AMONG BOOKS about personal finance, there are those which rely on scare tactics, appealing to the reader's fear of the future with titles like What to Do in the Coming Economic Collapse or Surviving the Current Bear Market. Fortunately, the public has been spared such doomsday diatribes lately, but two recent titles fall into another, similar category--"get rich quick."
How to Build a Fortune With an IRA, by James Michael Ullman and Norman Bercoon (Macmillan, $7.95) and How Your IRA Can Make You a Millionaire, by Arnold Corrigan (Harmony; paperback, $3.95) employ sensational titles at the expense of realistic projections and sound advice. Neither of these books can deliver what they promise, simply because their promises are outrageous. Some 35 years from now when an IRA holder will begin to draw on his (or her) retirement account, a million dollars will be worth the equivalent of only $30,000 today (assuming prices rise an average of 10 percent a year). This economic fact of life is conveniently overlooked and may be missed by readers blinded by dollar signs. Poorly written and organized, both books seem to have been rushed into print to take advantage of the new interest in IRAs.
Corrigan gives short shrift to IRA vehicles offered by banks, savings and loans, and credit unions, although their offerings are the most widely advertised and easily accessible to the inexperienced investor. Ullman and Bercoon devote the bulk of their 327-page guide to an extensive discussion of how IRAs work, but spend only a single chapter discussing how to decide which IRA investment is best for you. This, after all, is what most people really want to learn.
A third type of money book is written by authors with a mission rather than a message. They are on a crusade to save the reader's financial soul, and they aim to do so by offering up pat formulas and such slogans as Venita VanCaspel's "Time + Money + American Free Enterprise = Opportunity to Become Financially Independent," together with mini-sermons on discipline and optimism. VanCaspel's The Power of Money Dynamics (Reston, $18) covers a broad range of financial topics and attempts to help readers develop positive thinking in terms of their personal finances. Instead of clear explanations or prudent suggestions, it gives way to the following exhortation, found in the chapter on taxes and tax shelters: "The first criterion for winning the money and tax game is a positive mental attitude. If you are getting little twinges of doubt right now that you can ever understand our tax laws--do this. Raise your right hand and repeat after me: 'I can understand what Venita is going to tell me!' Did you do it? If not, do it now!" Her book will tell you such basic facts as what the OTC (over-the-counter) market is and how Wall Street got its name, but it glosses over the tough subject of how to pick stocks by referring readers to Security Analyses, by Graham and Dodd, an excellent but highly technical academic text that would put VanCaspel's disciples to sleep.
Mimi Brien's Money-Wise (Bantam; paperback, $3.50) is similarly aimed at financial sinners--specifically, women who don't discover that they should be involved in family financial matters until divorce or widowhood forces such responsibility upon them. Unfortunately, the book does not provide much help for the divorcee or widow who turns green at the thought of managing her own finances. For example, in a chapter titled "Stocks, Pickles and Ice Cream," Brien discloses that she goes about deciding when to sell stocks by "The feeling . . . from nerves deep down in my gut." Until Brien wills her innards to Merrill Lynch or figures out how to translate her intuitions into prose, the reader is better off seeking help elsewhere. The only redeeming feature of her book is the lists in virtually every chapter. For example, her lists describing what a bank sells or how to establish a credit rating provide basic and useful information.
Then there is the encyclopedia or the all-purpose reference guide which explains the fundamentals of balancing a checkbook, buying a home, or coping with an Internal Revenue Service audit. Several books of this sort are already on the market and three of the latest-- Smart Money Management and All You Should Know About IRA'S, Keogh and Other Retirement Plans, by the J.K. Lasser Tax Institute (Simon and Schuster; paperback, $5.95 each) and Money Talks by Bob Rosefsky (Wiley, $14.95)--are welcome additions to the group. As advertised, Lasser's IRA book includes all the rules of IRAs and pensions but contains little advice on where to invest your retirement money. Although it is easy to understand, an index would have been helpful and would also have proved valuable in Lasser's Smart Money Management. This book is also clearly written but again excludes any advice that would help one reach his own investment decisions. As a reference guide, however, both books are well worth the price. Bob Rosefsky is the host of the PBS program Personal Finance. His is a long book (680 pages) with small print; it covers everything from planning a budget, to buying a video-disc recorder, to coping with your neighbor's crowing rooster. The book has an excellent glossary and is a comprehensive reference guide.
