Poor, misguided fellow. David Brancaccio, host of public radio's rambunctious and eclectic business program Marketplace, used to think the big problem with money was getting some. Didn't he understand that during a time of bounty the big problem is knowing what to do with money once you have it? It took a conversation with one of the richest guys in America to set him straight.
"I think Warren Buffett's got the problem and Gates has the problem and Bloomberg's got the problem," the billionaire said. "And the problem doesn't just have to be at our level. It can be with people who have just a couple of million bucks." It was the second "just" in that sentence that made tears well up in Brancaccio's eyes.
Most of us once thought the problem was getting some money. Now what?
Squander: to spend or use something precious in a wasteful way. Squandering ranks even below "leaving it in a passbook savings account" on the list of the greatest personal finance sins of our age, according to Brancaccio, who hit the road to determine the right answer to the question of what to do with money. Brancaccio gets this question from Marketplace listeners all the time: What does one do with a lump sum, perhaps the proceeds from some stock options, the profit on the sale of a house, an inheritance, a bonus, a settlement, or even a modest accumulation in a savings account?
A natural storyteller, Brancaccio has a clear, intelligent, and delightfully offbeat way of explaining to his listeners the complexities of business, investing, and the economy. He has access to rivers of market information that should help answer this question of what to do with money. But data do not necessarily equal wisdom, so Brancaccio hit upon the idea of venturing out on a random "walk" to acquire some street smarts.
Imagining a windfall of his own and haunted by his own checkered history with money, Brancaccio embarked on a funny and irreverent personal finance pilgrimage. His travels took him from Minnesota's Mall of America to New York City's Wall Street to one of the poorest towns in the West. He encountered entrepreneurs in California, homeowners in New York, retirees in Arizona, and some folks following their lifelong dreams in Texas. A drifter in a desert offered advice. So did a U.S. secretary of the treasury.
Along the way, Brancaccio was challenged by a cascade of practical and philosophical issues: If consumption drives the economy, is there something wrong with saving? Is there such a thing as a socially responsible investment? Is charity an investment? If you can't beat a Las Vegas casino, can you beat the stock market?
While Brancaccio's journey was a personal one, his eye-opening adventures reveal a great deal about attitudes toward money in America at the dawn of the new century -- and they provide entertaining lessons about how best to spend, invest, and save.
Brancaccio writes like the public radio broadcaster he is (on the show Marketplace), in slow, even tones, savoring every detail of his stories, in firm control of where he is going but in no hurry to get there. This is not a book you attack, but one you surrender to. In fact, so easy is it to read that when you put it down after the last page, you will have no idea if you have painlessly learned anything or have just been entertained. The book consists of 10 travel vignettes arranged around the topic of spending money. Brancaccio wonders what he would do with a sudden windfall: save, spend, invest, retire, give it away or something else. For each answer he travels to various places to experiment and discuss the solution with people he meets. Having secured an advance for this very book, he goes to Minnesota's Mall of America to shop, to Las Vegas to gamble, to Levittown to investigate buying a house. Each story ends with morals, souvenirs and life resolutions. The author is intensely introspective and easily disoriented, so an ordinary trip to a mall seems psychedelic; Las Vegas, Silicon Valley and Wall Street seem like other galaxies. The only fixed referents in this world are eccentric individuals and attitudes toward money. Brancaccio is deliberately impressionable, and he has a knack of discovering interesting attitudes, empathizing with them completely and then analyzing them. He finds that generosity is common, as are guilt, insecurity, confusion and regret. However, there is very little of either greed or indifference. Perhaps the most important message of the book is that no one seems to have a good answer to the question of what to do with money. Neither professional money managers, professional thinkers nor gamblers have the secret. The people Brancaccio meets who are happy and secure do not worry much about money, but seem to have enough (everyone else has a problem, either financial or emotional or both)--but the cause and effect of this relation is not clear.