February 22, 2013 - Helaine Olen has had it with self-proclaimed personal finance gurus offering glib advice. In her new book, "Pound Foolish," she describes how middle-class families are being buried by stagnant wages, and the rising costs of housing, education and health care emergencies. Meanwhile, she argues, the replacement of pensions with 401(k)s means financial firms found millions of new customers, but workers ended up worse off. The "personal finance and investment industrial complex" profit while half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
"We were sold on a dream," she writes, "a dream that personal finance had almost magical abilities, that it could compensate for stagnant salaries, income inequality, and a society that offered a shorter and thinner safety net with each passing year." She ridicules many who sold that dream, like the math-challenged guru who claimed skipping your morning latte will make you a millionaire. She takes aim at TV and radio "experts" who she says are better at profiting from their fans than giving them solid, unbiased advice.
These experts "tell people you can invest your way out of this," she told Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's The Daily Show on Wednesday. "There's this whole industry of people saying, 'Hey, you can't manage your money, follow me!'" she said. They should be saying: "Gosh, 50 percent of our society can't get by, what's wrong with our society?"
Olen told Stewart that one first step could be an increase in the minimum wage, as President Obama proposed in his State of the Union speech. "We need to figure out a way for people to earn more" -- at their jobs, not in another risky investing fad.
Another positive step would be talking differently about our finances, she argues, citing the Occupy Wall Street movement as a good start. We're full of private shame on the topic of money -- whether we're unemployed, overdue on student loans, underwater on our mortgage or behind in retirement planning. "Instead of us all being individual failures going down separately," she told Stewart, we should recognize "we're all in this together." If that's our approach, she concluded, "then maybe we'll start seeing changes."
This essay originally appeared in Bloomberg.com's weekly personal finance newsletter, Wealth Watch. Sign up here.