What I Learned From Five Years of Writing and Editing for The Billfold

I started this process knowing very little about personal finance.

I mean, I knew the basics. I’ve told the story about graduating college and reading Your Money and Your Life and tracking every penny I’ve earned and spent ever since. I’ve also told the story about how, six years ago, I began publicly sharing my freelance income on my Tumblr, with the simple goal of earning more money every week.

(In many ways I got this gig because I was a good storyteller.)

But I didn’t know what to do with my money, beyond “spend less than you earn and get out of debt.” I kept everything in a savings account. I didn’t know what a mutual fund was, beyond “a thing people invest in,” and although I knew that people needed to invest money for retirement (and had done so myself), I didn’t know why anyone would invest beyond that — unless they wanted to play the stock market, which at the time I thought was like gambling.

I had a vague idea that I should put my retirement money in a Roth IRA because it was “better,” but I didn’t know that putting money in traditional and SEP IRAs could help reduce both my freelance tax burden and my ACA health insurance premiums.

I learned that — along with so many other aspects of personal finance — from you.

I also learned by doing a lot of reading: articles, books, research papers. Before working for The Billfold I’d already read a bunch of personal finance books, of course, but they were the “Suze Orman says don’t buy a boat” types of books. I knew how not to buy a boat! I didn’t know why closing an old credit card could hurt your credit score, or the difference between a tax deduction and a tax credit, or why index funds were so highly recommended. I didn’t know that people could build their own wealth through investments, or that the 401(k) had only been around for a generation and we were still crossing our fingers that it worked.

So I gave myself a crash course in both finance and economics, both because I wanted to educate myself and because I wanted to have something new to share with you — although it turned out many of you already knew it.

But not everyone, so we all learned together.

That was the important part.

The other important part, at least for me, was the chance to get to help other writers. Freelancing is about the gigs you get and the gigs you can give to others — and The Billfold gave me the opportunity to both grow my career and help other freelancers grow theirs.

I loved going through the pitch inbox and reading your stories. I loved getting an absolutely perfect draft that I could run without any edits, and I also loved getting the kind of draft where I could send the writer a sentence or two about strengthening the narrative and then they’d come back with four new paragraphs that transformed the entire piece.

I especially loved working with the same writers year over year and watching their work get better and better. That’s the kind of experience that you don’t realize you’ll get, at the beginning of a career. It was a joy.

Lastly, I loved making a space for all of you to build a community. Some of that community was in place before I arrived, but I worked hard to make sure every piece I posted included something that could be discussed. Sometimes it was as simple as ending a post with “what do you think?” (Please don’t go back to count how many pieces ended with that particular phrase, or with “read and discuss, y’all.”) Sometimes I deliberately chose pieces that could be seen from multiple points of view.

On that note: in my early days as a Billfold writer I’d occasionally post hate-bloggy stuff that I knew would get people riled up, but I stopped doing those kinds of posts about three years ago. They didn’t feel right. So much of online outrage involves speculating about other people’s lives. Reading your comments — and I read nearly all of them — reminded me that we approach the world from so many different perspectives. Or, as I’ve often said (and written): we’re all doing the best we can with what we have.

And that’s not even my idea — or not just my idea. Jenn said the exact same thing at the end of this morning’s Doing Money interview. Did you learn it from me, did I learn it from you, did we all build our community around the dual ideas of having honest conversations about money and doing the best we can with what we have?

I don’t know. I’d like to think so.

I’d also like to think that we’ll carry these ideas with us, and they’ll become just as important as tracking every penny we earn and spend.

That’s what I’ve learned from five years of writing and editing for The Billfold. It’s also what I hope I’ve taught you in return. ❤︎

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