Updated on 09.15.14

The Essential Bookshelf

Trent Hamm

The Only Eight Books I've Kept (After Hundreds of Reviews)

Over the last two years, I’ve reviewed in detail more than a hundred (actually approaching two hundred) personal finance and personal productivity books on The Simple Dollar – for more than a year, I reviewed two a week. Over that time, many readers have asked me what I’m doing with all of those books. Some came from the library, a few were review copies, and some were gifts, but surely I had to be building up quite a library, right?

Not quite. Here’s my bookshelf of books I’ve bought and kept because of The Simple Dollar.

my bookshelf

That’s right. Eight books. These were the only eight that were interesting enough and reference-worthy enough for me to keep around – the rest were either checked out from the library or given away. In my eyes, out of all of the personal finance and personal productivity books I’ve read and reviewed on this site, these were the eight worth keeping. Everything else? Given away. Taken back to the library and forgotten. Traded. In some way, they all bit the dust.

Here’s some info about the eight books, in no particular order (the links go to my detailed review of the book):

8 of My Favorite Personal Finance Books

The Complete Tightwad Gazette

by Amy Dacyczyn

This is a thousand-page tome of short articles on specific frugality topics. Not only is the book a frugal inspiration, the author is also a personal and professional inspiration to me. You can’t tell from the picture, but it’s pretty dog-eared and has a foul-looking stain on the lower right hand corner.

The Lazy Person’s Guide to Investing

by Paul Farrell

This book is the “survivor” on this shelf. I kept thinking about tossing it, but every time I open it, I’m inspired deeply to think about investing and I wind up leafing through it for an hour thinking about portfolios. It makes investing more fun than any book I’ve ever read – by far.

Your Money or Your Life

by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin

This is the book that inspired my financial turnaround and has inspired more posts on The Simple Dollar than any other. My copy is disturbingly dog-eared from being read through so many times, and I still turn to it all the time for inspiration for staying on the right financial track.

The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing

by Taylor Larimore, Mel Lindauer, and Michael LeBoeuf

This is the investing reference book on my shelf. It’s extremely heavy on facts without being a burden to read and the philosophy of the writers matches my investment philosophy perfectly. It’s the one book on investment advice I trust above all others and is my final answer when I have questions.

Debt is Slavery

by Michael Mihalik

Like a Cliff’s Notes version of Your Money or Your Life – much the same content, but very short and with a different tone. This lately has become an inspiration, too – I can pop it open and get inspired by just reading a random paragraph.

Getting Things Done

by David Allen

This is the book that taught me how to manage my time effectively enough to build The Simple Dollar while writing a book, maintaining a full time job, and having time at home with a toddler and an infant girl. Allen’s principles are a constant inspiration and this book is incredibly dog-eared and messy because it’s full of hand-scribbled notes.

On Writing

by Stephen King

This is the single book that inspired me to change my career and become a writer. Whenever it’s tough for me, I turn to this book – I’ll curl up and read it and not feel alone in the challenge of writing. It seems to magically refill my batteries and make me feel motivated to pick up the pen again.

Made to Stick

by Chip and Dan Heath

This is my “idea factory” book. Whenever I’m having trouble developing ideas or coming up with unique ones, I open this book, read a chapter, and work through what they’re saying. Almost always, good ideas develop and I work from there.

What about other books you’ve reviewed? Are they all bad?
Not at all. Many are quite good. To me, though, many books are good or are even quite good, but it takes a little more to be great. It has to stick in my head for a long time. It has to make me keep going back to it for reference and for refreshment. It has to simultaneously inform me and entertain me. It has to leave me feeling that my time was really valuable each time I sit down and read it. Only these eight books made that cut for me. I’ve read many books that I think could make that same cut for others and I often recommend them, but these are the ones I turn to time and time again.

What personal finance and personal development books do you consider essential enough to own your own copy for reference?

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  1. clint says:

    I love it. I would add Think and grow rich and The richest man in Babylon. But I will need to go and get a couple of those.

    Great post.

    Thanks for keeping me going in the right direction.

    Clint Lawton


  2. Sandy Naidu says:

    I haven’t read four of these eight books you mentioned…Thank you for writing this post and telling us your favorites…I will be heading to the library this morning to see if I can get a copy…

  3. Kelly J says:

    I also own Made to Stick. I read it over 6 months ago, but often concepts and ideas from it pop into my mind when I’m going about my day to day. The authors really know how to drive their points home, and it is a testament to their title’s claim.

  4. Rick says:

    I also think there’s a difference between a good book and a good *reference* book. I’ve read books before that are good, but then I’ve imbibed everything there is to learn, so I just return the book to the library. But there are few books that really require one to own for future reference.

