Generation Debt and The Number

I don’t know about you, but managing money is not one of my strong suites. I am math-phobic and not particularly self-disciplined. These are not good traits if you want to retire comfortably. Add in my student debt and things aren’t real pretty. But enough about me. Two books on personal finance have come across my desk recently that have contrasting styles and very different intended audiences. I thought it might be interesting to discuss them together.

The first book, Generation Debt by Carmen Wong Ulrich, is technically aimed at 18-34 year olds but primarily at recent college graduates. As a result its style and tone is very informal. As is so often the case, I found the Publishers Weekly review to be accurate and to the point. Allow me once again to give in to my laziness and let them summarize the book:

When the average college student graduates with $18,560 of debt, almost all of it in tuition loans, and is lucky to find a job that will pay even $28,000 a year, how is he or she supposed to make ends meet? Ulrich, a former projects editor for Money, offers a step-by-step guide on how to budget your monthly expenses, make judicious use of credit cards while avoiding the pitfalls of high interest rates, and find the best way to pay off those student loans. Later sections cover situations like choosing whether to rent or buy a home, getting a car and saving for retirement, and each chapter has links to Web sites with additional resources.

Ulrich’s advice is simple and to the point, but her efforts to reach a young audience with sarcasm and hip lingo occasionally risk the appearance of talking down to her readers. There’s also a slight but uncomfortable strain of resentment aimed toward peers from wealthier families who don’t have to grapple with these issues. Ulrich does argue for some big nationwide initiatives, like a higher minimum wage and increased credit card regulation, but she’s much more concerned with providing basic solutions to individual financial crises—and delivers the goods effectively.

This perfectly captures my reaction. Ulrich provides a great deal of practical and useful information. If you need the basics, this book has it. I am outside her intended age group but even I found the information – particularly the web links – helpful. But I have to agree with PW that the tone can be aggravating. The constant need to be upbeat, hip, sarcastic, etc. can wear on you after a while. It seems at times that she is trying too hard not to scare off her readers with “serious” issues.

Likewise, her seeming resentment about how the world is treating college graduates is a little much. Life’s tough, get over it. Yes, the student financial aid situation is not ideal, but she fails to mention that students seem intent on getting degrees they know don’t pay enough to cover their debt and then complaining when the inevitable happens. Her “solutions” to these social problems are largely laughable: raise the minimum wage, regulate the credit card industry, require more health care coverage, etc.

But these issues of tone and style should not detract from the fact that the books is a potentially valuable resource. If you are an 18-34 year old looking for a straightforward rundown of the important issues, or if you know someone who could use some help getting a handle on their finances, this would be a good choice.

The Number by Lee Eisenberg comes at the issue of personal finance from a completely different angel. Instead of talking to young people about getting their finances in order, The Number is focused on aging people thinking about retirement. “The Number” of the title is the amount a person needs in retirement funds in order to keep their chosen standard of living.

If Ulrich’s tone is fast-paced, hip, and sarcastic Eisenberg’s is laid back, wry, and charming. Of course, by most people’s definition Eisenberg is a rich successful person trying to figure out just how lavishly he can live if he decides to retire. Not hard to be nice when life is good. And this is related to one of the biggest problems I had with the book, it seems aimed at what I would consider the upper middle – if not plain upper – class. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Eisenberg used to be the editor of Esquire not exactly your middle class financial advice type magazine. If Generation Debt reads like a series of articles for a trendy web site, The Number reads like a pull out section in one of those glossy magazines you might find at the local country club. It’s not that the writing isn’t well done and the subject interesting but that it seems so disconnected from my reality.

I thought one of the Amazon reviewers had it about right: “The book is very well written, easy to read, informative, yet really unpractical.” PW calls it a “illuminating and charmingly written consideration of an aging generation’s retirement worries and of the investment business designed to profit from them.” Fair enough. If you are looking for specific help regarding retirement this is not the book. If you enjoy thinking about the issues surrounding retirement but with a laid back layman’s terms approach then you will probably enjoy The Number.

Perhaps this says a lot about me, but I find myself more in the Ulrich camp than the Eisenberg one. I may not be a recent college graduate, but my financial problems have more to do with managing and eliminating bad debt than figuring out exactly how much I need in order to retire. Ask me the question again in five years . . .

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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