Monday, January 11, 2016

Money Talks

When I first heard that Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s newest book was called Money Talks, I misunderstood the theme as “money talks and BS walks.” But the book’s focus is making a strong case for talking about money. Gail covers just about every imaginable way that people can have trouble with money and offers specific help for each case. I couldn’t put it down.

As someone with strong finances and good habits, I often find the self-defeating actions of others puzzling. “Stop spending stupidly” makes perfect sense to me, but is completely unhelpful for most others. In this book, Gail tells dozens of small stories to illustrate different causes for financial troubles. I’ve found them to be very helpful in understanding the many ways people mess up their finances.

Because financial troubles usually have an emotional basis, much of the value in Gail’s scenarios is that she gets the emotional parts right. Then to go with each theme of financial woes she gives a prescription for how to help yourself or others. It’s clear these detailed prescriptions are drawn from her extensive experience in finding ways to get people to make positive changes in their financial lives. And again, in her prescriptions, she gets the emotional parts right.

The majority of the book deals with overspending, but there is even a section about tightwads. As with other types of financial dysfunction, Gail offers several steps to get tightwads to view their finances more realistically and understand that it’s okay to spend a little if you’ve got the money.

In one section on family finances, Gail stresses the importance of each spouse getting “an account in their own name.” As it happens, I have an elderly aunt who can’t even get a credit card because her recently deceased husband had all the credit in his own name.

There’s no shortage of Gail’s usual entertaining writing style. In one prescription for getting a man to pay attention to mounting debts when he “won’t even talk about money,” Gail says “Imagine your husband arrives home, yelling your name as he comes tromping into the house. You’re sitting in the living room buck naked. On your right breast is printed OVERDRAFT: $372.34, on your left breast is printed CREDIT CARD PAYMENT: $238. Do you think he’ll laugh? Will he pay attention?”

For the most part, people don’t like change. But Gail points out that change will find us. In a quote I like, she observes that “Change is easier with some money in the bank.”

In another good quote, Gail says “People have an amazing ability to believe with all their heart that the things they wish were true can become true.” This can be a good thing when it leads to hard work, but not so good if it makes us believe that debt will somehow disappear on its own.

Back when I worked for a high-tech start-up, I was amazed at how many employees never exercised any of their stock options. I chalked it up to a combination of overconfidence, all-or-nothing thinking, and a misguided sense that selling showed disloyalty to the company. Gail has another explanation from some Stanford research: “investors’ biggest fear was not the loss of their money but the likelihood that they would do worse than their peers.” So, maybe my colleagues feared selling and then watching peers keep making more money as the stock continued climbing. Of course, the end result was a big crash.

When it comes to those who fail to make changes in their lives out of fear, Gail suggests a gentle touch. “You can encourage them to figure out what they’re afraid of—really afraid of—and find ways to work through that fear. Sometimes all a body needs to step into the breach is some encouragement and the knowledge that someone is there to hold their hand.” A book she recommends for such people is Feel the Fear ... and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers.

Gail explains why debt is a bigger problem today than it was in the past: “Once upon a time people were limited in how impulsively they could spend, because their money would run out.” Access to the various forms of credit we have today has changed things dramatically.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible to isolate your finances from a recklessly spending spouse, but Gail offers a set of 7 steps to do just that. In one of the steps she recommends putting the most important bills in your own name and letting the free-spender cover “cable, telephone, sports fees, et cetera.” It’s no fun to have the phone cut off, but it’s better than losing the heat in winter.

It’s clear than Gail’s main motivation is to help people. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn effective ways to help those who don’t handle money well. I had a couple of people I know in mind as I read this book and several parts were directly on point. I suspect most readers with particular problems in mind would also find some relevant advice.


  1. That's an entertaining review. I haven't followed Gail V. for at least 5-6 years when we watched some of her jaw dropping TV shows. I always enjoyed her straight talk, no BS approach. It sounds like a book worth reading.

    1. @RBull: I would say the book is somewhat like a compilation of her television shows.

  2. Communication is always a hard thing in any relationship, and money has always been a taboo subject, but Gail's takes sound pretty much on the button, in terms of the importance of clarity with your partner about money.

  3. Sometime, I wish we "communicate" more about our finances but on a day to day basis, I prefer to take care of most of it.

    We save a lot, invest most of it, reduce our debt, keep the taxes as low as possible and never buy new cars.

    With these big items cleared out, I dont bother much about the rest.

    1. @Le Barbu: The main value of this book is for people who need help with their finances or for someone who wants to be better at helping others. But even in the case of a couple that handles their money very well, I think it's important for both to be up to speed on what's going on with the money.