Dawn Wotapka's Media Movers

Media Movers: Financial journalist Gail MarksJarvis

June 21, 2023

Posted by Dawn Wotapka

Gail MarksJarvis

Gail MarksJarvis is one of the nation’s most important freelance journalists. Don’t believe me?

Check out her work: Retirees: Expect to Get Hit With Surging Health Costs.

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A Young Worker’s Guide to Saving for Emergencies and Investing for Retirement.

Still don’t believe me?

She has spent decades offering time-tested financial guidance that every person can use, regardless of class, age or race. Her work isn’t geared toward wealthy people trying to get richer quickly or those looking to make an instant killing in crypto. That kind of advice may draw the clicks, but MarksJarvis’ thoughtful and carefully researched work can make the difference between retiring at 65 or 85.

For that reason, she’s a sought-after speaker and TV commentator. SABEW recently awarded the Chicago Tribune veteran its Distinguished Achievement Award – the group’s highest honor. “Gail MarksJarvis is the quintessential business journalist who has devoted her career to helping others understand finance and make better decisions with their money,” SABEW President Glenn Hall said in the announcement.

I chatted with Gail about how she  got into journalism, what kept her there and why she’s loving life as a semi-retired freelancer:

Dawn: What got you interested in journalism?

Gail: My father was a journalist.  When I was in 4th grade, he told me that journalists have a right to stick their noses into other people’s business, and I was sold.  He tried to discourage me in college by pointing out poor journalist pay, but I was determined anyway.  At that point, my attraction went beyond curiosity for curiosity’s sake. I wanted to relate news and information so readers could make sense of complexity and contribute to their communities and their own lives effectively.

Dawn: How did you find a niche in financial journalism?

Gail: Government and politics were constant topics in my family as I grew up, and when I became a journalist that’s what I intended to cover. But after doing it for six years, I decided any government coverage would be naive without also understanding business and how money is made.  So I convinced my editor I had enough background in business to cover the auto and steel industries and labor. I knew nothing and didn’t even know what “earnings” were when I had to write my first earnings story. But I sought out the smartest people, read books and learned on the job.

With time I became an investigative business journalist, then a columnist on deals and dealmakers.  I had a deep understanding of banking, so when my editor learned that personal finance columns were becoming popular in major newspapers in the late ’90s, my editor thought I was well-equipped to cover investing and asked me to create the “Investor’s Eye” column. Again, I knew little but learned on the job — sitting next to top fund managers and traders at their desks in Minneapolis, who explained what they were buying and selling, and why.

Dawn: how did you find that adjustment?

Gail: It was fascinating and I felt sympathy for regular people struggling with their 401(k)s and money decisions in general. Basic investing isn’t difficult; it just seems that way to regular people because the investment business uses esoteric language and sometimes promotes complex strategies people don’t need to become millionaires. I felt a deep compulsion to relieve confusion and missteps that undermine the good intentions of people as they try to build up enough money to buy homes, send kids to college, and retire. I still do.

Dawn: What is the biggest mistake you see people make time and time again?

Gail: People are intimidated by the strange words of investing, They look at their 401(k), are afraid of making a mistake, or don’t think they earn enough money to set aside.  So they procrastinate and miss the free matching money employers would give them.

If they don’t have a 401(k), it’s too intimidating to open an IRA and pick a simple index fund.  But they will follow friends naively into crypto or meme stocks.  And their procrastination or naive investing will interfere with the opportunity to start investing maybe $25 a week on a first job and eventually turning small savings into $1 million.

Dawn: What is your biggest financial regret?

Gail: I can’t think of any. I had the good fortune of learning investing and personal finance from the foremost pros as part of my journalism job. If it hadn’t been for that I would have blundered my way through my financial life just like most people.  So my husband and I lived frugally on two middle-class salaries. Our small starter home became our long-time home so we could live primarily on one salary, contribute diligently to our 401(k)s and spend heavily on our children’s education. Now our children are happy and secure and so are we as we work for enjoyment and dedication to our work, rather than necessity.

When the newspaper business was rocked with layoffs around the 2008 financial crisis, I analyzed my finances and assured myself that even if I lost my job at the Chicago Tribune and was forced to retire early, I would be OK. I wanted to work forever and knew it would be traumatic if I was forced from the work I truly love but it would not be financially devastating.  I didn’t lose my job and watching so many of my peers shattered by job losses was excruciating. But knowing I would be able to cover my needs for the rest of my life removed one level of stress.

Dawn: I loved your book “Saving For Retirement (Without Living Like a Pauper or Winning the Lottery)”. What different advice would you give if you wrote the book today?

Gail: Thanks, Dawn. It makes me feel great when I hear that my columns or book helped people make the most of their hard-earned savings.

A lot of investing books are too simplistic and full of hype. Mine isn’t because during my couple of decades as a personal finance columnist, thousands of real people have contacted me about their money worries and dreams. I’ve experimented with how to talk them through everything from panic to get-rich-quick strategies and tragedy.

In the book, I’m perhaps most proud of my explanation of bear markets and how to weather those spooky periods, because often a crash catches people by surprise. They assume they’ve done something wrong with their money and shoot themselves in the foot by bolting at the worst times.  Instead, when there is no bear market in sight and people feel safe in their 401(k) or IRA, I want them to know that eventually, a bear market will arrive — about every five years with an average loss of 39%. They can’t protect themselves completely, but will recover faster if they haven’t swung for the fences and if they have combined stock funds and bonds thoughtfully in advance.

