I subscribe to a slightly weird personal finance credo. I think you can learn the most about money by reading deeply about other topics. You won’t find any recommendations for typical self-help style personal finance books below. Despite the indirect angle, these are the books that have taught me the most about life and money.
The Best Books About Money and the Mind
We are, first and foremost, humans. Understanding all the ways in which our brains deceive us about quantitative topics is enormously important. It’s more important than just about any other personal finance topic.
I enjoyed Housel’s immensely. There are some inaccuracies, but it is a very pragmatic starting place. I particularly like his guidance about rationality vs reason. Rationality is a bar that most people (myself included of course) struggle with. He thinks that it’s sufficient for most people to have reasonable financial goals.
Why do I feature a popular psychology book on my blog about personal finance? Because one of the major areas of life that we tend to form expectations about is our wealth and income.
What this book taught me is that our expectations have a very powerful effect on the outcomes we observe. This is true across areas of life from love to finance.
We form and evaluate expectations all day every day, so it’s hard to know when you’re doing it. But it pays dividends to do the work. If you can become more aware when you set an expectation, you can learn to modify the unrealistic ones.
I’ve never been in a nightclub. I haven’t included this book because I think it’s important to understand that scene.
This book is worth reading because it provides an accessible look into other people’s lives. And specifically, how wealthy people use money to obtain other things like power and beauty.
We are all constantly being lied to about everything. Every news story, every social media post, every investor report is chalk full of mathematical falsehoods. Sometimes these errors are the result of simple ignorance. But sometimes, writers are complicit in lying to their readers for their own ends.
This is a very short book and you’ll be much better at cutting through financial bullshit after you’ve finished it.
The Best Books About The History of Money
This will make you re-evaluate how you think about what work. It will also clarify how important work is, independent of a way to earn money.
Suzman suggests that there might have been a fairly exact moment when human effort changed from survival to modern work.
This isn’t a history of Sumerian accounting tablets or ways in which debt have been denominated throughout history. It goes deeper than that and thinks through what debt is at a philosophical level.
That might sound like an overly-intellectual exercise, but Graeber makes it fascinating. I rarely re-read books, but this is on that short list.
Mezrich makes a compelling argument that Bitcoin is a pyramid scheme. Without the concerted efforts of the Wilkvoss twins, he suggests that Bitcoin never would have become a worldwide speculative phenomena. This begs the question whether bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have any legs long-term. We could look back at this period of history as yet another speculative boom in an esoteric asset.
The Best Books About Inequality
Piketty’s book has come under additional scrutiny in the last 5 years. I think his approach to thinking about inequality in terms of deciles rather than the Gini Coefficient is spot on. Even as someone with an undergraduate degree in economics, the Gini Coefficient remains esoteric and hard to grasp. But understanding wealth disparities between the top 10%, 1%, and .1% is much easier to grok.
This book has become so important, you should probably at least read the cliff notes.
I enjoyed this book for its candid portraits of people that suddenly, and unexpectedly, came into unfathomable wealth. There are lottery winners, surprise inheritors, and entrepreneurs who tell their stories of how they think about their new found wealth. There’s a lot more anxiety and depression than you would imagine, but also a lot of freedom and empowerment.
If you’ve ever wondered “what would it really be like to suddenly inherit $10M?” this is a must-read.
The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century
I’m very concerned about wealth and income inequality. A few years back, I to better understand why I’m so worried. I read 5 books and a couple dozen articles on the subject. Then I wrote a personal blog post that was so long my own mother wouldn’t read it.
This book ended up being the most interesting of the bunch. It makes the argument that historically, societies only become more equal when extraordinary violence occurs. We’re not talking about garden-variety coups and revolts. We’re talking about events on the scale of World War 1 and 2. For the smaller events, there isn’t much observable leveling effect to wage and wealth inequality. Even when there is, the result is almost always that people are made worse off in general. So you can make society more equal at the cost of everyone being poorer.
This is how I learned to stop worrying so much. I still vote for more equality, because you have to have hope for the future. But I’ve realized that at least historically, the cure may be worse than the disease.
If you’ve ever wondered how people think about affluence, you should read this one. It follows the lives of wealthy people in New York, NY. Sherman delves deep into meaty questions about money, privilege, and the meaning of life.
It was fascinating reading about couples who didn’t think of themselves as wealthy, but had assets in excess of $10M. By my definition, those are some rich folks. There were also people with far less wealth who thought of themselves as so wealthy as to be morally obligated to donate much of their time and money to those less fortunate. Just goes to show you that wealth is relative!
The Best Books About Finance
Before reading this book, I couldn’t have told you the first thing about how asset trading worked. TLDR: it works like most other forms of active investing. The tales of success and failure read like adventure stories to those of us interesting in money and wealth creation. It is a bit over-long, but still worth it.
There’s a reason that this book is a classic of most MBA programs. It is the quintessential story of executive mismanagement and politicking. It’s also a fascinating glimpse into the heydey of the Wall Street junk bond bonanza.
This book is incredibly well-researched. It’s also uncanny how similar the story is to other fictional accounts about corporate executives (I’m looking at you, Succession).
The Best Biographies
I’d always assumed that Warren Buffett was in some fundamental way different than other active investors on Wall Street. This book disabused me of that notion. He’s more homey and down-to-earth than many of his contemporaries. He’s also been preternaturally lucky. But at the end of the day, Buffett is just a very successful active investor. Interestingly, he built his fortune on a now completely antiquated stock analysis technique that no longer works.
He’s an extremely savvy businessman and investor, but he’s no god. Definitely worth learning from his example.
I had always heard that John D. Rockefeller Sr. was the absolute epitome of the late 19th century robber barons. He was supposed to be a ruthless business titan of questionable morality.
What his biography taught me is that, he’s just a really hard-working, pragmatic, and lucky businessman. He’s not unduly ruthless or heartless. He didn’t eat babies. In fact, by modern standards, he’s not even that cutthroat.
Also, he probably wouldn’t have become one of the wealthiest humans to ever live if the US hadn’t broken up standard oil. That realization has definitely tempered my estimation of the value of antitrust litigation.
Carnegie was a Rockefeller contemporary, but unlike John D., Andrew was quite different. He retired very early and left his empire to subordinates like Frick, he was a bachelor until quite late in life, he was one of the first major robber barons to embrace philanthropy in a big way, and he built his fortune by surfing the industrial wave of railroads and steel manufacturing.
Overall, I found Carnegie less fascinating than Rockefeller. With that said, it’s fun to read detailed biographies about two contemporaries. You can get familiar with a particular moment in history and better understand human motivations.