Simmons Leadership Blog

Breaking Old Patterns with Helaine Olen


Freelance journalist and former financial columnist Helaine Olen delights in debunking the idea that personal finance experts always have their clients' best interests in mind. In her recent book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, she reveals the conflicts of interest and misleading advice offered by those who profit off the economic anxiety of everyday Americans while purporting to help them achieve financial security. Olen got her start in personal finance by writing the Money Makeover feature in The Los Angeles Times. Since then, her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, and Pacific Standard. Olen is currently a regular contributor to both The Great Debate and Equals on the Reuters website and regularly reports on a wide range of topics including personal finance, women's issues, politics, education, and career strategies.
We caught up with Helaine, who will be speaking at the Simmons Leadership Conference on April 23rd.
Was there a turning point in your career when you "jumped the curve," breaking an old patten to change the course of your career? What did you learn from that experience?
There have been several points where I "jumped the curve." Perhaps the most important was selling the proposal for what became my first solo book, Pound Foolish. I quickly realized writing the book wasn't going to be the part-time gig I imagined, but an all-consuming process without any guarantees at the end. Did I want to go through with it? On one side, I knew my workload would increase dramatically. It would also be a different sort of workload. I was a journalist, a former daily one. My idea of a long-term project was a few weeks. On the other hand, I had been given a chance to write a story I long wanted to share. If it clicked, I knew my career would benefit. But I would be writing it for one to two years with, once again, no guarantee of how it would turn out or if anyone would buy the book at all.
I had to make a decision. I went for it. Giving Pound Foolish my all meant turning down other work assignments - a serious financial hit. It meant giving up the constant affirmation that daily blogging or journalism provides. There were days I felt absolutely invisible. I missed more events that I care to recall at my children's school, and, once, travelled on a child's birthday. (He still reminds me about that!) It was a massive commitment. But was it worth it? The day I received my first note from a reader telling me how much the book meant to them was the day I had my answer: absolutely.
What was the last book you read?
I just finished Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. It tells the story of how our nation's over-the-top work ethic combined with the lack of any form of practical support for parenting, has created a semi-toxic culture, where none of us have time to relax, enjoy the moment and play. True story: I read the first chapter, and ran to my husband saying, "you have to read this." His response? "I don't have the time."
Keeping the message of Brigid's book in mind, I ditched the work papers and instead took Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall away with me on vacation a few weeks ago. As my children ran from ride to ride at Busch Gardens in Virginia, I sat on benches and read. We all had a great time.
Fill in the blank. People would be surprised to know that I...
Read the Daily Mail. Every day. I'm a NYC kid, and I grew up during the glory days of the Daily News/New York Post rivalry. The tabloids get that news doesn't have to be like eating your vegetables. It's fun too. On a serious note, if you want to know what issues matter to our society, read the tabloids. They know.

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