Why Your Financial Reading List Should Include Books *About* Money

Photo: Getty Images/David-Prado
Every month, bills and bank statements roll in, reminding me of both the challenges and rewards of financial management. Some months, I feel like I've succeeded in overseeing my money, and other months, more like I’m the one who needs advice. I’ve learned a lot about everything, from budgeting to having hard money conversations, by reading financial advice books. But I realized that for a long time, I turned to titles that only focused on giving advice. So more and more, I've been diversifying my reading list to include financial books about money itself—and not just how to handle it.

By doing so, I've learned that there are at least a few ways that financial advice books give incomplete pictures. For one thing, I’m never in the exact same circumstances as the writer. I also don’t necessarily share their values—I often find myself reading intense books and thinking, “but what if I don’t care about maximizing my income? What if I just want to get by and have a few small luxuries?”

While modern financial advice books do an admirable job of acknowledging that their advice isn’t for everyone, it’s still possible to experience a lot of doubt or shame while reading them. After all, if you agree with some of the basic premises that many books point out, things like “spend less than you earn” or “saving for retirement is important,” but then see that you aren’t in a position to live them out right now, you may feel…not great. I've personally discovered how easy it is to stop practicing good financial advice and feel like I’ve failed to stick with a rigid money management system because of this. But now that I'm widening my perspective on what books to add to my financial reading list, I feel like I'm still moving my own money mentality and financial wellness forward while giving myself a bit of a break.

One of the major benefits of broadening your financial awareness by reading more about how money works and impacts the lives of others is that it'll expand your understanding of the world at large. Another bonus? It opens up conversations with those close to us. We can ask, “What do these new details about history, culture, the mechanics of money’s movement, and more have to do with our lives?” Sometimes it’s just interesting to think about, but often we can draw our own conclusions that change our behaviors just as much as any financial advice book.

So, if you're in the mood for some financially-driven reading, and want to gain more insight without being directly told what to do with money, there are options! You can read outside the advice bookshelf and find stories of the impact of money on the world—it’s not a bad resolution and one that might be a little easier to keep than committing to following someone’s money advice to the letter.

Financial books about money

1. Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein

This book is a fun, funny look at how we make money meaningful ourselves. Goldstein, a host on the NPR show Planet Money, pulls out some of the most surprising and intriguing anecdotes in the history of money and helps readers see that money is all about human behavior and motivation, since after all, it only works if we all keep agreeing that it works that way!

Shop now: Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein, $22

2. Money Makes the World Go Around: One Investor Tracks Her Cash Through the Global Economy, from Brooklyn to Bangkok and Back by Barbara Garson

I also like getting to know all the behind-the-scenes functioning of our complex money world today—Barbara Garson helps with this one in her book. She tells her own story by sharing how her book advance payment winds its way through the world economy, tracing stories of globalization and competition and so much more along the way.

Shop now: Money Makes the World Go Around: One Investor Tracks Her Cash Through the Global Economy, from Brooklyn to Bangkok and Back by Barbara Garson, $13

3. The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society by David Wolman

The technology that's created cryptocurrencies may still elude me, but books that discuss how that tech is already changing the way money works are interesting to me. This book offers examples of where money is already transforming from a physical currency to a technological idea, all within a fun frame of how Wolman took a year long break from using cash himself. His interviews and journeys help us see more implications for aspects of the economy that we don’t always think about.

Shop now: The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers--and the Coming Cashless Society by David Wolman, $16

4. The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Mehrsa Baradaran

After a year where social injustices have dominated news cycles, many of us know that we have more to learn about how wealth impacts race and class in the United States. Baradaran’s book shows where policy at every level has held back Black Americans from building wealth in the banking system. Understanding the system and its history can help us to make a future world where things are actually more equitable, and some of that work takes place in the economic systems and political policy choices we support.

Shop now: The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Mehrsa Baradaran, $30

5. Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

With so many of us still working to pay off money we've borrowed, from student loans, to mortgages, to credit cards, why not take a break from feeling the weight of our individual debt and instead learn about it as a concept? This book makes an interesting case for how debt has gained its particular structure in our lives and the ways it’s key to so many human cultures, not just modern ones. Even arguments for debt forgiveness and its conditions are actually ancient history, not just modern politics. While not for the faint of heart (it’s a long read, 5,000 years worth!), the impact of debt on culture and vice versa is incredible to witness.

Shop now: Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber, $60

6. Maid by Stephanie Land

There are a few different examples of people’s financial memoirs, but I particularly liked this Maid because it showcases what Land was able to accomplish with few resources and few places to turn in the United States. It also highlights many of the runarounds that people living in poverty have to experience to get help, even when they qualify for benefits that could put them on a path to better financial footing. Land’s story isn’t an easy one to witness, but because she was willing to share it, I feel like I’m that much less ignorant about the lived experiences of people in low-paying jobs after reading her work.

Shop now: Maid by Stephanie Land, $10

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