★ Rockstar Book Review: “The Index Card”

Review of: The Index Card
Harold Pollack and Helaine Olen

Reviewed by:
On March 3, 2017
Last modified:January 17, 2018


The "why" behind Harold Pollack’s no-nonsense cheat sheet that took the financial world by storm in 2013.

index card book review

This is part of our Rockstar Book Review series.
Be sure to check out all previous books we’ve covered!

“The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated” by Harold Pollack and Helaine Olen

rockstar rating 3 and half stars

Who it’s for: Anyone who likes to follow the KISS principle (keep it stupid simple) whenever possible.

Readability: MEDIUM. The book is about 220 pages, not including the reference section. Its layout is easy to follow, though it’s not in the order of the advice provided in the Original Index Card. The writing style is reasonable, though it could have used some further editing to increase the ease of transition from one topic to another.

What I liked about it: The book provides the raison d’être behind each one of the points Pollack presented on the index card he first wrote and published as a picture in 2013. As we can all appreciate, it’s nice to get advice but we’re not likely to follow it unless we know it’s solid advice. The book includes Pollack’s personal story, along with some research and statistics to show why the advice on the card is sound. The authors also took the opportunity to update some of the advice provided on the original card, such as moving away from higher-fee Target-Date Funds and instead toward ETFs and Indexed Mutual Funds (IMF).

What I didn’t like about it: The book felt rushed, as though it were a chance to monetize the index card’s virality, the popularity of which the authors make a point of emphasizing early on. Some of the research sources and studies and such seem to hit the mark, but the book also leans heavily on information originally published in Helaine Olen’s powerful book titled “Pound Foolish“. Other book references include “All Your Worth” by Elizabeth Warren & Amelia Warren Tyagi, and “Scarcity” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, though, unfortunately, the authors don’t make a strong case as to why the latter (definitely a thought-provoking read) is a worthwhile reference.

Where to find it:

Amazon @ $9.08 || Free @ the library :)

The “Why” Behind Pollack’s No-Nonsense Cheat Sheet That Took the Financial World by Storm in 2013

Ironically enough, the 4 x 6 index card that ultimately went viral, thanks in part to this Washington Post article, didn’t exist until reader Alex M. requested to see it!

Prior to this request, it had only existed as a metaphor shared during a conversation Pollack had with future co-author Helaine Olen: “The best investment advice fits on an index card.”

The original index card (pictured below) included nine points.

original index card money

The book offers nine points as well, though they differ somewhat from the original:

  1. Strive to save 10% to 20% of your income
  2. Pay your credit card balances every month (and pay down other debt)
  3. Max out retirement and other tax-advantaged savings
  4. Never buy or sell individual stocks
  5. Buy inexpensive, well-diversified indexed mutual funds and ETFs
  6. Make your financial advisor commit to the fiduciary standard
  7. Buy a home when you’re financially ready *NEW*
  8. Insurance—make sure you’re protected *NEW*
  9. Do what you can to support the social safety net
  10. OK, it offers ten, but the last one offers a summary, which is why I’m omitting it.

#1. Strive to Save 10% to 20%

Originally, Pollack suggested that 20% of gross income should be the goal, but the authors have softened on this point. The suggestion is now 10-20% of net income, stating that more is better and that, if double-digits is not feasible at the moment, some is better than none. In the authors’ estimation, this savings rate is what’s necessary to secure our financial future and that, given the power of compounding interest, starting sooner than later matters.

Further, learning how to save effectively drives our success in executing on every other point. If we don’t have money, we can’t pay down debt, put money in retirement savings, invest or buy a home. In short, living paycheck-to-paycheck is not a way to ensure our financial success over the long term. If moving away from this behavior is proving difficult, the authors suggest conducting a personal spending audit to help you clarify needs vs wants.

Finally, forget the latte factor. It’s the big stuff that kills us financially: housing, transportation and health care spending. Finding ways to reduce spending in these areas can make a big difference in creating some much-needed financial wiggle room, making it possible to set up to three months of expenses aside in an emergency fund.

#2. Pay Your Credit Card Balances Every Month

The authors argue that the high interest rates associated with credit cards make it a necessity to pay off the full balance every month (beware of the lure of paying only the minimum as doing so will keep the debt around for years). They also stress that credit cards have a tendency to lead to overspending – in the order of 20% more on average. If spending is an issue, they strongly suggest sticking to cash.

Pollack and Olen also stress that our ready access to credit is a relatively new phenomenon, and that the accessibility of credit is often what gets us into trouble in the first place. If we can’t borrow, we can’t get into debt. If we are in debt, we can minimize its long-term impact on our net worth by paying it off as quickly as possible, starting with the highest interest rate debt. The authors also caution that when it comes to debt consolidation and/or bankruptcy (including student loan consolidation/refinancing), it’s important to do our homework, as not all solutions work in our favor over the longer term.

#3. Max Out Retirement Savings

Once we have our credit cards under control and we’ve built up our emergency savings, it’s time to start ramping up our retirement savings. And the most important step is to maximize our use of employer-matched contributions and our use of all tax-advantaged savings vehicles. After all, why should any of us say no to free money?! (Unfortunately, as it turns out, a surprising percentage of the workforce does.)

#4. Never Buy or Sell Individual Stocks

The authors stress that there is really no benefit to owning individuals stocks when these are compared to well-diversified, low-cost funds. Trading in individual stocks encourages behaviors such as attempting to time the market and the frequent buying and selling of securities, both of which tend to eat away at our overall portfolio, no matter what the experts on TV might lead us to believe. Why participate in an activity that doesn’t tend to work, even for the pros?

