Jill Kerby has been a successful personal finance journalist for over 25 years. She has worked for The Irish Times, The Sunday Times, Business and Finance magazine and has been a regular commentator on radio and television. She edited Irish Pensions magazine for the IAPF for 10 years and her popular MoneyTimes column appears weekly in a dozen regional newspapers. She is an outspoken consumer advocate and educator, so I was delighted that she agreed to chat to me about life, money and happiness or even the “absence of unhappiness” as she likes to term it.
Frank: Do you consider yourself as having a happy life so far?
Jill: I’d say it’s been a life with mostly an absence of unhappiness. I think happiness is something that happens periodically. I’ve never met anybody who is constantly happy. Unfortunately, some people go through terrible periods of great unhappiness and I don’t think that has ever happened to me – something always reminds me that life is not so bad. I think that is how I look at it.
Frank: Do you think that happiness is temporal or day-to-day or can you learn lasting happiness?
Jill: I think there are things that are universal in everybody’s lives which can contribute to periods of happiness – one would be having a childhood without great stress and strain. My own childhood was mostly ‘happy’. I had three brothers – two died in their 50s – and a sister and parents that I loved very much. But my mother was ill from the time I was born. That caused a great sadness at times, but I don’t think it caused me great ‘unhappiness’.
Frank: How so?
Jill: We still did all the happy family stuff that families do: we had each other, we went to nice schools, we came home and played with friends. Every summer we rented a cottage north of Montreal for a few weeks and later in the early ‘60s we went to Cape Cod – my parents were great admirers of President Kennedy. We loved Christmas. But the sadness was there as our mother, who had a progressive form of multiple sclerosis, became more and more ill. She was diagnosed the year I was born; she was 30, I was the youngest child. I don’t really remember her walking, though I have early memories of her clutching my shoulder to balance herself and using a cane.
One of those memories – I was maybe three or four – was of the two of us bumping down the stairs from the top floor of our rented duplex house. The internal stairs were very steep, and she made a game of it, but she was afraid of falling, as she had no balance. She was using a wheelchair by the time I was five.
Jill with her mother outside their duplex in Wilderton, Montreal, the Jewish neighbourhood they lived in when she was young.
Both my parents died young; I was orphaned in my late teens. I was 17 when my father died suddenly at 50 and she died a couple of years later, at just 51. Those were two of my most unhappy times.
If you are lucky enough, your childhood goes through happiness swings and roundabouts. Mine was mostly normal – the innocent joy of being a child; those semi-miserable teenage years, which seems pretty universal, having observed my own son’s adolescence. And suddenly life gets very interesting once you are independent and making your way in the world.
Just on that theme, a great period of personal happiness was my early years here in Ireland and when I married and had my son, who is now grown, nearly independent and a fine young man. I despaired like a lot of parents when he was a teenager and I was very unhappy at times. I’m sure my own parents went through all that with us too. Other parents tell you that it gets better and it does, though it must be terrible for people who don’t have those recovery periods.
Frank: Dealing with stress and those times in your life that were quite challenging – can you give any guidance to those people in the middle of it or have not reached that stage yet?
Jill: I definitely believe what I must have read somewhere, that things always seem better in the morning. I think we go through our greatest periods of despair at night or the middle of night when we wake up, whether we have a challenging teenager that hasn’t returned home yet or a financial problem. You lie there in bed and wonder whether it can get any worse. So far, I’ve been able to put such thoughts to one side and tell myself, ‘it will be better in the morning’. Very Scarlet O’Hara. The sun does come up and you glance in the child’s bedroom and there he is. And you look at the bank account and thank God, the payment you were waiting for has cleared.
I try to put things in perspective. Other people have had it so much worse than me. My Dad’s family had a tough Depression; he was the youngest child in a big family and had to quit school at 13 to go to work. Then he was in the Canadian Air Force during the War, a rear air gunner in a Lancaster bomber, but at 21, was already married. He didn’t tell a lot of war stories.
