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Originally published Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Money tip: financial guidance versus folly

Author Helaine Olen, a freelance journalist, takes issue with the notion that some money gurus espouse — that if only people became financially literate and tried harder to manage their money, they would be on a sure path to wealth and security.

Chicago Tribune

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Whom can you trust for money advice?

It’s a fundamental yet complicated question that’s getting attention recently with publication of a controversial new book, “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.”

Author Helaine Olen, a freelance journalist, takes issue with the notion that some money gurus espouse — that if only people became financially literate and tried harder to manage their money, they would be on a sure path to wealth and security.

“If we can’t afford health insurance, it must surely be because we went to Starbucks too often,” Olen snarks in an interview. “There is a lot of bad talk out there and preaching at people — that everything that happens to them is completely their own fault.”

Olen said she supports learning more about finance and managing money responsibly.

But the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra ignores important realities for many Americans in recent years, she said.

Those realities include stagnant wages and rocketing costs for health care, housing and education.

And life’s financial devastations, such as overwhelming medical bills, divorce and unemployment, can strike people regardless of their dollars-and-cents aptitude.

“As a result, we are desperate and looking for help,” Olen said. “And here’s this great world of financial services, and they’re going to help you. But they can’t, not really. They can’t make money out of thin air.”

In her book, Olen goes on to attack not only the financial-services industry, but media-money gurus, such as Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, David Bach, Robert Kiyosaki and Jim Cramer, saying they offer questionable advice and have conflicts of interest.

We’ll sidestep the industry — and guru-bashing — personally, I think the book was fascinating reading but sometimes overly harsh — to offer advice on how you can decide whom to trust.

Unfortunately, there’s no single way to discern good money advice from bad, which is a reason to get money-smart yourself, said Eric Tyson, author of the popular “Personal Finance for Dummies” and one of the few money advice-givers that Olen praises.

Here is some food for thought — fully recognizing the oddity of a personal-finance advice column advising you how to judge personal financial advice.

Products. If a specific product is attached to the advice, beware. That goes for people in the financial industry who push certain investments that give them fat commissions, and money celebrities who give advice that matches products they sell.

Olen distinguishes between them and financial writers and journalists who make money writing, but not on companion products.

Follow the money. Especially with financial advisers, know exactly how yours is being paid. “All things being equal, you’re probably better off with somebody who’s selling their time on an hourly basis,” Tyson said.

The complicating part is that some commissioned advisers are quite good. “If they’re selling products or managing money, that doesn’t mean their advice isn’t worth listening to, but it can certainly taint and color their advice,” Tyson said.

Consider the motivation. Beware of someone who claims to be telling an audience a financial secret. Ask yourself why someone would waste time writing a book or giving a seminar about a get-rich-quick scheme instead of using the time to practice that scheme and get rich himself.

Moreover, profitable advantages in the financial world are often slim, and if a guru tells a large audience his secret, that advantage will usually be lost. It’s no longer a secret.

Beware of free food. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or a free dinner,” Olen said. She’s referring to investment seminar lunches and dinners that consumers are invited to by financial pros trying to recruit new clients.

Often the advisers or brokers will attempt to “scare the daylights out of them,” maybe suggesting they will all outlive their money while presenting a financial product as a solution.

“Don’t even attend,” she said, even if you think you’re strong-willed. Research has shown our defenses weaken when we’re eating, she said.

Easy money. “Where people get into trouble is when they believe it’s really easy, or they can get rich quickly without much effort,” Tyson said, adding that the best long-term returns are in the neighborhood of 9 to 10 percent.

“People who claim to have a system that produces returns substantially above that should set off alarms,” he said.

Disclosure. Noting possible conflicts is a good sign. “People ... in the clear will often tell you they’re in the clear,” Olen said.

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