#5. Buy Inexpensive, Well-Diversified Funds

Buy and hold is key, along with ensuring that what we buy are low cost (less than 0.5% annual fees), well-diversified IMFs and ETFs. Broad-based funds ensure that we can invest and then leave the investments alone until we come to the point where it’s time to withdraw our living expenses after retirement. Yes, after retirement. Borrowing from our retirement savings, for any reason, should be used only as a last resort.

Also, though Target-Date Funds were all the rage a few years ago, their benefits appear to be outweighed by the higher fees, which is why the authors now suggest sticking with lower-cost IMFs and ETFs.

#6. Secure A Fiduciary

The only way to know that a financial advisor is working for you is to ensure they are a fiduciary. Even a fee-only advisor may be receiving some commissions and/or may not be required to act in your best interest. If you want sound advice, have the advisor confirm in writing that he/she is a fiduciary and pay for the expertise up front and not in the form of commissions. A good advisor will be worth the hourly or flat fee they charge.

#7. Buy a Home When You’re Financially Ready

The heading for this rule is somewhat misleading. The authors are not suggesting that home ownership is for everyone. What they are suggesting is that, if home ownership is right for you, you need to consider it a long-term purchase to justify the commission, closing, legal, maintenance & repair, interest and insurance costs associated with the purchase. In their estimation, a family is ready to purchase a home once the household has a fully-funded emergency fund, has saved the 20% down payment, can finance on a fixed, best-possible-rate 15 or 30-year mortgage, and that the anticipated housing costs will represent at most 1/3 of their household’s take home pay.

#8. Get Insurance

Bad things happen. Period. That means that having proper insurance is important to protect your dependents. The authors advocate term insurance, disability insurance, household or renters insurance, health insurance and liability insurance (possibly including umbrella insurance). Pollack’s personal story helps drive home the importance of having the right coverage at the right time because tragedy and unforeseen events can affect anyone at any time. Every one of us knows of at least one person who has fallen on hard times in part because of having the wrong or no coverage. Better we be safe than sorry.

#9. Support the Social Safety Net

There are some forms of insurance we actively buy and then there’s other insurance that we contribute to via taxation: social security, disability, medicare, unemployment insurance and subsidized student loans. All these government services are forms of insurance that offer a safety net of last resort and the vast majority of people come to depend on at least one of these at some point in their lives (whether they realize these are government-run programs or not).

Despite our lack of appreciation for them until we find ourselves in need, the authors suggest that these services are worthy of our support because they can be just as important to our quality of life as the safety nets we secure for ourselves directly.

Bottom Line

If you want to know the “whys” behind the recommendations Harold Pollack made on that single index card back in 2013, I recommend reading this book and, of course, heeding its advice!

Where you can find the book: Amazon @ $9.08
Where you can find the authors: Harold Pollack / HelaineOlen.com

Other suggested non-fiction books that offer similar advice include: “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey and “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” by Ramit Sethi.  For entertaining works of fiction that cover similar concepts, I recommend “The Wealthy Barber” by David Chilton and “The Richest Man in Babylon” by George S. Clason (its principles are timeless). Finally, if you like the “it all fits on one page”/KISS concept, you might also like “The One-Page Financial Plan” by Carl Richards.


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Hélène is Rockstar Finance’s Curator of Books, and Blogger at FreetoPursue.com. A perpetual student, speaker, writer and coach, you’ll often find her reading, researching or writing. She also likes travelling and hanging out with her husband and their greyhound Belle.

Last modified: January 17, 2018

6 Responses to :
★ Rockstar Book Review: “The Index Card”

  1. In a world that loves sound bytes and bullet points, I can see why money advice on a note card would be so alluring. :) But yeah, the reality of money is that it can get messy, and few rules work for *everyone*. It sounds like these are still solid principles to follow though.

    1. Agreed. 9 bullet points on an index card resulted in a 200+ page book. There’s always a lot that can be said about any definitive statement, isn’t there? Still, I guess the index card is a good place to start, especially as a way to illustrate that money management isn’t rocket science, which is what the financial industry at large tries to make us believe.

  2. lindy says:

    ARGH! I absolutely hated this book. I was so disgusted with their lack of transparency throughout the chapters, but when I found them recommending leaving your retirement account with your previous employer (because you were probably getting a better deal through your employer?!?!?!?) regardless of the situation I dug deeper. They were quoting an article that was about TSPs and not the 401K or similar type retirement accounts. I almost threw the book across the room but since it was a library book I behaved.

    1. Wow! Strong emotions there!

      I didn’t pay too much attention to that point, other than not being in agreement with it. Kudos for digging deeper into that piece of advice.

      I think you would much prefer Helaine Olen’s “Pound Foolish” if you haven’t already read it. I absolutely loved that book for a number of reasons: the quality of the writing, the research and the topic in general. Top drawer in my opinion.

      Glad to hear you behaved. Your local library thanks you!

  3. Where did this idea that Target Date Retirement funds are more expensive????? Vanguard’s Target Date funds are about as cheap as their regular index funds. I hate it when books make blanket statements like that and you should have noted this in your review.

    1. I invite other readers to review the MERs of TDFs and the ETFs on the Vanguard site (as you chose to highlight this company in your comment above) and make up their own mind:
      List of Vanguard Mutual Funds (scoll to “target-date” category)
      List of Vanguard ETFs

      Quick summary if you don’t want to bother visiting the links I’ve included above: US stock ETFs are 1/3 to 1/2 the MERs of the TDFs. For International stocks, they are about 2/3 to equivalent to the MERs of the TDFs (save a few outliers).

      That said, individual investors need to do what is right for them.

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