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Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry Hardcover – December 27, 2012

3.7 out of 5 stars 207 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

“The personal finance and investment industry is a juggernaut, a part of both the ascendant financial services sector of our economy and the ever-booming self-help arena,” states Olen, personal finance writer. Readers learn about Sylvia Porter, whom Olen describes as the “mother of the personal financial industrial complex.” Porter, by the 1960s, had a daily column in which she explained stocks, bonds, and budgeting to millions of Americans. From that beginning mushroomed financial therapy (psychotherapy, life coaching, and financial planning), which originated in the 1970s and caught substantial media attention after the 2008 financial debacle. Explaining the shortcomings of financial therapy, the author cites bias toward individual demons, errors in comparing financial problems of the rich to those of average and poor Americans, and “a dysfunctional relationship with class, specifically the lack of class mobility in a country that prides itself on the American Dream.” This thought-provoking book alerts us to important issues in today’s postrecession economy and thus will enlighten many library patrons. --Mary Whaley


“It's rare to come across a realistic and readable book about personal finance. Most are laden with rosy promises, followed by acronyms and turgid advice. Helaine Olen, a freelance journalist, offers an exception with Pound Foolish.... It’s a take-no-prisoners examination of the ways she says we have been scared, misled or bamboozled by those purporting to help us achieve financial security.”
The New York Times
“Have you ever met anyone who has grown rich just by saving? Probably not. But you may well have met someone who has grown rich looking after other people’s savings. That dark secret lies at the heart of ‘Pound Foolish’, Helaine Olen’s excellent book, a contemptuous exposé of the American personal-finance industry.”
The Economist

“A cautionary tale that you need to read.”
The Washington Post
“Dishy dirt on the ‘financialization’ of American life and the hordes of carrion-pickers who swarm us in the hope of lifting still more dollars from our pockets.”
“This thought-provoking book alerts us to important issues in today’s post-recession economy.”

“A highly readable antidote to the snake oil of the personal finance industry. Suze Orman, watch out!”

GREG CRITSER, author of Fat Land


“Wow, does personal financial advice need debunking. And Helaine Olen does it like an old master. Clear, witty, takes no prisoners, and right as hell. Olen will wake you up. There is no financial trick to make you rich.”

JEFF MADRICK, author of The Age of Greed and senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute

“Helaine Olen explains in simple language why most Americans are never going to understand the myriad complexities of investing and borrowing, leaving us all vulnerable to being ripped off in oh so many ways. Combining thorough research with passionate writing, Pound Foolish tells us what to do to protect ourselves and our hard-earned money.”

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Fine Print

“As Helaine Olen shows in this powerful exposé, ‘personal finance’ is the ultimate oxymoron. The financial challenges that most Americans face are not simply personal—they reflect the failure of our polices and our leaders to tackle growing middle-class insecurity. And the advice that self-proclaimed money experts provide is far from sound finance. Too often, it’s snake oil that only adds to the problem.”

JACOB S. HACKER, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University, and author of The Great Risk Shift

Pound Foolish is a fabulously well-reported, lucid, and witty tour of the train wreck that American finance has become. Olen has the rare ability to demystify the countless swindles and frauds that lately comprise the basic operations of the investment scene. As a kind of bonus, she depicts with verve and intelligence the panoramic freak show of personalities who infest the money scene.”

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER, author of The Geography of Nowhere and Too Much Magic

“In this gripping account, Helaine Olen pulls out the rug from under the finance industry, and does so in time for at least some of us to find alternative solutions to financial security.”

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, author of Life Inc. and Present Shock

“The world of personal finance is an economic sideshow filled with illusionists, conjurers, and snake-oil salesmen of every stripe. Thankfully, Helaine Olen has spent enough time inside the circus to be able to guide us wisely and wittily through the hall of mirrors—and come out smarter on the other end.”

JAMES LEDBETTER, opinion editor, Reuters, and author of Unwarranted Influence

“The cult of ‘personal finance’ sells itself—and preys on pocketbooks—with a wildly false message: that American middle class families only have themselves to blame for their economic troubles. With wit, simple math, and relentless sleuthing, Helaine Olen shows how the personal finance industry has led savers and investors astray, and what you can do to avoid its traps.”

