Book is the ‘Scared Straight’ of personal finance

I vividly recall the 1978 television documentary “Scared Straight,” about inmates serving anywhere from 25 years to life trying to scare juvenile delinquents from ending up in prison themselves. The intervention was raw. It was scary.

Zac Bissonnette, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, last year, has in many ways copied the “Scared Straight” tactic, hoping to prevent young adults from making the same financial mistakes their parents and so many other Americans have made.

Bissonnette’s “How to be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents” (Portfolio /Penguin, $17) is the Color of Money Book Club selection for May.

“Managing your financial life is not about spreadsheets and compound interest,” Bissonnette writes. “It’s about your life. The financial decisions you make can give you freedom or make you a slave.”

At 23, this young man has an old financial soul. It’s like he’s channeling my grandmother Big Mama or other Depression-era folks. But much of his wisdom comes from having seen what can come from financial mismanagement. He’s wise beyond his years, in part because he remembers seeing his parents fight about money.

“When I look back on it, the elements of my childhood that were less than pleasant generally involved money,” he writes. “My dad taught me about money the way an alcoholic teaches his kids about drinking: by being a bad example.”

Bissonnette took his parents’ struggles and his father’s “lifetime of financial inattentiveness” and has used it as inspiration to do better for himself. He’s also using his experience to help other 20-somethings navigate the financial world.

He delivers simple strategies and cautionary stories of athletes and pop stars to scare young adults before they get trapped in bad situations because of poor financial decisions.

The first thing Bissonnette does is address the notion that stuff equals success. “If you’re going into debt to buy something you think will make you cooler, not only will you be broke, you’ll be terribly unhappy to learn that ‘having stuff’ doesn’t make you happy,” he writes.

Want to be rich? Stop watching so much television, which bombards people with messages that spending equals happiness, Bissonnette says. He doesn’t even own a TV.

You will find good solid advice in this book about credit, investing and saving with a heavy and much-needed dose of cynicism. Bissonnette is annoyed — as I often am — about the constant drumbeat that your credit score is the most important number in your life.

“More important than your net worth?” Bissonnette asks. “More important than your cholesterol or body mass index? … Your credit score is not a measure of the strength of your financial life because your credit score does not take into account your income or your net worth.”

Man, what insight. Speaking of which, I love Bissonnette’s contempt for debt, especially student loans. He’s says people who tell students not to be in a rush to pay off their loans are full of it. And wrong.

“It’s much better to hunker down, get the debt out of your life, and then move on,” he writes. “The low-grade misery of chipping away at it forever is just not a good deal.”


And he has sound advice when it comes to automobiles.

“I am part of a tiny, fringe cult of people who think we should only buy cars with cash,” he writes.

Count me in that cult.

I asked Bissonnette why he wrote the book. He said: “I wanted to create something parents could give to their kids and say, ‘Read this, do this, and have a better life than we had.’ I think that’s what every parent wants for his or her child. The idea of the book is really how to avoid the things we do with money that we think will make us happy (but won’t) and show how to do the things that will make us happy.”

I’m often asked to recommend a book for a recent college graduate or young adult starting out. Get this book.

Michelle Singletary:

Washington Post Writers Group

Chat with author

Michelle Singletary will host a live online discussion about “How to be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents” at 9 a.m. PDT May 31 at Zac Bissonnette will join Singletary to answer your questions.

Every month, Singletary randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book, which is donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of this month’s book club selection, send an email to with your name and address.

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