We have now entered what some call spring but what many think of as the post-tax hangover season. The trauma of April 15 has passed, and either you received a refund and have already spent it, or you have begun to worry about paying your next quarterly installment to the IRS. Like many others, I've made my annual vow to save (I'll never be cash-poor again!) only to be flummoxed by an inability to stop the money-spending cycle.
If you're searching for some fortitude, this month's bounty of books looks at wealth accumulation from a variety of perspectives. They cover all the bases, from big picture approaches to wealth to practical guides for making your money grow.
How the rich get their way
Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich by Kevin Phillips is one of the most interesting and provocative books of the season. This rich and intriguing history of money and politics hypothesizes that power and money represent one of the world's enduring covert partnerships, and that, even today, government support critically underpins success for both finance and technology. In this must-read book, Phillips, a well-known political analyst and author, documents the fascinating evidence that American wealth has fed itself by influencing government policies at the expense of the middle and lower classes. He deftly details the rise of the wealthiest American families and corporations, and shows how they continue to accumulate wealth and power, while the income of most American families stagnates and their confidence in the political process erodes. Wealth and Democracy is a timely and intellectually challenging book. The Enron disaster, the Microsoft trials, the September 11 terrorist attacks and the 2000 presidential race, funded by soft-money, lend Phillips' arguments their most recent documentation. In the end, Phillips spells out a gloomy prognosis for both the power of our democracy and the future of American economic growth if political power continues to be equated with wealth.
It's your money
The Great 401(k) Hoax: What You Need to Know to Protect Your Family and Your Future by William Wolman and Anne Colamosca is both eye-opening and incredibly topical. The authors argue that the term 401(k) seems to contain . . . the promise that the average American family, neither rich nor poor but middle-class, could stake a claim for its share in the prosperity created by the technological wonders that energized the American economy in the 1990s. In fact, they say, the rise of the 401(k) is an unparalleled fraud designed to protect American corporations and undermine their commitments to employee retirement plans. The 401(k) represents an implicit promise to middle class Americans that they can live off the income that they receive from stock ownership, just like the rich do. It is a promise that is impossible to fulfill. It is the great 401(k) hoax. With candor and intelligence, Colamosca and Wolman present a compelling argument for their hoax theory and present a practical set of investing rules for middle-class Americans. Using a combination of no-load index funds and diversification, the authors present a common sense approach to making the best financial sense of your retirement money.
A practical approach
The New IRAs and How to Make Them Work For You by Neil Downing is a primer for the individual investor. With new laws added every year, IRAs (Individual Retirement Accounts) have changed a great deal. Several years ago, only the self-employed and those with no retirement plan at work could contribute to an IRA; now housewives, part-time employees and even children can fund IRAs. Changes have also created IRA lookalikes such as the Educational IRA, the Roth IRA, SEPs and SIMPLE plans. The New IRAs offers simple but well-explained approaches to choosing IRA vehicles, explains who qualifies for an IRA and offers straightforward and practical advice on managing your investment from the first deposit to the last withdrawal.
One of the most misunderstood areas in setting up a retirement account involves choosing a Roth versus a traditional IRA. In some of the best language I've read, Downing devotes several chapters to simplifying and demystifying the choice between the two IRA vehicles.
Get Clark Smart: The Ultimate Guide to Getting Rich from America's Money-Saving Expert offers savvy, penny-pinching advice from the Atlanta money-saving radio guru, Clark Howard. You'll love the no-nonsense, consumer-empowering advice on how to turn the fine art of penny-pinching into money in the bank. Ever laugh at your grandmother for saying, Don't buy anything you have to dry-clean? That's great advice says Clark. Dry-cleaning is expensive and often unnecessary for many clothes. You can also save money by buying jewelry at wholesalers and using free or low-cost Internet access sites. This compilation of right-as-rain advice ranges from the typical (how to save money on a car purchase) to unexpected cost-cutting tips on insurance and travel.
Get Clark Smart isn't a guide on how to become wealthy; it's a way to keep more of the money you earn and spend it on the things you enjoy most, so you can feel rich even if you aren't.
Sharon H. Secor is a writer based in Minneapolis.