Every now and then there is a book so meaningful that you can't wait to recommend it. That's how I feel about "The Richest Man in Babylon" by George S. Clason.
This book, the first selection for the Color of Money Book Club, was originally published in 1926, but its message is still applicable. Clason writes that money is governed today much the way it was when prosperous men thronged the streets of Babylon thousands of years ago. The premise of the book is that basic rules about work ethic, thrift and financial planning don't change over time. Clason uses fictional Babylonian characters to give witty, instructive lessons about acquiring wealth and avoiding unnecessary debt.
For example, one parable about a man who is deep in debt could just as easily apply to the many, many people overwhelmed with credit card debt today. As one wise character says: "He who spends more than he earns is sowing the winds of needless self-indulgence from which he is sure to reap the whirlwinds of trouble and humiliation."
You won't find any complicated financial jargon, stock-picking tips or retirement calculators in this book. Instead, Clason uses his parables to pass on secrets to financial security. The fabled "richest man in Babylon," whose name is Arkad, started out with nothing in his pocket, and yet he found a cure for his lean purse by following these seven rules of acquisition:
* Start thy purse to fattening.
* Control thy expenditures.
* Make thy gold multiply.
* Guard thy treasures from loss.
* Make of thy dwelling a profitable investment.
* Ensure a future income.
* Increase thy ability to earn.
The first rule is the most important. You fatten your bank account by saving money from your earnings on a regular basis. Every time you get paid, save at least 10 percent.
If your means of saving that 10 percent is through a tax-deferred retirement plan at work, continue to save at least the amount that meets the company match (workers often get 50 cents for every dollar they put in, up to 6 percent of their salary). Take the remaining 4 percent and save it on your own. Cut some of your costs and you may even be able to save 20 percent (10 percent for retirement and 10 for other saving goals). And yes, even if you're in debt, try to put away 10 percent.
And how will you be able to save 10 percent of your income?
Control thy expenditures, Arkad would say. "That which each of us calls our 'necessary expenses' will always grow to equal our income unless we protest to the contrary," he says. "Confuse not the necessary expenses with thy desires."
Start by listing all of your expenses. Now go through the list and ask yourself, "Is this expense a need or a want?"
Once you begin to save, make thy money multiply. Do you know the Rule of 72? It's the most important and simplest rule of financial success.
Divide the number 72 by the percentage rate you are earning on your investment to determine approximately how long it will take to double your money.
For example, if you have $500 in a savings account earning 4 percent interest, it will take 18 years for your money to double to $1,000 (72 divided by 4 equals 18), assuming you make no further deposits.
The power of compound interest is like the Energizer bunny. It keeps going and going, making your money work for you so you don't have to work so hard.
Once you begin to invest, be careful that you don't lose your wealth through unwise investment schemes. "Be not misled by thine own romantic desires to make wealth rapidly," says Arkad.
In other words, don't invest in things you don't understand. As Peter Lynch, the legendary mutual fund manager, says: "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon."
The fifth cure for a lean purse is to own your own home. Home equity is the primary source of personal wealth for American families. Twenty-one percent of the nation's wealth is held in the form of home equity, according to the Census Bureau.
For those with incomes between $20,000 and $50,000, home equity constitutes 55 percent of their total wealth, according to a report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The sixth cure for a lean purse is to ensure a future income. "Provide in advance for the needs of thy growing age and the protection of thy family," Arkad told his fellow Babylonians.
Lastly, if your expenses are more than your income, you have to increase your ability to earn. You may have to get another job or a better education that will help you get a better-paying job. Or you may need to increase your financial knowledge. "The more wisdom we know, the more we may earn," Arkad says.
There is so much financial insight in Clason's book. Take his seven simple cures for a lean purse and you have the opportunity to live a life free of crushing debt and financial stress. So, as Arkad advises, "Go thou forth and practice these truths that thou mayest prosper and grow wealthy."
While Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. Readers can write to her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.