Book Review: My Vast Fortune by Andrew Tobias

Andrew Tobias published  My Vast Fortune – The Money Adventures of a Quixotic Capitalist in 1997, the year I started to become interested in finance and the same year I managed to scrape together $5,000 in personal ‘net worth.’

I only discovered Tobias a few weeks ago, however, and I’m busy trying to make up for lost time.

Had you asked me a month ago to name all the writers I’ve read who are both sophisticated about finance and very funny, my list would have looked like this: Michael Lewis.

Now it’s a two-person list, Lewis and Tobias.[1]

In My Vast Fortune, a book less popular than his best seller The ONLY Investment Guide you’ll EVER Need, Tobias indulges in financial anecdotes from his life, fuel enough for a couple of useful investment ideas, but mostly just great stories.

Tobias combines impressive writing skills – he published his first best seller at age 23 – with great entrepreneurial zeal.  His writing serves to make the zealousness hilarious.

Real estate investing adventure

After Tobias makes the investment error of purchasing a distressed property sight-unseen in Miami, he compounds that error in subsequent years by purchasing a neighborhood’s worth of properties on the edge of blighted, drug-infested neighborhoods.  A series of property managers seemingly work miracles for him fixing up the properties, only to succumb themselves to vice.  At the time of publishing, Tobias isn’t sure whether the plunge into slum-lording will ever ‘pay,’ but it sure does make good material.

As serious as the experiences must have been, Tobias weaves his “I keep making terrible investment decisions” narrative into an entertaining and useful section of the book.

Tobias’ obsession with auto-insurance

Half-way through My Vast Fortune, Tobias hijacks the narrative, diverting us to the warzone of a political fight he picked in the 1990s over auto-insurance policy in California.

In a Chapter titled “Ralph Nader is a Big Fat Idiot,” Tobias explicitly links Nader’s opposition to “no fault” auto insurance – Tobias’ admitted obsession – to Nader’s deep, unholy links with the national trial lawyer lobby.

Tobias ultimately lost an expensive campaign for 3 related ballot referendum questions in California as he got outmaneuvered, as well as libeled, by Nader’s political associates.

Even though Tobias admires Nader’s principled advocacy for consumers, and would support much of his liberal political agenda, his take-down of Nader and Nader’s allies in the fight rings true.

While Nader personally avoided Tobias’ pleas for dialogue, Nader’s allies smeared Tobias’ campaign and lied about his motives, all the while fighting for trial lawyers, whose financial interest was served by the status quo.

What’s interesting to me, historically, is that this Ralph-Nader-as-horribly-misguided-bully narrative pre-dates Nader flipping the balance of the 2000 election in the Bush vs. Gore debacle.    Little did Tobias know at the time of publishing My Vast Fortune that Nader would be the root cause of horrific wars of choice in the Middle East, the shredding of constitutional principles of habeus corpus a policy of torture, and the financial meltdown of 2008.  I’d love to have been a fly on the wall as Tobias followed Bush vs. Gore and the subsequent 8 years, reflecting on the vast path of world-wide destruction wrought by Nader.[2]

Does the auto insurance fight have parallels with health care reform?

Tobias’ lengthy discourse – and it is lengthy! – on no-fault auto insurance and the evils of the trial lawyer lobby got me thinking about a more recent hot political topic.

Why do we often settle for expensive insurance rates, poor coverage in the case of catastrophic problems, and a group of under-insured on the margins of society?  One implication from Tobias’ book: The trial lawyer lobby.

While Tobias focuses on auto-insurance in California, I wonder if the same lessons may be applied, on a grander scale, to health care policy nationwide.  Compared to other developed countries we pay more per capita, have an under-insured underclass, and suffer worth health outcomes.  I wonder what Tobias would say?

While no doubt many self-interested groups keep us from an optimal health care policy, the interests of trial lawyers – preserving the ability to sue hospitals and doctors for catastrophic damages and massive malpractice payouts – must play a role in driving up costs for everyone.

Financial advice

I assume that because he’s given his most important nuggets of personal finance wisdom in The ONLY Investment Guide You’ll EVER Need, his direct advice remains light in My Vast Fortune.

Near the end, however, he can’t help offering a quotable nugget on the importance of saving money.

This gives the sense for how good Tobias is at his craft.

Here’s the trick (if it’s too late for you, please write it on some young person’s forehead – backward, for easy reading in the mirror): A luxury once sampled becomes a necessity.  Pace yourself!

You say you don’t particularly mind not having a remote-control clicker for your TV?  I can state with some assurance, in that case, you’ve never had one.  Touch-tone dialing?  Caller ID?  Microwave ovens?  Seaplanes vaulting Friday-afternoon traffic?  Stock markets that only go up 20 percent or 30 percent a year?  These are things it’s a cinch to be happy without before they’ve been invented; but so awfully hard to be happy without once you’ve gotten used to them.

Pace yourself!  Live a little beneath your means.  Don’t go into hock buying some whizbang&olufsen sound system right out of college; make do with one of those three-in-one $279 mail-order dealies I still use.  Tease yourself with anticipation.  Ease the fingers of your aspiration up the inner thigh of your cupidity.  Tickle your fancy.

Of course money buys happiness.  But both will last longer if you remember the importance of foreplay.

If you haven’t yet read Tobias, add him to the list of finance writers who are both insightful and wickedly funny.

Please see related post: All Bankers Anonymous Book Reviews in one place.

 my vast fortune


[1] Someday I’m going to re-check that list, and find to my delight it’s gotten longer: #1: Lewis  #2: Tobias. #384: Anonymous Banker

[2] I’m exaggerating Ralph Nader’s effect of course, because Gore himself should be blamed for not winning that election.  But it’s weird how history turns dramatically on certain pivotal moments and the unintended consequences of certain people’s actions, like Nader’s role as spoiler in the 2000 election.

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3 Replies to “Book Review: My Vast Fortune by Andrew Tobias”

  1. Pacing yourself and living beneath your means is sage advice. I found your article very interesting. I am have been reading a very good book called, “Practical Steps to Financial Freedom and Independence: Your Road Map to Exiting the Rat Race and Living Your Dreams” by author Usiere Uko. This book does not just tell you how, but moves you towards action. I am really seeing my finances turn around!

  2. just thought I would tell you how much I really appreciate your blog and love the insight you provide to such confusing realm at times. Look forward to your book!…thanks again.

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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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