As kids we lived in a Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal, where a lot of the other young parents were Holocaust survivors. We were the only Irish Catholic family, let alone non-Jews on the street and it was very interesting, even as a small child, to hear about what these mothers and dad’s had gone through. Our family, Canadian born, never had Nazi soldiers yanking us out of our beds or herded onto cattle trains to Auschwitz. It really puts some perspective on your family’s problems and I think that’s how my parents looked at it.
Frank: So, what are the things that have contributed most to your happiness?
Jill: I know what I like now, what gives me satisfaction and a certain degree of happiness. Many of the things I wanted to do as a young person I had to postpone as I earned a living.
I’ve put on my bucket list. I ignored that list a little too long, I regret that, and I am enjoying doing them now. I’ve always had a great love of art. I don’t paint or draw, but I like to view and study it and I go to a lot of art galleries. I go to Italy as often as I can partly because I believe living on the edge of the Atlantic we can all do with a bit more sunshine, and I just feel my spirits lift when I am in sunnier places. I get great pleasure from reading; I have a tall stack of books beside my bed and on a table in my office and I love working my way through them. I like intimate settings and visits with friends and family – I loathe big parties (like weddings.)
This past year I’ve indulged my childhood fascination with bees by taking a bee-keeping course and apprenticeship and hope to have my own hive in 2019.
I have no pressing financial problems and that also I think is a great source of the absence of unhappiness: getting to that stage in life where you are well off enough not to have to worry about money anymore. I’ve met more miserable rich people than miserable poor people.
Frank: What are your early memories in relation to money and did they impact you later in life?
Jill: I didn’t give money much thought even though I was on my own from age 19, except that I had to earn enough to be pay my bills and put myself through college. Grants were very small in those days. I only really worried about having enough to pay the rent because I knew I could always scrounge a meal – my older sister would always oblige – or throw something together with friends who were just as broke. None of us thought that was bad, it was fun actually. So, I always managed to have enough. I wasn’t in debt, but I never had any money left over. When I set myself the goal of moving to Ireland, I had three jobs that year and the saving gave me great satisfaction.
Being broke, but not poor, stayed with me and as a result I have never been in seriously excessive debt. For one thing access to credit was limited back in the 1980s; neither of us ever wanted to be in debt and our first mortgage was very modest. I’ve only ever once bought a new car – a Micra. I drive my cars into the ground.
Frank: So, would you describe yourself as a frugal person?
Jill: No, (laughing). You should ask my husband and girlfriends. I love spending money. My husband and I have been very fortunate, as journalists to have earned good incomes. But I fervently believe that you should earn your money before you spend it, and you should aim to live within your means. That means that when you’ve got kids to support, or the economy takes a periodic downturn – and it always does eventually – you can also live below your means.
Money of itself has never made anyone happy. It’s how you earn it and spend it that can produce happy times. I spend my money now on the things I love to do – travel, art, books, bees. And I like giving it away, especially to the young people I know who need it more than I do.
Frank: Is being a journalist always what you wanted to do?
Jill: Yes, my father worked for a newspaper, but on the administration side. He loved the business. He was a real newspaperman, and he was great friends with the sports reporters. On Sunday evenings he’d sometimes go in to get some paperwork done before the busy week started and I’d go with him and play with the typewriters and phones. About six flights below his office were the great newspaper presses – every newspaper was hot-metal printed in those days and they would warm up the presses at around 7pm. I could feel the rumbling of the great machines in my feet, all the way from the basement. It’s one of my abiding childhood memories and I remember thinking I wanted to be part of it. My dad used to say that newspapers were the most extraordinary product because a different one was manufactured every day in the heart of the city and that really impressed me. I was always reading the papers as a kid and writing up reports on hockey games we’d watch on the TV. Sometimes he’d take my copy to his friend the sports editor and he’d send it back covered in red pencil marks.
I went to college – I was only 16 – to learn to be a journalist. I studied history and classics but joining the student newspaper was the way to get a job in the 1970s – there were no journalism schools or degrees in Montreal then, so that was the beginning of my formal career.
