Heroines of Personal Finance and Entrepreneurship #2: Anya Kamenetz

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Interview contributed by Cody McKibben.

The second expert panelist for our women & money series is Anya Kamenetz, a respectable twentysomething author, columnist, and blogger from Manhattan. The daughter of a poet and a novelist, she graduated from Yale University in 2002. She has worked with the New York Times, the Washington Post, Salon, Slate, the Village Voice, and more, and in 2006 she released her first book, Generation Debt: How Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers — And How to Fight Back. She talks with us today about being a freelance writer and about young people and money.

You were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for the series “Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young” in 2004. What were your main findings?

The series ran in 2004; I also did a Generation Debt column for the Village Voice for all of 2005.

Student loans and student credit cards have multiplied very fast and under the radar so that large amounts of debt are now a rite of passage for a majority of young people. Two thirds of college graduates borrow loans to get through college, up from less than half as recently as 1993, and they graduate with an average of $20,000 in loans and almost $3000 in credit card debt. Combine that with a changing job market that offers fewer benefits, and a higher cost of living, especially housing, in many metropolises and you have a lot of middle-class, educated young people falling behind, to say nothing of the fate of McJob Nation; the two out of three kids with no college degree have seriously fallen behind in income and stability.

Since graduating in 2002 you’ve freelanced as a writer and editor for several publications. Ramit hosts lots of readers who want to be professional writers, but you seem to have done it successfully. What are some recommendations you can make for aspiring professional writers?

Think hard about it. I don’t know many “professional writers” as opposed to people who happen to be lucky enough to occasionally get paid to write. Boyce Rensberger, head of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT, told the New York Times on June 10: ”I feel a little queasy encouraging young people into journalism. It’s such a precarious industry right now.”

I think if you want to write for a living you need to be pretty hardcore about your craft and your subject area or field. You can build up knowledge of your field by working a related job (in politics, the law, nonprofits, fashion, etc.) and you can build up your craft by writing, writing, writing, and being in a writers’ group, and taking classes or workshops, and working in media-related fields. I freelanced as a writer’s assistant, fact-checker, and copy editor before I started writing full time. If I were starting out now I would definitely blog too.

Good tip! *wink* And how did the Generation Debt column evolve into a book? What do you bring to this research on youth and personal finance that others don’t?

I think it’s just a case of being at the right place at the right time. My articles were clearly part of a larger wave and as a young person myself (I was 23 when I sold the book) I guess my agent and editor felt I brought a unique immediacy to the issue. Nowadays, three years later, I’ve built up a lot more credibility by knowing my subject pretty well and lecturing, writing, and commenting about it in various media.

iwillteachyoutoberich.com readers are young, so they understand the challenges of being young and dealing with money. Who did you write this book for, and what challenges have you faced in getting your audience to pay attention?

I wrote the book for a dual audience of young adults and their parents. Parents were occasionally skeptical and young people don’t really buy a lot of books! But I’ve gotten great feedback from people of all ages who felt like they related to the book’s message. I’ve tried hard to emphasize that endowing young people with the resources they need to succeed will ultimately benefit everyone in America.

So you focus on the huge rate of student loans and credit card debt among twentysomethings…do you think women in this age bracket tend to handle these challenges differently than males?

Young women are still earning less than young men, even recent college graduates. They are more likely to be living paycheck to paycheck and sometimes less confident about investing. But when they do start to take finances seriously they are often more tenacious and better decisionmakers, better at tracking expenses and sticking to a budget.

Yes, I remember some 2005 research from Merrill Lynch about how women make fewer investment mistakes! Now regarding the credit companies and lending institutions, there are always raging debates about “taking personal responsibility” vs. “the finance companies are out to get young people, who don’t stand a chance.” Where do you stand?

The positive, personal side of my message is that you always have the power to take better control of your finances. Development studies have shown that even people who live on a dollar a day somehow manage to save to celebrate weddings and festivals. If it’s important to you, you can find a way.

