We feel poor. Stressed. Depressed. We're trying to hold on to our jobs and pay our bills and not fall behind on our alphabet soup of a mortgage. Our nest eggs are cracking, our home values are plummeting and we're in credit card debt up to our shiny little iPods. We've given up our lattes and our manicures and we're letting our once-pampered tresses grow long and gray. We need help with our money, and we need it fast.
So we trundle down to our local newsstand -- we know, so very 20th century of us -- to see what words of wisdom we can glean from the gurus of the personal finance press. We immediately feel better; these magazines understand our pain. Just look at their December cover lines: "Your Tough Times Money Guide," promises Kiplinger's Personal Finance. "Rebuild Your Wealth," teases Smart Money. "Make Your Money Safe!" exclaims Money magazine. So we dole out our $12 (also known as three tall lattes), scurry home and prepare to be educated.
Here's what we learn from our reading. We need to buy stocks. NOW.
Knight Kiplinger is. He says so right on the cover of his magazine. So is Warren Buffett -- both Smart Money and Money tell us so, and both trot out the Oracle's famous adage, "Be greedy when others are fearful," to kick us into action. We are not Buffett, of course, and the mags are careful to remind us of that, too -- we shouldn't try to do what he does, exactly, they say. But we should try to profit from his wisdom and realize that what we are witnessing isn't just the worst market of our lives, it's one of the greatest buying opportunities of all time.
Indeed, that message runs through these magazines in much the same way the virtues of dieting permeates the women's glossies. "Today's market offers the broadest range of undervalued stocks that we've ever seen," chirp Kiplinger's columnists Whitney Tilson and John Heins. "The stock market remains the place where portfolios will get a rebirth," announces Smart Money. The rebound will begin in 2009, "the year of the thaw," Money tells us. To be sure, none of the magazines pretend it's going to be easy to pick the winners -- that's where they come in, we suppose -- but whatever we do, they warn, we shouldn't pull our money out of the market now (assuming we're not desperate for the cash) and lock in our losses.
They are right about that, of course. And if their cheerleading for stocks' long-term superiority -- and they are all talking long term here -- prevents a relatively young worker from liquidating his 401(k) in a fit of panic, then for that worker, one of these $4 magazines is money well spent. Besides, what else could these pubs possibly tell their readers to do at a time when nobody knows if General Motors Corp. or Citigroup Inc. will still be standing tomorrow? Advising people on how to make our money safe is a Herculean task right now.
But what rankles about the mags' advice is that it assumes we have money to invest. Buy stocks now? OK, with what? Our latte savings? Our unemployment checks? Our dwindling home equity? For whom exactly is this advice, anyway? It's not as if these magazines are unaware that people are strapped for cash. Kiplinger's even provides a feature on 12 ways to find cash if you need it fast. No. 1 on that list: "Sell investments."
No wonder we feel poor, stressed and depressed.
Get out your swimsuits. According to Fortune magazine, "Lifeguard leaders" -- Xerox Corp.'s Anne Mulcahy; J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.'s Jamie Dimon -- have replaced "Lone Rangers" -- Jack Welch; Stan O'Neal -- as the most desirable and effective CEOs. "Unlike the Lone Ranger, the Lifeguard is comfortable not knowing what's about to happen," Fortune says. He can anticipate "a coming shift" and work with a team. "And he isn't in it just for the money."
OK, we get it. This isn't about leadership; it's about executive comp. Home Depot Inc. CEO Frank Blake makes the Lifeguard grade. Why? He "accepted an annual pay package worth one-quarter of his predecessor's, and he is also finding creative nonmonetary ways to motivate employees, including giving merit awards for great customer service and assigning store workers more decision-making power."
If that strategy works, will Blake get a raise? Or just a new whistle?