What I’ve Learned From 20 Years of Personal Finance

I just produced my 3,000th money-related TV news story. That’s three stories every week, without interruption, for more than 20 years.

When I started Money Talks, I had to partner with a TV station for production. It was the only way to gain access to the expensive equipment necessary to produce a news story, as well as the experts required to shoot, edit, and post-produce my stories. To get video to the other TV stations running my stuff, I FedExed tapes, along with paper copies of the scripts. After my stories aired, the anchors invited viewers who wanted additional information to send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the station, so they could get a hard copy of my newsletter – which I printed at home and copied at Kinko’s.

And I had a ponytail.

Today, what hair I have left is white, you’re reading this on the Internet, college students edit video on their laptops, and TV stations download Money Talks stories from our website.

But while my appearance and methods have radically changed, it’s surprising just how little the information has. As proof I offer a 90-second compilation of the last 20 years…

As you just saw, the advice I dole out hasn’t changed much over the years – common sense still reigns. But there are things that have changed, and in a not-so-pleasant way. For example…

A lot of TV experts don’t know what they’re talking about

Watch TV tonight and you’ll probably see people labeled as “expert” – from a “terrorism expert” to a “money expert.”

When I started in TV news, the word “expert” meant something. It was a label you earned with academic, professional, or other verifiable and credible credentials. Today, it’s a label that seems automatically attached to anyone who lands in front of a camera or creates a website.

When the stock market implosion began in 2008, NBC Nightly News could have gone anywhere to find an expert to discuss the ramifications. They could have interviewed a Harvard Finance Ph.D., or Warren Buffet, one of history’s most consistently successful stock investors. But who showed up on set? Suze Orman, presumably because she has a successful show on partner network CNBC.

Her credentials? Before getting her start on Oprah, Orman earned a degree in social work, followed by a stint as a waitress, then a stock broker.

In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, Orman estimated her net worth at over 30 million dollars, but said she put little of her own money in the stock market. Her exact words: “I have a million dollars in the stock market, because if I lose a million dollars, I don’t personally care.”

If you could talk to virtually anyone on the planet about the stock market, is this who you’d pick?

An even more disturbing example: A few weeks ago, I did a story called Can You Improve Your Lottery Odds? In it, I describe how two national networks have promoted a lottery “expert” – someone claiming it’s possible to improve your odds of picking random numbers. That’s hogwash, and anyone who bothered to read this guy’s book would know it.

In short, being on TV today is an indication of a good publicist more than genuine expertise. Harmless when you’re talking fashion, perhaps, but dangerous when the advice concerns your life savings.

A lot of experts online don’t know what they’re talking about, either

Then there’s the Internet. There are dozens of websites purporting to provide accurate financial advice. But since there’s no vetting process for starting a website, there’s no way of knowing if the information you’re getting is accurate.

I recently read an article on a popular site called something like “How to Buy a Foreclosure.” The problem? The apparently inexperienced writer had confused judicial foreclosures (homes being auctioned for cash) with REOs (homes owned by banks and listed with real estate agents). They’re vastly different things. His article was describing how to buy REOs. His headline said “Foreclosures.”

Just last week, I read an article on divorce on a major website – way bigger than this one – that contained these sentences…

If the money was in a traditional IRA and they sold off the stock and took the money before they were age 59½, they could be not only on the hook for capital gains but an additional 10-percent penalty, as well.

and…

Alimony is usually paid to the less-advantaged spouse and is often seen as a temporary measure to help them stay on their feet during the separation.

As even a novice investor should know, if you cash out an IRA before you’re 59½, you pay taxes on the entire withdrawal as ordinary income, not capital gains. And as anyone who’s ever paid it knows, alimony is support paid to a divorced person by a former spouse, not as a temporary measure during a separation.

Everybody makes mistakes. I certainly do, and so does The New York Times. But there are a lot more mistakes being made these days because there are more uninformed people in the public eye.

Here’s what 20 years has taught me: If you see someone on TV or quoted online, don’t automatically assume they’re an expert just because they’re introduced as one. Check their credentials before you take their advice.

Advertisers often put their noses where they don’t belong

Less than a week ago, I was unceremoniously fired from a station where I’ve appeared regularly for more than 10 years. My crime? I did a story called How Oil-Change Coupons Can Cost You Money.

The story was accurate. The problem was with one of the station’s advertisers: the local New Car Dealers Association. Turns out they were advertising a free oil-change promotion and didn’t like me cautioning people to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. So they threatened to stop advertising on the station and to appease them, the station canceled Money Talks News.

Whether on air, on paper, or online, there’s supposed to be an impenetrable wall between editorial content and advertising sales. When I started in television 20 years ago, there was. Today? Not so much. These days, deals are sometimes inked requiring employees of advertisers to appear as experts in news stories. And stories sometimes aren’t reported for fear of biting the hand that feeds.

This isn’t always true – not by a long shot. There are many news outlets that are completely objective, expertly edited, and immune to advertiser influence. But since there’s no way for a consumer to know which aren’t, how can they trust any?

Bottom line? The world of news has changed in the last two decades. Information today is less likely to be accurate and more likely to be influenced by corporate America. But it’s not all bad. Because there’s also a big positive today: There are a lot more people today who can pursue the truth and, thanks to the Internet, make their voices heard.

The fact that you just read this is proof.

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