April 2007

Jennifer Johnson

magazine whore

How to Make a Million

After writing painfully large checks to both the state of Maryland (where I call home) and the federal government this tax season, there have been virtual flies fluttering out of my empty wallet. So, perusing the aisles for this month’s feature, I couldn’t help but notice Kiplinger’s cover story, “How to Make a Million: Step-by-Step Success Stories From 11 Who Made it Happen.” A million bucks? Yes, I think that will do quite nicely. I handed over my $3.50 (because you have to spend money to make money) and prepared for the money to start rolling in.

Unsurprisingly, two weeks later, my million dollars still hasn’t materialized. Yet another promise made by a financial magazine gone unfulfilled. Kiplinger’s and its competing financial magazines (Forbes, Fortune, Smart Money, Money, etc.) are all aspirational porn for the mutual fund set. Beyond fast cars and beautiful women, these magazines speak to an even more basic fantasy: a big bank account.

A basic formula exists for all your financial publications. The front section focuses on developments in the world of finance and is probably the most helpful to the investors that these magazines target. These quick hits on tax law, individual company news, and pension advice, while not exactly sexy, are certainly informative and useful for someone managing their own investment portfolio.

Next comes the investing portion, the key component of every financial magazine. I’m sure that Kiplinger’s lawyers wouldn’t phrase it this way, but this is where they tell you what stocks are guaranteed to go up and earn you some cold, hard cash. Guarantee not actually guaranteed, of course. The implication is: buy these stocks and you’ll earn money. “A Dozen Ways to Play the Tech Revival” is a list of 12 technology stocks to buy now (Citrix Systems, Symantec, to name a few). “Fattening Your Wealth With Slender Fare” lists six stocks “on the front lines of the fight against fat” (think NutriSystem and Weight Watchers). And so on. And, to be sure, these probably are good picks: after all, what better reason to buy a stock than on the recommendation of a respected financial publication? And with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, surely these stocks get quite the boost from being listed here. So, if you’ve already got cash, here’s some advice on how to invest it. But, as we’ve already said, no guarantees -- what, you want to get sued?

That’s all fine and dandy, but I don’t have any money, yet. That’s why I picked this damn thing up. When do we get the million bucks? Actually, the realistic half of me fears that I already know the answer. Apart from a big inheritance, a lottery win, or success in professional sports or acting, the only way for an Average Joe like me to hit it big is to save every penny I can and pray that the stock market doesn’t crash… not exactly the glamorous solution I was looking for.
But a girl can dream, can’t she? So, with a PowerBall ticket in my pocket, I flipped to page 68. Let the cash start flowing in. Turns out, I was wrong. There are lots of ways to make a million dollars. You can invent the Super Soaker, for example. If that doesn’t work, you can become the star of a cooking show on Telemundo. Or just start an Internet company and sell it to Yahoo for $30 million (Flickr). Well damn, why on earth didn’t any of these ideas occur to me? Sure, there were one or two people in the article who did it the old-fashioned way, scrimping and saving for decades in order to build their fortune, but that’s no fun. This is America! Who wants to wait that long? The moral of the story is if you don’t want to live off of nothing but rice and beans for the next 50 years, you better invent something -- stat!

Anyway, now that we’ve made a million dollars, we can move to the best part: spending it. Women’s magazines have fashion spreads, financial magazines have high end shopping sections. In this edition, digital cameras, but in any given month it could be real estate, HDTVs, vacations, whatever. Just in case you needed another reason to try to earn a million dollars -- think of all the great stuff you could buy!

The real problem with these kinds of magazines is that there’s no easy way to get rich. By whittling down financial advice to pithy statements and one-page articles, it just comes off as trite and condescending. Sure, I can use the stock tips and maybe earn a profit, but the reality of saving money and finding tax loopholes when you’re not CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation is daunting at best and depressing at worst. I can understand the fun of reading about people who did it, the ones who had that great idea and made their millions. It’s not that different from watching E! to see how much Lindsay Lohan spent on her latest shopping spree. It’s all part of a fantasy; it’s just that the one being portrayed here seems that much more attainable for you and me. And maybe it is. I’ll let you know how that Nutrisystem stock works out.