Money for Life: Budgeting Success and Financial Fitness in Just 12 Weeks

Author:   Steven B. Smith
Publisher/Date:   Dearborn Trade Publishing (2004)
ISBN:   0793187931     (paperback, 141 pages plus notes & appendices)

The back cover of Money for Life tells us that its author, Steven B. Smith, is the chairman and CEO of In2M Corporation, a software development company specializing in financial products for consumers and financial services companies. More specifically, In2M is the creator and distributor of Mvelopes Personal, a software program designed to aid with monthly household budgeting. Mvelopes, unlike such popular programs as Quicken and Money, is more of a "plan-ahead" budgeting system, and is based upon the ages-old envelopes budgeting system used by many of our parents and grandparents. (No, Virginia, Grandma Minnie and Grandpa Earl didn't have Dell computers to help them with their finances.)

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It stands to reason, then, that Smith and In2M have a vested interest in somehow connecting the distribution of Money for Life (hereafter referred to as MFL) with the concurrent distribution of their Mvelopes software. In the earlier, electronic version of MFL — it sported a red cover, I think — this business interest was obvious, and very heavy-handed. Intentionally or not, the book came off as a selling gimmick, and little more. The author's interest in selling the software was damagingly evident, and what could otherwise have been a worthwhile addition to one's financial library became little more than a long-winded advertisement for a financial software product.

Most Americans overspend

But to his credit, Smith made some dramatic changes in this version of MFL. I will go on record here and suggest that the latest version (2004) of MFL is a very worthy purchase in its own right. This is especially true for those who are new to the world of controlled spending, debt reduction, and budgeting. (I can't speak for the Mvelopes software, though, having never tried it. I'm quite enamored with Quicken, and my own Excel spreadsheets, after all. I don't have fancy graphical interfaces or offer synched internet bank-account downloads, but I don't charge monthly fees, either.)

The book presents its information in an interesting format:   Much of its message is delivered via third-person narrative, wherein the reader observes the story of fictional couple Ryan and Christine Richardson. The Richardsons are young, college-educated, gainfully employed . . . and given their current spending habits, headed straight for a Thirty-Car Financial Pileup. Like so many of their real-life contemporaries, they face painful daily dilemmas in the realm of personal finance. However, neither their parents nor their educational system has prepared them for successfully managing their finances on a real-world, consumption-driven, moment-to-moment basis. Hard to ignore all that persuasive marketing, ain't it, Christine?

That, of course, is where help arrives. In this case, the cavalry wields a calculator, and dashes onscreen in the form of an in-story financial advisor who is able to stress to the Richardsons the importance of tracking and planning their spending and saving. Without directed, earnest efforts in the budgeting arena, the Richardsons are mired in the earn 'n' burn consumptive cycle, never able to outearn their expenses to any appreciable degree. Were Vegas to carry odds on it, they'd likely favor the Richardsons sliding into bankruptcy.

The fictionalized chapters relating the Richardsons' saga are worthwhile, and illustrative of larger concepts. They exist presumably to allow readers a more unique third-person view of common situations that may already be taking place in their own lives. The true value of MFL, however, lies not so much in these illustrative scenes, but rather in the "Applied Principles" portions which follow each chapter.

These "Applied Principles" sections often focus on why families must plan their spending and saving (and run their household like a business). When followed by the carefully-detailed outlinings of just how to do this successfully, these sections are nothing short of impressive. For once the reader is not handed a simple, cursory "how-to" briefing, followed by a verbal "You have to do this!" push. Such a monologue (regarding the specifics of planning, anyway) is common in most glossy financial primers. Here, thankfully, the author guides the reader step by step through the budgeting process, providing vigorous instruction and commentary along the variety of topics which budgeting inevitably affects:   debt reduction, wealth building, and marital communication, among others. In this realm, Money for Life accomplishes its task better, and more fully, than any other book I have yet read.

Here are a few sample passages:

Be prepared to change your thinking.

Albert Einstein once said, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." If you want to become financially fit, you need to be prepared to think differently than you have in the past. You have to be prepared to look at things differently than society does.

If you are prepared to adjust your thinking, you will begin to see solutions where before you only saw problems. You will be able to learn from the experiences of others — both good and bad. As you follow Ryan and Christine in their quest to become financially fit, you will learn many things that may represent alternate views from those with which you are familiar. Ultimately, you must be prepared and willing to incorporate new thinking into your financial life. As you do, you will make substantial progress toward becoming financially fit.

Use an envelope system to rapidly eliminate debt.

One of the most crippling impacts to personal financial fitness is debt. Debt is every bit as damaging to your financial health as extra weight is to your physical health. Losing your debt load can be the most financially liberating thing you will ever do. Continuing to add to your debt will likely be the most financially restricting thing you can do.

To successfully tackle personal debt, the first thing you need to do is stop adding to it. There is no way to begin reducing debt and eventually eliminate it if you are constantly increasing it by spending more than you make. Incorporating the principles necessary to live within your means is the first step to conquering personal debt. After you have been through the Success Cycle during the first month, you are prepared to begin an accelerated debt-reduction program . . ..

The fictional narrative portions of MFL are moderately-well written (from a fiction writer's point of view, anyway). Characters are numerous, but because they are not well-tagged (adept fiction writers know what I'm talking about) or particularly distinctive from each other at any level, keeping track of "who's who" can be a bit confusing at times. (I understand that the characters in MFL are meant to have a sort of "everyman" feel in order to faciliate reader relation with them. Sorry, but that doesn't work in fiction. Reader empathy and sympathy are born in good characterization, and that is born in detail — carefully-crafted, vivid, true-to-life detail. Study how writers like Anne Tyler, Raymond Carver, and Stephen King accomplish this.)

Also, character dialogue is occasionally stiff and unrealistic. But I must add that such concerns are easily dismissed, because the instructive, non-fiction portions of MFL are so strong, vibrant, and persuasive in their writing.

The author's direct references to his Mvelopes software occur only in sparse mention, and most notably in the final appendices of the book. I cannot overstate the importance of this editorial change, as direct product references (with obvious sales implications) are distracting at the least, and insulting at the worst. Throughout the rest of the work, Smith clearly states the truth: that the process of plan-ahead budgeting can be satisfactorily done by any number of means, such as actual paper envelopes, custom-built computer spreadsheets, and other vendors' software offerings. I heartily commend him for this. Such authorial discretion adds a huge helping of credibility to the book's message.

Given the immense potential value of Money for Life's content — on both educational, and motivational, levels — it is a credibility which the book deserves.

Kudos to Steven Smith for revising Money for Life, and in doing so, looking beyond the book's potential for merely generating revenue numbers. I would like to believe that this was simply a case of an author glimpsing a bit of the potential of his own prior efforts, and then clearing away the muddle and debris. He did what needed to be done.

Money for Life is strong, and, I believe, bears the potential for enormous financial rewards for its readers. I hope (and suspect) that offshoot sales of the Mvelopes program will reward Mr. Smith quite well also.

Michael • March, 2004

Forget Quicken.  Get REAL control of your spending

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