Talking Personal Finance with Helaine Olen: Parts 1 and 2

Here are the first two segments of my interview with Helaine Olen regarding her book, Pound Foolish. You can see a more extensive interview with Olen, with arguably better production values, on Frontline’s the retirement gamble this week. RBC readers are familiar with my obsessions with personal finance, e.g. with this post.

In Part 1, we discuss how she got into this game, what it was like to do the Money Makeover feature for the Los Angeles Times. As I nod to project the wisdom of a sage and swig some diet soda, we discuss what I regard as the financial industry’s most basic dilemma: The best advice fits on a 3×5 index card and is available for free at the library.

We also discuss why divorce is bad for your financial health, and why trusting financial advisors is generally a bad idea, even if one assumes that this person is above ethical reproach. We note the false hopes placed in personal financial skills to offset stagnant wages for millions of Americans. Finally, we observe that Suze Orman isn’t one of the world’s greatest financial advisors, but she has found one of the world’s greatest sales gigs. At least Orman is less predatory than many of the other finance gurus.

In Part II, we start to get into the meat of things. We start by discussing the dinners for senior citizens, at which entrepreneurs sell rip-off variable annuities to seniors desperately (often fairly realistically) afraid that they will outlive their savings. As a warm-up, these salespeople predictably trash Social Security—the one solid source of annuitized wealth Americans can turn to in their retirement years.

I’m cross-posting this with the Incidental Economist. I’m doing so to compare the comment threads on the two sites.


  1. Alex M says

    A quick question for those twenty-somethings of us just starting out and unsure of the right way to do things: What *is* this simple free best personal finance advice that fits on a 3×5 card? It’s kind of a tease to say it’s so easy and then not go ahead and spell it out in twenty seconds.

  2. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    Here is my list of honest financial products:
    1. A checking account.
    2. Index funds.
    3. Term life, if you have kids. Whole life and any annuity (except #6 below) are ripoffs.
    4. P&C insurance: home, auto, and an umbrella that is at least $500K over your net wealth. Why $500K? Two reasons. First, plaintiffs’ lawyers view underinsured defendants are irresponsible jerks who deserve to have their assets attached. If you are adequately insured, they are less likely to go for blood in the settlement process. Second, the higher the umbrella, the better-aligned your insurer’s incentives are with yours. Umbrellas are cheap, because big-money lawsuits against individuals are rare.
    5. Prime amortizing mortgages. With current low interest rates, any term could make sense.
    6. (Upon retirement): Immediate annuities, if you want a reasonably guaranteed stream of income.
    7. Auto loans, although you should pay cash if you can afford to do so.
    8. Student loans. Here, the financial product is not so much the problem as the product that the hucksters are trying to finance. The only for-profit schools that are not complete ripoffs are a few established vocational schools.

    There is one horribly dishonest financial product that makes sense for many: credit cards. If you have good financial hygiene and PAY OFF YOUR BILL IN FULL EVERY MONTH, you and your bank are cooperating to rip off merchants and people who pay by other means. Your bank gives you some of the vig in the form of points, and keeps the rest. Credit cards, of course, are also useful to anybody who likes to shop on the Internet or rent cars or hotel rooms and the like.

  3. Betsy says

    Very respectable, and respect-worthy, Howard, and thank you.

    Another tidbit: never enter into a contract that bills you repeatedly, as on a monthly basis. Gym memebrships, furniture, phones and their add-on charges for “features”, movie/TV access, etc. — Instead, pay in cash up front when you use or purchase the thing, and never again.

  4. Frank says

    Great posts Harold! It is funny though how policy analysts know the risks of divorce but fail to suggest the obvious solution-mandatory, comprehensive prenuptial agreements?..