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If your finances are no more orderly than your 14-year-old's bedroom, a good book can help clean up the mess. A personal-finance book may also be the best option for long-term planning, especially if you don't have bags of money to spend.
Fee-only financial planners, the kind most likely to provide unbiased advice, can charge $2,000 and up for a comprehensive plan. A book won't set you back more than $30 or so.
We live in an age of celebrity and big brand names. To sell books, publishers are using both. Their hope: that readers will attach themselves to "personalities," financial gurus they will follow as closely as they follow J. Lo and Ben Affleck or whose brand name will carry weight.
Personal-finance dynasties sprout expanding product lines, including books, workbooks, videotapes, CDs, seminars, and board games, which, taken together, can cost a devotee hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Some authors endorse financial products--an uncomfortable connection that calls into question a guru's objectivity (See CloseUp, page 25).
Commercial success, however, does not guarantee that readers are getting the information they need. So we put the finance books to the test.
We quickly discovered that personal-finance best sellers may give you more information about a guru's personal life than his or her taste in mutual funds. Suze Orman, for example, uses her storybook rise from waitress to stockbroker to financial planner to best-selling author to illustrate points in her books. David Bach, author of "Smart Women Finish Rich," sprinkles the folksy wisdom of his investor-grandmother throughout his book. He explains that he bought his first stock--McDonald's--at age 7. He writes that at his grandmother's prompting, "I marched up to the counter ... and asked, 'Is this company public?'"
ADVICE AT THE CORE
Regardless of its packaging or the fame of its author, a good personal-finance book should serve one main purpose: to equip you with reliable advice and information to help you make wise decisions. It should detail subjects crucial to a good financial plan: insurance, investing, retirement and education funding, and estate planning. Ideally it also provides advice on debt, savings, and money management; offers worksheets to develop action plans; and inspires you to get you off your duff.
When we evaluated seven personal-finance best sellers, however, most of the books fell short. Jane Bryant Quinn's tome "Making the Most of Your Money" came closest to our ideal, even though it's six years old. At times it's heavy going, however. A daunting retirement-planning worksheet may find readers qualifying for Medicare before they complete all 90 steps. Orman's "The Road to Wealth" was judged to have very good information overall, but it lacked potentially helpful worksheets. The rest of the books had a few solid chapters, but often offered thin coverage on important topics.
HOW WE JUDGED
To choose titles, we waded through best-seller lists and read personal-finance geeks' picks on Amazon.com's Listmania. Right away we eliminated "The One Minute Millionaire," a get-rich-quick book, and "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," which contains more business philosophy than help with day-to-day personal finances.
Since Orman dominates the genre, we chose both her perennial "The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom" and "The Road to Wealth," a question-and-answer reference covering more topics than her new book, "The Laws of Money The Lessons of Life."
Eric Tyson's "Personal Finance for Dummies," a how-to, is replete with tips, warnings, and visual …