WASHINGTON -- I vividly recall the 1978 television documentary "Scared Straight," about inmates serving anywhere from 25 years to life trying to scare juvenile delinquents from ending up in prison themselves. The intervention was raw. It was scary.
Zac Bissonnette, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, last year, has in many ways copied the "Scared Straight" tactic, hoping to prevent young adults from making the same financial mistakes their parents and so many other Americans have made.
Bissonnette's "How to be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents" (Portfolio /Penguin, $17) is the Color of Money Book Club selection for May.
"Managing your financial life is not about spreadsheets and compound interest," Bissonnette writes. "It's about your life. The financial decisions you make can give you freedom or make you a slave."
At 23, this young man has an old financial soul. It's like he's channeling my grandmother Big Mama or other Depression-era folks. But much of his wisdom comes from having seen what can come from financial mismanagement. He's wise beyond his years, in part because he remembers seeing his parents fight about money.
"When I look back on it, the elements of my childhood that were less than pleasant generally involved money," he writes. "My dad taught me about money the way an alcoholic teaches his kids about drinking: by being a bad example."
Bissonnette took his parents' struggles and his father's "lifetime of financial inattentiveness" and has used it as inspiration to do better for himself. He's also using his experience to help other 20-somethings navigate the financial world.
He delivers simple strategies and cautionary stories of athletes and pop stars to scare young adults before they get trapped in bad situations because of poor financial decisions.
The first thing Bissonnette does is address the notion that stuff equals success. "If you're going into debt to buy something you think will make you cooler, not only will you be broke, you'll be terribly unhappy to learn that 'having stuff' doesn't make you happy," he writes.
Want to be rich? Stop watching so much television, which bombards people with messages that spending equals happiness, Bissonnette says. He doesn't even own a TV.
Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group