The dramatic example in the book is the 2008-’09 financial crisis: Then a $10,000 401(k) — invested totally in the stock market — would have slumped to only about $4,900.  And the person would not have gotten back to even for about five years.  Yet, the person who divided her $10,000 half in stocks and half in bonds, would have dropped less — to about $7,800.  It would have been painful and scary, but within less than two years the person would be back to even and in three years up to more than $12,000.

One of the key lessons of bear markets is that bonds often help shield people from the most severe stock market losses. But what I would add — if I were to do a third edition — would be the rather unique period we’ve just been through from the pandemic to the present.

In this period, with interest rates sharply rising from almost nothing during COVID, bonds turned very ugly. Instead of helping take the sting out of the stock market losses, bonds were very damaging, too.

The lesson: Mixing stocks and bonds usually helps, but not always.

Dawn: Do you have another book in you?

Gail: My book was written primarily for people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, so they could build up the money they would need in 401(k)s and IRAs for retirement.

While topics like bear markets apply to all ages, many of the 401(k) lessons in my book are more appropriate for people before age 60 rather than for their retirement years. For retirement, there is an array of complicated choices that few people, and many financial advisers are adequately prepared to navigate. If I were to write another book, I’d focus on retirement planning, which is very different than saving money in your working years.

With so many people living into their 90s, making 401(k) and IRA money last long enough can be tricky. It takes managing the money so taxes don’t eat too much, so investments grow but aren’t too risky, and so people can withdraw the spending money they need each year without depleting too much too quickly. It means making savvy decisions about when to start Social Security, where to live in retirement at every stage of aging, and how to cover aging medical costs as Medicare faces troubles.

I now write about all of this for Barron’s but have flirted with writing a book.

Dawn: Congrats on your recent SABEW award. How did you become active with the organization?

Gail: I truly was honored by the SABEW distinguished achievement award because I have deep respect for what the organization does to lift the quality of business journalism and I have so many peers doing excellent work.

I first became aware of SABEW in 2005, when I was an investing columnist for Knight Ridder and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  SABEW was planning its national conference in St. Paul and I was asked to help.

Dawn: What has kept you involved with it over the years?

Gail: I believe in mentoring young journalists and also think journalists at all levels of their careers can learn from each other. SABEW embraces and facilitates both through conferences, online training and its awards. Given the demands of short-staffed newsrooms, little mentoring or training happens in the office. So outside opportunities are more important than ever.

Dawn: Let’s focus on your career. Who are you writing for these days?

Gail: After spending 13 years as a Chicago Tribune financial columnist and a couple after that at Reuters, I now have the perfect mixture of working as a journalist and also having a life.

I’m writing regularly for Barron’s as a contributor, focusing on financial strategies for people in retirement or about to retire.

Since I reached age 65, I’ve learned a lot about what I and other people need for the typical retirement years. Unfortunately, as a younger journalist, I missed details that I now know are essential and I hope to keep finding them and reporting to readers for many more years. My goal is to write about strategies that the most savvy advisers use but little known by real people.

Dawn: At one point, you switched from a newspaper to a wire service. What was that change like?

Gail: I enjoyed each immensely. The key difference was the relationship with readers at a daily newspaper.

When I was a columnist at the Tribune, I was immersed in the community and had a deep relationship with my readers. They knew me from my mug in the paper three times a week, daily TV appearances, speaking engagements in the community and a column that spoke to them.

I loved that intimacy. Thousands called me and emailed me about their questions and concerns, and that contact made me a much more valuable journalist. I knew who the readers really were, what they needed, what was on their minds and how to communicate with them.

Dawn: What advice would you give to young journalists today?

Gail: Get away from your computer, texts and emails and immerse yourself in the community. Journalists need to understand their readers and their communities on a very deep level and there is no substitute for listening to a wide range of voices. And when you think you know something, test it. Find people, studies, data, and numbers that suggest a different perspective or fact set. Write simply, but that does not mean you need to avoid complexity and nuance.

In addition, at SABEW’S last conference, a number of young journalists told me they were afraid of looking ignorant and asking sources “dumb” questions. I told them this: “Being young is a wonderful opportunity to go to the best and brightest experts, admit you are new to the topic and ask for help. Many people like to help people who earnestly seek it. Just remember to test the information you are given by a single source, so you aren’t misled by an agenda.”

Dawn: What’s next for you?

Gail: As I mentioned, I decided to become a journalist when I was in 4th grade because I was curious about almost everything and that’s still true.  Freelance journalism gives me the license to stick my nose into just about anything that interests me and use my newfound information to help other people with their lives. This is great fun and I would like to do it forever.

Dawn: Finally, everyone’s favorite question:  What do you do for fun?

Gail: OK, I think I’ve conveyed that journalism has always been my fun as well as a career. So I can’t imagine any hobby more compelling. But as a freelancer, I am living life fully. I have time to walk the beach; play with my grandchild; read about topics like foreign affairs that aren’t job-related; help people who track me down with financial questions; speak occasionally; and explore areas of the country that would have been drive-through on a rushed trip in the past. I spend a lot of time walking New York, but I like to go to small towns and appreciate the non-urban fabric of this country.

Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user.  Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn

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