The Best Voyeuristic Financial Books


A few weeks ago I wrote about books that are valuable for every level of financial knowledge. Almost all of those books were “how-to” books or books about developing and implementing investment strategies. This week I’m going to recommend a different type of financial book. These are the books that don’t teach you how to manage your finances in a step by step manner, rather they present the stories, examples, and cautionary tales of actual people. Some of these books discuss the financial situations of individuals, others look at ethnic/demographic groups, nations, or civilization as a whole and ask questions such as, “How did we get into this mess?” and, “How do we get out of it?”

Books with a voyeuristic element are often more readable than how-to books because, honestly, who doesn’t like reading about the trials, woes, and (hopefully) eventual successes of other people? We’re a voyeuristic bunch who like to know what others are doing. Look at the popularity of reality TV. It’s no different for finance. We like to compare ourselves to others and either feel superior to their situation or be inspired to do better. These books are also instructive because they expose us to people and situations that we would not normally encounter in our daily lives. We get to see that there are lifestyles, choices, and financial considerations other than those that we personally experience.

These types of books are good for summer reading because they read more like a traditional story. You can just sit back and read the tale without worrying about remembering certain points or doing “homework.” If you’re looking for some financial books with a human element to take to the beach with you this summer, here are my suggestions.

1. Maxed Out: Hard Times in the Age of Easy Credit by James Scurlock. This book presents several cautionary tales about what happens when the use, abuse, regulation and issuance of credit goes awry. It’s a sobering look at just how shifty credit markets can be.

2. Green With Envy: A Whole New Way to Look at Financial (Un)Happiness by Shira Boss. This book is truly voyeuristic, with the author looking behind the scenes at the lifestyles of her supposedly “wealthy” neighbors to discover that they really aren’t as well off as they would like the public to believe. It’s a case study on the idea that “the Joneses” that we are trying to keep up with are an illusion and, thus, any attempt to keep up with them is misguided.

3. The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need by Juliet B. Schor. This classic looks at the disconnect between our consumption and our satisfaction. Why are we killing ourselves with work and going deep into debt for “stuff” that doesn’t make us any happier? She looks at a variety of causes for our overspending and, unlike many books, doesn’t lay the blame at any one door, rather the blame is shared. She also provides hope for change in the form of “down-shifters;” people who have opted to slow down their spending, work, and consumption in favor of a better life.

4. Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John de Graaf. This book, based on two PBS documentaries, looks at excessive consumption as a disease that has symptoms such as anxiety, debt, waste, and stress. The book examines the effect of the disease on individuals and societies and also examines some of the potential “cures” for affluenza. Profiles of people with this “disease” make this an entertaining read.

5. Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine. The author embarks on a one year journey to buy nothing but necessities. She looks at the challenges and societal stigmas we face when we opt out of the consumer lifestyle. The most entertaining part, to me, is her constant struggles and rationalizations to determine what constitutes a “necessity.”

6. A Year Without “Made in China”: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy by Sara Bongiorni. This books is a bit similar to “Not Buying It,” except this author goes one step further and attempts to avoid buying anything made in China. Of course this a serious challenge because so many of our goods come from China. She shies away from controversy by refusing to engage in debate about trade policies and politics, but it is a fun and humorous read about how one family tried to make a difference.

7. Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash by Liz Perle. This book looks at the consequences that arise when a woman leaves the finances up to her husband. When her husband leaves her, the author is faced with the fact that, despite being intelligent and educated, she knows next to nothing about spending, saving, investing or basic money management. How and what she learns creates an inspiring tale.

8. Give It Up!: My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less by Mary Carlomagno. Unlike the author of “Not Buying It,” the author of “Give It Up,” only gave up things for one month. Each month she gave up a different item: cell phone one month, shopping the next, dining out the next month, and so on. She didn’t suffer quite the deprivation and societal consequences that are found in books where the authors give up things for longer periods, but she did make herself more aware of her spending and consumptive patterns. It’s an entertaining read and not a bad plan for those looking to try living with less.