Frank: You then took the incredibly brave decision to come to Ireland by yourself?
Jill: My family on both sides are Irish going back a few generations and my parents, even with my mother in a wheelchair, travelled to Ireland in the 1960s and loved it. They always spoke about retiring here but unfortunately died too young and never got the chance. So, when I finally finished college – I decided to buy a three month EuroRail pass, but I detoured here first and arrived the same day as Pope John Paul II at the end of September 1979. The idea was I’d send some freelance articles home to help pay for my EuroRailing, but I ended up cashing in my ticket and I stayed the entire three months.
I knew I would come back for good, and I did the next year and was lucky to get a job and place to live right away. I met my husband-to-be about a year later.
Frank: Why personal finance journalism?
Jill: I started out with a small local newspaper as a general reporter and sub-editor and only fell into business journalism by chance in 1983 when I joined a specialist weekly magazine, IRN Report, which is still publishing. I went freelance in 1987 but was lucky to start working for the business section of The Irish Times writing IR news and then general business features. In 1991, and another bit of luck, I was asked to write the first dedicated personal finance page in any Irish newspaper. My editor suggested I would grow into the subject “along with the readers”. I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I then moved to The Sunday Times in 2001 and wrote two weekly columns there for 13 years.
I still have a weekly column in the regional press that I started in 2000; I co-author the TAB Guide to Money Pensions & Tax which has been around forever, and I still do some radio/tv slots and seminars, but I’m winding down my long career. My husband, who was also a financial journalist at The Irish Times for many years, is a media consultant, mostly for financial and mining companies, but he’s also winding down. Avoiding debt meant we could put all our surplus income into our private pensions, which we have ARF’d.
Frank: You’ve had all these deadlines, working in a pressurised environment. What habits helped you meet the deadlines and manage the stress?
Jill: Well, I’m actually quite a disciplined, organised person by necessity; I make lots of lists. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very laid back most of the time and the only person who has ever really tested me is my son Jack. (Laughs.) But I have seen many great journalists who couldn’t cope with the pressure, the irregular hours and in the old days, a lot of them turned to drink. It used to be a trade full of drunks; alcohol was a big part of the job – a table full of bottles served at every press conference, event and reception. 30-40 years ago, pubs near every newspaper became a second office for many reporters. Those who didn’t cope well spent a lot of time drinking in them.
Working from home most of my career meant that my way of coping with a frustrating story was to disappear into my kitchen and start cooking or baking.
Frank: Is discipline something you believe that is inherent or something you can teach yourself?
Jill: I don’t know. I was disciplined out of necessity – as a freelance you can’t miss a deadline and let your clients down, or you don’t get paid, so you just get the work done on time.
Frank: Having such a successful career and life, what would you say to any young women that would like to be a journalist?
Jill: First of all, my advice to every young person is to do what your heart desires before you have a young family to support and a mortgage to pay. You’ll always regret not doing what you really wanted to do. Young women certainly need to know their financial worth – men seem to know this stuff instinctively and get paid more and start pensions sooner.
My second piece of advice is also simple: live within your means. One of the greatest causes of unhappiness is serious indebtedness and I am so grateful that I never experienced it. My financial worries have been puny compared to so many others who never had the luck I’ve had, or the professional knowledge about how money works that came with this job. I also highly recommend marriage, not just for the love & happy times it can bring, but because it can provide greater financial stability.
Frank: One final question, what would you say to people that are looking to improve their lives, to be happy?
Jill: That is an interesting question Frank. As I get older, the periods of ‘absence of unhappiness’ are getting longer. I work at my own pace now. I’m making up for a few years after the Crash when I worked harder than I really needed to financially. I’m a little sorry that I didn’t realise sooner that I had enough by then. But I’m now following my heart’s desires. I need to work a little harder restoring relationships and friendships that I let drift – that we all let drift – because I was so busy working.
Frank: This has really been fantastic, and I really appreciate your time.
Jill: You are very welcome.