Can This Geeky Financial Guru Save Your Finances?

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 9 2013 10:00 AM

Moses Parting the Red-Ink Sea

Clark Howard, the most reasonable financial guru in the bookstore.

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Living Large for the Long Haul isn’t about monetizing Howard’s dorky image, however—low-hanging fruit for the Costco crowd. Instead, Howard hands his mission off to actual Americans who really might live next door. He profiles a Pennsylvania man’s efforts at self-sufficiency through green living, which also happens to save him thousands of dollars a year in energy costs. (“I do not consider myself a ‘greenie,’ ” the man explains to Howard. “I just believe in doing no harm and being responsible.”) He cites a disabled, twice-divorced Indiana woman’s propensity for dollar-store deal-hunting and online freebie-scavenging as a crucial lesson in fortitude. “All the advice, all the guidance – none of it will work for you if you just give up on life,” Howard notes. “You’ve got to steel yourself when you face challenges like Darcy has done, and you’ve got to do it in the kind and gracious way she has.” He makes a potent argument for our presence in our own lives—which, as anyone who ritually blows their money can attest, is all too easy to forget when you feel defined by the debts and dysfunction you carry everywhere you go.

Author Clark Howard.
Author Clark Howard

Courtesy of Penguin

Howard and his co-authors thread this concept through dozens more profiles that feel like they could have been clipped from a midsized metro newspaper. “Mike Zaccardi was an 18-year-old high school senior when he heard me speak about one of my favorite financial tools, the Roth IRA,” begins one story about a compulsive saver on his way to a multimillion-dollar retirement fund by the age of 50. “And he really liked what he heard.” Howard groups three or four of these case studies into chapters covering credit issues, cars, travel, investment, health care, energy, and a rollicking overview of consumer revolt. (“Nothing else has the same impact as a nice family picket outside a business,” Howard claims.)

He closes each section with an analysis of his subjects, how they can improve, and a selection of related resources for readers hungry to make a change. Looking for a wallet that will physically resist you opening it once you’ve exceeded a certain spending threshold? Howard has it. Looking for a website that you can train to rebook a rental car reservation if the site finds a better deal? That’s in there, too, along with scores of other online resources.

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If nothing else, the book is worthwhile as pure Americana—a field guide of eccentrics in a jungle of money. I’m sweet on the self-described skinflint who drives a 1983 Mercedes retrofitted to run on discarded fryer oil, but there’s also the UC Berkeley dropout who launched his own T-shirt-printing startup and an enlightening interlude with the founders of eFuneral.com. There’s a documentary filmmaker who combined his love of travel and a looming cardiological crisis to shop for a $9,000 heart bypass in Bangalore. There are the owners of a bed-and-breakfast comprising nine themed cabooses (and a pet tortoise). There’s the inspiring tale of the young man who believes “it’s part of my duty as an American to have good credit,” and there’s the haunting portrait of a woman whose fear of banks and the stock market prompts her to hoard $100,000 in cash in her house.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the more conventionally successful of Howard’s subjects make for his book’s least successful passages. On the one hand, sure: Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank has a good story of how he and his partners adjusted and wheedled and persevered through the rough early days of a little operation known as the Home Depot. On the other hand, Blank’s billions are too much of an abstraction to do much good alongside the real lessons of Howard’s flintier startups: We learn more about resiliency and entrepreneurship in 2012 from reading about Atlanta’s ascendant king of artisanal ice-pops. The best of these anecdotes introduce folks with whom Howard doesn’t even agree, like the man who has his $2 million life savings tied up in gold and silver. Fearing a bubble, Howard advises no more than 10 percent of savings go toward the current “mania” for precious metals; “Guess I’m really dumb or extremely brilliant,” the man tells Howard.

Of course, who’s right and who’s wrong isn’t the point. The purpose of Living Large for the Long Haul—and of the phenomenon of Clark Howard himself—is to spotlight interesting financial choices and deconstruct why they matter. You can always aim to save more than you spend, but ultimately, Howard’s book says, we are all greater than our money. The real art is in choosing from a place of reason rather than denial, and then choosing reasonably again and again until the rewiring is complete. “You probably didn’t get into debt overnight and you won’t get out immediately, either,” Howard writes. “But you’ve got to keep working your way out, day by day and piece by piece.” And you know what? I’m convinced. I may be pretty terrible with money, and my positive bank account balance may not survive this afternoon. I might even file for bankruptcy next week. I'd rather start over from nothing than persist with an old delusion. It's impossible to predict, but it is possible to plan. And when I do, I've got the textbook.

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