How to Become the Kind of Person Who “Makes Their Money Work”

Even creatives need basic financial literacy—here's how investor turned writer Erin Gloria Ryan suggests you learn it.

For most of us, the ideas of “creative careers” and “finance professionals” couldn’t be further apart. We like to imagine our artists and creatives as these irresponsible, spontaneous, money-illiterate people whose right-brain-tendencies prevent them from ever really getting their stuff together. And we imagine, too, that part of this tradeoff is financial. Yes, creatives get to follow their artistic and professional dreams, but they must do so at the cost of financial security. They might hit it big, but most of them probably won’t, and many will be living on low salaries in big, high cost-of-living cities. Whereas a more “serious” career, particularly in things like finance, mean that you might have less of that day-to-day satisfaction with your job, it will also mean a lot of financial security, both in your actual salary and your knowledge about how to make the most of what you have.

No one pictures a painter with a healthy 401k and a diverse portfolio, essentially. And it’s easy to understand why.

But one of the most important things that I’ve learned, especially in being a professional writer, is that separating the ideas of “passion” and “stability” is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. My industry is full of people who never think of the personal side of money, or how it can make it easier to do what they love. And I used to be one of those people.

And even if you’re not someone in a creative field, even if you’re working in a more “traditional” job that isn’t in finance, it’s easy to separate yourself from the world of people who “get” money and make it work for them. You don’t have to be a writer or artist to feel like the world of investments and portfolios and stocks are worlds away from you, and that it’s beyond scary to even think of getting started. We can easily categorize ourselves as one or the other, but the world is full of proof that it is very possible to be both.

One person who is definitely both is writer and editor Erin Gloria Ryan, who actually started her career managing money at places like Merrill Lynch. Her path from the finance world to the editorial world was surprising and, most importantly, made smooth by the education she received as a banker. We talked about everything from what it’s really like to work at those intimidating banks, to how she manages to help the creatives around her today understand that money isn’t so scary.

CHELSEA FAGAN: So first, tell us a little bit about what you did in finance.

ERIN RYAN: So I had a couple jobs, actually. The first one I got was in 2006, for a financial services company. It used to be the financial advisory department of a credit card company, but it broke off into its own thing. And they hired me, even though I had no experience or background in finances, because that’s what the industry was doing at that time—they just needed warm bodies. So I was hired, and I had six months to pass this test called the Series 7 Exam, which is basically stockbroker license. And it’s a beast, it’s a six-hour test that you take in chunks and you can’t go to the bathroom, you have to be heavily identified on entering, etc. 

CF: So it’s very academic, in a sense.

ER: Yes, it’s very intense. And I passed, which still felt surprising because I had majored in English and I remember that when I started prepping for the test, I was so beginner that I opened the book to something like “Chapter 1: What Is A Stock?” and I was like “Hmmmm… what is a stock?” But I managed to study, to watch all these videos, read these books, do these practice tests. And it was hard, but I did it. 

And so I started my job at this company, and I hated it. Because although a lot of people walk into places like this looking for a financial planner, when you’re new, you have to kind of “eat what you kill,” so to speak. So we had to find our own clients, and a lot of the people I worked with just had a lot of rich friends, who they would sign on as their clients and easily reach their asset levels. And I did fine, but I also felt weird, like, pressuring my middle-class friends and family to work with me. It just seemed very indecent to ask people that you’re friendly with to engage in money stuff with, and be that involved in their financial lives—but it was extremely common. 

And I remember after the Bear Stearns collapse in 2007, people in my office going like, “Well, that can’t be good,” and just sort of carrying on. So I decided a few months after that that I wanted to move, and Merrill Lynch was hiring, and I was already registered and ready, and being there would mean a more prestigious, research-based firm that I felt was the right move for me. So I accepted a job there, and my job was to be a broker, which essentially meant that people would come to me with their money and say “Invest it,” and they had more money than at my previous job. It tended to be around $100,000 and $500,000 in investible assets, whereas at my previous one, they would really take whatever (at least, at that time). 

CF: And when the crash came?

ER: When the crash happened, I remember asking for a demotion, because I didn’t want to be in charge of people’s money, so I started working for different groups around the office. Because I was registered, I could make trades, and do stuff like that. But then I did that for a few years, and I clung to that job because it was such a bad time economically that it wasn’t an option to be in a big city without a job. And I didn’t have the option to not have things like insurance, I don’t have parents in the suburbs who could just host me—that was it. I had to tread water, or I had to drown. So I chose to stay there for as long as I could. 

CF: When did you make the transition to writing?

ER: I was actually hired for my first full-time writing job in 2011, so that’s how long I was in finance, total.

CF: And that job kind of came about from commenting, right? So when you first started commenting on Jezebel, and got an inkling that writing could be a career for you, that was while you were at Merrill?

ER: Yes. At the time, I was just working my desk job, waiting for the phone to ring a lot and so I really just read, I read all of the financial stuff – Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, etc.—but I also would get done with all that stuff and would move onto more fun stuff. And at Jezebel, the commenters were really funny, and it felt like a great place to hang out. So I started commenting sporadically, and it never even occurred to me that I could actually be a writer—it was just fun to me. But one of the founding editors noticed that I was funny, and asked me to help moderate the commenting community, and I agreed. And when she stepped down, a new editor was like “You should be a contributor, we want you to audition for a few shifts.” So I did, and I got it, and so there was actually about a year that I was working as a contributor, which meant that I worked on Sundays, waking up at like seven in the morning to blog all day. And it was my favorite part of my week.

But even at that point, I didn’t imagine it as a career path. It still just felt like “fun” to me. 

CF: When you did start taking it seriously, was there something you were waiting for to quit your job, like a full-time salary?

