How to Ruin Your Financial Life

February 12th, 2015

How to Ruin Your Financial Life by Ben Stein front cover

In this brief personal finance primer, economist-actor-funnyman Ben Stein presents 55 ways for us to free ourselves from the shackles of critical thought and live the carefree financial life of our dreams.

Stein does so through reverse psychology, resulting in chapters titled "Save money only when you feel like it, and if you just don't feel like saving, then don't!" and "As soon as you've succeeded in maxing out your credit cards...get new ones!" There’s sarcasm and sardonic wit in spades, so if you’re not into this type of humor, this book won’t be for you. If you are, you’ll be laughing your way through in one sitting.

You won’t be blown away by the depth presented here, as Stein keeps things simple. His tips run the gamut from saving for your retirement, over being careful whose "expert" advice to trust, to the dangers of consumerism. In the process, Stein pokes fun at expert analysts on TV, brokers, day traders, newsletter writers, the institution of marriage, and the concept of reading books.

Stein pokes fun at us in a different way, painting an increasingly absurd picture of the reader as a super intelligent, super rich party animal entrepreneur with impeccable taste in fashion, who lives in a giant mansion on the hill and sails around in a private yacht, and whose intuitive market genius can predict bubbles and determine which penny stocks will double in value in a few weeks. Stein’s reader lives the fast life, and is far too cool to read boring books about the stock market or listen to dusty old sages like Warren Buffett and their "fuddyduddy rules" about staying calm. Here’s an example:

Now, some may say that they recall that in the Crash of 2000 to 2002, people who went heavily on margin ended up getting margin calls for their crashing tech stocks, couldn't come up with the cash, had the stock sold out from under them, still didn't have the funds to make up the difference, and had to sell their houses to raise the money for the money they still owed on stocks that had become worthless or almost worthless.

But that won't ever happen to you, pal! You don't buy stocks that go down. You buy stocks that go up, up, and away! You'll never need to worry about a margin call because you're Mr. Lucky, and your stocks will never get closer to earth — only closer to the sun!

His aggrandizement of the reader into a demigod of money management becomes one of the book’s funniest components, and Stein’s rhetoric becomes sharper as the layers of sarcasm grow thicker. This makes it all the funnier when he, if only for a second, "inadvertently" departs from his reverse psychological approach in tip no. 41, "Start a business with inadequate capital — in a difficult field and in a difficult location — and expect to prosper":

This essay could just as well be called "Open a Restaurant," which is surely one of the best ways on earth to lose a ton of money, your spouse, and your peace of mind. But don’t let that thought worry you. No, forget what I just wrote. I was just kidding.

But, seriously, why don’t you open a restaurant in an area where millions of other people have started eateries that went out of business. Go ahead. It’ll be fine. Where everyone else — even people with experience — went down the tubes, you’ll succeed just because of your innate charisma.

Occasionally Stein, perhaps inadvertently, presents a more balanced argument than what is prescribed by the book’s premise of reverse psychology. In tip no. 46, "Do Not Buy a Home…," he’s ostensibly trying to make us realize the benefits of buying a home, but he then lists a number of perfectly valid reasons for not owning a home, such as maintenance, mortgage payments, and insurance costs. Some consider a home an asset, others consider it a liability, and a nuanced argument is obviously a good thing, but I doubt if his intention was to provide one here, given his remark during the afterword, where he has left reverse psychology behind:

Buy your own home, buy your own home, buy your own home, buy your own home, buy your own home.

I don’t know if he wrote the tips in order, but I got the sense that he was having more and more fun as things progressed. I know I was. If you’ve seen the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’ll be hard not to read the book in the inner voice of Stein’s bone-dry economics teacher, which only adds to the funniness of his sarcasm and sardonic wit.