June 30, 2016


Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family. By Kimberly Palmer. AMACOM. $14.95.

     This book’s subtitle seems to have been truncated. The word “Family” should be followed by an ellipsis and then, “…As Long As You Are Well-Educated, Have Already Established Yourself on a Solid Career Path, and Have Significant Earnings Potential on Which You Can Turn Your Back Voluntarily Because You Do Not Have to Live Paycheck to Paycheck.” Guess that wouldn’t fit on the cover, much less the spine.

     Okay, even upper-middle-class women with substantial earnings potential need advice on managing their money and their changed or interrupted careers when they have children. There is nothing wrong with that. But Kimberly Palmer, an upper-middle-class mom who was senior money editor of US News & World Report for almost a decade, willfully wears blinders that prevent her from seeing how limited her ideas and approaches are and how many women they cannot possibly help. She is writing for women in major urban areas, women familiar and comfortable with politics, polls, surveys, statistics and studies. In fact, it helps if they live in or near Washington, D.C., as Palmer does, since there is a wonkishness about the many examples and citations here that seems to go naturally with the nation’s capital.

     From time to time, Palmer seems cognizant of her book’s limitations: “Almost every professional woman I reached out to explained that her schedule allowed for at least some degree of flexibility. …Full-time lawyers and government employees explained similar flex schedules that let them be home in time for day care pickup or let them pick one day a week to work at home. (Women working low-wage jobs tell a very different story, and those challenges deserve their own book.)” But at other times, she seems resolutely tone-deaf to people who are not like her and her friends, as when she mentions two letters she received as a financial columnist. One writer “explained that although she has a college degree in health education, she has not been able to find work in her field.” The other wrote, “I am a thirty-year-old mother of two. I am on a limited income and only make about $15,000 a year. My oldest daughter is nine years old and has special needs and my youngest is five.” Palmer gives the same reply for both the women, saying “there is no magic solution” and that “all they can do is make slow and steady progress out of the troubles they find themselves in” by “finding higher-paying jobs that utilize their educational backgrounds.” She then segues into recommending 529 accounts to which they should make “modest contributions (after emergency savings accounts are funded),” even though the second writer is desperate to save as little as $10 per pay period. This takes noblesse oblige to a whole new level.

     This does not mean Palmer’s recommendations are ill-considered. Quite the opposite – for well-educated, well-to-do women who need to reorient their priorities, financial and otherwise, while raising children, Palmer has very solid advice about budgeting, saving, planning for retirement, tracking spending, ensuring one’s ability to handle one’s finances oneself, coping with credit cards and debt in general, and much more. She also offers some good references to helpful Web sites, many of them well-known but some less so (MaxMyInterest.com, Weelicious.com). She has other smart Web-related ideas, too, such as using a free or inexpensive aging app, such as Aging Booth, to see what you will look like in 40 years or so – to encourage investing for retirement and taking a long-term attitude toward financial planning.

     Almost none of this will be of the slightest use to women who are barely getting by, but much will be helpful to women as savvy, educated and well-connected as Palmer herself. They are her real audience. She does not always write to them coherently: “Like Christine, though, the work was not like the demanding, highly paid jobs they held before.” And: “Take advantage of all available tax benefits to [sic] working parents.” And: “Step number one is calculating your retirement number, or how much you need to have saved before you retire, so you know what your most important investment account – the one dedicated to your retirement account – is aiming for.” Readers can usually puzzle their way through the writing when it is unclear; but even so, they have to be sure they are in Palmer’s target audience for this book to be genuinely useful to them. In discussing investments, for example, she talks about a survey of “women between age 40 and 80 with investable assets of $250,000 or more,” and elsewhere she tells the cautionary but ultimately uplifting tale of a woman whose gambler husband left her “with over $1 million in tax bills” and who, working as a financial journalist, “eventually took care of her tax bills and rebuilt her own financial security.” Wow – where does a financial journalist get paid enough to make up a million-dollar tax debt and rebuild a (presumably substantial) financial nest egg?

     Some of Palmer’s writing is bright and clever: “Credit cards are like high school boyfriends: some are reliable and supportive but most are not worth your time (or your money).” Some of her recommendations, if scarcely revelatory, are definitely worthwhile for those able to implement them: “Choose a job and field you love, so you are eager to get back to work, even when stressed out by motherhood.” Some are narrowly focused even within the already narrow target audience capable of taking her recommendations: “Maintain your personal brand online, so you are known for the skills you want to bring to the marketplace.” And some, however well-intentioned, are simply out of reach of the vast majority of working mothers – or working fathers, for that matter – based on multiple surveys showing how little most Americans are able to save for the proverbial rainy day, much less put aside for a secure retirement: “Smart moms are ready to adapt [in case of major job reversals] by having their backup plans in mind. That might mean having a hefty savings account ready to get you through a few years of much lower household income, a side business of contract or freelance work that you can ramp up, or a business plan for a consulting service based on your professional expertise.” Considering the fact that surveys have repeatedly found that nearly two-thirds of Americans do not have enough money saved to handle a $500 car repair or $1,000 emergency-room visit, this prescription goes beyond unrealistic and all the way to utopian for the vast, vast majority of people.

     There is a great deal of useful information in Smart Mom, Rich Mom, but this is a book for a much, much narrower range of mothers than its title suggests. The boundaries of education, class and professional expertise and experience within which Palmer is fortunate enough to live are such that only a very small percentage of mothers will be able to implement her strategies. Someone else will need to write a different personal-finance book for the much greater number of moms – and dads – who, even if they are not impoverished or living paycheck-to-paycheck, have far fewer of the advantages that have accrued to Palmer and those in her professional and social circles.

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