Years ago, when I wrote a popular financial makeover feature for a major national newspaper, one of our subjects asked if he should be plowing his more than $50,000 in savings into gold. It was 1997 and gold was trading at a little more than $300 an ounce. The financial planner assisting with the piece laughed dismissively, and the question never made it into the final write-up. Well, my bad. As I write, gold is hovering around $900 an ounce.
For more than two decades, as income inequality increased and job security decreased, Americans lapped up personal finance columns, books, and television shows. We thrilled to stock tips and swooned at sensible strategies for using dollar-cost averaging to invest in no-load index funds. Buy and hold, my friends! The annualized gain for the S&P 500 stock index over time is more than 10 percent! You, too, can turn into the millionaire next door. Carpe diem, folks! Seize the financial day!
The advice proffered by the vast majority of analysts, would-be gurus, and television pundits came down to one word: stocks. Some, like CNBC's infamous Jim Cramer, advocated stock-picking strategies. Others encouraged mutual funds. But very few — at least of those that could get publicity via mainstream outlets — doubted the efficacy of the market.
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That our personal finances weren't fully ours to seize didn't seem to occur to many of us until recently, when the stock market plunged almost 40 percent in a mere year, housing went into free fall, and the unemployment rate began to climb perilously toward double digits. All these facts suddenly left the personal finance industry facing a conundrum of its own making. The backbone of the self-help complex is the idea that you can do it. You. Singular. But what happens when you lose your job and can't find a new one before your six months of recommended emergency savings runs out? Or a good chunk of your retirement income is in the form of a pension from your former employer — and that employer is named Chrysler? What then?
"Personal finance has come to substitute for the role government should play for people," observes Nan Mooney, author of (Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents. "In the past 20 years the myth of the person succeeding on their own has gotten bigger and bigger. This myth is dangerous. It tells you if you can't balance everything and you are in debt, it is your fault."
Sounds harsh, but if you are laid off and at the end of your resources, what other message can you take away from people like mega-personal finance guru Suze Orman, who continues to argue that people's main problem with money is ... emotional. (Orman also urges people to invest for retirement in the stock market, while admitting the bulk of her savings is in municipal bonds.) Or Jean Chatzky of everywhere from NBC's Today show to Oprah's couch, who helpfully tells people in her latest book, The Difference: How Anyone Can Prosper in Even the Toughest Times, "Overspending is the key reason that people slip from a position of financial security into a paycheck-to-paycheck existence." (Note: Italics original to Chatzky.) Chatzky forgets to mention that studies have demonstrated the problem most likely to land one in bankruptcy court isn't an addiction to designer clothes but, instead, overwhelming health care expenses.
All in all, these might not be the right messages just now. While Orman's book, no doubt propelled by her continuing celebrity and television show, remains at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, Chatzky's book is languishing listless, a very different fate than the one met by her last book, which was released in a different era — 2006, to be precise.
In the current economic climate, a new group of au current advisers is coming to the fore. Many of them, like Peter Schiff, received their initial boost of fame by predicting various aspects of the current meltdown and are now trying to make money by telling people how to survive and thrive in the post-crash world. Schiff's "Crash Proof," currently in its 11th printing, urges consumers to buy gold to hedge against coming hyperinflation. At the other end of the spectrum is Martin D. Weiss' recently published "The Ultimate Depression Survival Guide." Weiss, a Florida-based investment adviser, advocates that many people should cut their stock losses and sell off, as we are entering a period of deflation.
Online gurus are also seeing spikes. ITulip.com's Eric Janszen says he received 12,000 new subscribers last year. George Ure, a business consultant who runs the free site UrbanSurvival.com and the subscription site Peoplenomics, makes predictions about future events based on a linguistics theory applied to Internet postings and has seen an increase of more than 20 percent in unique visitors year over year. Nonetheless, it's not looking like the new gurus will be any more helpful than their more conventionally minded peers. After all, the online world has been abuzz with accusations that many of Schiff's personal clients suffered losses of between 40 percent to 70 percent in 2008.
Which leads to another question: What's next for personal finance? The past two years have demonstrated over and over again that bad things can happen to good savers and investors. Very few of us have the wherewithal to fund both retirement savings and a large enough emergency fund to sustain us through a bout of unemployment lasting, say, more than a year. No one, it turns out, really knows what an individual stock, mutual fund, or commodity like oil or precious resource like gold will be worth in six months, never mind six years.
Nonetheless, personal finance is unlikely to crawl away and die anytime soon for a simple reason: We think we need it. "We're kind of screwed but we don't have a choice but to take care of ourselves because no one else is helping," admits MSN's personal finance columnist, Liz Weston.
A number of personal finance gurus have been moving, some ever so slowly, over toward the idea of pressuring the government for change. Weston, who has written extensively about what should be and isn't in pending congressional legislation putting brakes on the credit card industry, is begging her readers to contact their representatives about the plan. Others have gotten more ambitious. Schiff used his burst of fame to endorse presidential candidate Ron Paul. Weiss is currently circulating a petition to stop further bank bailouts.
Me, I'd settle for a few mea culpas from our finance gurus. After all, I am aware I owe my gold-loving dude an apology. Unfortunately, I know the planner assigned to the case won't be eating crow any time soon. I recently received a copy of his latest book in the mail. It's all about how if you can just identify your money archetype, financial success will be yours. Oh, and one other thing. The press release quotes him as advising, "Don't rush out to buy gold."