You can often find Chris Taylor at one of two places: behind his keyboard or on the run. Literally. I’ve known him for years and have always been impressed by his sage advice that appears in several sterling publications, coupled with his ability to cross the finish line with seeming effortlessness.
Taylor wrote about personal finance long before PF became the “it” topic to attract millennial readers. He also worked from home long before COVID-19 pandemic forced us all indoors. His prolific freelance track record now includes The Wall Street Journal’s Buy Side column, work that earned him a coveted black-and-white hedcut.
Originally from Canada, Chris is a devoted father of two and one of the warmest people you’ll ever meet. I chatted with him about the financial mistake he’s seen time and time again; who told him to steer clear of journalism; and why he runs half marathons these days instead of the full 26.2.
Dawn Wotapka: What got you interested in writing about personal finance?
Chris Taylor: I kind of fell into it, to be honest. My first journalism job out of college was at a finance-oriented newspaper in my hometown called Business In Vancouver. Then I went to a local magazine BCBusiness, and from there I got an offer from The Wall Street Journal’s dearly departed magazine SmartMoney. And 22 years later I’m still here. I must say that of all the corners of the journalism world, personal finance has held up OK, because it’s something that affects everybody.
Dawn: Your career runs the gamut from magazines, which have long lead times, to Reuters, where seconds matter. How have you accommodated that contrast?
Chris: I’m not really a breaking-news guy at Reuters since I freelance on the wealth team. My pieces have more of a feature-y feel, with personal anecdotes and long-term advice, so I’m not under extreme time pressure like other reporters. But it certainly is strange to have your columns go up in a day or two, compared to a month or two in the magazine world. Those days seem so far away now, I can’t even remember what it was like.
Dawn: What skills helped you and what did you have to learn at a wire?
Chris: Somewhere like Reuters, you definitely have to write tight. I only get around 700 words for stories that can have a fair amount of complexity, so there’s not a lot of room for anything extraneous. Everything has to be buttoned-down and exact, so there’s a lot of double- and triple-checking that goes on. You have to get things right, because there are reputations at stake, both theirs and yours.
Dawn: What made you decide to go the freelance route?
Chris: Everybody’s working from home now but I’ve been working from home for 15-plus years, so I feel like a pioneer. It just always made more sense to me, to eliminate the commute and have more time with your family and dog, while still being productive. It’s a hustle and there’s a lot of uncertainty involved. But if you can deal with the feast-or-famine nature of the business – and you know a lot of editors – then I would definitely recommend the lifestyle.
Dawn: Whom do you credit with helping you out during your career?
Chris: I go back a long way with my boss at Reuters, Lauren Young, who’s one of the best in the business and knows everybody. My career would look a lot different without her. And Bob Sabat, now at Barron’s, was the one who plucked my resume out of a pile and brought me to the States on a work visa. I have a wife and kids and a home here in the U.S. now [outside New York City], so maybe I don’t have that without him.
Dawn: Your first job was as a researcher. How do those skills help you today?
Chris: That’s where a lot of people start on the journalism food chain and it’s pretty good training for everything to come. Without proper research – knowing the right sources and where to get interesting data, then figuring out how it all fits together – you don’t have much of anything. Whenever I interview an author, they’re always surprised that I actually did the research and read the book, because I guess some people don’t.
Dawn: I noticed that you have an advanced degree in journalism. Everyone says you don’t need one to succeed in the field but so many people have master’s degrees. Why is that?
Chris: I don’t think most people know they’re meant for journalism right out of the gate. Kids need some time to figure things out. So my first degree was actually a double major in English lit and religious studies. After that, since writing was one of the only things I was good at, I figured I’d go to J-School at Canada’s Carleton University. You don’t need a degree to succeed in the business but it certainly doesn’t hurt, not least because of the personal networks you build along the way.
Dawn: What is the personal finance mistake you’ve seen people make the most over the years?
Chris: Most people think they’re smarter than the market. You’re not. So for 95 percent of people, you’re best off just to put your money in total-market mutual fund or a target-date fund. Then keep contributing and just forget about it for a few decades until you’re closer to retirement. No need to overcomplicate things.
Dawn: What advice would you give to a younger Chris?
Chris: Ironically my mom’s advice about journalism when I was younger was, ‘Don’t do it.’ And she was a journalist! I get what she was saying since it’s such a hard field to succeed in. I guess I’d say there are some interesting one-year fellowships that you can do and it’s best to think about those when you’re young. When it’s time for family life, there is less flexibility for opportunities like that to pack up and go.
Dawn: You’re a marathon runner, something that I truly admire. How does training help you with your career?
Chris: Running is a good metaphor for a lot of things: focus, preparation, dealing with adversity. It takes you to your mental and physical limits and puts everything else in perspective. It’s also excellent for mental health. Whatever is going on in the world or in your own life, you put all of those things aside, put one foot in front of the other, listen to your favorite songs — and worry about everything else later.
Dawn: When’s your next marathon?
Chris: To be honest, I’m more of a half marathon guy these days. If you’re in decent shape you can run a half without killing yourself. A full one is a different order of magnitude and takes an enormous amount of training. That said, I’d like to run Paris one day. That would be a nice way to see the City of Lights, even if I’m sweaty and disgusting.
Dawn: One more question: What’s our go to-running show?
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. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn.