Media Moves

Helaine Olen talks personal finance journalism

May 23, 2016

Posted by Chris Roush

Helaine Olen
Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen is columnist at Slate and one of the leading personal finance journalists in the country.

She’s the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry” and co-author (with Harold Pollack) of “The Index Card.”

At Inc., she contributes to the Spread the Wealth personal finance column. Her work on politics, economics, workplace culture and women’s issues has been published in numerous other print and on-line publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Salon, Pacific Standard, and The Los Angeles Times, where she wrote and edited the popular “Money Makeover” feature.

Olen spoke about personal finance journalism by email with Talking Biz News. What follows is an edited transcript.

How did you get interested in writing about personal finance?

I didn’t! I got a call one day, asking if I could sub in as a writer for the Los Angeles Times’ Money Makeover column. I wasn’t interested in personal finance, but I was really interested in the fact writing about it paid twice as much as any other freelance assignment out there. So I said yes. Twenty years later, here we are.

How did you educate yourself about personal finance?

I’m the luckiest girl ever. I had amazing editors — they included Liz Weston (now at NerdWallet) and Kathy Kristof. Without them, my personal finance career probably would have ended ignominiously within a few months.

What was your first big career break?

I received an internship in 1990 at the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau. Intern duties in those days included writing up the government economic stats — you know, retail sales, consumer price index, etc. We were in a recession but, of course, we didn’t know if for sure. My job was getting comment from various experts about the data.

So, you are wondering, what’s the lucky break about this sort of drudge work?  Easy. I learned very early in experts can be wrong. Quite a few didn’t think we were in a recession. We were.

How much did you learn on the job?

I learned everything on the job. Actually, I take that back. I did know how to balance a check book — sort of.

Your first book takes a lot of personal finance “journalism” advice to task. Have things gotten better?

Yes and no. There’s a lot more social consciousness and economic awareness in personal finance journalism now than prior to the Great Recession.

But there’s still a lot of blame going on, people scolding their readers and viewers for behaving in perfectly predictable ways, or worse, blaming them for financial failures that can really be laid at the door of the greater economy.

Why is personal finance a topic that people seem to have a hard time with?

Oh, where do I begin? We’re humans. We’re wired to live in the here and now. Then there is personal finance itself. It’s not a science. There aren’t right and wrong answers, not really. Laws change. Circumstances change. Innovation changes the world around us. People can’t keep up. Personal finance people don’t always agree on the right thing to do in particular circumstances. And we expect people to get it right?

What advice would you give a journalist starting to cover personal finance?

I don’t advise anyone to go into journalism at this point. Surely you don’t need to ask why.

Who are the personal finance writers out there today that you admire and why?

Oh, don’t make me do this! I’m going to be like the Academy Award winner who forgets to thank their spouse. Follow my Twitter feed and you can see what I like. It’s @helaineolen.

What’s the biggest mistake most personal finance journalists make?

They think they can convince people to like this stuff. That’s ridiculous. People like what they like. I always compare it to train or car aficionados. You know how they’ll talk your ear off about their passion, seemingly convinced if they yap on long enough, you’ll come to share their fascination. (Don’t take this example personally, people! I’m a train nut.)  When they do it, we know it’s ridiculous. So why would we expect it to work with personal finance or investments? Please.

You write about personal finance in a number of media, and you’ve even appeared on Jon Stewart’s show. Which is the best one to get the message to consumers?

Nothing will ever beat Jon Stewart. Nothing.

Define the state of personal finance journalism in the name of a 1970s pop song.

Oh, man, how do I limit the songs? Right after the crash it would have been “The Morning After.” Now? “Please Come to Boston.” You know, there’s this lovelorn guy, begging the girl he adores to follow him to various cities, and he doesn’t quite get why she won’t listen to his pleas?

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