Are you a hot mess financially? Confused by the contradictions of financial advice? Wish you had enough money to even start listening to financial advice?
If so, The Index Card should be at the top of your reading list.
Authors Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack are both well known in the financial sector. In 2013, Olen published "Pound Foolish" a scathing take down of conventional personal finance advice. In the book, she calls bullshit on “the latte factor,” or the idea that one can become rich by not spending money on little excesses, like lattes. She also calls out personal finance experts who make money giving bad advice, like Dave Ramsey’s insistence that one should never file for bankruptcy.
Like the diet industry, the personal finance industry is designed to sell more products—and that means ignoring inconvenient truths like stagnant wages, a fraying social contract, and employers shifting financial burdens like retirement and health care costs onto the shoulders of employees.
The same year Olen published her book, Pollack, a University of Chicago professor, got a lot of attention from an offhand comment he made during a radio interview: most people only need the amount of financial advice that could fit on an index card. Afterward, he snapped a picture of a 3 x 5 card with his initial principles, which became something of a viral sensation:
The duo then teamed up to create a book on the principles of the index card: nine simple rules for managing your money.
Some ideas are tried and true but tricky, like Rule No. 1: save 20% of your income. If you are like most Americans, this is the toughest rule to follow—our collective savings rate is a paltry 5%. Olen and Pollack are refreshingly candid about why saving is so hard. Instead of viewing the abysmal savings rate as a personal failure, they mention how much our wants have scaled. The social pressure on families has changed dramatically in the last 30 years, which leads to normalizing things like strollers that cost $1,000. (Olen notes that in 1997, a $400 stroller was seen as extravagant.)
Rule No. 2 is also fairly simple to understand: pay off your credit card balance in full each month. Credit is part of a healthy financial life and having enough cash on hand to not have to carry a balance is a major component of healthy cashflow.
But where the book gets interesting is when they veer into lesser-known territory. The section on insurance is as boring as it is vital: the least sexy life insurance policy (term life) is also the most effective over time. Pollack and Olen warn against the pitfalls of unscrupulous financial advisors and predatory fund management. They dole out retirement advice, and explain that most people are forced into retirement earlier than 65 due to life events, downsizing, and age discrimination. They warn against buying individual stocks and talk up the benefits of mutual funds.
The most revolutionary part of the book is where they spend the shortest amount of time: the idea that we need a stronger social safety net. As we’ve seen with the decades-long health-care war, it can be difficult to get Americans on board with any plan that uses taxpayer funds to benefit the many, including those who can’t pay their own way. But investing in these public programs is vital to a thriving society. Social Security, Medicare, low rates on federal student loans and unemployment insurance that helped millions during the Great Recession are all the result of citizen advocacy and legislative action. Most other industrialized nations ensure that their citizens have affordable health and childcare, decent housing, and some form of safety net. Why does American individualism mean we can't have nice (communal) things?
The Index Card isn't fun and sexy. It doesn't make everything seem affordable. It doesn't have an app or a platform and they don't have a TV show. Instead, Pollack and Olen hope to spark something harder to launch than a hashtag: a financially sound nation.