The political action side of my message is that we have to reform the credit and student loan industries. Responsibility goes both ways — it is also the responsibility of lenders to provide complete, non-deceptive information to borrowers and to try to ensure to the best of their ability that they don’t lend more money than people will be able to pay back. I believe there is starting to be a shift in awareness of this issue and reforms are coming.

I hope so! I wish you the best in your political action. Anything else you’d like to share about your work?

My new Generation Debt column for Yahoo! Finance starts on July 2! And you can also find me blogging at Anyakamenetz.blogspot.com.

Thanks for joining us, Anya! It was a pleasure learning about your freelancing career and hearing about your research on college students and debt. For those of you who are interested, be sure to grab Anya’s book Generation Debt and check for her Yahoo! Finance column starting next month!

Cody McKibben is a student, blogger, designer, instigator and weekend entrepreneur. He enjoys interviewing entrepreneurs and other experts and blogs regularly at THRILLINGheroics.com and codymckibben.com.

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16 Comments

 
  1. I am a boomer earning minimum wage with outstanding student loan debt. At my age, with my lack of career-related experience and lack of startup capital, prospects for a good job or good income are dim.

    What power do I have to take better control of my finances?

  2. I disagree with her on a couple of points. First, being a “professional writer” — it’s called being a “journalist,” and plenty of people (myself included, for many years) do it successfully, and YES, it can be lucrative. So that’s just bunk about being lucky or whatever nonsense she is spewing.

    Second, that old saw about women being paid less than men — men tend to go into higher paying careers and they are better at negotiating salaries and asking for raises. Enough with this old pay difference victimization already….

  3. Rami t- The interview refers to how her new yahoo column that started on July 2, which is probably why Cody didn’t like directly to it. May want to link to it. Then again, maybe not…it is getting TORE UP in the comments. :(

    Check it out: http://finance.yahoo.com/expert/article/generationdebt/37823?count=30&start=36#dtk-cmtscnt

  4. Chris, commenters on Yahoo columns are ridiculous. They tear everything apart. Go look at Penelope Trunk’s columns, for example, to see what I mean.

  5. I read her book (most of it) a few months ago. In my opinion she places too much blame on the lenders and not enough on the borrowers. It is full of facts and appears to be well researched.
    I’m glad you are putting up pictures now… damn!

  6. You do realize that “respectable” isn’t really a compliment, right? Maybe you mean “respected”?

  7. I look forward to reading her book. It’s nice to have another view on our generation.

    One thing got me from the article. Do I think the credit industry is without flaws? No, they need some serious cleaning up, but I think folks need to take responsibility first and foremost. She stated folks need to take power with their finances, but two sentences later, there is also a need for responsibility from credit companies. That’s all well in good in theory.

    I personally think we should go forward as if the credit card companies will get WORSE, NOT take on MORE responsibility. I understand a need for change, but in the interim, there needs to be tips and tactics used to wad through the credit muck in its current form. That starts with 100% accountability. We all are getting whacked in different scenarios by the credit companies, but it’s no longer an acceptable excuse.

    Ramit, you don’t think Ms. Trunk’s articles are down right silly? Her article about starting a family because 9/11 happened was scary. I quiver thinking about that piece. There were a couple of other comments that I could go find, but please don’t make me read that again.

  8. Nice article, Cody & Ramit. I liked that Anya started talking about the issues with why women make less than men. Anya provides some data on her finances in her introductory piece on Yahoo! Finance. Which I was very interested in reading. :)

    Kate, I’d be interested in seeing your sources on what occupations women pick over men. What is the earnings data on those occupations?

  9. Eh, kind of a long commercial for the book and her blog.

  10. serpah — you are TOO funny!! Really — posts like yours just crack me up.

  11. I read Ms. Kamenetz’s book about a year ago. I felt that there was a slight undertone of “wahh, we can’t get jobs with the Ivy League liberal arts degrees our mommies and daddies bought us” — c’mon, are there really people out there that think an English degree is going to get you a highly paid job out of college? — but I think she’s got some good points, and I’m glad to see her name come up again.