9. Save Karyn: One Shopaholic’s Journey to Debt and Back by Karyn Bosnak. The author, in her late twenties and with a decent job, nonetheless manages to accumulate $20,000 worth of debt in one year (mostly by trying to impress others and by being a slave to labels). When she loses her job, she decides to dig herself out of debt rather than declare bankruptcy. Not everyone will agree with her strategy of asking the public for donations, but it is interesting to see how such a shallow girl turns into a fairly resourceful person when the need arises. This is not serious reading — it’s a bit fluffy — but it’s not a bad tale.

10. The Two-Income Trap by Elizabeth Warren. The author argues that bankruptcies are soaring, not due to irresponsibility, but because two incomes are no longer enough to make it in the world today. Whether you agree with her or not, the book does point out some problems in society that could be addressed to keep people from falling so far behind that there is no way out. The profiles of families in crisis provide a sobering portrait of what some people are up against.

11. Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead by Tamara Draut. This book examines why those under thirty-five are struggling to make it when compared to their parents’ generation. The author dismisses over consumption as the problem and instead focuses on high student loan debt, skyrocketing costs, low paying first jobs, and jobs with no benefits. Her conclusions are valid, but her refusal to acknowledge that high consumption is a problem for at least some irks me. If you’re under thirty-five, you might recognize yourself in some of the stories presented here.

12. Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy In An Era of Excess by Robert H. Frank. This book is most similar to “The Overspent American” in that it looks at why consumption is not making us happy. However, this book looks specifically at luxury items and what triggers our desire to own them. He argues that our overspending is triggered directly by the spending patterns of those around us (it’s interesting to see just what those patterns are) and then presents several ways we could change the consumption patterns of our whole society to benefit everyone.

13. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. The author gave up her home, car and trappings of middle class life and sought out low paying jobs to prove how difficult it is to make it when all you can get are low paying jobs. She examines how difficult it is to get and keep a job when you have kids, no transportation, and other life issues. The book is at times a bit shrill and political, but overall it’s an interesting look into a side of life most of us try to ignore.

14. Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World
by Linda Breen Pierce. This book is actually the result of a “Simplicity Study” conducted by the author. She has compiled many of the stories of her respondents and illustrated why they opted off the work, spend, work some more treadmill. She focuses on a variety of groups, from the young to the retired, those with kids and those without, the wealthy and the not so wealthy. She spends a lot of time on the positive changes these people noticed in their lives, but she also examines some of the negative consequences of opting out of the expected American lifestyle.

15. House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes by Daniel McGinn. If you’ve ever surfed real estate websites “just to see what’s out there” you may have house lust. This book looks at American’s obsession with our homes; their value, appearance, square footage, and investment potential. It’s a fascinating look at how houses have evolved from simple “homes” to status symbols, markers of our worth as people, and showplaces that tell others about us.

16. Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich by Robert Frank. This is a fun romp through the world of the ultra-rich and the unique “problems” and responsibilities that they face. The author also examines the good that some of the ultra-rich do in the world, but mostly he amuses himself with the excesses of his subjects.

Financial books don’t have to be dry and boring. Those that give us a window into the lives of others and tackle societal questions can be just as valuable as and, perhaps, more entertaining than those that offer step by step instruction. Exposure to the worlds of others is both entertaining and instructive.

Image courtesy of The Department

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4 Responses to The Best Voyeuristic Financial Books

  1. none says:

    My favorite is Walden by Thoreau.

  2. irmanator says:

    also check out the wealthy barber

  3. I read ‘Nickel & Dimed’–it was pretty good. I read a number of reviews complaining that it had a socialist ‘agenda’ but having had some fairly low-paying, awful jobs, I thought it was pretty realistic and factual.

    Thanks for this list, it’s terrific. I’m going to check out several of these this summer now that I’ve read through your recommendations.

  4. Oasdg says:

    Thanks for another great list! I checked out some of the books I hadn’t already read from your other list and so far they’ve been good. I’ve read a number of these, but a few I’ve never heard of and they sound intriguing. Thanks again for putting another list together.

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