    Another way to see it is this: How many Internet pages have you bookmarked (for me, around 1000)? And how many of those do you regularly visit? How many of those have you visited at all since you bookmarked it?

  5. Jules says:

    I guess it depends on how you use books. For me, they’re not exactly an escape, not exactly reference (I read mostly non-fiction). The best books are a blend of both.

    Books are very important to me, on a visceral level (I cried when I read about the burning of the Alexandria library–almost 1600 years ago), and for that reason I don’t think I could do what you’ve done, and give them away when I’ve finished. On the other hand, I do make a point of borrowing from the library first, and then buying it later if I like it that much. In this manner, I’ve accrued a fairly decent library, full of books that I’ve read.

    I’m not sure I can explain why books are so important to me. Maybe it’s like binge eating, except without the health risks…?

  6. Andy says:

    I’ve read Your Money or Your Life, GTD, and part of the Boglehead’s Guide to Investing. I need to finish the boglehead book, but it is a little dry. I already like index funds and know they are good, so after that investing isn’t that complicated. I still need to finish it though.

  7. The Complete Tightwad Gazette has been my turnaround book. I have not yet read Your Money or Your Life, I think I should. You review of Made to Stick intrigues me. I will have to read it as well.

  8. Michael says:

    Jules, there are downsides to reading too much. Excessive reading weakens one’s memory. It takes time which belongs to other important things. And those who read all the great books often turn to bad books instead of reading the great books again.

  9. Josh Kaufman says:

    If you’re interested in books about personal development related to business, I recommend checking out the Personal MBA (http://personalmba.com) – a project I started to help people educate themselves about business quickly and inexpensively.

    I own every one of my recommendations (approximately 77 books), and I refer to each of them constantly – they make a great general business reference library. (GTD and Made to Stick are on the list.)

    I’m getting ready to launch the 2008 edition of the recommended reading list any day now, so if you’re interested, keep your eyes peeled!

  10. Michael G.R. says:

    I have three of those. Made to Stick, Getting Things Done and On Writing. Guess I’ll have to check out the others.

  11. Michael G.R. says:

    “Jules, there are downsides to reading too much. Excessive reading weakens one’s memory.”

    Could you cite your sources?

    I’m interested in neuroscience, and this sounds like poppycock to me. It’s actually the other way around: The more intellectual activity you do, the better you’ll be at it.

  12. Jules says:

    @ Michael: As far as I can tell, I don’t have early-onset Alzheimer’s :-)

    Secondly, I don’t read too much–if anything, I don’t read enough. Between writing (as in, actually using pen and paper, which is how I plot before I type), writing, housework, my job, the commute, my cats, making my own clothes, catching up on my online life, and maintaining my own blog…no, I can’t say I get much reading done. But I read quickly (750 wpm) and I remember most of what I read. For the bits that I don’t…well, that’s why I have ’em on the shelf.

  13. Joe Maher says:

    Thanks. I don’t read as much as i ought to and these 8 give a great starting point that isn’t quite so daunting as a 100+ list!

  14. Ann at One Bag Nation says:

    Does anyone have trouble with Getting Things Done besides me? I have read it twice, but continue to feel overwhelmed by it all – not to mention I think Mr. Allen could have used a good editor!

    For me, instead of providing peace of mind, GTD brings out my compulsive side and compels me to way overthink how to organize my lists, etc. rather than just do the tasks on them.

    But perhaps I need to give it another go . . .

  15. j says:

    @Jules – i have to agree that i have an addiction to reading and a pure love of books. i read while i eat the way some people need the tv on. at amusement parks i am the one reading all the signs and maps. i feel calmer and more settled in my own head after reading fiction and smarter after i read non-fiction. the only problems i have are books are so heavy moving them from apt to apt is tough – and i can’t read in the car during road trips ;)

    @Trent – thanks for filling us in – i def added a few of these to my library request list

  16. Frugal Dad says:

    Trent, your shelf looks a lot like mine! I would add to your list Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People as well as Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. Those two books had a profound effect on me, as did several of the ones you mentioned. Thanks for sharing your bookshelf.

  17. Noble says:

    Thanks very much for your insight into this topic. Personally, there is so much info out there that I find I sometimes don’t have time for even book reviews. So I really appreciate your putting this together and for you perspective.

  18. !wanda says:

    @Michael: OK, it’s true that in societies that don’t have writing, oral traditions are much stronger, and it is routine for people to memorize incredibly long texts. In societies where everyone has access to writing and books, people write things down instead of memorizing them. However, I don’t think there is any evidence on an individual basis that “excessive reading weakens one’s memory.” (It can weaken a kid’s eyesight, but that’s a small price to pay for an educated child.)

