Personal Finance Education Series: (2) Recommended Books

I’ve read quite a few books on the topics of economics, finance & investing, but I thought it might be good to capture here my recommended books for someone who wants to get started learning more about personal finance & investing.

There are, of course, a lot of great books out there, but there is an endless supply of terrible ones. In general, you want to avoid the trendy, get-rich-quick, fashionable finance books, and instead focus on the ones that can give you the basic foundations to make your own judgements about personal finance & investing decisions. Once you have the basics down, then you can start absorbing the constant barrage of “flavor of the month” financial advice and investing books.

I’m going to run through these in roughly the order that I would recommend. I have a lot more on my shelf, but these are the books that in reflection really changed they way that I look at investing.

1. The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money & Investing
This book looks quite plain, and it’s only about 100 pages or so. But this book has a clear, visual and concise explanation of almost every important personal finance topic, everything from the basics of money and currency all the way to understanding stock options and derivatives. The great thing about this book is that it also can serve as a simple reference – a mini-encyclopedia of money & investing. The book is structured into easy to digest 2-page sections, and I highly recommend it as a basic entry into money & investing. Yes, I guarantee you that you already know some of the material covered in this book. But I also guarantee that you will learn something from it as well.

2. The Millionaire Next Door
Normally, this book would fall into my “trendy” disclaimer, but I do recommend that people read this book. True, it has chapters that are needlessly dry, reciting endless statistics about the habits and averages among the population of millionaires that were studied to make this book. But the most important thing is that this book emphasizes that a high income does not guarantee wealth, and that being wealthy is living below your means and the long term accumulation of assets. This book shatters a lot of myths that people have about the average millionaire in the United States, and it really highlights the basics of a healthy financial life.

3. A Random Walk Down Wall Street
Our first entry into the world of investing. This book is the absolute must-read to understand the predominant financial theory of the past thirty years: the stock market is efficient, and that efforts to beat the market, either through fundamental or technical analysis are futile. Personally, I believe that markets are not completely efficient due to the lack of rationality of either individuals or crowds. However, understanding efficient market theory is the cornerstone to understanding modern markets, so this book is basically a must-read. If it doesn’t convince you, at minimum, it will leave you with a strong bias against any “easy” way to make money off the stock market.

4. The Essays of Warren Buffett
Now that you’ve internalized efficient market theory, it’s time to listen to the words of probably the single greatest investor of the past fifty years, Warren Buffett. This book is a collection of his annual letters to shareholders. (In fact, you can now get all of his letters from 1977+ online!) Warren Buffett epitomizes why value investing works – his deep understanding of the finances of operating businesses allows him to selectively invest when he sees people selling dollar bills for fifty cents, to borrow a phrase. As a businessman myself, I also deeply appreciate the clarity of Buffett’s insights into what a financially outstanding business looks like, from a capital perspective, and his perspective on what makes a great manager and allocator of capital. I’ve read this collection at least three times.

5. Common Stocks & Uncommon Profits
Warren Buffett comes from the school of value investing, but his methodology and thinking has changed over the years to incorporate more flexible concepts of value than just book value or dividends. In this book, Philip Fisher explains the real fundamental basis for “growth stock” investing – recognizing that in some cases, the dominant factor for successful investing can be finding companies with outstanding growth potential. This may seem obvious to those of you out there who follow the technology industry, but I found this book crucial for my internal rationalization of the logic of both value and growth investing.

6. The Intelligent Investor
Warren Buffett stands on the shoulders of giants, and Ben Graham is the historical giant of value investing. This is the book that Buffett recommends to every investor, and it is fascinating from both a historical as well as financial perspective. When you read this book, you are stepping back in time, to a world before the Great Depression, when common stocks were still relatively new, and people bought them purely based on popularity, growth, or immediate payout. Graham was the one who first evangelized the idea that by looking at the core financials of a company – the assets and the dividends, you can make an informed judgement of the company’s value and the value of the stock.