  12. Thanks serpah and all for the compliments! Glad you are liking the series.

    Laura, I’m trying to provide each of our experts a chance to show off their accomplishments — because each really has been very successful in her own way. Very soon we’ll feature a round table discussion with several of the panelists that will get into more of the nitty-gritty, so hopefully that will really satisfy your guys’ hunger! =)

  13. I haven’t read this, but the subtitle “Tax cuts for rich geezers” concerned me. This is what one Amazon reviewer had to say:

    “I fail to understand why it’s OK for her to rail against the Boomers and other older Americans the way she does. This is mean-spirited and really turned me off. (I am 37, by the way.) The worst example of this is on page 159, where she says that giving money to older people is investing in the past, while giving money to younger people is investing in the future.

    I find this attitude to be repulsive. So everything that older Americans have done for this country – from fighting in wars to working for civil and women’s rights to just plain raising us – all of this is erased when they are old and a “burden?” To be incendiary, this reminds me of the famous Nazi propaganda piece where the tall, young, strong Aryan was bent under the weight of the “defectives” he unfairly had to support. I see in this book and in some of the reviews here the theme that older people are burdening the country.”

  14. [...] reading at IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com: Heroines of Personal Finance and Entrepreneurship #2: Anya Kamenetz. Also be sure to read Anya’s new Yahoo! Finance expert column and grab her book Generation [...]

  15. Kate, I’m glad it brought a smile to your face, even if it was a sarcastic one.

  16. Comments on Yahoo commenters aside (Yahoo’s finance lineup is littered with some amazing gaping voids of reason, read Kiyosaki’s columns for instance), Kamenetz is absurd.

    Student loans are a boon to everyone, the best risk reward decisipn most people will make in their life for one. The financing is cheap, the education is high return (Im a double humanities major from an Ivy the same year as Anya) and extremely low risk. Debt is not a bad thing, especially if you use it to finance a substantial increase in your earning power. The woe is me act is absurdism in writing.

    All the debt she lists as bad have been positives for this country and its citizens. Yes, there are horror stories but embracing rather than villifying debt has a whole made this country and world substantially better off.

    And the her policy recommendations will not effect what she would hope:

    “Responsibility goes both ways — it is also the responsibility of lenders to provide complete, non-deceptive information to borrowers and to try to ensure to the best of their ability that they don’t lend more money than people will be able to pay back. ”

    To the extent borrowers are regulated to “not lend more money than people will be able to pay back”, the result will be that people on the margins won’t be able to secure fund their purchases whether it be educations or houses. It won’t affect the upper-middle class, it won’t affect Yalies or kids who go to other Ivies. The paternal regulation she proscribes will make these things unreachable for people on the margin.

    This all applies to calls against sub-prime mortgages as well. People act like somehow banks have been “evil” by offering people mortgages who previosuly could not secure financing to buy a house. Turn the clock ahead a few years, and now it’s clear that these mortgages were made at lower rates than they should have been and the lender side of the equation (assets owned by CDOs, etc) are experiencing huge losses because of it. The borrowers largely BENEFITTED, yet somehow now they are victims.

    Compare this to the third world, where banking is a non-entity for their middle class or lower and financing can only come from loan sharks at truly absurd rates. Or not at all.

    And more specific to what irks me about Anya from Daniel Gross’s “The It Sucks to be Me Generation” (http://www.slate.com/id/2134007/) column in 2006:

    “In the press materials accompanying the book ["Generation Debt"], she notes that just after she finished the first draft, her boyfriend “proposed to me on a tiny, idyllic island off the coast of Sweden.” She continues: “As I write this, boxes of china and flatware, engagement gifts, sit in our living room waiting to go into storage because they just won’t fit in our insanely narrow galley kitchen. We spent a whole afternoon exchanging the inevitable silver candlesticks and crystal vases, heavy artifacts of an iconic married life that still seems to have nothing to do with ours.” The inevitable silver candlesticks? Too much flatware to fit in the kitchen? We should all have such problems.”