All the Money in the World: A Book Review

We got a free copy of All the Money in the World by Laura Vandekam for review purposes.

Here is the review!


All the Money in the World makes the case that many of us could be optimizing our happiness better by changing how we deal with our money and our time.  We can make more money.  We can spend money on different things.  We can keep perspective on what we have, what we want and so on.

Like Warren’s All Your Worth, Vanderkam advocates getting spending right on the big things, not Bach’s latte factor.  Lattes, she argues, bring more happiness than extra square feet in housing (or, in most cases, expensive jewelry).  She’s also a proponent of making more money and using that money to buy time… she mentions the frugality alternative, but mainly gives it lip service.  (Personally, I like the idea of maximizing the gap between earning and spending!)  Another main tenet of the book is the suggestion to figure out what makes you happy and spend money and time on that *now* rather than “tomorrow” (but with balance).

There’s a great section on retirement that focuses on the new face of retirement age and looks on work in older age as an opportunity for personal growth doing something different.  However, I don’t think it emphasizes enough the subset of retiree age folks who will be unable to work or even volunteer for health and other reasons (discrimination, skills obsolescence, etc.)– that’s a real worry that many of us will be unable to anticipate but should plan for, just in case.

The investment sections focus mainly on giving and peer-to-peer kinds of investing.  Basically they’re what I would consider hobby investing, making this investing into a consumption good like when people say they play the lottery for the entertainment value and not because they think they’re actually making a wise money decision.  This kind of investing would be on top of what you’re doing for your retirement funds and would fit into your charitable/social work mental account rather than your money making strategies.

Her weekly book-club has also been fun to read through.

Awesome parts

The book is a very easy read.

She understands economics conceptually and explains it well.  I like that.  Hopefully people reading the book come out with a deep understanding of what opportunity costs are.  In addition, I like the research base.  It was also fun seeing people I know quoted.

Life changing?

Probably not.  A personal finance guru manual for how to live your life– no, she clearly does not have that intention.  Entertaining, definitely.

Will it be useful to you?  Well, I think if you’re a bright type-A kind of person who just hasn’t thought about these issues, it could really open your eyes to the possibilities out there.

Was it useful for me?

Well, no.  I already feel like I’m optimizing my time and money given the constraints I have.  Sure I could work harder on bringing side income, but… then I would have less time, and time is really what I would want to buy.  At the other end, I could spend more on things that give me time, but we’ve done that in the past and right now it isn’t worth it– especially the extra time and hassle it takes to find someone competent who isn’t going to charge you something different from you agreed on and won’t mow over the new blueberry plants.  (Besides, I love the muscles my partner gets from the push mower in the summer.  Mmmmm.  Who needs to spend time at the gym?)

Random side notes

She pokes a bit of fun at the minimalist and homesteading movements.  Not really sure what she has against home-grown tomatoes.  As a symbol of a time-waster you can spend money to get they seem pretty weak– tomatoes are pretty easy to grow (even I can’t kill them) and they’re SO much better than what you can get in stores.  Not everybody has access to local organic heirloom tomatoes at a farmer’s market or Whole Foods!  I would have picked something more difficult to grow or easier to get a good quality version of at the supermarket (maybe cucumbers?).

Her story about ziploc baggies resonates with me.  I’m guessing we had similar upbringings followed by a similar path into upper-middle-class-hood.  (And, based on what I remember on her blog, we mostly did, including our high school experiences.)

She *almost* has a great soundbite explaining why there isn’t a fixed number of jobs in the economy.  That’s my biggest stumbling block with reporters, trying to explain why, without drawing graphs, someone taking a job doesn’t mean someone else loses a job.  I’m still not there yet.  I think she understands it conceptually and man, I wish she could boil it down to a soundbite I could steal.

Bottom Line

If you don’t feel like you’re already perfect, if you feel like you’re drowning in money problems or in time issues, then she’s probably got something to say to you.  And the message goes down pretty easy.  Get more money, buy more time.  Worth a read.


27 Responses to “All the Money in the World: A Book Review”

  1. gwinne Says:

    I also read this recently, as I like her earlier work. I agree with much of what you say in the review. One conceptual difficulty I have is with the argument about looking for ways to make more money, as you also mention above. That certainly works if you’re a freelancer of some kind and can choose which jobs to take and which jobs not to take…but if you’re working a job for a fixed income (like an academic, say!), the only way you can make more money, really, other than investing is doing your current job better, which will pay off in the long run but won’t give an extra $2000 next month (I think that’s the example she uses). I also didn’t get the tomato and similar examples…sort of wondered how that was any different than the lattes she advocates. If it gives pleasure and isn’t wickedly costly, what’s the problem?

