Interview: Laura Rowley

Laura Rowly has written her "Money & Happiness" bi-weekly column since 2005, which is read by 20 million visitors a month. In addition to writing a book of the same title, Rowley has reported on finance for many years for both print and broadcast media. Rowley also serves as an adjunct professor of religious studies at Seton Hall.

Laura Rowly has written her “Money & Happiness” bi-weekly column since 2005, which is read by 20 million visitors a month. In addition to writing a book of the same title, Rowley has reported on finance for many years for both print and broadcast media. Rowley also serves as an adjunct professor of religious studies at Seton Hall.

PRWeek: What are some trends you've noticed in financial reporting?

Rowley: One trend is [that] we're in an economic recession; the other trend is there is a bias towards materialism that has been growing and growing and growing. [As for] media, we're in a culture where you're saturated with materialism…There are cable channels devoted to making your home beautiful, making your wardrobe beautiful, making yourself beautiful. It's like [there are] extreme makeovers in every realm of life…Going back, you see even a Wall Street Journal story about a very little known billionaire who doesn't have a home, who lives in hotels, owns almost nothing, and all of his money is going to creating a foundation to support the causes he believes in. So I think one of the big, big trends, I'm seeing out there is, pulling away from spending money on stuff [individuals are] spending money on, and how [are they] going to make a difference with the money [they] have? And how [are they] going to make a difference with the energy [they] have? What kind of work are they going to do that's going to make a difference in the world? It sounds a little Pollyanna, but I really think that's going on. The economic shock has been so significant to some people; they're really stepping back and taking a look at the big picture. [They're asking] you know, what am I doing for money? Is that what I want to be doing? And, how am I going to use money to create the kind of life I want, not how am I going to use money to buy the kinds of things I'm told I should buy by advertising?

It wasn't that way until last 20 to 15 years; there's a combination of very interesting trends going on in retail. I wrote a book about Target and why they were successful, and one of the things…is the advent of style, which started kind of in the early 1990s. That's when all the style channels launched, that's when the Council of Fashion Designer Awards, which I went to in 1993 and was only industry people and magazine editors, and the fashion shows were [starting] too. Now it's become a cultural phenomenon, [by a] combination of cheap imports allowing you to do great design for no money and the saturation of media channels devoted to design, [as well as] the advent of credit card industry that will extend credit to people who don't qualify for it.

In the 1980s, if you didn't have a job, you couldn't get a credit card. That's all changed. The credit card industry has realized that their best customers can't pay. So, I think ubiquitous credit, globalization, where getting products from overseas and huge, huge emphasis on style, aesthetics, as a way to distinguish myself from another person, all of those are very bad trends in terms of your pocketbook.

PRWeek: With a masters of divinity [degree], how is your angle different from other finance writers?

Rowley: I think that what makes personal finance reporting so interesting is you'll see the reflection of the values of the person writing it. So, I'll write stories about my 9-year-old losing her retainer three times, and it will segway into a piece about when do you bail your kids out and when don't you bail your kids out. So, it's more about the intersection of life and money for me.

I was one of 11 children growing up. I learned very early how to make money, how to save money, how to stay out of debt. As an adult, I went to divinity school more from a reporter's curiosity than anything-else.

As a reporter, it bothered me [when] somebody took something out of context and said ‘this is what this means.' So, I went back for my own curiosity, but ended up spending a lot of time studying values. That's what I bring to my column. Plus, now I'm married, I have three kids, so I'm going to have a different perspective from somebody who doesn't have kids. Obviously, where your life situation is going to play a huge role in your values, your values change over time…as your life circumstances change. That's what's so interesting about covering personal finance. Anyone can cover how a college savings plan works, but what makes personal finance interesting are the different perspectives that people bring to it.

PRWeek: What do you think are some common misconceptions readers have about how to handle their finances?

