Why I Can’t Stand Most Personal Finance Magazines

Every once in a while at the newsstand, I’ll pick up an issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance or SmartMoney, just to give myself something to leaf through while I’m waiting at the airport or something. Every time I do it, I wind up regretting it for three big reasons:

The absolutely overwhelming amount of advertisements. I picked up the June 2007 issue of SmartMoney and began to leaf through it until I realized I was mostly leafing through ads. In fact, at one point in the middle of the issue, there were twenty one straight pages of nothing but advertisements. Sure, there’s some good content in there, but this is ridiculous. If you want to see how a mainstream, ad-supported magazine can have a tasteful number of advertisements, look no further than The New Yorker; I had to open the magazine three times before I even saw an ad at all, and even then it was tastefully placed in only a single column. I had to actually browse the whole magazine to find a full page ad.

The incessant shilling for bad mutual funds. I’m not talking about the ads, I’m talking about the articles. Take a look at the June 2007 issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and their list of the 25 “best funds.” Not a single index fund to be found; they’re all managed funds with relatively high fees compared to index funds. You’re trying to tell me that among the 25 “best funds,” there’s not a single low-cost index fund? Even better, most of the fund profiles were actually puff pieces about the greatness of the fund manager. Please. Show me a fund manager who doesn’t gouge the fund with a huge fee and matches or beats the market year in and year out and then I’ll pay attention.

The “guilt” factor The final straw for me is that neither of these magazines are really written with me in their audience. Most of the articles focus on personal financial issues for the upper middle class, particularly those in middle age. In terms of income, I’d probably not put myself in upper middle class (our household income is well above the median, but not incredibly high) and I’m definitely still a twentysomething, so many of the articles simply don’t match my reality. That’s a big reason why I started this site – I know a lot of people are much closer to my reality than the ones portrayed in those magazines.

I’m not saying that the content in these magazines is terrible; there’s a lot of good stuff in both publications. But when you get rid of the advertisements and the advertising copy for mutual funds that passes for some of the articles, what’s really left? Is it worth $5 to you? It’s not to me, especially when I can get similar material from reading personal finance blogs – they’re free and, if I want to, I can support those writers directly by giving them a donation or a micropayment for their efforts. To me, that’s a lot healthier writer-reader relationship.

If you dislike personal finance magazines so much, why do you review each Money issue? For the most part, Money avoids most of the traps I outlined above, though not always and not entirely. I compared my latest issue of Money with the two magazines above and I found that Money had a lower ratio of ads to content (though still too high for me) and when mutual funds were mentioned, they were all from a predefined set that they’d been following for years (the Money 70), which does include a number of low cost index funds. Plus, the magazine often has an article or two directly targeting twentysomethings in similar situations as mine, and also In short, I feel that they’re the best one on the market, so that’s the magazine I give my attention to; picking up the most recent issue of their competitors did little more than reaffirm that feeling.

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