  2. gwinne Says:

    The other thing I would add is that I liked the central idea that money *can* buy happiness, if we reconceive what that means. While not earthshattering, that idea goes against the philosophy of money I grew up with, which was basically SAVE (even if you didn’t know what you were saving for). My mom’s philosophy served me well in the end, as it allowed me to pay for ridiculously expensive fertility treatments for two kids. But for a long time it was just money in the bank with no clear purpose…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We’ve found that if we save for no real purpose, a purpose will come to us. One that’s much more important than whatever we could have come up with if we were trying to figure out a way to spend money. And then we’re glad we did. So, I think we agree with your mom. And maybe you do too– imagine not having had the money on hand for the infertility treatments. That’s an additional layer of stress that having a huge sum saved makes go away. Much better than Starbucks.

      • gwinne Says:

        Yeah, agreed. Still like that money can buy happiness, though! It certainly has for me, both in the big scheme of things (kids, house, etc) and Starbucks level :)

  3. Cloud Says:

    I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t really argue about its merits.

    But I wonder… there was a big “grow your own” movement that was huge out here, and possibly also out in the East coast community Laura lives in. Honestly, it was THE thing, and people sneered a bit (more tha a bit in many cases) if you DIDN’T grow your own tomatoes and greens. And people sort of competed on who could grow the most stuff in their backyard, and bragged about how they were growing corn, etc., etc. It was a bit insane. I definitely got a lot of holier than thou crap from people because we’re slackers on the home gardening front. (For the record, growing tomatoes out here is considered to be somewhat challenging because we have some sort of pest that just eats them up and of course you wouldn’t want to just spray chemicals to kill it because then you couldn’t brag about your organic tomatoes…. Anyway, I’ve never tried, because I can get heirloom tomatoes at my local supermarket when they are in season, so why bother? I focus on growing things that are annoying to buy a tthe store, because of a mismatch between the quantity I need and what they’ll sell me.)

    Anyway, I wonder if that is what she is reacting to?

    And @gwinne- watch out about saying that money can buy happiness! I got skewered on that on a blog post, because I didn’t explicitly acknowledge that some people are sick, or grief-stricken, or have other reasons why they can’t buy absolute happiness. I’ve actually been thinking I should write a post about how I think about happiness- more as a continuum in which I generally want to increase my happiness than as a discrete happy vs. sad thing.

    However, for me, the money in the bank is part of how I buy happiness, because it gives me freedom to quit my job if I got mad, etc. That was the point of my post, but it got missed in the anger at how I’d phrased the initial bit about money buying happiness. If I do revisit the topic, I’ll have to be a lot more careful with my wording.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well, to be honest, that’s a potential flaw with the book. It is from a narrow viewpoint– you’re an intelligent hard-working upper-middle-class type-A person living in a city or a fancy suburb. I would wager that the majority of the country (though perhaps not the majority of the population– it depends if tomatoes in NYC are like the cruddy ones in Boston or the excellent ones in DC) does not have access to tasty tomatoes most of the year. That Coastal experience that one reads about in the NYTimes isn’t universal.

      Did not have much trouble with tomatoes in Los Angeles (though there was also less need to grow them there). Though there are very few insects in LA because it is so dry. And I really enjoyed the victory gardens I saw in people’s front yards even though we didn’t have one. I didn’t think they were judging me about them though, but maybe I did not socialize enough to get judged. Or maybe our neighborhood wasn’t upper-crust enough (given it was mostly retirees benefiting from Prop 13).

      • Cloud Says:

        I see your point about the privilege and coastal experience. To be honest, the experience I read about in the NYTimes isn’t even all that relevant to San Diego. I’ve mostly stopped reading it because of that.

        But I wonder if some of this upper class silliness filters down and creates unnecessary angst amongst other people, too? I mean that literally- I wonder about that. I do not have data points one way or the other. At the time, the generally accepted way to be a “good” left-leaning parent was to grow your own veggies which you then pureed into your own home made baby food. Also, use cloth diapers (never mind the fact that San Diego is essentially in the desert with a thin coastal strip, and surviving off of water from other places, so the cloth vs. disposable issue isn’t so clear cut here). And make all your own cleaning products. Etc., etc. I remember thinking at the time that there was no way to do all that and also hold down a job, and that two job families were getting a double whammy of judgment from the right and left.

