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.

Living for the Long Haul

Illustration by Nate Powell

I’m pretty terrible with money. At this writing I have $170.40 to my name, which will be gone by the time you read this. I have a patchwork income derived from freelancing fees, a part-time teaching gig that ends next week, and a part-time consulting job. Taken together they’re a little more than enough to cover my rent in New York City, except I already threw most of that money at past-due bills, so now I’m a month and a half behind on rent. I pulled the plug on cable to cut costs but then wound up spending nearly twice as much at bars so I could watch baseball games. The one active credit card I possess is maxed out, and the rest of my debt hovers in the mid-to-high five figures. (I honestly couldn’t even estimate it, because, well, I’m that bad with money.)

Even when stably, gainfully employed, I’ve lived in this miasma of financial fuckery for most of my adult life. A lot of us learn to just get by, because as embarrassing and uncomfortable as insolvency is to admit, it is a far more debilitating thing to confront. The challenge to make ends meet has nothing on the challenge to rewire a 37-year-old American brain to think sensibly about earning, spending, budgeting, and saving money.

Which is where Clark Howard comes in.

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Howard, the syndicated radio and TV host, has spent the last 25 years dispensing money advice and consumer counsel to his growing legion of followers. His is a one-stop shop of investment tips, bargain deals, rip-off alerts, and seemingly endless hacks for maximizing every dollar you make. I’ve listened to his radio show off and on for a few years now, and from the start, I admired his emphases on accountability and frugality. I liked to think of him as a demigod sent to save the middle class from its buy-now-pay-later self, just as long as they could A) get used to the nasal lilt of his voice and B) suck it up enough to put his insights to work for them. He was Moses parting the Red-Ink Sea.

Obviously I never got around to sucking it up. Then I cracked open Howard’s new book, Clark Howard’s Living Large for the Long Haul. The thing looks as corny as it sounds: Its red, white and blue cover bustles with words (“Real stories from Americans who saved, lost, and saved again!" "Consumer-Tested Ways to Overhaul Your Finances, Increase Your Savings, and Get Your Life Back on Track”) while Howard grins zanily and gestures back to a line of happy men, women, and children rescued from stock-photo purgatory. If you didn’t already know Howard’s brand or his previous best-seller, Living Large in Lean Times, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of Leskoesque late-night-infomercial foolishness, not the work of the most reasonable man in media.

1308_SBR_LONGHAUL_COVER

But it is. Living Large for the Long Haul signifies more than a collection of hints for saving (and making) money. It cements Howard as a kind of economist folk hero—a polo-shirted intellectual who can communicate more useful, constructive policy analysis in one chapter than Thomas Friedman gets across in a year of Times op-eds. He accomplishes this a number of ways, beginning with the raw elements of wealth and culminating in a grand theory of empowerment. “I want you to take charge and take control,” Howard writes in his introduction. “One dime at a time, one dollar at a time, and one day at a time. The end game is not to pinch a buck; it’s to have the freedom to make choices – freedom to save, invest, and do as you wish.” The word “austerity” appears exactly zero times in Living Large for the Long Haul, because in the Clark Howard system, there are no substitutes for rationality and deliberation.

Along the way Howard (with co-authors Mark Meltzer and Theo Thimou) also reinforces his own unique role in the self-help cosmos—that of a nerdy, wonky, omniscient foil to his more rock-star genre counterparts. Howard subtly acknowledges this distinction; “I can’t stress the importance of having the right money mentor in your life,” he writes, meaning he can't stress it enough, I think. “It can be Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman, me, or any of a host of other financial gurus. Having the right guidance can make all the difference.”

So what makes Howard different? After all, he is rich like them (he retired at 31 after selling off a chain of travel agencies) and visible like them (his daily radio show is syndicated on more than 200 stations, and he hosts a nightly program on HLN). Like them, he renounces most debt, urges diverse investment tactics, and advises how to best stretch your dollar by staying informed and aware in the marketplace.

Yet Howard evangelizes for something more: frugality as a lifestyle choice, and a comfortable, necessary one at that. “Too many people who lived above their means before the recession found they couldn’t weather the storm when it hit,” he observes. “In the wake of the damage, it became very chic to talk about living within our means. Yet what we should have been talking about all along was living below our means.” Moreover, with his unflagging reverence for the underdog, he relies on a persona so unpretentious and even goofy that it serves to subtly mock his most celebrated peers’ approaches. After all, Orman is the insider Oprah turns to when she needs a money column for her magazine. Ramsey is very smart and polished and Motivate-y in the grand Self-Help Author tradition. (Let’s not even get into fatuous bozos like Jim Cramer or Harry Dent.) Howard possesses the heavy hitters’ confidence and economic expertise, but he packages and delivers it in a kind of normal-guy mode that feels like an easygoing neighbor offering consumer counsel over the backyard fence—if you lived next door to an oracle, anyway. He is the kind of guy willing to go on the front cover of his masterpiece looking like he just farted in Suze Orman’s car.

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