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Meena Cheng Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Meena Cheng

Meena Cheng

An interview with Meena Cheng

Meena Cheng discusses what made her write a personal finance book in a fictional form, why she compares food to finance, and what she hopes readers will do once they've read the book.

What made you write a personal finance book?
I have worked as a CPA and Certified Financial Planner for over twenty years. And much of what I do involves educating individuals on the subject of personal finance, so their lives can be empowered and enriched by it. Therefore, writing the book really is a natural extension of what I do every day. The difference is, instead of doing it one on one, now I can reach a larger group of people, more than I would ever have been able to reach in my practice.

Combining food with money is such an unusual concept. Where did you get the idea?
I have always loved to cook and have a passion for food. So when I started teaching financial classes at the University in the mid-nineties, I found myself using food metaphors and cooking principles to make the classes more fun and also to help get the financial points across. And when I did that, you could literally see the lights come on and feel the excitement swirl in the classroom. And over the years, I accumulated quite a stack of those food metaphors and the book is a compilation of that experiences.

What makes your book different from the other personal finance books?
The world does not need another personal finance book just like the ones already on the market; but it does need one that is fun and speaks to ordinary people in their own language. The book, at its core, is an educational book packed with useful information and common sense advice. But what I think makes the book different from other personal finance books is the personal stories that allow readers to not only learn about money matters, but also to feel the joy and sorrow, love and regrets, poignancy and happiness--all those emotions that are tightly intertwined with money. It's a book about real people challenges with real people solutions.

Is food in every chapter of your book?
Yes, it is. And at the end of each chapter I have included a recipe that embodies the chapter's financial principle, such as the ‘Million Dollar Beef Stew' for the chapter on transforming pennies into dollars.

What made you put such an emphasis on food in a personal finance book?
Food just has this magical and nurturing quality that draws people in. By using food metaphors to talk about finance, we bring warmth and life to the cold subject of finance, which makes the entire subject more approachable. Most of life's major problems can be solved around the dining table. Personal finance is no exception.

What is the goal of your book?
I hope readers can resonate and relate to the characters and problems in the book. When that happens, they are going to trust the advice, which is mostly good common sense and time-tested, and take the first step into turning their financial lives around or make it even better.
Many people think that building wealth is due to magic or luck, or else they feel that the subject is too mundane and inaccessible to them. I want people to know that money is simple when you can understand it and openly talk about it.

How do you see your book achieving this goal?
Although the characters in the book are fictional, they were created from my personal experience. So these are really characters that are true to life, without judgment and written in a direct and simple language that treats people with respect instead of talking down to them. Because of that, I believe readers will feel comfortable and secure enough to try some of the advice in the book.

It's a bit unusual to write a personal finance book in a fictionalized format. Tell us what made you decide to do it.
I think everyone loves a good story, and it makes learning so much more fun than just tables and charts. When a story is told well, people remember it. And that's exactly what I want--for them to remember the principles in the book. I don't want to just dish out information, I want them to be inspired and take the first step. Just go into the kitchen, put on their aprons and do something. Whatever they come up with is infinitely better than what they would have if they had not done anything.

What advice can you give to people in this turbulent market?

When investing for the long term, people need to be prepared for the ups and downs of the market. We have seen the biggest up market in the nineties, and we are seeing one of the biggest down markets now. This is just basic market cycle.
Investing is a process. It requires a solid plan and a clear roadmap to get you to where you want to do. Make sure your asset allocation aligns with your risk tolerance level and investment needs. This is all Investing 101. But the bull market we had the last two decades gave the illusion that these basic principles are only for the fuddy-duddies, and stocks have only one way to go, and that's up. Enron is a perfect example of why basic principles have a good reason to be around for so long.

What is your favorite chapter?
One of the key requirements in writing a believable fictional book is to create characters and settings that are compelling and real enough for readers to relate to. For this book, I turned to my personal experience to help me create these characters and settings. Because of that, I am attached to all the chapters, just in different degree and on different levels. But if I have to pick one, I would choose the first chapter about Tammy, the girl who came from a dysfunctional family, started with nothing, but against all odds came out on the top. This is a character loosely based on myself.

How do you think the book will be received?
Early reviews on the book have been mostly positive. One of the qualities common to a lot of successful non-fiction books is that of having simple ideas compellingly communicated to the audience. I think my book shares that quality and I hope readers will enjoy reading it.

Most personal finance books on the market nowadays spout get rich quick themes, and yours are more back to the basics. Why write something that is against the tide?
I think every book has its audience, and readers have to use their common sense to separate the hyperbole from what's real. My book is not a get rich quick book, it's about common sense and understanding how simple it is for each of us to become financially independent if we just put on our aprons and step into the kitchen.

What do you hope your readers will do once they've read your book?
I hope they will try out the recipes! I mean really try them out – in the kitchen, with their aprons on. This will reinforce the financial lesson the book associates with that recipe. They will remember the lesson because they will have a sensory memory that includes smell and taste and touch, not just an intellectual construct.
As you chop and sauté and simmer and taste that Linguine with Garlic and Anchovies, you will also remember the protective value of setting up trusts or preparing a Living Will. And the memory will be based in your body as well as your mind, which means you have a better chance of internalizing and implementing that lesson.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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