ALYSSA KATZ, author of Our Lot


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Portfolio (December 27, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591844894
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591844891
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (207 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #235,055 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Freelance writer and former LA Times journalist for the Money Makeover series, Helaine Olen, has written a lively expose of the personal finance industry but if you are looking for advice on how to run your own finances, look elsewhere. A good story-teller and a little gossipy, Olen single-handedly takes on the likes of David Bach, Robert Kiyosaki, Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, and many others, with a somewhat more balanced treatment of Sylvia Porter and Jane Bryant Quinn--not that more balance would save the first four from her expose' of their inconsistencies, platitudes, self-serving claims, hypocrisy, and sometimes outright lies. And at the same time, she has debunked some of their schemes and advice like investing in individual stocks, purchasing indexed annuities, giving up your lattes, thinking rich, investing in real estate, spending $3000 or more on get-rich seminars, and a lot more nonsense that passes as sound financial advice. By two-thirds of the way through this book, I was ready to cash in my 401(k), stuff in all in a Mason jar, and bury it in the back yard. Fortunately the ground was frozen by then.
Some of the later chapters of the book take a somewhat different tack. Stereotypes of women supposedly incompetent as financial managers are exposed as the bigotry that they are in a still sexist society though she says it more nicely than that. She shows the futility of financial literacy curricula for school children as well as the trend toward financial therapy. She argues that there is a link between the rise in obesity and the increased impoverishment of many in the middle class--but neither causes the other.
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Format: Hardcover
Helaine Olen has taken years of research and exposed many, as she describes, "dark" issues in the financial services industry. As someone inside the industry, I was impressed with Olen's ability as a financial lay person to get under the hood and examine the inner workings of complex financial products and pitches. Conflicts of interest and hypocritical advice abound. Selling without informing is common. Yet I had mixed feeling while reading the book and certainly about the conclusion.

The Hits

1) The discussion of Dave Ramsey, David Bach and Suze Orman et al was enlightening as it gave readers that may not have read their books, attended their seminars or bought their products an in depth view of what to expect and what to avoid. In my opinion, many of these financial gurus have worthwhile messages for the masses for getting their finances in order. Yet they also have the entrepreneurial spirit and strive to achieve higher and higher success. The desire for more fame and wealth leads them to do things like create upselling opportunities for higher margin products and provide contradictory advice to sell products and services. Olen does a good job of pointing out the skeletions that all these gurus have in their closet.
2) The reality check that doing all the right things and following all the rules may not lead the investor to financial success is a useful lesson. Yes life has many curveballs and it is hard to avoid all of them. Olen identifies the problem well, but is light on solutions. Life happens and almost everyone needs to respond to adversity.
3) The financial literacy discussion was one of the most thought provoking for me. I had been of the opinion that more education would make a difference.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I read a lot about personal finance because, like most everyone else, I am not in the kind of tip-top financial shape that received wisdom says I should be at this point in my life. What did I do wrong, I keep wondering? What can I do now?

I've read and admired the works of Barbara Ehrenreich, particularly "Bait and Switch", which demonstrates that the current high rate of unemployment--especially for older, experienced workers--is not in fact due to inferior resume-writing skills or failure to compose a zippy enough "elevator speech." In other words, it's not our fault, but rather a much larger, societal problem. The deck is stacked against us as corporations continue to outsource, shed experienced workers, and make clever use of temp workers to reduce payroll costs.

I see Helaine Olen's "Pound Foolish" as an extremely valuable companion to Ehrenreich's work, one that puts the focus on the financial industry and the ways in which it is designed to profit from our financial misery while making us believe it is all our fault. I recall one financial advisor telling my husband and me that the problem with our finances amounted to "lifestyle" issues. He cited the fact that we own smartphones as an example. As if that could be viewed as a shocking indulgence, comparable to, say, frequent weekends at the Four Seasons. There is little mention of the fact that expenses for basics like healthcare and education have ballooned as wages have stagnated or even fallen and employment has become frighteningly tenuous and sporadic, which is our real problem.

Olen makes an enormous contribution here.
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