    I also disagree that “those who read all the great books often turn to bad books…” If you understand how writing and books can be good or great, slogging through poorly written or poorly thought-out texts is annoying.

  19. Michael says:

    Wanda said what I meant: not sinking to a memory level lower than our standard (e.g., Alzheimer’s), but most of us already at a low standard. There are both advantages and disadvantages to living in the age of the printing press, and we ought not to think books are as good as intellectual life can be just because they are an important part of it. And while I agree that someone with a taste for great books dislikes bad books, often 1) people do not develop that taste because they read too many bad books, or 2) they read bad books anyway because they don’t have self-control.

    There is a 3), discerning, un-slothful, generally educated people who provide some individual evidence of our potential. But many of those people are dying now.

  20. Cashola says:

    Excellent post. I’ve recently became interested in Personal Finance and the first book I bought on the subject was The Boglehead’s Guide to Investing. The list you have looks solid and I will be checking a couple of them out! Like the first commenter said, Think and Grow Rich is an awesome book you should add to your library as well.

  21. danielle says:

    Trent, you quote the TMMO often, but it is no longer on your shelf? do tell!!!!

  22. Dave M says:

    Awesome post! You’ve inspired me to thin out my bookshelf and get rid of all the book I never look at anymore.

    So… Any suggestions on what to do with used books other than donate them to your local library? I’ve seen a few book swap clubs online, and other services that simply buy back used books.

    Has anyone used one of these services they really like?


  23. “Getting Things Done” is on my reading list right now (along with “The Cluetrain Manifesto”).

    The problem with me however is that I’m addicted to new books so my bookshelf keeps getting bigger and bigger.

  24. !wanda says:

    @Michael: People in every generation have believed that “discerning, un-slothful, generally educated people” were dying out. In fact, in the 8th century BC, the poet Hesiod wrote, “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today…” Despite these “reckless” Greek youths, civilization has gone on. What’s the chance that you’re finally the one who’s right?

  25. Mark says:


    I love your blog. I just did a review of the book Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist on my blog, and I linked to your review where you said:
    “…it’s one of the rare books that I will keep and read again.”

    It’s not in the picture. Oops. :-)

    I also did a review of Your Money or Your Life. At least that one is still on your shelf! ;-)

    Anyway, here are my reviews if you are interested:

  26. rob says:

    Nice list! Of the books I read last year, three ‘great’ ones stand out: ‘The Black Swan’ (Taleb), ‘On Intelligence’ (Jeff Hawkins), and ‘The Science of Happiness’ (Stefan Klein).

    Reading the books and memory side discussion between Michael and Jules in the previous comments, it reminds me of a quote I heard from a book publisher on CSPAN BookTV. She said something to the effect of “Don’t be ashamed of not finishing a bad book if you feel it’s not worth finishing. Instead, cut your losses and start reading some new good books.”

  27. Shevy says:

    As a reader, I am very much like Jules and, like j, I like to read while I eat.

    Perhaps the most interesting aspect of !Wanda’s comment is not *what* Hesiod wrote, but that she can quote from writings that date back to the 8th century Before the Common Era. Great Books provide us with the next best thing to a live discussion with articulate intellectuals. That is, we have the opportunity to read what long-deceased intellectuals wrote all those centuries ago, to study their ideas, to learn from them, even at times to disagree with them.

    As long as even one copy of a book exists, the author’s experiences and beliefs can be transmitted. Oral traditions, on the other hand, depend on the words remaining the same from generation to generation. A small paraphrase here, a minor addition or deletion there, and the meaning can change. A one generation break in transmission is equivalent to extinction.

    I found Michael’s comments in general to be unfocused, unpolished and unclear.

    On the one hand Michael says, “those who read all the great books often turn to bad books” but he contradicts himself in a later comment when he says, “I agree that someone with a taste for great books dislikes bad books” and then qualifies the statement beyond all recognition.

    In my opinion, one cannot realize that the books one has read are mediocre unless one has also read great writing. However, I tend to believe that truly bad writing can be discerned by the average person.

    I also believe that not all writing needs to be great. There is a time and a place for most things and one does not have to be intellectually stimulated every time one reads. The daily newspaper would be perhaps the most obvious example of this. That said, I find that bad factual writing grates on me and bad fiction fails to sustain my interest.

    I think we, as a society, need to read more and at a higher level than we tend to do on a day to day basis. If that takes valuable time away from watching Seinfeld reruns or Entertainment Tonight, so be it.