The advantage of all three of these books is in the breadth of information they provide; they tell readers a little about a lot of financial topics. Their disadvantage is that they do not provide enough information about any single topic to help people answer the relatively simple, specific financial questions they have. For instance, how much should they be saving and what form should the savings take? What is the best way to save money for a child's education? What types of investments square with their tax situation and personalities? "How- to" books which give people structure and guidance enough to answer these questions for themselves separate the good from the merely adequate. A handful of new books provide such tools.
One of these is The ABC's of IRAs, by William J. Grace (Dell; paperback, $3.95). Grace's book is remarkable for its clarity, organization and succinctness. You will not find cloying anecdotes, melodramatic horror stories or power-of-positive-thinking hype here. Instead, you get good hard facts and considered judgments. He quickly deflates the misleading ads which suggest that an IRA will make you a millionaire, pointing out that retirement accounts should be considered a supplement to other investments, including Social Security and employer-sponsored pension plans, not a windfall stash of cash for a sports car or a European fling. His chapter on "Selecting an IRA Plan" lays out the pros and cons of growth versus income investments and reduces to a few clear, concise pages what it takes other financial authors chapters to say. Grace does not push one type of IRA over another but helps the puzzled investor narrow his options by offering such prudent advice as, "After comparing all the pros and cons of each IRA custodian type, I would say that depository IRAs are the best plan for the inexperienced investor." Since Grace works for a major brokerage firm, such counsel is fairly good evidence of his objectivity. Unlike the authors of the other IRA guides who recite the numerous investments available without further comment, Grace notes, for instance, that oil and gas and other tax shelters do not make sense for an IRA and he explains why.
Another good book is Financial Survival in the Age of New Money, by Gordon Williams (Simon and Schuster; paperback, $6.95). Williams tackles the impossible task of bringing clarity and humor to the perpetually dry subject of money and finance--and succeeds brilliantly. Written in an understandable, easy-to-read style, Financial Survival provides something for everyone, from the novice to the experienced investor. Divided into two parts, the book first covers the subject of money: where it all started, what it is (and what it is not), and how we use it. Williams explains simply how the economy functions, how it is supposed to function, and how the reader/taxpayer can interpret these events in dollar terms. In his chapter "How the Fed (Federal Reserve System) Manages and Mismanages Your Money," Williams hurls potshots at the three main players: the current administration, Congress, and the Fed itself.
The second half of the book focuses on all available types of investments, ranging from passbook savings accounts to gold to Eurodollars. Most importantly, Williams gives sensible suggestions for narrowing the range of prudent investments worth your consideration. For example, his three rules for selecting an investment are: (1) "Play it safe. . . . Capital lost is harder to replace in the age of new money than it was when times were good"; (2) "Stay loose and stay liquid. . . . Don't put your money into anything you can't get out of quickly and without taking a bigger loss . . . than market conditions warrant"; and (3) "Before you think about investing, put aside money for a rainy day."
Another fine book is titled The Only Book for the Middle Class, by Don and Joan German (Morrow, $13.95). On page 24, in bold type, the Germans boil down their no-nonsense philosophy to three simple sentences: "Here is the solution for the individual members of the middle class who want to avoid hardship. TO IMPROVE YOUR PERSONAL FINANCIAL SITUATION, THERE ARE ONLY TWO THINGS YOU CAN DO. ONE IS TO INCREASE INCOME, THE OTHER IS TO REDUCE EXPENSES." The authors then go on to give excellent suggestions for analyzing a family's spending habits and provide several ideas on how to cut back expenses without feeling the pinch. Only then do they proceed to outline various investment alternatives suitable for a family. This approach is unusual, as most financial authors ignore the topic of spending, probably because budgeting, though crucial, is boring.