Literary Inspiration Behind My Money-Smart Movement Writing: 3 Important Books I Read in 2017

I recently came across Bill Gates’ list of 5 amazing books he read last year. As I reviewed it, I recalled that Gates inspired me years ago to venture cross-country by train to read and think, emulating a similar annual trip he’d take. One year, he was a bit preoccupied with a small business of which you may have heard (Microsoft), and he used the “think week” to get to a small pile of books he’d been meaning to tackle.

I figured that without the burden of running the largest software company in America, I could probably read at least one book during the same type of trip. I’d never developed a real reading habit. In fact, I did whatever I could to avoid reading in many cases. This experience of immersing myself in a book was a brief glimpse into what becoming a more consistent reader for life might feel like. What book did I read? Gates’ The Road Ahead . I needed many more years to develop a true reading routine, but I was on my way.

Locking in the habit took TWENTY years. What can I say, I’m a slow learner. Twenty years to move beyond two to four books annually. That’s when my wife introduced me to Hal Elrod’s little book, Miracle Morning . (Please note that I read the edition for real estate agents because my wife, the realtor, shared her copy with me.) Though not a literary triumph, it was a life-changer if, for no other reason, one SIMPLE life hack—moving the alarm clock across the room. Incredibly enough, this one tiny tweak forced me to rise early, and the guilt I felt if I literally went “back to bed” was enough to keep me up. Snooze buttons, as we all know, are way too easy to smack. Since my alarm clock made the cross-room journey after reading Elrod’s book in 2015, I’ve been able to complete my own Miracle Morning, including meditation and journaling, virtually every day. Of course, each morning has included around thirty minutes of reading. This routine has helped me read over eighty books in three years. The process has been enlightening, and all the books I’ve finished, including Miracle Morning , are listed in my Goodreads account.

Inspired by all this reading, as well as a burning desire to give parents an effective allowance system and a companion to our Money Mammals program for kids, I took on the challenge of writing my first book last year. Well, my first book not featuring a colorful, money-saving monkey named Joe and his bandmates, The Money Mammals . The writing process was both an enormous undertaking and an enriching experience.

I’d be remiss in not thanking Bill, Hal and, of course, my wife, Eileen. She not only introduced me to Elrod but also helped me create The Money Mammals that gave rise to our money-smart movement and, now, The Art of Allowance.

I wanted to share the works that most impacted me this year because they played such a large part in helping me get my own book to print. The ones that are ostensibly about writing are wonderful reads whether you’re writing or not. Perhaps they’ll even inspire you to jump on the rails and draft your own book.

On to my list…

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

I knew nothing of Marie Kondo other than what I’d heard about some Japanese woman who suggests we talk to our clothes in order to cut clutter. WAAAA-CKY! Then Sylvia Jaunzarins , a good friend and an excellent writer, suggested that I give Kondo a try. Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, helped me better understand how I could clearly communicate my money-smart message to fellow parents. I also discovered that Kondo and I share a desire to help people better cope with becoming inundated by the scourge of stuff .

By recommending Kondo, Jaunzarins helped me understand the artistic concept of “finding my book,” a notion I previously might have disregarded as “fluff.” Experiencing Kondo’s book helped me find my book, not so much because we shared a theme—the reduction of stuff—but more so because of the clarity of her message and her ability to make the reader feel comfortable with a potentially overwhelming subject.

Before you dismiss Kondo as a modern-day mystic, albeit a practical and nappily dressed one, give her book a try with an open mind. It’s aptly named, and if you allow yourself a little vulnerability, then you may be transformed. (Yes, I did—as Kondo suggests—thank my clothes for their service while chucking them into the Goodwill bag.)

Kondo and essentialism are having a moment, but this way of thinking has been around for eons: from Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics, to Walt Whitman and on through to Ryan Holiday and books like The Obstacle Is the Way and Ego Is the Enemy today. I like that the basic tenets are ones that have survived the test of time. Living simply has staying power, and it’s a key principle of the money-smart movement.  

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Recommended by prodigious podcast host and author Tim Ferriss, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird book is simply hilarious. Lamott is an accomplished author and teacher, and she helped permit me to stink up my first draft just to get SOMETHING on paper. Importantly, Lamott encouraged me to embrace writing for writing’s sake.

It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

I had written three children’s books, and, with the help of my inimitable friend Marilyn Walton, I think they’re actually coherent and perhaps even entertaining. Working with Walton was a lot like reading Lamott. It was akin to taking a writing class, helping me learn to grab ahold of the process and, to invoke a Kondo phrase, ensuring that every word in my book would “spark joy.”

Lamott (and Jaunzarins, as noted above) helped me to understand that writing was a process that could truly “spark joy,” and I’m excited to begin my next foray into authorship at some point soon. Thank you, Anne!

On Writing by Stephen King

“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”

—Stephen King

It’s not coincidence that Lamott and King are not only successful authors but also teachers. King was an English teacher before he hit it big. His reminder above about the spookiness of starting will be something I’ll carry with me as I continue to write. Beginning is always scary.

Whether you intend to write or not, King’s book, On Writing, is, not surprisingly, quite entertaining. When you discover that King, just as many prolific people, feels like a mere vessel through which his books come to life, you can learn to embrace yet another reality, also Stoic in nature: We are less in control than we think. I believe that finding comfort in this knowledge may be how we become our greatest selves. King also helped me understand that a book, once published, becomes the reader’s. It is no longer your own. And that realization is exciting.

I thought I’d finish this post by including a short passage from my new book, The Art of Allowance, as it ties into themes that Lamott and King discuss in their books and highlights a subject with which we all need to become familiar if we are to succeed—failure:

Failure Happens

The idea that you must fail to succeed has become somewhat cliché. Seth Godin even describes a popular style of purposeful failure “performed” to generate attention—the currency of social media.* Yet real, meaningful failure remains a wise teacher. When you successfully give your kids control of their money, you court failure.

We should be okay with our kids’ making little mistakes with real money now. When your child purchases an item in which she quickly loses interest, you can gently turn her attention to it. The scourge of stuff is difficult to overcome, and these little lessons give her some perspective. Making small errors now can help her avoid life-changing mistakes later. Better to slip up with a My Colorful Unicorn set than to get saddled with insurmountable college loan debt.

Of course, nothing guarantees that bigger blunders won’t occur. But opening up this dialogue with your child—and combining it with real-world, real-money lessons—will empower her and give her confidence in handling her money as she grows into adulthood

You can download a sample of my book, The Art of Allowance, here. Thank you for taking the time to read more about our money-smart movement. Here’s to a wonderful New Year.

— John

Works Cited

*“Seth Godin.” Design Matters with Debbie Millman. Design Observer , February 6, 2017,