    One last point. We all have the potential to improve our memorization skills, even if we can’t all have photographic memories. I remember reading (some 30 years ago) about Marine recruits who were required to memorize the front page of each day’s newspaper during basic training. At first it seemed to be an impossible task, but it became easier day by day.

  28. Dave says:


    Did you know you can get personalized investment advice directly from Taylor Larimore and Mel Lindauer for free at the forums @ diehards.org? Thry usually respond within hours.

  29. I like this idea. It’s the same reason why I only chose a few books to highlight in my About page — when you think about it there aren’t that many books that have had a big influence on your life. I’ve only read Stephen King’s book but I have Getting Things Done sitting right next to me.

  30. Kandace says:

    I have King’s book, Your Money or Your Life, and the Complete Tightwad Gazette on my shelves and refer to them often. I, too, have had a hard time with GTD, but will try again. One book I’ve read twice in the last 9 months is “Not Buying It” by Judith Levine. It’s her account of a year of not spending for a year except for essential like food, rent and transportation. Thought provoking and inspiring for me. I also like Elaine St. James’s “Simplify” series. They are small and easy to digest, although I get most of them from the library and keep them cycling through the system.

  31. mariah says:

    ARRGG, Trent, I bought a book to read because you said you’d read it 5 times. It is called Margin by Swenson. I really thought a book you read 5 times would be on your keeper shelf – mostly because I would keep any book I read 5 times and got things from it. So, it bothers me it isn’t on your keeper shelf – though it is really none of my business what you keep or shuffle off.

    My motto in life right now is “so many books, so little time” because I can’t read all the books I want to read and I want to read thousands of books.

    What drives me a little bit crazy (just a little bit you say?) is that I really do want to read so much more than I can read. Perhaps I’m obsessing for no good reason – I had insomnia and didn’t sleep at all last night. So, ignore this and thanks for keeping the information out here for us to learn from. Cheerio!

  32. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Buffett and Margin are both excellent books that I’ve re-read multiple times. In both cases, I passed them on directly to friends to encourage them to read it. The same goes for about ten others that I enjoyed, read a few times, and realized that they’d be more valuable in someone else’s hands.

  33. Schizohedron says:

    I will retain Ben Graham’s 2003 edition of The Intelligent Investor on my shelf for a long time. Jason Zweig’s tart, post–dotcom bubble commentary between the chapters is the slap in the face I need every time I get the urge to gamble on speculative stocks.

  34. Jeremy says:

    Dave beat me to it, but let me add my recommendation to check out diehards.org for great investing advice. The authors of the Bogleheads book are sincerely helpful people who answer questions on the discussion boards there every day. Other well-respected finance authors like Rick Ferri and Larry Swedroe post too. Shoot, even John Bogle himself has been known to come around once in a while.

  35. Brad says:

    Awesome suggestions! I just ordered The Complete Tightwad Gazette and Your Money or Your Life through your Amazon links. I’ve been reading your blog religiously for a few months now. I realize it’s not much, but hopefully the associate money is helpful!

  36. Joe T says:

    @Ann (comment #14): You are not alone. when I tried to implement it, “Getting Things Done” became “Getting Lists Done”, and I soon began to dread managing those lists. I intend to have another crack at it later in the year, but for now I’m just concentrating on doing what I can as I can, and not adding unnecessary new things to my “to do” heap, which I think is my biggest problem.

    As for the other books, I’ve only read “Bogleheads”, and I think it’s great. The others look like they’re worth checking out.

  37. Dawn says:

    I’m another one who had trouble with Getting things done, but I wonder if those of us who have that trouble were already pretty well organized and Allen’s system just competes with what we already have? I find the best thing to do with a book like this is see if there are just a couple of useful things I can take from it, and leave the rest.

    Also, I just find it hard to read, but I think that’s personal preference.

    That’s part of why I love the various book reviews. It might not be something Trent uses, but perhaps it would work better for some of us.

  38. Anthoney Grigsby says:

    The only book I read on this list was “Your Money Or Your Life” and not too long afterwards that book was stolen from me.

  39. Michael says:

    Wanda, a country can continue to exist but lose its best attributes, and a virtue of its citizens can survive but become rare. For example, Greece no longer creates great poetry and now most Greeks can’t even quote the Iliad. I meant that sort of decline, not an apocalypse. Some people mistake decline for progress and that is understandable. But it is wrong to say there must be no decline because every generation notices it. And it’s also wrong to imply a prior generation was perfect, as I did.

