How We Built Our Collection of Quick & Easy Financial Fixes
The story behind what we write at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance is often as interesting as the story itself, especially when it comes to the magazine’s cover extravaganzas. Our stock in trade is presenting easily accessible nuggets of information that together pack a punch. That lets us draw on the collective wisdom of our entire staff to illustrate the breadth of our expertise – everything from mutual funds to credit cards to taxes to cars.
A classic example is our May cover story, 38 Ways to Manage Your Money in 15 Minutes (Or Less). The original idea, concocted by associate editor Tom Anderson, proposed a time limit of five minutes for each financial fix; but after some spirited discussion among the staff, we concluded that that was cutting things a little too close.
My instructions to our writers were simple: Each task had to be doable in 15 minutes or less, and they actually had to perform the task. That way we could spot any possible glitches and reassure readers that they, too, could wrap up a job in the time allotted. And in this case we didn’t want to tell readers to shop around or do research -- both of which are time sinks that often discourage people from tackling financial tasks in the first place. Our philosophy: If you could get a running head start—for example, by making a date with a financial planner -- it would be easier to do heavier lifting, if necessary, later on.
Even with the longer, 15-minute window, I wondered if we could come up with a critical mass of fixes. But as usual the staff rose to the challenge with more ideas than we could publish.
Tales from the trenches. Recently, I joined a half dozen of my colleagues, who happened to be grabbing a slice at the pizza joint across the street from our offices and who began swapping tales about their 15-minute experiences. For example, senior associate editor Jane Bennett Clark had set out to photograph the furniture and other valuable stuff in her living room and record the details online (www.knowyourstuff.org). But, says Jane, registering and recording took time, so she jettisoned the original plan and ended up dashing around the house snapping pictures of things she deemed worthy of replacing. “I don’t have a complete inventory, but at least I have a visual record,” she says. Time elapsed: 14 minutes, even with her right arm in a cast after surgery (her husband lent a hand, so to speak).
Jane also wrote the item about asking a jeweler to do a quick check of the prongs that hold your diamond ring. Jane has intimate knowledge of the perils of a loose stone: She once lost her diamond out of its setting -- and found it two weeks later in a kitchen cabinet while putting away dishes.
Robert Long, managing editor of Kiplinger.com, agrees that seven minutes at the jeweler’s is time well spent. His wife, Amanda, lost the diamond in her ring when she got a little carried away cheering at an evening concert. Using a flashlight and the light from two cell phones, Robert, an usher and "a kind dude across the aisle" managed to locate the missing stone. Note: The seven minutes allotted includes an inspection and cleaning. But if the prongs need tightening, you’ll have to leave the ring with the jeweler.
A few surprises. Some writers were surprised by the results of their research. It took senior editor Jeff Kosnett five minutes to set up an online account to buy Treasury securities straight from the source without paying a commission. Online instructions told him it would take up to two weeks to get an access card, but the card arrived in just three days.
When contributing editor Kim Lankford checked the beneficiaries on her mutual fund and brokerage accounts (5 minutes to 15 minutes, depending on the number of necessary changes), she was shocked to discover that her husband’s name was garbled, her address was out of date and her 6-year-old son didn’t even exist.
Reading the story taught me a thing or two -- such as how easy it is to find out if a manager invests in his or her own mutual fund (5 minutes). And I intend to stop procrastinating and take an x-ray of my mutual fund portfolio. After all, it takes only eight minutes for six funds.
Associate editor Jessica Anderson was so inspired that she plans to do something that wasn’t even on our list: Schedule a family day with her parents to walk through their finances. “We’re going to make a list of accounts and documents, get their credit reports and scores, and set up online bank accounts,” says Jessica. Sure, it will take longer than 15 minutes, but the Andersons plan to order takeout and take in a movie afterward “to make it fun.” Hmmm. “Fun financial fixes.” Sounds like the makings of another cover extravaganza.