        My neighborhood is also mostly retirees benefiting from Prop 13. The snottiness I was on the receiving end of was from people at work, who would sigh about how it was such a shame that we wasted our big backyard, and how if THEY had a backyard instead of the small green strip bordering their big modern home they’d be growing so much more than they were managing now. It always amused me because they could easily have afforded our neighborhood- houses in my area are about $100k less than in the areas they lived- so maybe gardening didn’t matter as much to them as they thought.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think I remember that complaint from before on a GRS post!

        Some people are silly. And people are silly about different stuff in the big red middle of the country.

        “of this upper class silliness filters down and creates unnecessary angst amongst other people”
        is the central thesis of an article that Jacqjolie posted on the “ask the grumpies” request– the academic working papers mentioned in the news article she posted are by very good scholars, so there’s definitely something worth studying there. I wish I could go to the big summer conference this year to see what the rest of the community thinks about them as I’m sure they’ll be discussed. Maybe at the winter conference.

      • Cloud Says:

        Oooh. Report back in if you find out! I really am curious about that.

    • gwinne Says:

      Cloud, that really is a central argument of the book. What I like about it is that it forces us to think about the use value of money–what it can do–instead of just thinking of it as a thing for its own sake, or something evil (she gets biblical there for a while). While I can see how the phrasing might be problematic, it’s not mine, it’s hers! I returned my library copy or I’d find an exact quote. Yes, it’s a position that assumes a certain amount (okay, a lot) of middle or upper class privilege…and that’s clearly her target audience. That might be a problem but I can see how this book fills a certain kind of void in the self-help literature…

  4. bogart Says:

    Well, this looks interesting, from the perspective of someone who finds it helpful to read PF stuff in a sort of “reminder” way at bedtime or when stuck on a plane. Oh yes … must spend less than earn. An oversimplification, but as with much other stuff I find having reminders/new (even if somewhat rehashy) perspectives can re-motivate me and or help me find a particular area to fine-tune, so this sounds useful for both those purposes. I’ll probably wait to see if it shows up in a local library, though.

    I’ve killed many a tomato plant (and or planted many a one that was unproductive). Here are some tips, if you’re having trouble doing yours in: poor soil, no sunlight, deer, bugs, drought. And don’t get me wrong, I live in an area where plenty of people grow tremendously productive tomato plants with relative ease, but still. That said, we can get tolerably good ones from the farmer’s market or roadside stands but not, I think, as good as a properly homegrown one that’s been good dirt without hundreds of neighbors (many of our “small” farmers are still … biggish, you know? And my guess is that lots of what’s presented as real has either had some hydroponic history or been grown in a greenhouse (the greenhouse part’s not a guess), either of which detracts from flavor, IMO). So with a preschooler as additional motivation, we’re trying square-foot gardening this year, so far, so good — stay tuned…

    (proofreading grumble: tenet, not tenant)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oops! How embarrassing. Fixed. (And we do know the difference– it was totally a typo! Honest!) Thanks!

      • bogart Says:

        I never doubted it. Honest. Though had I been thinking sharply I’d have quoted one of my students’ recent emails and said, “With all do respect…” I am still chuckling over that one. De-do-do-do, de-da-da-da.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The other thing is… if the tomato plants don’t work… it’s not like you’re out a whole lot. Like what, $3 and whatever amount of time it took to get them in the soil?

      Contrast that with say, chickens…

      • bogart Says:

        True, and so much less sorrow (at least for me) over the deceased.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, I tend not to mourn plant deaths. If I did then I’d spend summer really sad.

        Well, I did weep for last year’s willow, but that was more … it cost a ton, provided shade, looked pretty… and then didn’t make it.

      • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

        You can buy chicks on Craigslist for a few dollars apiece here in Seattle. So you just need a shed or something to put them in at night. At least that’s what my coworkers tell me about their urban chickens.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Tomatoes don’t even need a shed though. :) Or food. Or really anything but maybe water (and if you don’t water them and they die… well, like I was telling bogart, you’re out $3.)

  5. oilandgarlic Says:

    I’m reading this too! I should post my random thoughts in a few days. I’m not going to read this post (yet) because it might sway my thoughts!

  6. femmefrugality Says:

    Sounds like a good read. I’ll have to check it out.

  7. MutantSupermodel Says:

    SO burnt out on money books :( One day, maybe. Today though I’ll pass.
    How are you guys enjoying the new schedule? I feel like I am better suited to keeping up with you now!

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