ER: There were a couple things. It might seem like some of the decisions I made were “out there,” but I would never take a leap if I didn’t feel that I could make it, essentially 100 percent sure. My parents are from a very small town, so if things didn’t work out, that is my safety net—this town of, like, 1,000 people in rural Wisconsin. So there was no option to run out of money or to have a year where I was underemployed and trying to “figure it out.” So I wouldn’t quit my job unless I had a full-time job where I was confident I could support myself, and I wouldn’t take a full-time job unless I was confident that I could do a good job at it. So I had to wait for those two things to line up. 

CF: And was that money offered to you, and that’s what made you decide?

ER: Well, I remember around my birthday I sort of had this moment in Chicago where I was like “You know what? I’ve been a Sunday editor for a year, I really want to work there full-time. I’m going to buy a ticket tonight to New York, go out with my editor for lunch, and say ‘Hire me full-time.’” And so I was told that they didn’t really have the budget at the moment, but I thought, “You know what? At least I tried,” which was enough for me. But a few weeks later, I got that call with the job offer. 

CF: I imagine that that career change meant a serious salary cut at that time.

ER: It actually wasn’t, because at my bank job at the time I wasn’t managing my own book with all these clients and getting my cut off the top. I was just getting my base salary, and in Chicago, too, which meant that it wasn’t as high as you’d think. So it ended up being about a third less than what I was making, which was manageable, especially because I had a bit of savings, and had figured out how much it would cost me to live month-to-month in New York. And I was moving there with my boyfriend, and we were able to live with a friend for the first six months, which allowed us to save and adjust. We were pinching pennies, for sure, but we cooked a lot, and we moved out to Sunset Park (which is deep in Brooklyn), and right around that time I was approached by a TV writer who asked if I’d ever considered writing for television, so I submitted and I ended up getting hired for the show, called Best Week Ever on VH1. And one thing that a lot of writers don’t realize, I think, early on in their careers, is that union writing jobs pay very, very well, by any standards. So I got this job, and all of my financial worries were very minimized. So when I got that job, I felt like “Okay. Everything is going to be fine.”

CF: I’m assuming there’s a “but.”

ER: Well, a few months in, I broke up with that guy, and I sort of had to start totally over again. And that was rough, but I was making enough money and had more friends who were comfortable with me on their couches, that I made it work. And I think that part of making that work was never panicking or feeling badly for myself, just saying “Okay, this bad thing happened. Now what am I going to do?” And moving forward. 

CF: Do you think that part of that attitude came, in part, from having a solid financial background and knowledge?

ER: Yeah. I mean, when I was in finance, I always had the maximum amount of money going into my 401k, even though that was a sacrifice and that was money I could have enjoyed at the moment. So I had a good amount in this 401k, and you shouldn’t borrow against your 401k, but in the back of my mind, knowing that I had this $35k or whatever in an account was important. Like, in an absolute emergency, if I’m on fire, I have what I need to put it out. I could borrow a couple thousand dollars and take the tax hit, instead of having to go back to rural Wisconsin. And that gave me a sense of confidence, even when unexpected, bad things happened. 

And I had the drive to do that because of my investing knowledge, because I know how much smarter it is to start making those investments when you’re young, instead of waiting until your 30s. It was comforting, and even though I never had to touch that money, it allowed me to live better and make the choices I wanted to make, because I knew that net was beneath me. 

If you have a company that matches, you should definitely invest to the match, because it’s free money.

CF: And a ton of people have 401ks, even people who don’t realize it. 

ER: Yeah, and if you don’t have access to one, bankers love being able to get you into stuff. And there’s a lot of options—IRAs, Roth IRAs, brokerage accounts—for whatever your needs and income levels are. There are a ton of different things you can do, and honestly, the difference between investing in your 401k and on your own is going into your bank one afternoon with some paperwork and talking to someone. It’s not this intimidating process we imagine it is.

CF: Yeah, I think people really build it up in their heads, in terms of what it means to “be an investor.”

ER: Yeah, and even me, there are things I would do differently back then if I could go back. I would have had more mid-term investments, because I had my short-term account that I accessed every day, and I had my long-term retirement funds, but I didn’t have an emergency fund for things like, say, if I lost my job and needed to support myself for six months. And maybe that’s because we don’t think of it as investment in the same way, but it definitely is. It’s investing in a different sort of peace of mind. 

CF: Do you ever feel, being in a creative field, that it’s really full of people who are terrified of financial literacy, or of people who feel like creative dreams are really incompatible with serious financial security? Like, okay, I’ll be a musician—but that means I’ll never have a 401k. 

ER: Yeah, it’s funny to talk to people about this, like I was talking to some people today about the market being down a certain number of points, and I was like “Well, the stock market isn’t as reliable an indicator as it has been, historically,” and his face just sort of went blank. And so it’s not just about microfinance literacy, though that is important. It’s really about understanding macrofinance, and putting things in perspective. Not everything is worth panicking over, or ignoring. And it helps you understand the money you do have. 

Just because you play guitar doesn’t mean you don’t have to be a person, and part of being a person means just taking basic care of yourself: cooking for yourself, doing your laundry, renting an apartment, not falling into an open manhole. And part of that is basic financial literacy. It’s a basic survival skill, and it can be daunting, but I remember the day opening that book and reading about what a stock is, and I was able to learn, despite not being a financial genius. It wasn’t easy, sure, but it wasn’t impossible. And anyone who is interested in investing could probably learn in one or two nights a week over a couple months. 

CF: Even if it’s just starting by learning what some of these terms mean.

ER: Yes. And read. Read the Wall Street Journal, read The Economist, read basic financial information, and take an afternoon and meet with an advisor. People are really helpful if you take them up on it, you just have to want to learn.

Follow Erin Ryan on Twitter here

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