Every year around this time, a flood of new personal-finance books is released, and every year I complain that so many tout terrible advice.
Not this year. Sure, there is the usual truckload of bad new books out there, offering doomsday philosophies, conspiracy theories and get-rich-quick schemes in place of solid financial advice.
But this year's crop of money titles includes some real standouts -- books that offer new ideas, fresh approaches and sage advice about how to handle your money.
If you want books that will help you grow your money and your understanding, here are five I believe are worth reading:
"Stop Getting Ripped Off: Why Consumers Get Screwed, and How You Can Always Get a Fair Deal" by Bob Sullivan.
"Stop Getting Ripped Off" is a worthy successor to MSNBC columnist Sullivan's earlier best-seller, "Gotcha Capitalism," which explored how our free-market economy has been replaced by a bait-and-switch system of low advertised prices that hide myriad "gotcha" fees. In "Stop Getting Ripped Off," Sullivan first explores why we're so vulnerable (rotten math skills and the disappearance of effective consumer protection are among the reasons), then offers concrete ways to fight back.
He walks people through how to shop for mortgages (arguing the loan you get is ultimately more important than the house you buy), how to buy a car and what's really important when you buy life insurance. He warns of the dangers of overpaying for your investments and gives helpful advice about shopping for cell phone and television service.
But Sullivan's most compelling argument is his initial one: that even the savviest consumers are vulnerable when the laws against unfair business practices aren't enforced.
"Your Money Milestones: A Guide to Making the 9 Most Important Financial Decisions of Your Life" by Moshe A. Milevsky.
You've probably never read a personal-finance book like this one, unless it was Milevsky's earlier book, "Are You a Stock or a Bond?" Milevsky challenges a lot of conventional wisdom about money, and even when he concurs with mainstream advice, he tends to do so for reasons that are different than you might expect.
"Are You a Stock or a Bond?" rejected the idea that you should use your age or risk tolerance to determine how much of your retirement portfolio to invest in stocks. Instead, Milevsky suggested assessing whether your most important asset -- your ability to earn money, also known as your human capital -- was more bondlike or more stocklike.
Milevsky uses a similar approach in "Your Money Milestones" to advise against buying a home before you're 50, noting that you shouldn't tie yourself down to a big, undiversified investment when most of your human capital is also undiversified --locked inside you, rather than already turned into financial capital that can be diversified across asset classes and regions of the world.
He also dismisses the distinction between good debt and bad debt, and even suggests it's OK to live beyond your means during some points in your life. This book is like a brisk walk for your brain. You may not agree with all of his conclusions, but you'll consider some new concepts, and you certainly won't be bored by yet another rehash of the same old advice.
"The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed: The Only Personal Finance System for People with Not-So-Regular Jobs" by Joseph D'Agnese and Denise Kiernan.
Most money advice is pretty presumptuous. It presumes you have a steady income, that your job includes benefits and that your taxes are largely paid through withholding. It presumes, in other words, that you're one of the worker bees of the world.
Except many of us -- at least a quarter, maybe as many as a third -- are not.
A good chunk of us are contractors, freelancers and the self-employed, which makes money a lot more complicated. Just trying to budget with an irregular income is a challenge.
Through trial and error, veteran freelancers D'Agnese and Kiernan worked out a money-management system that allowed them to save for emergencies and retirement, pay off debt, buy benefits, cover their taxes and survive the droughts in business that seem an inevitable part of working for yourself.
They convey all this in a book that's irreverent and hugely entertaining. If you want a sample, check out this two-minute video Kiernan produced.
"Save Big: Cut Your Top 5 Costs and Save Thousands" by Elisabeth Leamy.
A common complaint about budgeting advice is that it focuses far too much on cutting little expenses while failing to address our biggest costs. Leamy, the consumer correspondent for ABC's "Good Morning America," tackles those major costs head-on by showing ways you can reduce your spending on housing, cars, credit, groceries and health care.
Leamy points out that you can save far more by tracking sales cycles at the grocery store and stocking up when items are on sale than you can simply by using coupons. She also demonstrates that you can save a small fortune over your lifetime by fiercely protecting your credit scores -- she estimates a $93,600 savings, but I think it could be twice that.
"They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents' Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy" by Francine Russo.
I love it when a book connects the dots of a trend we've subconsciously noticed but haven't quite put into words.
Sullivan did that in "Gotcha Capitalism," and longtime journalist Russo, who covered aging issues for Time magazine, does it in "They're Your Parents, Too!" Russo discusses "the last transition of our first family," when we have to "re-engage intensely" with siblings to deal with the aging, decline and death of our parents.
Russo's book is far more than philosophical ruminations. She offers practical strategies for dealing with difficult decisions (and difficult siblings). She discusses how to negotiate care-giving issues, especially when the siblings' contributions aren't equal; what kind of medical and end-of-life decisions may need to be made and how to best handle those; and navigating inheritance issues to minimize fights and resentments.
As one reviewer put it, "I'm recommending this to everyone I know who's having sibling issues around their parents -- and that's practically everyone I know."