a central theme. I think it’s perfect for someone who’s struggling to radically change their spending behavior and trying to deal with all of the ripples that such changes bring.
The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything by Neil Pasricha
This is another book where the core premise is really straightforward: Contentment and freedom are the foundations of a life that produces consistent happiness. This is a theme I’ve reflected in my own posts as of late – you can’t really achieve lasting happiness, but you can achieve lasting contentment, which is a fertile ground for happiness.
Pasricha does a great job of delving into the nuts and bolts of this idea, transforming it into a series of seven actionable “secrets” to push us toward a contented life:
1. Walk at least 30 minutes, three times a week
2. Write in a journal at least 20 minutes a day, usually about a positive experience
3. Do five random acts of kindness each week
4. Completely unplug to recharge as often as possible
5. Find the “flow state” as often as possible (“flow state” being when you’re so engaged that you lose track of time and place)
6. Meditate each day (he suggests for two minutes at a bare minimum)
7. Identify five things you’re thankful for each day
That’s a pretty solid life checklist, but what does it have to do with finances? The reality is that most reckless spending is driven by an underlying sense of discontentment, which means that it’s not easy to find a life that’s in full bloom with natural sources of happiness. We crave that feeling of happiness and we often find bursts of it through spending. That’s a mistake. Finding contentment is a better way through this.
Holiday has written a trilogy of books in recent years on applying stoicism to modern life. I found The Obstacle Is the Way to be the most powerful of the three.
The core idea of this book is that life presents us with a series of obstacles, and many of them seem incredibly unfair. I am deaf in one ear, for example, which makes it extremely challenging to carry on conversations in noisy rooms or to place where someone is at when they call out to me.
When faced with a challenge like this, you can either break down at the unfairness of the challenge and complain about the unfair advantages that everyone else has, or you can simply let go of the things you cannot control, take hold of the things you can control, and find a way around it.
In that, an obstacle actually brings out the best in us. It enables us to see the strengths that we have and helps us to understand what parts of our lives we truly control, which prepares us for further challenges in life.
This mode of thinking prepares people quite well for life’s challenges – and, yes, personal finance is one of those challenges. The things you learn about yourself as you tackle an overwhelming debt load are things that you can apply in many other areas of your life. The key is to learn how to separate what you can control from what you can’t, and that’s what this book focuses on. It’s a great interpretation of ancient Stoic philosophy applied to the modern world.
Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich
This book is probably the furthest from typical personal finance of any of the ones listed here, but it really hones in well on a particular thread of frugality that’s worth discussing – the idea of making stuff from scratch.
Quite often, stuff you make yourself from scratch – things like pasta, for example, or bread or sauerkraut – are of incredibly high quality compared to what you can get in the store, plus they’re usually really low financial cost. However, they come with an additional cost – they take time – and a bit of additional risk – they can go bad if you make a mistake.
That’s why, in my view, the idea of making stuff from scratch is something of a bridge between frugal practice and hobby. I can make some of the best pasta I’ve ever had from a bit of flour and a few eggs, but it takes time and practice to be able to do it efficiently, and to devote that time and practice when it’s not that much more expensive to buy a box of Barilla at the store means that if you respect the time value of money, this is mostly a hobby that happens to save you a few bucks and produces some pretty tasty results.
Having said that, making stuff from scratch is a wonderful type of hobby for a frugal person to have. It’s a way for a frugal person to actually spend a little less while doing something that they enjoy and ending up with some very high quality results.
It’s that wonderful balancing act that Woginrich talks about in this book. It really focuses in on the many pleasures of making stuff from scratch – the time and craftsmanship that goes into making things rather than just buying them. There’s great joy there, but it has to be an expression from within. Making stuff from scratch purely for frugality’s sake usually isn’t worth it.
Some Final Thoughts
For me, the best books related to personal finance and frugality these days are the ones that take on new angles on the classic principles or else focus intensely on one particular aspect of personal finance. Books that just write about the same old ideas without any fresh perspectives don’t hold an interest.
That’s why these 10 books stand out to me. Some of them take on all of the classic ideas, but do so from a new place – the philosopher, or the artist. Others dig into some specific principle – finding contentment, for example, or making stuff from scratch.
All of them are like strokes on a canvas, gradually filling in a picture of personal finance as part of a healthy and hopeful life, where financial strategies help people live the kind of low-stress and joyful life that most of us dream of.
Good luck, and happy reading.