Covering personal finance is part journalism and part counseling.
No event has brought this home more to me than the economic hurricane we’ve experienced.
The biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression was a rude awakening for consumers. Many lost jobs, found themselves underwater in their mortgages, deep in credit card debt and with few, if any, emergency savings to get them through the crisis.
Two years after the economists declared the recession ended, many consumers feel that the recovery has passed them by. Millions are still unemployed and the average worker’s hourly wages, after accounting for inflation, has fallen.
Making that worse were rising gasoline and food prices, which ate up any pay raises for most Americans.
Many fortunate enough to find a job discover that they’re not making as much as they did. The jobs that are being created pay less than the ones that vanished in the recession.
In this climate, readers are turning to personal finance reporters for help in sorting out their financial lives.
Personal finance themes
Personal finance spans a range of topics from:
- tax planning,
- credit cards,
- student loans, to
- retirement planning.
One of the best ways to get a firm foundation in personal finance is to take courses in personal financial planning at a local university that offers the certificate program in financial planning. This is the same required coursework for those seeking to obtain the well-respected Certified Financial Planner certification.
The intense program covers fundamentals of financial planning, insurance, investments, retirement, tax and estate planning.
It took me two years to finish the program at the University of Houston, but it was one of the best training I’ve undergone and continues to serve me well in my career.
The knowledge will give you a firm foundation on which to talk to financial and investment professionals when you do a personal finance story. You will understand the lingo and concepts and be able to translate those into plain language for your readers.
The key in good personal finance writing is always writing for the reader. You will run across many financial professionals who will speak in industry jargon, but make them translate that into concepts you can understand. If you don’t understand what they’re saying, ask and ask again until it’s clear to you.
It’s the job of reporters who cover personal finance to cut through the industry-speak and make the subject less intimidating.
Not an adviser
What personal finance reporting isn’t is promoting every new product or service, or being readers’ personal financial adviser. You will find that some readers will send you intimate details of their personal finances and expect you to give them the definitive answer as to what they should do with their money and how they should invest.
It takes thorough examination of a person’s life before they can receive the right financial advice for them. Giving financial advice isn’t just looking at the numbers. It really should first look at a person’s life goals so an adviser can create a financial plan that will lead to those goals.
That’s beyond the scope of what personal finance reporters can do.
Of course, there are obvious questions you can answer: What’s a credit score, how do I obtain my credit report?
But beyond that, the best way to answer a reader’s question for detailed financial advice is to point out some of the factors they might want to consider and then suggest that they seek out an adviser.
The same thing applies to readers who seek investment and income-tax advice.
The financial markets are volatile and hard to predict. The one sure thing is that there’s no such thing as high returns without any risk. Help readers maintain a proper, realistic perspective about investment returns and talk them down from the ledge before they throw their money at an investment that promises them double-digit returns when markets are returning a more sober, realistic rate.
Income tax is one of the most complicated subjects you will ever cover. Consider how thick the Internal Revenue Code is and how many times Congress has tried to simplify it and end up making it more confusing.
It’s best to leave individual tax-planning to tax advisers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write stories about how tax changes will affect your readers.
Read your competition and study how they approach stories and find fresh angles. I read The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, SmartMoney, Money Magazine and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine.
Finding new angles
One of the biggest challenges in personal finance reporting is putting a new spin on topics that you will cover over and over again. Many times, breaking news will help with that, but most of the times, you have to be creative and look beyond what everyone else is writing.
Finally, remember that personal finance affects everyone. When you ask questions, think about what your readers will want to know. Always keeping that in mind will help you serve your readers well.