How to Ruin Your Financial Life

Author:   Ben Stein
Publisher/Date:   Hay House / 2004
ISBN:   1-4019-0241-3     (hardcover, 129 pages)

I get the feeling that Ben Stein and I have at least one thing in common: We're both fascinated by watching idiots drive their personal finances into the dirt.

His 2004 book How to Ruin Your Financial Life is only about 129 pages long. With big print on small pages, at that. Honestly, that's all it needs.

As you might have inferred from the title, Stein spends 116 of his 129 pages heckling the American SuperConsumer-at-Large, whose relentless financial stupidity I suspect mesmerizes him. For all I know, he may do what I do, which is to watch every money-related episode of Dr. Phil, scribble a few pointed notes, and laugh his rear smooth off at how ridiculously immature and short-sighted Joe and Jane Spendabunch can be. Or maybe he just scours top-echelon dinner parties and celebrity hotspots for material.

In any case, I've always been a big fan of Stein. He seems unbelievably intelligent, astoundingly witty, and educated in an eclectic array of topics. His writings have covered economics, politics, sociological issues, the circus that is Hollywood nightlife, and everything in between. Plus he can boast of being a game-show host (Win Ben Stein's Money) and fringe comedic actor ("Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?"). In fact, if you want to see an amazing list of one man's accomplishments and credentials, just Google "Ben Stein" and see what comes up. Few authors of any sort — let alone financial authors — can rival Mr. Stein's resume.

As for the book, it's good for a laugh or three, and not really a whole lot more. Stein premises How to Ruin Your Financial Life quite nicely in the following passage:

Yet, despite the clear desirability of having money, millions of people don't have the funds they need and want. This, alas, is the case despite the fact that there are thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of books out there telling people how to make, save, spend, and invest money wisely. They make some impact, but the vast numbers of people in this country (and others) simply don't get it when they're advised how to handle money and how to manage their financial lives. They just keep on doing the same messy things that got them into trouble in the first place.

So in light of the above, I decided that it was time for a different approach. I thought I'd offer some pertinent advice in reverse . . . by creating a book that tells you, the reader, how to ruin your financial life. By doing so, I figured I'd allow you to see just what you're doing wrong, and how what you're doing wrong fits into a recognizable pattern of ruination.

It's an intriguing idea. And it might work . . . for some people. The problem is that those "some people" are not the ones likely to pick up HTRYFL. Devout fans of Ben Stein might pick it up, and financial-advice connoisseurs (such as myself) might pick it up. Neither of those, though, are likely to constitute an audience "in need" of Stein's "advice in reverse."

Anyhow, I came to the book with pretty low expectations. Even from that level, I was let down.

HTRYFL contains fifty-five chapters, which, now that I think about it, aren't really "chapters" at all, but more like "tenets." Yes, fifty-five sounds like a lot, but there is absolutely nothing new here. I'll list a few of the choice topics here, as that should give you all the flavor (and none of the caffeine):

  • Save Money Only When You Feel Like It, and If You Just Don't Feel Like Saving, Then Don't!
  • Forget to Pay Your Taxes
  • Collect As Many Credit Cards As You Can, and Use Them Frequently
  • Convince Yourself That You Can Beat the Market Without Knowing Anything About It

And fifty-one more just like that.

While the idea behind the book is fairly original, its content is not, and its delivery borders on downright poor. The concepts are all familiar — well-worn and tired, to be more precise — and true, but the writing itself disappoints. The author's use of language lacks any strand of creativity whatsoever. The chapter titles, in fact, may have been the best part of the work. Once you get past those, most of the time, the writing just isn't that amusing. And any copyediting, if there was such, was marginal at best. (Yes, I even attempted to read the book as if Stein himself were deadpanning it to me inside my head. That didn't work, either.) I find this really surprising, considering that my other readings of Stein's works (columns and opionion pieces and such) were pretty enjoyable.

Thirteen of the book's 129 pages (the Introduction and Afterword, to be specific) are not of the tongue-in-cheek, "advice in reverse" sort. These pages, in my opinion, comprise roughly ninety percent of its worthwhile content. The reader gets some snack-sized Stein-isms in there, pithy and thoughtful and suitable for desktop mounting, but not enough to make up for the rest of the book.

In the end, I'd have to rate How to Ruin Your Financial Life as a "borrow from the library only" sort of book. The ten bucks or so you'd have to drop on it would almost certainly be better spent elsewhere.

Just not in any of the fifty-five ways Stein describes.

NOTE:   I also briefly mentioned this book in my blog.

Michael • January, 2005

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