Jean’s Story

When I look back on my life as a whole, the work I do makes perfect sense. Take it piece by piece, though, and you might be surprised.

I grew up in the Midwest – Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, West Virginia – raised by a college professor father and a mother who alternately ran a school library and taught everything from second grade to college statistics (impressive, I know). We certainly had enough money for the things we needed, but we lived modestly, picnicking out of the back of the station wagon on our trip to the Grand Canyon because it was cheaper than McDonalds. If my two brothers or I wanted things above and beyond the basics, it was up to us to buy them so I always worked. And I always saved.

Until college. I went to school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where my grandparents lived close enough so they could keep an eye on me and the number of students who came from money seemed disproportionate. The girls nonchalantly wore pearls with their Benetton sweaters and Guess jeans (it was the ‘80s). And very quickly I got caught up.

I had known since freshman year that I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to write for magazines. But upon graduation I had two job offers: One to be an editorial assistant at New Woman magazine for $12,000 a year, the other to enter the management training program for a department store called G. Fox. It paid twice that — and I took it.

It took me three months of wondering every day what I was doing walking into the department store to quit. I found another editorial assistant position – one that paid even less – but I was thrilled to have it. I taught SATs on the side to support the rent in my Brooklyn apartment. It was then I learned, money is important. But it’s not all about the money.

That editorial assistant job put me in the position of reporting on business for Working Woman magazine. I discovered that numbers could tell a story all their own. And so, when I was ready to leave Working Woman a few years later, I was determined to find work at a big business magazine – a place like Fortune or Forbes. They weren’t biting. When I finally used a connection to grab some face time with the chief of reporters at Forbes, he took a look at my clips and my resume and told me to go get an MBA.

Well, the idea of paying $40,000 a year for tuition so that I could earn half that didn’t resonate with me. So I freelanced for a little while. I did a short stint at a travel magazine. I went to cooking school. And finally I decided to look for a job on Wall Street. I thought about what Wall Street’s research analysts did – they interviewed CEOs, crunched numbers, wrote reports – and I figured it was pretty much what business journalists did. And on Wall Street, it was fairly easy to convince a couple of analysts it might be handy to have me around to write their reports. I did it for a few years, learned how to read a balance sheet from the pros, and when I re-applied to Forbes I had a job in two weeks.

I was a fact-checker. And I was proud of it. I worked until two in the morning, spent one weekend checking the first interview Michael Milken granted from jail and a week in L.A. helping to generate the list of highest paid celebrities. I stayed a year then left for the opportunity to write my own stories – rather than check someone else’s – for the Wall Street Journal’s start-up personal finance publication, SmartMoney.

It was while I was at SmartMoney that I was tapped to be the financial editor of NBC’s Today show. I’ve always believed that I got this job because I found a way to make difficult subjects understandable – to lay them out in plain English.

I did it for you, but – make no mistake – I also did it for me.

Along the career path I just described for you, which eventually took me to Money magazine, Oprah and many other places, I made plenty of money mistakes. I spent more than I made, racking up high interest rate credit card debt equal to a full half-year’s salary. I withdrew money from my 401(k) rather than rolling it over when I left my first job – costing myself taxes and penalties. And I ceded control of way too much of the money in my life to others. I realized that I needed to understand money so that I could fix what was wrong in my financial life – and by understanding it, and fixing it, I was able to explain what I was doing to anyone who was willing to listen.

Since then – thanks in great part to all of the listeners and readers who started talking to me — I have continued to learn and explore the subjects and problems that seem to be most, well, problematic. Debt has been a huge issue for me ever since I realized – back at the turn of the decade – that Americans owned a smaller share of their homes than at any time in the past 60 years. Not only that, we owned a smaller share of our cars. We were borrowing more on our educations. So I wrote Pay It Down! and put America on The Debt Diet.

I have been working in the trenches with real people and their real money for more than two decades now. I have written books on everything from money and happiness (The 10 Commandments of Financial Happiness) to women and money (Make Money, Not Excuses) to how to thrive in a tough economy (The Difference). And my basic philosophy hasn’t changed. If you want to own your life, you have to own your money. That means earning a decent living, spending less than you make, investing the money you don’t spend and protecting everything that you’ve built. It means you teach your kids these concepts – even when, as I know from personal experience, they don’t want to hear it. I joke, but I am so fortunate to have two great teenagers to share my life. And my mother. Great friends. A cockapoo. And a wonderful husband.

We live in the suburbs of New York in a smaller house than we could afford and we do it by choice. I’m doing my best to raise my kids knowing more than I did about finances so that they don’t have to go through credit card hell, or fight with a credit bureau to get negative information off one of their reports. But I also know that sometimes you have to let your children learn things on their own. And that one of the reasons I am still so fascinated by your lives and your money is that you – my readers, my listeners, my viewers, my friends — continue to teach me things every day.

Thank you for visiting. I hope you come back often.

– Jean