For holidays: slim financial books offer (mostly) wise advice

Posted: Dec 12, 2006 12:00 AM

If you spend much time in bookstores, you'll appreciate that the nation is in no danger of running out of personal finance books. Most of these books are written by financial personalities with mediocre results. But crammed on the shelves along with these clunkers are some jewels. If you are looking to buy a financial title for the holidays, here are my picks:

- "Smart and Simple Strategies for Busy People," by Jane Bryant Quinn.Nine years ago, Jane Bryant Quinn, the personal finance columnist at Newsweek, completed an encyclopedic book, "Making the Most of Your Money." I kept a copy of the tome on my shelf and would consult it from time to time.

But a book can grow stale and, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, "Stuff happens." Tax laws change, and investing opportunities multiply. But Quinn now has a fresh title that recognizes many people don't want to read a book that's heavy enough to aggravate a tennis elbow.

Her latest book is focused on sharing only the most essential advice for investors who are grappling with major financial issues, such as shouldering the burden of retirement and college, as well as crawling out of debt and navigating insurance options.

Her mantra remains the same as always: Think simple. It's no surprise, then, that she strongly advocates using index funds.

- "Does Your Broker Owe You Money? If You've Lost Money in the Market and It's Your Broker's Fault - You Can Get It Back" and "The Smartest Investment Book You'll Ever Read: The Simple, Stress-Free Way to Reach Your Investment Goals." Both titles are by Daniel R. Solin.

If the person handling your investments is a stockbroker or you're thinking about consulting one, you should buy "Does Your Broker Owe You Money?" Of course, you may not even know that the person urging you to buy shares of General Electric or to dump Intel is a broker. While there are more than 600,000 brokers working out of 4,000-plus brokerage firms in this country, the term stockbroker has vanished from the financial industry's lexicon because of its negative connotation.

These registered reps - the official name - now call themselves financial consultants, financial advisers and wealth managers. The titles have changed, but the practices haven't.

The first step in seeking financial help is to know what type of expert you're dealing with. This may seem obvious, but I continue to be dismayed at how many intelligent people I meet who don't have a clue. Read this book and you'll understand why this matters!

I also recommend Solin's new book, "The Smartest Investment Book You'll Ever Read," which is even skinnier than Quinn's. Solin, a securities arbitration attorney, does a great job of boiling down what is truly essential for most investors.

One of his most valuable feats is explaining in easy language how investors can diversify their portfolios among the major investment categories. The task utterly befuddles most investors, which is unfortunate since it's absolutely critical. Once you've got your asset allocation sketched out, you plug index funds into each category and pour yourself a glass of champagne to celebrate a task well done.

It should take you less than two hours to read this book, and those who do should become far wiser and richer investors.

- "Inside the Economist's Mind: Conversations with Eminent Economists," edited by Paul A. Samuelson and William A. Barnett.

This is an insightful book for anyone who would like to know what the nation's leading economists are thinking without plodding through peer-reviewed journals or textbooks. In nugget-sized servings, the book contains interviews with 16 economists, including eight Nobel laureates, who reflect a panoply of views.

Freed from the constrained environs of professional journals, these prominent economists were able to talk freely and let their hair down (at least those who still have any left).

- "The Only Guide to a Winning Bond Strategy You'll Ever Need," by Larry E. Swedroe and Joseph H. Hempen.

If you've shopped for a book on bond investing, it's probably been a frustrating experience. There are precious few fixed-income books in print, but this is the one worth acquiring. One of the most valuable chapters will explain how you can design and construct a fixed-income portfolio, which is worth the price of the book.

And what not to buy this holiday season?

If you care about the people on your gift-giving list, there are certain popular books you should resist buying. A prominent one that I consider to be extremely shredder-worthy is "Why We Want You to Be Rich: Two Men - One Message," by Donald J. Trump and Robert T. Kiyosaki, who has built a financial empire on the spines of his "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" series.

The two start out by insisting that most rich people don't want to share their secrets of being rich, but apparently since the expectant reader has spent $24.95 plus tax, they will spill their guts.

I kept waiting for the secrets, but I kept stumbling across pablum instead.Kiyosaki, for instance, shared his "trusty" 90/10 rule of thumb, which suggests that 10 percent of the players in any field will capture 90 percent of the money. Following this 90/10 rule of thumb, he never considered becoming a golf pro because he never would have been good enough to make it to Augusta.

Here's another example of the book's amorphous advice: "Use your mind for leverage to make you rich rather than to make excuses." OK, then what? If the authors were content to simply dish out vague or worthless advice, it would be harmless enough. But, unfortunately, the book shares Kiyosaki's disdain for mutual funds and urges people to avoid them.

What are his better ideas? He thinks people could make more money on such as activities as multilevel marketing. Now that's dangerous.