Rowley: That's what's so surprising. When I started writing “Money & Happiness,” I thought nobody was going to read this because it's just common sense. Yet then you realize what you know about money is not common sense to everybody. It is to some people - I just assumed it was - but the more you talk to people, the more I realized they're not getting personal finance education in school, and unless there is a parent, spouse, sibling, or good friend saying to them, ‘You need to join a 401(k). If you save for retirement for nine years from ages 21 to 30, you'll have more money than someone who has saved for 30 years, from 31 to 65. You can have more in retirement by starting young and saving for nine years than you can for more than over 30 years.' Yet nobody said that to them. Nobody said have you ever sat down and done the math on what you'll actually pay if you charge that couch on a credit card. So, I think the thing about [luxury goods] is the media, television shows, movies, the media coverage, the coverage of the most expensive house in the country, but nobody is saying, ‘You know what, you should pay yourself first and you should do the math on what that'll cost on a credit card.' So it's interesting stuff that I think is common sense, but you can't say enough to people that staying out of debt from the time you're 20 [years old] onwards, will change your life in your late thirties.

PRWeek: What do you like focusing on in your column?

Rowley: I love to focus on anything that has a personal angle. I love stories about people and why they do what they do with their money. All the crazy things we do with our money and what motivated us to do it. I'm in love with the idea of irrationality, and I do it, too. I know what I should do, and yet I do something irrational. The other part of the column I love to cover is behavioral economics. I love to interview people like George Lowenstein at Carnegie Mellon and Gregory Burns, who is a neuroscientist at Emory University and Dan Ariely at the [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. And, they're all doing these really interesting things at the intersection of psychology and economics that make you understand better why you behave the way you behave so you can change behavior in a way that is beneficial to you.

What's interesting to me is the sense of entitlement people have, not only as an industry; I think it's the whole [capitalistic] culture. Every economic story you see is, ‘Oh they're worried about economy's climate because consumer spending will decline.' Right now, the ratio of household incomes to household revolving debts is the highest it's ever been historically – and it's a sucker's game. I think people are being enslaved by that. The entire machine of our economy runs on consumer spending, but I think it's really possible to have a really sustainable economy and have people live within their means, and not have their marriages break up over money, not end up depressed over money, not end up not sleeping at night over money. I don't buy that consumer spending is going down because people are cutting back on buying stuff with credit cards, and that's bad for the economy. No, that's good for the economy.

PRWeek: What is the best way for PR professionals to pitch to you?

Rowley: The best PR people are ones who understand what makes a great story and the worst are those that, and I feel sorry for them, have a client breathing down their neck saying, “Who are you pitching me to today?” I can tell the difference when the e-mail shows up. It's being thoughtful and looking at from the PR person's perspective, looking at your clients' businesses and saying, ‘What does this business do that uncovers some sort of news or trend about society at large.' The whole financial social networking space is sort of a new phenomenon, and I appreciate it when…someone will write you a pitch and say, ‘My client launched this company that allows you to track your finances and budgets but also network with other users on the site to support each other' or ‘Here we have one group that has called itself starving musicians, and they trade tips and these are the kinds of trips they have traded, and if you want to talk to them, we'll set that up.' So, that's very different from saying, ‘We have a new site; you should cover it.' You know, it's how is that business making an impact on what people do day to day with their money, and if it's not, then I'm not really interested. Or, I get a lot of topics about day-to-day interactions with people, who are going through different financial things. There's a lot to cover, so I tend to dismiss a pitch [immediately] when it just says, ‘Why don't you write about my company,' because that's not a thoughtful pitch. A thoughtful pitch is, ‘You should write about my company because we're making this kind of significant impact on the financial self, on the way people use their money, on the way people earn it, save it, spend it, invest it, or give it away.'

I've always covered business, and I've worked on a show – when I was a reporter at CNN, the show Business Unusual – and I loved working on that show because behind a business is a great individual with a great idea, that he or she is passionate about. I think the best PR people figure out that story, where the passion comes from, what it was about, and how can a person change the world with that idea. And, that's very different from, ‘There's a dude who launched a new company.'

Name: Laura Rowley

Title: Finance columnist

Outlet: Yahoo Finance

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