To Talk About Money, Hold the Judgment – The New York Times
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Since I graduated from college about two years ago, I have become something of a personal finance nerd. I’ve figured out a strategy for saving for retirement, contributed to an emergency fund, researched different health insurance options and started filling out a spreadsheet that tracks how much I save every month. My self-education in money management came out of a very real fear of not being able to afford what I need — and turned into a powerful tool to control what I can of my financial future.
Not many people have a designated teacher for personal finance. I do not remember learning about budgeting in school. I did, however, grow up during the 2008 financial crisis, which was one of my first introductions to how people think about finances and the economy.
The world of personal finance, which is filled with jargon like Roth I.R.A.s, deductibles and mutual funds, can be confusing and difficult to navigate. That’s why, as a reporting fellow on the Business desk at The New York Times, I try to find new ways to write about the subject while sharing some of what I have learned with readers.
My efforts to educate myself about personal finance have led to many article ideas. I have firsthand experience with some of the issues we write about: I signed up for my first credit card about two years ago, and I have juggled saving money with pursuing hobbies and spending time with friends. And in an article published last week, I explored how young people were struggling to save as they faced high prices at the gas pump and the grocery store.
For months I had reported on how people around the country were dealing with inflation. I wanted to explore how it was affecting those around my age who were navigating inflation while still learning about budgeting.
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What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.
What causes inflation? It can be the result of rising consumer demand. But inflation can also rise and fall based on developments that have little to do with economic conditions, such as limited oil production and supply chain problems.
Is inflation bad? It depends on the circumstances. Fast price increases spell trouble, but moderate price gains can lead to higher wages and job growth.
Can inflation affect the stock market? Rapid inflation typically spells trouble for stocks. Financial assets in general have historically fared badly during inflation booms, while tangible assets like houses have held their value better.
Money is personal, and it’s hard to get people to talk about how they spend and save. Some of my colleagues recently asked nearly 400 people on the streets of New York how much money they make, and only 27 would answer. So I got creative.
To find sources in their 20s for my article, I reached out to people on social media. Two of my sources came from TikTok. One was the friend of a source for a different article; another was someone who responded to an online questionnaire we published on buyer’s remorse; and one was the niece of a financial planner I had consulted for a separate article. I tried to find sources with a wide range of jobs, incomes, races, ethnicities, locations and approaches to saving.
Once I got on the phone with these sources, I asked them whether and how they thought about saving money and what their financial priorities were. For one woman, it was spending on fitness. For another, it was paying off student debt. One of the most important things in communicating with any source, no matter how old, about money is being nonjudgmental. I tried not to assume anything and simply asked people to share their approaches to managing their money.
I also asked a financial planner to offer expert advice on how to think about money as a young person. I asked questions that I, as someone who is grappling with money management early in her career, personally wanted to know the answers to: How do you think the economy and the post-pandemic environment affect how people in their 20s are saving? What advice do you have for dealing with those difficulties? How do you balance your priorities with your personal goals and values?
What surprised me the most in all my conversations with young people was just how much so many of them managed to save amid the current economic challenges. Despite their worries about inflation, student debt and caring for their families, everyone had something squirreled away.
The answers to my questions about personal finance were nuanced, and there was no way to fully address the concerns of every 20-something I spoke with. But I found that my article helped to start a dialogue about a topic not many people like to talk about — which is, I think, what reporting is all about.