7. Devil Take the Hindmost
This is not a personal finance book – it’s a history book. This book walks through almost all of the great financial bubbles since the 17th century. Fantastic for perspective on how markets get carried away. For me, the insight from this book was that there is a repeated theme in the history of bubbles. The combination of a new technology with a new innovation in finance leads to a combination of new capital and optimism that leads to an incredible rush and explosion of investment. This book will change your mind about how rational markets really are when crowds get a bit too excited.

8. When Genius Failed
Another history book, and a modern one at that. This is the story of the blow-up of Long Term Capital Management, the single most lauded hedge fund of the late 1990s. For those who have gotten deeply into the math and statistics behind the market, this book should be a wake up call. Any investment strategy can be broken, and any model based on the past will not predict the future once people in the market adapt to that new knowledge. There is a huge insight in this book that may seem esoteric, but it’s likely the biggest new insight into markets of the last decade: When you are a big enough investor, your own investment in the market creates a new correlation between investments that didn’t previously exist – the fact that you own all of them. Similar to quantum mechanics, the investor affects the markets they invest in. This simple truth explains why LTCM fell, and why there is a limit to strategies based on historical analysis of assets.

9. Against The Gods
This is one of my favorite books, bar none. It’s a stretch to say it’s about personal finance, but for me, it was a game changer. This is a history book, specifically about the history of the mathematics of statistics. It’s very interesting to note that just a few hundred years ago, no one understand the math of probability, and yet this is the branch of mathematics that dominates all modern science. Statistics is extremely counter-intuitive. Our brains are hard-wired to get it wrong. By walking through the history of how this branch of mathematics developed, I found I developed a new understanding of statistics, and a better sense of intuition around it.

10 thoughts on “Personal Finance Education Series: (2) Recommended Books

  1. Thank you for this Adam. I’ll look into a couple of these books. My best take away is your comment, “…being wealthy is living below your means…”

    So true, so true.

  2. Another very trend book.. but one that made a big impact on me. After being laid off for the 2nd time in 2 years during the dot bust years. I read the “Cashflow Quadrant: Rich Dad’s Guide to Financial Freedom”.

    4 years later, now I have a self-operated laundromat expanding to 2nd location hopefully soon, a software consulting business, 2 rental properties, a good retirement account, and my wife has a solid job in a big corporation.

    It’s not a how-to book but it give a me new way to think about money. And I think that’s the hardest part. Money is very counter-intuitive, as you said, and we rarely taught how to think about it.

    I’ll definitely read some of these recommendation!

  3. Hi Ricky,

    That’s quite a set of accomplishments in just four years! Congratulations.

    I’ve read the original Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and I’m afraid I can’t recommend it. While it sounds like your experience was a positive one, I think that the real advice from Rich Dad was that it was easier to make money selling “how to get rich” advice, books, games and event tickets.

    Fundamentally, I like his advice about valuing cash flow, and defining wealth around having investments that can provide you income. I got extremely irritated, however, when he began to redefine what an “asset” and “liability” were. I found it intellectually dishonest, and while likely well-intended, it just didn’t sit right with me.

    Like everything, there are some real kernels of truth in his books, and it sounds like you found them.

    I’m glad that I read the book, but it wouldn’t be on my top list of recommendations to people.

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  5. Took me a while, but I actually finish reading the “Random Walk Down Wallstreet”. One thing that really stuck with me is that your return (for the long term) is solely based on the risk (perceived or actual) that you take. Of course, it seems there is no good way to measure risk. Never the less, the risk can be managed by diversifing the risk and holding on the stock/bond for the long term.

    It was a good read.

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  8. Great post about books, recommendation of getting rich or shall we say ideas on how to get rich, financial litereacy.

    This will help our fellow people especially those young ones. Its not just about learning things but also applying it to the real world.

    Thanks, very inspiring…

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