Book review: The Thin Green Line by Paul Sullivan

Ruth Davies 16 December 2015

The Thin Green Line is the second book by The New York Times Wealth Matters columnist Paul Sullivan. The author draws on his experiences from years spent talking to wealthy people about their money – but if you're looking for a “get rich quick” manual, this book isn't for you. What The Thin Green Line offers is far more interesting.

As far as Sullivan is concerned, “wealth" isn't about how much money you have, but whether you're financially secure and able to achieve the things that matter to you.

What is the “thin green line”?

The “thin green line” separates the truly wealthy from the simply “rich”, and in Sullivan's words “cut[s] through every income level – the teacher with her pension on the right side of the line and the high-earning but overleveraged financier on the wrong side”. It's about the difference between earning a lot of money and being financially secure. This can mean making sure you've got adequate insurance, managing debt sensibly, and taking a long-term view of your finances generally.

So how can we make sure we're on the right side? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question – because money is personal – and Sullivan doesn't try to offer one. What he does is dig deep into how we think and feel about money, and how this affects the decisions we make in our financial lives.

The book is divided into five sections: "Think about it", "Save it", "Spend it", "Give it away" and "Think about it again". Sullivan combines real life success (and failure) stories with data from psychological and economic studies, alongside anecdotes about his own relationship with money throughout his life. One of the most satisfying take-aways from this book is the knowledge that we're all susceptible to the same pitfalls – whatever our bank balance.

Why you should read this book

The Thin Green Line will make you think about your own financial behaviour and goals; since reading it I've stepped up my financial planning and opened a fixed term savings account.

Reading the book, I was struck by the way Sullivan's ideas about getting on the right side of the line are closely aligned with our philosophy of financial wellness. Both approaches are concerned not with how much money you can accumulate, but with making sure your money helps you to live the life you want.

The Thin Green Line is a refreshing take on personal finance, and the variety of stories and statistics make it an interesting read that's easy to digest.

Meet the author: Q&A with Paul Sullivan

In the book, you talk about how the thin green line crosses every income level – it's not just about how much money you have. Why do you think so many of us find ourselves on the wrong side of the line?

Getting on the right side of the thin green line – the wealthy side, no matter how much money you earn – is about choices and decisions. And sometimes these choices are tough – not spending money on something we really want but don’t need. Sometimes they’re less obvious and more difficult – trying to calculate how much we need to save today to have freedom to make the choices we want later in life. I try to make readers aware of some of the behaviors people need to be aware of to being wealthy, which is another way of saying, having control over their lives.

The book touches on the role a financial adviser can play in helping someone to change their thinking about money. Are there some key changes you'd like to see made to the advice process, and if so what are they?

Yes. I think the advice has to be tougher. It has to lay out the consequences of not making solid, rational decisions. I also think advisers should be introspective enough to realise that what most of them know about outperforming any particular investment index is marginal. Where they can add value is speaking to their clients more holistically about what they can do with money – not just how they save it but how they spend it, give it away and most importantly think about it. That can add a lot more value than beating an index by a percentage point.

The book talks quite a bit about your personal thoughts and feelings about money, and even your financial situation. Was it difficult deciding how much of that you wanted to share?

Yes. But I felt I couldn’t criticise what other people had done if I didn’t reveal a lot about myself and how my thoughts on money evolved over my four decades.

Of course there's no quick fix, but for an ordinary person who wants to get on the right side of the line, what do you think is the most important first step to take?

First, outlining what they think are the most important things in their financial lives, the things they must have. And then to look at the things they want but don’t need. That simple exercise will help people determine priorities, which is a first step to making the kind of choices and decisions that will put them on the right side of the thin green line.

You can buy The Thin Green Line: The Money Secrets of the Super Wealthy on Amazon.