Tips From The Top: One On One With Jean Chatzky

I spoke to Jean Chatzky, financial editor of NBC’s Today, host of HerMoney with Jean Chatzky, and author of Women With Money: The Judgment-Free Guide To Creating The Joyful, Less-Stressed, Purposeful (And, Yes, Rich) Life You Deserve, about her best journey and best advice about her journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Jean: Hmmm, that I’m from the Midwest, perhaps.  People tend to assume that because I’ve been living in NY for such a long time that I’m born and raised.  Or, maybe that I was an English major in college. I came into the world of personal finance through the world of journalism.  My first job was at Working Woman magazine as the assistant to the business editor. And I liked writing and reporting about money and business so much that I pursued it intentionally after that.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Jean: I got here, in part, by sticking to my knitting – i.e. my subject matter of personal finance – and in part by allowing it to take me where it wanted to go.  My intention was to be a print journalist, but when I landed at Smart Money magazine and they needed people to go on television to talk about our stories and promote our magazine, I raised my hand.  Once I landed on Today, opportunities came to me – to write books, give speeches – and I forced myself to say yes to those things, even when I was frightened or uncomfortable because I thought they might lead somewhere exciting.

As for failures, setbacks and challenges, I’ve had many but here are two – one from early in my career, one from more recently.  

The early one: When I left my first job at Working Woman, I wanted to get a job at a big business or personal finance magazine.  I applied to them all. None would hire me. Some wouldn’t even grant me an interview. They didn’t think Working Woman had given me the chops I needed to work for them.  Eventually, I got an interview at Forbes and the chief of reporters told me I needed an MBA in order to get the job. Going back to school wasn’t appealing, but I thought about what he said and realized he didn’t really care about the piece of paper, he cared I had the skills an MBA would bring like being able to analyze financial statements.  I knew that when I reported business stories, I’d often interview Wall Street equity research analysts who covered the companies I was writing about and wrote reports on them. If I worked in equity research, I figured I could be useful in helping to write those reports and learn the analytical skills I needed while I was there. That led me to Dean Witter where I worked for two years before being hired at, yes, Forbes.  To this day, when I’m mentoring or advising others I tell them to think about other ways they could put their skill set to use.

The more recent one: I got fired from Money Magazine.  They were going through a round of cost-cutting, I had gotten expensive, and though they tried to soft-pedal it by allowing me to keep my column as a freelancer there was no doubt what had just happened.  Initially, I looked for another job to replace the one that I’d lost. But magazine salaries had shrunk and I couldn’t replace it. I was already managing a number of side jobs – including working for NBC, writing books, giving speeches and I decided that instead of going back to work for someone else, I’d build my own business.  That was more than 10 years ago. In my new book, Women With Money: The Judgment-Free Guide To Creating The Joyful, Less-Stressed, Purposeful (And, Yes, Rich) Life You Deserve, I write about “opportunity” entrepreneurs who sense an opening in the marketplace and pursue it, and “necessity” entrepreneurs who start businesses out of need.  I was the latter, but I’ve morphed into the former with the launch of my podcast HerMoney and website, which has become an indispensable resource for women who want to get a grip on their money.

Adam: What have you learned from your media career? What advice do you have for other experts interested in breaking into the world of television?

Jean: Ideas are your currency – at least they’ve always been mine.  If you want to be valuable to someone who is programming hours and hours of television, figure out what ideas will resonate with their viewers and then pitch them.  And don’t be a pain for them to deal with. If you’ve never met a daily television producer, then you don’t understand the pressure they’re under to get a quality show up and out over and over again.  Make their job easy and you’ll be asked back.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Jean: Leaders listen, but then they digest and act.  I think great leaders walk a fine balance between acknowledging and then learning what they don’t know, but then taking all of that and using it to create an understandable, executable plan.  Aspiring leaders should take careful note of what the leaders they emulate are doing behind the scenes to get the job done.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Jean: My one best tip is to focus.  Whether you’re an entrepreneur, executive or civic leader, you only have so much time in the day.  Figure out how you need to spend it and then come up with an effective way to say no to anything else.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Jean: It’s kind of on the same wavelength as the last answer.  Pick 5 things you’re going to say yes to. Then say no to everything else.  (Confession: I have trouble following it sometimes.)

Adam: What are the biggest misconceptions most people have around personal finance and what should they know?

Jean: That it’s rocket science.  Sure, it can get as complicated as you want to make it.  But getting a handle on your own financial life means doing just five things and doing them consistently:  Making a decent living. Spending less than you make. Saving and investing what you’re not spending so that it can work as hard for you as you are working for yourself.  Protecting what you have with the right insurance and an estate plan. And giving back in a way that feels meaningful to you.

The hardest part is saving enough.  But it’s also the easiest to automate.  Aim for 15% of whatever you earn (including matching dollars) on a consistent basis.

Adam: How can schools better teach financial literacy?

Jean: They have to start by making room for it in their curriculum.  Unfortunately, teachers are so strapped to teaching so that their students can pass the standardized state tests, there’s often no natural place for it (though I’d argue, it fits into math.)  Another problem is that teachers don’t feel qualified to teach it, so making space for it in teachers’ college curriculums could go a long way.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Jean: Figure out what is meaningful to you in terms of shaping the world you want to shape and get involved in that – you can give money, time, mentorship.  But unless it’s something that resonates with you, you’ll drop it all too quickly. It’s very tough to get passionate about someone else’s cause.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Jean: The one that has stuck with me longest is running.  I’ve been a runner since joining the cross country team in high school.  It clears my mind, settles my soul and has been the source of many of my best ideas.  If I’m stuck, I can put on my sneakers and go for a run and the world looks better when I return.

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