Rooting Out The Devil: Kathy Kristof Interview
Quite the writing background, the California native, Kathy Kristof, has built a career working for such reputable news sources as: LA Times, Bloomberg, Forbes, and currently CBS MoneyWatch and The Fiscal Times. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s authored three books and recently delved into the world of blogging. This newest endeavor allows her to explore her cooking interests while relying on her financial abilities.
Kathy Kristof has graciously allowed me to conduct this interview and patiently waited for my questions. To return the favor, I’ve included many links to her material. Please take the time to check each out and really see what she has to offer. With that, on to the interview!
FE: Let’s start with an icebreaker. I’m always interested to find out how people got from point A to point B. Care to elaborate on the zigzag path in between? What drew you into financial writing/editing initially and what’s kept you there today?
KK: All I ever wanted to do was write. I started out wanting to write fiction—and that’s still a goal. But in the meantime, I needed to pay the bills so I figured I’d study journalism. When I was a senior in college, I had this investigative reporting class taught by a reporter at the LATimes. He would pose reporting challenges, like how do you find out how much an executive is paid? Or how do you know who is contributing to a particular political campaign? A lot of the questions were related to finance, and I was good at figuring them out. He suggested that I think about focusing on business journalism and recommended me for an internship at the LATimes Business section. Within a week, I knew I was home. The greatest thing about writing about finance is that it’s logical, so you can do an initial reality check on whether a rumor is true by just understanding how the business works. Then, nearly everything related to a public company has to be reported somewhere. It’s a nosy person’s dream job. I ask nosy questions; people answer me and I can double-check the public filings to make sure they’re telling the truth.
FE: One of the primary pillars of Engineer Your Finances is education. You are very active on this topic given your book, Taming the Tuition Tiger, and Forbes’ cover story, The Great College Hoax. Starting off with student loan reform, can you give us an idea of where you see education heading?
KK: Unfortunately, it appears to be heading to a point where you are going to pay more for your education than your house and you may be financing that education with a predatory loan.
FE: Many people are trapped in financial ignorance (through no real fault of their own), and part of the focus on education is to empower others. You’ve won different awards for consumer education and service for demystifying elemental component of finance. Do you think narrowing the knowledge base limits the amount of exploitation possible?
KK: I think that people are smart but intimidated by finance because they don’t have time to learn the lingo. And yet they know that money does important things, like keep a roof over your head and allow you to live a calm and comfortable life. My goal in explaining this stuff is to make money questions so easy to answer that you take finances off the table and focus on the stuff that’s really important, like spending more time with your family and friends.
FE: Since introduced through Budgets are Sexy, I should have anticipated someone of similar enticement. In a recent post on tax mistakes, was not expecting to read about the pitfalls of “failing to report illegal activity”. Can you expand on the underlying goals with this type of hook (i.e. keep the reader engaged, interject some comedy, or truly inform)?
KK: My theory is this: If you’re not engaged, you tune out. That means I lose my chance to inform you. So if having a sense of humor means my blog is more engaging, I’m going with it. I had a lot of fun writing about the “tan tax,” for instance, and embedding a Colbert Report video in my piece on a web site that gets kids hooked on credit. The topics are actually serious, but that doesn’t mean they have to be dull.
FE: Shifting gears now, can you explain the catchphrase “Devil in the Details”?
KK: In finance, almost every deal looks good on the surface, but it’s the fine print that kills you. My notion when starting this blog was to ferret out those details so you wouldn’t get taken.
FE: If I may be so bold, you seemed apprehensive with taking the plunge into the “Wild West of Writing” after years learning the corporate beast. The Cheap Eats series has been your first experience with blogging correct? Can you highlight some of the distinctions between the two arenas?
KK: I was scared to death of blogging because I’ve been writing for serious newspapers and magazines in a serious way for some 25 years. And here, no one edits you; no one tells you that you can’t use “emotive” words. You write what you want, when you want. I wasn’t sure I could be trusted with that kind of freedom. But thanks to you, JMoney and the other bloggers who have been so generous with your time and advice, I’m feeling more comfortable with stepping out and I’m having a BLAST. Frankly, when you told me that you saw me as a cross between Suze Orman and Rachel Ray, I thought it just couldn’t get any better than this. ;-D
FE: Lacking the regulation of a professional setting, what do you think are the shortcomings of blogging? Too many sharing too little? Getting lost in translation? Or maybe you believe the opposite.
KK: The current media scene is too restricted and blogging offers the opportunity for intellectuals to freely express and debate their ideals? The blogosphere strikes me as a mixed bag. There are people who do no research and add nothing to the discussion; and there are people who are really smart, who write blogs that are insightful and helpful and responsive to what people are interested in. I think blogging got its start because the traditional media wasn’t responsive enough. Now there’s so much competition for people’s reading time that I think both bloggers and traditional media will have to get better to survive. So, the short answer is, I think blogging is a great way to get more views heard and get more people talking. That’s a great thing for a democracy.
FE: Now that you’ve been at it a while, how has the experience changed your literary skills and/or how has your impression of the blogosphere changed?
KK: I’ve changed a lot. I think I write better because I know no one is going to fix it if I turn in something that’s inarticulate. I’m far less formal in my writing, too, which is easier to read (and write). My perception of blogging has changed because I’m seeing what a wealth of it is out there and how much of it is really better than the day-to-day traditional journalism that I’d been practicing for decades. Meanwhile, I’ve been on the other end of it, too, where a blogger picked up a completely false rumor about me and ran with it, without ever bothering to pick up the phone and ask. It turned out funny, but started out pretty disconcerting.
FE: Sometimes we don’t always know the goal until we’ve already arrived at it. You may still be working out the kinks, but can you share the vision of Cheap Eats with us? Will we eventually replace the “30-min or less” meals with the “$2 or less” meals? The goal?
KK: Hummm…..I love cooking; I think we can make great food for less money, if we pay attention (and it’s healthier, too); and I have kids, so I know how hard it can be to make stuff that your whole family will like. I guess I wanted to publish something that would help with all that and still be fun to read. I take criticism well, so feel free to tell me if I’m messing up or need a better goal.
FE: Let’s end with something entertaining. As premier of the newly formed Kristofian Republic, help us visualize the currency of your own country.
KK: Are you making me “Queen of Everything”? Bless you! But I don’t care what the money looks like. I just want to throw people in jail when they mess up our economy in an effort to enrich themselves. Tell you what, you can be my Treasury Secretary and design the money. I’ll go out and start locking up corrupt executives.