Jean Chatzky: a personal finance superhero for beginners


Adam Cecil

Adam Cecil

Former Staff Writer

Adam Cecil is a former staff writer for Policygenius, a digital insurance brokerage trying to make sense of insurance for consumers. He is a podcast producer, writer, and video maker based in Brooklyn, NY.

Published March 17, 2016 | 7 min read

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Personal finance can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around. Even the best of us slip up sometimes, and even if we do everything right, something out of control — like the 2008 recession — can knock us right off track again. That’s where the Superheroes of Personal Finance come in. These personal finance gurus are experts in the field, and at a moment’s notice, they can fly in to save the day. But even more important than that, these superheroes can give you the knowledge and the power to save yourself.

Born in Detroit to human parents, Jean Chatzky learned how to save money at an early age. In an interview with Rob Berger, Chatzky described watching her parents stuff coins into a family piggy bank with the goal of visiting Disney World. As a family, they emptied the pig onto the floor and counted the coins (and the occasional bill) inside. There was just enough to afford tickets for all of them. Chatzky notes that souvenirs were the responsibility of the kids — she stashed her babysitting money away to pay for keepsakes.Chatzky didn’t graduate college with a degree in finance. Instead, she knew from the moment that she stepped on to the University of Pennsylvania campus that she wanted to be a journalist. After earning her BA in English, Chatzky went on to work at a department store called G. Fox.

Wait, what?, you might be thinking. That’s right — Chatzky got two job offers after college, one as an editorial assistant for New Woman magazine and one at this department store. The department store offered her more money. According to her own life story, Chatzky worked there for three months until she quit and found another editorial assistant position that paid even less than the first offer she received. The big lesson from all of this? "Money is important. But it’s not all about the money."Her new editorial assistant job was with the business editor at Working Woman magazine, and she helped Chatzky realize the potential of her math skills — "I discovered that numbers could tell a story all their own," she writes. From there, Chatzky knew that she wanted to do business journalism. But with her background, the editors at Forbes and Fortune were tossing her resume in the trash. "Go get an MBA," one chief told Chatzky.But the math didn’t add up. Why would she spend $40,000 per year on a degree that would net her half that once she finally landed a job? Instead, Chatzky went to work on Wall Street as a research analyst. Research analysts interview business leaders, crunch the numbers, and write reports on the data they find — you know, kind of like a business journalist. When she re-applied to Forbes in a few years, no one told her to go get an MBA.On her way to becoming a financial superhero, Chatzky’s financial life took a few hits. At one point, her high interest credit card debt equaled half a year’s salary. When she left her job at Working Woman, she withdrew money from her 401(k) instead of rolling it over. She realized that she wasn’t in control of her own money, and that she needed to understand personal finance in order to fix her own problems.

Of course, nothing makes you an expert in a topic like the need to obsessively research everything about your own problems, so while Chatzky may not have a degree in finance, she knows just as much as any other personal finance expert. The fact that she had to learn everything to help herself has actually only improved her skills in translating complicated financial strategies into plain English. It’s that skill in particular that makes her a personal finance superhero.

  1. She’s great for beginners. Is your financial life a complete wreck? Do you have no idea how to start fixing it? Or are you just starting out on your financial journey? Chatzky’s advice is tailor-made for you.

  2. She has advice specific to women. While women have been in the workplace forever, earning a salary and creating wealth, surveys show that women feel less confident about financial topics than men. That’s especially bad when you consider that men aren’t even that good at finance, generally speaking. As a working woman, Chatzky understands the need for women of all ages to take control of their finances. Her 2008 book, Make Money, Not Excuses, was written to help women overcome their financial fears.

  3. She’s everywhere. Seriously — besides her own blog, she writes for Forbes, Bankrate, TIME, SmartMoney, and other publications, plus she makes radio appearances, plus she’s on the Today Show pretty frequently as their financial editor. If you’re looking for Jean Chatzky advice, you’ll find it in a variety of formats all across the web, in your living room, and in the car.

Chatzky’s biggest weakness is the flipside to one of her super strengths: while her advice is perfect for beginners, she doesn’t have as much guidance to offer if you’re looking for more advanced financial advice. If you’re the kind of person who likes to dig deep into a problem and learn every detail about a retirement plan, for example, Chatzky’s common sense advice probably isn’t for you.

That said, simplifying complex financial advice has its place, especially for beginners or for people looking to turn their financial lives around. Just because financial experts see her advice as simplistic doesn’t mean that you will — in fact, it may be just the thing you need to manage your finances effectively. Chatzky’s weakness will only be a problem if you’re looking to go beyond the basics and get into the weeds when it comes to difficult-to-grasp concepts.

The one topic that Chatzky will never stop tackling? Living beyond your means. It’s one of the core tenets of her money philosophy and one of her most important money rules. While this may seem like a simple concept, "learning to do this is difficult," as Jean writes on her site, especially when you receive free credit card offers and find it easy to get loans. But living within your means is crucial to staying out of debt, and debt of any kind is one of the worst financial burdens you can have. While Chatzky has plenty of advice if you’re looking to get out of debt (more on that later), she’d much prefer it if you never got into debt in the first place by living within your means and saving/investing the money you don’t absolutely need to survive.

Besides living beyond your means, Chatzky is dedicated to fighting a number of financial villains out there in the world. One, as we mentioned before, is debt. Her book Pay It Down! is all about becoming debt-free on a limited budget. It’s also a subject she writes about frequently, on her site and across the web. And if you’re looking for a great calculator to help you figure out exactly how much you should be putting towards your credit card bill every month, she can help with that, too.One of Chatzky’s other big topics is saving for retirement. She talks about it frequently on the Today Show, covering topics such as making the money last all the way through retirement and the many ways you can invest for retirement. Oh, and in case you were wondering how much money you should be putting aside, Chatzky’s got a calculator for that, too.

Chatzky also believes very strongly in estate planning and insurance. While neither of these are particularly fun topics, they’re incredibly important for people of all ages and all financial situations. You can read more of Chatzky’s advice on estate planning at Bankrate and AARP. She wrote up a great article with her thoughts on life insurance on her blog, and you can read her tips on buying all types of insurance over at the Today Show website.

While Jean Chatzky is all over the web, you can find her advice in two primary places: on the Today Show and in her books.You can just watch the Today Show every morning and wait for Chatzky if you want, or you can find her videos online. Her site has a complete archive of her Today Show clips. Digging back into her archive, you can find her talking to Al Roker and the gang on everything from retirement to Christmas shopping.Chatzky has also written eight books, not including the e-books she has released through her website, which you can find wherever books are sold (or Amazon). Her most recent book, Money Rules, is a manifesto for those looking for simple financial rules by which they can run their lives. It’s also the inspiration for many of her segments on the Today Show, as well as several articles online.Chatzky’s 2009 book, Money 911, has also served as inspiration for many Today Show segments and blog posts. A direct response to the recession, Money 911 answers critical questions from readers and viewers struggling with a sudden change in their financial situation.If you want to start your kids off early with smart financial advice, check out her 2010 book Not Your Parents’ Money Book. In case you can’t tell by the title, it was written specifically for kids to help teach them the basics of financial responsibility. While it’s never too late to learn about personal finance, it’s also never too early, and the more time you have to be responsible with your money, the better.

You can find Jean Chatzky on her website, Twitter, and Facebook. You can also catch her on the Today Show and in bookstores.