Friday, June 14, 2013

You can take the girl out of her element, but you can't take the personal out of the finance

I don’t own a credit card. I avoid looking at my bank account as much as possible. I had no idea what the difference between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA was — that is, until last week when I started working at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

This pointed ignorance stems from my childhood, when my mom, my sister and I lived off alimony checks and a small cache of savings for six years after my parents divorced. Mom was a diligent bookkeeper, but the circles under her eyes grew dark and deep while she struggled to take care of her children without a job. I wasn’t old enough to understand all the details, but I knew we were frugal, and I began to see money as this demonic, abstract cloud that produced more tension than happiness.

My dad then refused to pay for college out of principle, proclaiming instead that I should work my way through school like he did. Although I’ve worked since I was 15, I couldn’t afford Northwestern or Syracuse, my top two choices. I’m only able to attend the University of Maryland because anonymous donors came through with a generous annual gift. Again, money stood in the way of my dreams.

How then could I possibly feign interest in a magazine that consists mostly of financial advice? Everyone who worked at Kiplinger’s would be old men who compared 401(k)s and talked in elevated jargon of mortgage-backed securities and target-date funds. There goes my dream summer, I thought.

And then I got to the seventh floor of 1100 13th St., where Kiplingers moved after the Kiplinger familiy sold their building a few years ago. The woman who greeted me wore a long skirt, tennis shoes and a broad smile. “Have you had your first hot beverage yet today?” she asked. She then led me to the kitchen, where there was a seemingly endless stock of coffees and teas and a fancy drink maker with a digital screen. I knew then that I could survive, even if the staff was boring. 

But they weren’t. The three reporters who sit near me are women ages 24 to 27. One was an intern there as recently as last summer. They invite me to eat lunch with them every day. They’ve shared my excitement over things as big as going home for my sister’s high school graduation and as small as my discovery that I could combine hot chocolate and chai tea to make a whole new drink. They are the older sisters I never had.

The editors invite me to every production meeting. The one who runs the online team told me I could walk into his office and distract him for half an hour every day if I wanted. The research editor and office manager stop at my cubicle — complete with nameplate — to chat at least once a day. They have too much work to do to be so welcoming — and yet they’re genuinely invested in my success.

The editor emeritus is Austin Kiplinger, 94, who comes into work every day in full suit and tie. His office is filled with relics of his travels and adventures, like that time when he was in the U.S. Navy, flying planes and dropping bombs — except once, one of the bombs became caught and they all ended up tangled at the bottom of his own plane. He refuses to use a computer and pounds away on an old typewriter instead. I'm in love with him.

Thursday is “Pajama Day,” where we dress down — though not technically in our pajamas — and read any non-Kiplinger’s magazines to brainstorm new ideas. I’ll have to take a break from several ongoing projects, but I’m looking forward to bonding even further with the staff. Kiplinger’s is personal in every sense of the word, and I’m grateful to learn from people who are not just colleagues, but already friends and mentors.

By Mary Clare Fischer, University of Maryland, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Edited by Harmony Huskinson, Arizona State University, National Geographic Magazine

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