IT SAYS SOMETHING about this fine-tuned economic paradise we inhabit that you have to go to business school to figure out how it works. A mini-industry has sprung up of advisers, planners and counselors who get paid good money for guiding the bewildered rich through the fiscal quicksands of everyday life and coaching them through the fine print so they won't be shorn of their pelf.
The rest of us wallow out here in the quagmire as best as we can - shackled to leases, mortgages, service contracts and insurance policies where "sign here" was the only phrase we understood; assuming our math is wrong and never the bank's; depending on bartenders to explain the stock market, and grateful for any outside help we can get. Oddly enough - when you consider that for generations the ladies of the house have been mostly out doing the dishes when economics are discussed - some of the most helpful and accessible financial advice in recent years has come to us from women. Sylvia Porter's column, "Your Money's Worth," appears in newspapers all over the world, translating murky economic jargon and offering practical hints on how to stay afloat. And four years ago she wrapped up the whole personal finance scene in sylvia Porter's Money Book, a hefty 1,105 page compendium of how to earn, spend, save, invest, borrow and use money - plus some basis pointers about the system as a whole.
Jane Bryant Quinn is a newer arrival in the field. She, too, writes a syndicated column, and she has now produced a financial survival manual of her own. Everyone's Money Book reflects some of the changes in the state of the art since Sylvia Porter pioneered the genre.
What with the new consumer laws and assertiveness training, a new tone has crept into fiscal advice. Quinn grabs you by the throat in Chapter One - a lecture on record-keeping ("Filing Cabinet: A place to lose things alphabetically," is the anonymous opening quote) that's guaranteed to send you whimpering through old bureau drawers and shoe boxes - and she doesn't let you up until you mend your ways. In fact, you can't even stay through the first class if you haven't made a will. "You have one, of course," she says briskly. "If not, skip from this paragraph directly to Chapter 27 . . . to see what terrible things will happen to your possessions if you die without one." Don't look for sympathy if you follow her command. "You need a will," this section begins. "If you don't have one, put this book down right now and put a note on your telephone to call a lawyer."
With that out of the way, you're back to her merciless list of documents that ought to be in your files. If you feel lucky to lay hands in your driver's license and your Central Charge card all in the same morning, get ready to have her spoil your day. You didn't bother to mail in that fine-print post card that came with your new toaster? What if the company finds the thing is going to blow up? How can they warn you not to plug it in if they don't have your address? You just threw out a stack of old automobile insurance policies? What if you get sued for something that happened when an old policy was in force, and the fine print - which you didn't take the time to read - has been changed since that year? How can you prove that you were insured at all? Your cancelled check? That's not always enough, Quinn says. Is your stock broker keeping your securities for you? What if he gets his records mixed up? Or goes broke? And if you keep a diary of your business entertainment expenses (which of course you will by the time you've read this far), better keep it up to date as you go along. IRS can analyze how old the ink is if you try to monkey around with it later on.
As for your household inventory . . . Well: "Draw up a list of everything you own, what it cost, and approximately how old it is. And I mean everything, right down to an estimate for bobby pins and cufflinks. Add snapshots of your rooms and sales slips proving the cost of major items." You keep that list in a fireproof strong box and keep it up to date.
At that point about all you need is the deed to the cemetery plot where you plan to be buried (kept handy so people can find it whey you're hit by a bus), along with a master sheet of the numbers of all your insurance policies, stocks, bonds, bank accounts and credit cards, plus a one-page list of all the other lists, telling where everything is, and noting the names and numbers of all the people who know more. To do less, she implies, is a form of littering. If you depart this life and leave a slag heap of documents for your friends to sort out, you're not only a financial mess, but a sort of ecological deadbeat.
Once your files are straight, you're in a position to figure out how much money you have and how much you can spend without going through the roof - a fact-facing you should undertake once a year on what she calls "Roundup day," which should occur between Christmas and New Year, or maybe in the spring after you've done your income taxes, "and have money on your mind." If you're overspending, get ready to shape up fast.Get rid of your credit cards, "one a month if you can't manage it cold turkey - until you've limited so severely the number of places you can charge that you're forced to do most of your business in cash."
She then takes you firmly in hand through the financial jungles that lie in wait for you down the road. Before the cool and calculating gaze of Quinn, even your friendly banker is not infalible, and you don't have to crawl to him on your hands and knees. "Do read whatever material you're given, even if the banker looks busy or assures you he has explained everything," she writes. "He's paid to bring in business and you're business; it's his job to answer your questions."
She wastes no time on anecdote.(And anyway it would be hard to top the section on cohabiting singles - called "mingles" - in Sylvia Porter's Money Book - and the couple that avoids quarrels by having four checking accounts: "yours," "mine," "ours," and "car"). Quinn just guides you through the swamps and shows you where the alligators hide.
When you consider the ground she gets over - from saving and borrowing to buying and insuring a car, renting or buying a house, apartment, condominium or mobile home; from health insurance to paying for college; from income and property taxes to savings bonds, investments, wills, estate planning, social security, retirement planning, divorce and funerals - she achieves a remarkably readable pace, and has assembled an amazing amount of detail. You learn that the annual percentage yield at your savings bank includes such things as how many days the bank counts in a year. (Some use 360 days; others 365 - and would you believe you come out better if they use 360?) And did you know that if your name is misspelled on a check, you should endorse it that way too? Or that an "executive scrawl" signature is easier to forge than the kind you can read? Her chapter on moving not only tells you how to avoid being horn-swoggled by the moving companies (and what documents you need to hang onto), but how to pack your goods. (Don't wrap the lampshades in newspaper; it makes them dirty.) On topics too complex for the scope of the book, she warns you of trouble ahead. ("Don't get involved with options unless you really understand the stock market.")
In fact don't do anything until you've read this book. And above all don't get hit by a bus until you've straightened out your files. CAPTION: Illustration 1, no caption, Illustration by Lou Myers for The Washington Post Illustration 2, no caption, By Lou Myers