    Shevy, first, you are right about my writing and thinking, and I did contradict myself. Please let me clarify. I meant that even though great books help one develop a dislike for bad books, bad books are still read. Because so much bad reading is available, even people who understand and love great books and hate junk end up reading it if they don’t have perfect self control, are pressured, or don’t perfectly discern between worthwhile and worthless knowledge. The newspaper is a good example because newspapers are everywhere, those who don’t read news are thought to be ignorant, and many people mistake useless news for useful news.

  40. D.B. says:

    Thanks for the reviews. I will put some on my list.

    My practice for the past few years is to not buy new books unless I cannot obtain them any other way. I live in a major city, and between our library system and interlibrary loan, I have been able to obtain hundreds of books at no cost. The library system also sells used books and maintains its own used bookstore, to which donations can be counted as a tax-deductible charitable donation.

    If I want to keep certain passages from the books for reference, I scan them and keep them in Microsoft Word files or occasionally xerox them.

    I also practice book swapping, book trading, and frugal spending since my city has multiple used bookstores and frequent yard sales.

    I keep a plain text file on my computer desktop for “Books Wanted” and “Videos Wanted” where I keep my wishlists. I update them with data from the library so I know where to get it, or how to request it from interlibrary loan. This way, I have easily accessible lists that I can take with me whenever I go to libraries, bookstores, or sales.

  41. Michiko says:

    I also have the Tightwad gazzette, although I havevn’t always been the best about applying all of it’s suggestions! But I agree it’s a valuable resource.

    Haven’t read through ‘Your money or your life,’ but I got the gist of it, and I also would consider buying this book.

  42. Mike says:

    I’m with you on the Tightwad Gazette. The others I’ve never read but I think perhaps I will after reading this post. I’d like to suggest Charles Givens’ “More Wealth Without Risk” as another outstanding personal finance book. The book is over ten years old now and some of the advice in it (particularly the tax-related advice) is outdated, but Givens is great because he goes over every area of personal finance with a fine-toothed comb. For example, the book includes the most thorough, logical discussion of car insurance I have ever read; he points out that insurance is a means of managing risk, not a means of obtaining psychological comfort, which is how many people tend to approach it. This book would be on my very short list “essential” personal finance books. Not sure what the others would be, but “Wealth Without Risk” and “The Tightwad Gazette” would certainly be on it.

  43. GigiJ says:

    Great list. The Tightwad Gazette was like a bible to me years ago and many of the things I read there are now ingrained habits. One book that also influenced me greatly that I was a little disappointed to not see listed was The Millionaire Next Door. That book for me really hammered the benefits of frugality for me and has made a huge difference in how I raise my children from how I was raised (I have to admit to being a bit of a UAW and wish my somewhat wealthy father had taken time to explain some financial things to me, instead of giving me very conflicting concepts of money.)

  44. Eva says:

    I have never written on a blog site before but I could not resist after I read your interview with Amy Dacyzyn. I remember seeing her on Phil Donahue in the eighties and immediately signed up for her newsletter. I have all of her books and used the advice in them while my older children were growing up. I am still using the books for reference because I have a ‘second wave’ of children ages 12, 7, and 5. I cannot imagine my life without her books. I also have Your Money or Your Life. How do you feel about Dave Ramsey’s books. I was given a set of his books and workbooks. I enjoyed reading his life story but I cannot relate to his being a millionaire on day and broke the next. At best I have been a ‘thousandaire’. Regarding your interview with Amy, I know that I am not alone in wondering what happened to her. Throughout the last decade I have searched the internet for information regarding her and today I know. Thanks.

  45. Courtney says:

    Thanks for this great list, and terrific blog! I found you by searching for information on the Tightwad Gazette after reading about it tonight in Your Money or Your Life. That book has been so inspiring to me so far I am going to check some of the others you have down as well. Especially GTD….with a preschooler, toddler and blog of my own I could use the tips!

  46. Jeremy Day says:

    Hi Trent,

    This is a good list. I think I really need to check out the Tightwad Gazette. Stephen King’s book On Writing is a huge motivation for me as well. I read it before but still need to get a copy. Thanks for reminding me! ;-)


  47. Rich Dad/Poor Dad is the book responsible for my financial turnaround. It taught me how to read a balance sheet, the difference between income and wealth, assets and liabilities. It inspired me to get out of short term debt, acquire assets, start side businesses and invest heavily in my career.

  48. I have to say i was surprised and delighted to see On writing on your shelf. This has long been one of my favourites. The book is such an candid and intimate look into King’s writing and life. Whenever I’m in need of a lift I pick it up thumb through it and remember that regardless of talent success takes work. It really is a wake up call, part cautionary but largely inspiring. It should be required reading for anyone with a desire to write.

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