Kirk Allen’s All About the Money is that rare tome, the enjoyable financial advice book. The book imparts its tips in a manner that is equal parts memoir and financial seminar. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think about Next Avenue’s recent piece, Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff whose basic premise is “many boomers and Gen X’ers charged with disposing the family heirlooms, it seems, are unprepared for the reality and unwilling to face it.” Allen’s book stresses over and over again, the best thing you can leave your family and loved ones isn’t valuable silver wear or matching China sets, but cold hard cash — in the warmest possible way.
Nearly all of the engaging stories that compromise the book are wrought from tales of Mr. Allen’s hardscrabble childhood, first as an immigrant from Jamaica, to his life with his grandmother and the trips to what appear to be well-to-do relatives in Boston, and later as student in college in upstate New York, to modern day family man. There’s another tale here too, Allen was the focus Jonathan Demme’s award winning documentary Brothers of the Black List stemming from a highly publicized racial discrimination suit filed by the Black men at SUNY Oneonta in 1992. His experience doesn’t actually literally figure in the book, but I can’t help but think it casts a long shadow in Allen’s life whose upbeat prose suggests someone who faces everything in life as a challenge to be overcome and not a hindrance to success.
When asked about the impetus for the book, Allen says, “My earliest memories are happy, but besides feeling loved I had to deal with the realization, we were poor — extremely poor.” He observes that as he grew older his understanding and deepness of his family’s profound poverty grew. “I keenly observed the same financial issues in my extended family and throughout my neighborhood. I had no idea how to rectify the situation, but I observed the behaviors which would lead people out of financial hardship or the actions which dug them deeper. I became a student of finance and decades later I began teaching personal finance. Many of my students would reach out to me months or years after taking my class. I needed a way of reaching them and maintain a financial voice they could reference when needed. Regrettably, I could not always provide my students with the immediate response to calls, emails or sit and have a conversation. I wanted to formulate a means of tangible recall. This book is tangible recall.” Indeed, Allen prose suggests a prodigious writing talent, one maybe far more suitable for a best selling memoir, but works well here because financial lessons are threaded so well and intertwined with the personal, that they make each lesson far more memorable than a set of talking points. In many ways we’ve heard all this advice before in some form another — it takes a brilliant writer to help spoon feed them while feeling entertained.
Because of his early experiences, Allen, “became determined to change the financial life I grew up in. I wanted to improve my financial well being. I needed to find a way to reach my family, my friends and anyone who had similar circumstances providing a helping hand. Life taught me to be engaged, informed and proactive in all the things I do. It also taught me always endeavor to change my life in a positive manner and help others along the way when possible. I knew acquiring financial knowledge or any useful form of knowledge would pay dividends (pun intended) toward how well my life could actually be.” It raises the question, why are people for some part at least, making the mistakes we do when we know what we should be doing. (i.e. Why do so many people have trouble with their finances?) Allen is quick to reply, “Various reasons, but I think the two most prominent reasons are ones lack of financial education – formal or informal. And Americans need to fill immediate whims and gratifications at the very moment they hit the brain. It is incredibly easy for someone to reach into a purse or wallet and pullout a credit card and acquire the good or service they desire at that very moment.” Allen believes that “piggybacking on that is the fact that minimum payments on credit cards are minuscule allowing the cardholder to accumulate more and more debt. Add these factors and others, and you’ll see how easily living above one's means is living above the truth.”
The book also raises the question, how did Allen remain vigilant and inspired while many of his peers did not? Allen ponders, “Deep question,” he pauses, “Perhaps its fear of not having the ability to do something as basic but incredibly necessary as putting food on my table. Perhaps it’s the idea that a loved may need a helping hand financially and I cannot aid them. Perhaps it is my competitive juice to strive for some measure of success and stability. It may just be the sadness, regret, and disappointment I’ve seen in the face of those I love when their financial mistakes ricochet and cast a shadow over their lives.” The book suggests it’s all these intersectionalities that make Allen the unique person and writer that he is — and although a Gen X’er himself, the book’s leanings towards austerity and amassing “stuff” evokes an ethos that should be popular with Millenials. Since many of their post college careers or lack thereof — were cut short or diminished, it changed their their expectations — all forged in the cauldron of the Great Recession. For many of them that should make this book requisite reading for living a good life.