Q&A: Jill Schlesinger on This Extraordinary Economic Moment | Saving and Budgeting

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New financial influencers are popping up daily online – some with an extensive list of credentials and others, not so much. But one expert in personal finance who has for decades been a trusted voice of reason is that of Jill Schlesinger, business analyst at CBS News and host of the podcast “Jill on Money.”

(John Paul Filo/CBS ©2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc.)

In this Q&A, Schlesinger describes her experiences living through recessions – including the most recent 2020 recession – and how she sees her role today as a money expert, author, radio and podcast host, and TV analyst.

This article is part of a U.S. News series of interviews with financial influencers that explores how consumers are getting their financial advice today and what it means to be a financial influencer – with all of the responsibility that comes alongside the role – as we hear from some of the most prominent voices in personal finance today.

Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve had a long history in the finance industry as a trader, financial planner and business analyst. How do you situate this economic moment in context historically? 

It’s been extraordinary to live through a once-in-a-century pandemic, to have the entire global economy shut down because of it, have two years of openings and closings, fear and anxiety, and now living on the other side of it.

Now we’re dealing with inflation, how the supply chain is going to hopefully loosen; it’s truly extraordinary. The only other period that, magnitude-wise, felt as important was the financial crisis and watching the nation’s investment banks almost teeter over the edge. I’d never seen anything like that before, so those are two very unique experiences. But I was a trader during the 1987 crash, and these two experiences are so different fundamentally.

Q: And how do you see yourself fitting into this moment and the financial challenges Americans are facing today?

As the economy was rolling over in March of 2020, I was on CBS Mornings almost three mornings a week doing every weekly jobs report, going live and interpreting data. I think that my job is to take the information, distill it and help people understand what it means. Not to sugar-coat it. I try to hold people’s hands and acknowledge how scary it is. I don’t try to take advantage of these terrible times; that’s not the lane that I occupy. I am an explainer, a voice of reason and I give context to what’s happening.

The spring of 2020 is also when my podcast went from dropping two days a week and trying to be very high-minded with really cool guests to realizing people just have a million questions. So we went to a daily podcast where all we did was answer people’s questions. Nobody really cared what important economists were saying. What people cared about was, ‘What the hell is PPP, how do I access it? How do I apply for unemployment benefits?’

All of these things were real, important issues to the people I was talking to, and I thought that was far more important than airing the opinions of the great economists who I had access to. It was really fulfilling, and that daily podcast is still the most fulfilling part of what I do every day.

Q: There’s a deluge of financial advice out there today – online, on social media, on TV. And with the rise of the TikTok platform, more so-called financial influencers are popping up daily. Do you consider yourself a financial influencer? 

Sure, I guess. I backdoored my way into this career. I was a gold, silver and copper options trader on the floor of the commodities exchange in the late 80s and early 90s. I then became an investment advisor and certified financial planner who just dealt with real people as their planner, and I did that for 14 or 15 years. I served as a guest on some TV and radio shows, and a few people were very kind to me said, ‘You should really think about doing this for a living.’ In early 2009, CBS News tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘We really think you break things down in ways our audience can understand, would you ever come work here?’ I thought they were crazy, and I haven’t looked back since.

There’s plenty of room for everyone. If we can get more good, usable financial information out to more and more people, that’s great.

Q: Your work puts you in constant contact with people worried or confused about their money, the economy and beyond. What kinds of questions are you asked most often, and what do you think is top of mind for the typical American today when it comes to money?

It really runs the gamut. I remember the first segment I did about inflation was probably a year ago, and the vast majority of the questions I received were early reports of inflation and about people’s real-life experience on the ground.

The most common questions are around, ‘Am I OK?’ It seems like people are saying, ‘I don’t really trust myself, my broker or my advisor. But can I tell you my story in eight minutes and have you talk to me and you give me your quick, down-and-dirty assessment?’ Most people just want to know if they are on track because it’s kind of scary doing this stuff on your own. And even if you do have an advisor, a father, a kid, they want an unbiased person. I think it’s revealing that people ask that question and the thing they think is not OK, is OK, while the thing I uncover is something else they’ve missed.

There are lots of big questions around retirement planning, too, and because of my age, which is late 50s, you tend to attract people who are like you. But I also have a much younger audience that developed from doing work with CBS Interactive and CNET.

I’ve become the funny Aunt Jill who will tell you what you’re screwing up, but not be mean about it. I’m not a finger wagger, I’m not evangelical. I think there are a lot of answers and ways to get people where they want to go. People who reach out to me know I’m not going to beat the crap out of them. I’m going to tell them the unvarnished truth and they trust me because I’m a certified financial planner, I’ve been in the business a long time, and I know what I’m talking about.

Q: What’s the personal finance issue that keeps you up at night? 

I am a complete pain in the ass to people about their estate planning. I don’t care how old they are, I say, ‘You need to get this done.’ I don’t care about the how or the why. This must happen.

My other soap-box issue is that I think we spend a ton of time talking about investments, but that’s actually not the hard part of your financial planning or your financial life. The hard part is figuring out how to create a systematic approach to systematically save over time. You could throw a dart at a bunch of index funds and it will be fine. The amount of time devoted to what’s the best this or that, it’s silly. Most people know all you need is a few index funds and then go to sleep at night.

Q: Are you optimistic about this country’s economic future and that of typical American families? 

I worry all the time. I don’t tend to worry about bear markets, I don’t even worry about the label of a recession. I worry about human suffering, anxiety among people who are already under great pressure.

It was so different going through the Great Recession and then going through the COVID recession, because the government just did such a better job taking care of ordinary people amid COVID. Last time, the government did a great job saving the banking system, but there sure were a lot of homeowners who could have used some help, and those stories were really heartbreaking for me.

I am neutral on what happens next – I can’t control business cycles. I just hope that people are a little more aware of how precarious some of these situations can be and to not fret about the things you can’t control. As I speak to you at this moment, the day after the Dow Jones Industrial Average went into a bear market, the day after the S&P 500 hit a new low for 2022, I’m not pessimistic about markets. I’m not even pessimistic about the economy. I am a little pessimistic that the lessons we’ve learned over the last 10 or 12 years will be easily forgotten.

And sometimes as human beings we are our worst enemies. Sometimes we are unlucky, don’t get me wrong, but some people do terrible damage to their own financial lives. I hope we can prevent people from doing that, making short-term decisions when long-term ones are going to pay great dividends.

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