By Julie K.L. Dam
Updated October 15, 2001 12:00 PM

When David Bach married Michelle Karr in 1997, the last thing they expected was that their union would be tested by spats about money, some over issues as trivial as the dry-cleaning or cell-phone bills. After all, they were both professional money managers, and he was writing Smart Women Finish Rich, a financial self-help guide that became a bestseller in 1999. But, as Michelle, 31, says, “we’re real people. We’ve made mistakes, and we’ve learned from them.”

In fact, they spun their financial feuds into gold with David’s latest bestseller, Smart Couples Finish Rich, which has sold more than 57,000 copies since it was published in March. “The No. 1 cause of divorce in this country,” writes Bach, who also conducts free financial seminars and produced a 1999 PBS special based on his first book, “isn’t sex or religion or problems with the in-laws. It’s fighting over money.”

Rather than tout eye-glazing accounting formulas, Bach, 34, relies on common sense. A sample: Skip the Starbucks and save big bucks. He calls it “the latte factor”—the idea that a couple spending $10 each day for a morning coffee, a muffin and a newspaper could sock away the money instead and accumulate $1 million in 20 years. “It’s easy getting rich,” he says. It’s that common touch that makes him so successful, says investment strategist Harry S. Dent Jr., author of The Roaring 2000s: “He helps people realize that it makes sense to spend $100 less a month if it means they’ll be able to start their own business or move to Hawaii.”

Bach learned such lessons early on. He was born in Oakland to Bonnie, now 60, an amateur opera singer, and Martin, 61, a financial adviser with Morgan Stanley in San Francisco who taught David his fiscal ABCs. He and his sister Emily, 30, a financial analyst, were also inspired by their late paternal grandmother, Rose. Though she had no degree, she retired as the head wig buyer for Gimbels department stores with a $1 million portfolio. Grandma Bach, he says, encouraged him to buy three shares of McDonald’s—now worth more than $10,000—when he was 7.

Even with all that guidance, Bach let the excesses of youth overtake him. As an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, he ran up $12,000 in credit-card debt buying designer clothing and stereo equipment and dining in fancy restaurants. “Most of the people I was around were really, really rich,” he says. “I wanted to have the same lifestyle.” Lent $2,000 by his parents, he started a fraternity newspaper and used the profits to pay off his debts. “I tell people I know what it’s like to open my bills and have the room spin,” he says. He also knows what it’s like to be crossed up by numbers. A graduate in communications, he avoided an econ major in part because, he says, “I couldn’t pass all those stupid math classes.”

In 1990, after a year negotiating commercial real estate leases, Bach joined his father’s practice, where he still handles private portfolios as a senior vice president. More important, on his first day at work, he spotted Michelle when she walked by his office. “There was a definite spark,” says Michelle. But it wasn’t until six months later, on a business trip to New York City, that they had their first date. And it wasn’t until a friend of his mother’s was left penniless after a divorce that Bach hit on his true calling. “I’ve got to write a book to help these women,” he said. His personal balance sheet has been firmly in the black ever since.

Two books and countless clients later, Bach, who lives with Michelle in a two-bedroom flat a block from San Francisco Bay, practices what he preaches. The Bachs save 25 percent of their income and use debit cards instead of credit cards. Also, he drives a six-year-old car. (Okay, it’s a Jaguar.) Says Bach: “I’ve actually had people say to me, ‘You have a book on the bestseller list; how come you’re driving such an old car?’ ” He’s more than happy to stop to tell them why.

Julie K.L Dam

Colleen O’Connor in San Francisco