Wellness Tips

An interview with Slate personal finance columnist Lillian Karabaic

Join us as we continue to peel back the curtain for Advice Week. Today we’re hearing from Lillian Karabaic, our newest Pay Dirt columnist, on what’s surprised her about giving advice at Slate and how she manages to answer questions about such a wide breadth of financial topics.

Lillian! You joined Slate’s Pay Dirt just this fall, what has surprised you most about giving advice to our letter writers?

I’m actually surprised how many people write in with questions about the gift tax. There are a lot of middle class people fearful of the IRS knocking on their door after getting some help with paying for college. But it’s been a good writing exercise finding new and creative ways to explain to people that most people do not need to currently worry about paying the gift tax— unless their estate is over $12.92 million.

I think one of the interesting things about Pay Dirt is how technical and in the weeds it can get, compared to some of our other columns—and how much I find myself learning from each edition. What does your advice-giving process look like from the moment you get your questions? (And how do you manage to know everything? Taxes, retirement, school, you’ve got an answer for us all.)

It helps that I’ve been working in financial education and media for seven years now and before that, I spent a decade in social services, so I’ve seen a wide range of financial issues. I’ve had the opportunity to money problem-solve with both multi-millionaires and youth experiencing homelessness. I haven’t come up with a question yet where I don’t have at least a little experience with the topic before I start writing. I take licensing exams and certifications regularly in financial services, so generally, I’ve got a nugget of information stored somewhere. If I need to do any additional research, I’ll start at the IRS’s website or one of my financial planning textbooks. Once or twice I have called up an estate lawyer or enrolled agent friend to fact-check something.

When I teach personal finance, I emphasize that financial wellness is not an innate trait! No one comes out of the womb knowing what a Roth IRA is. You don’t learn everything you need to know about money in a single day, earn a trophy, put it on a shelf, and know everything you’ll need to know for the rest of your life. For each decision, you just need to feel confident enough to know where to do the research. Then you can make the best decision for you based on the information and resources you have at the time. Things like taxes, health care, and education change with the whims of politicians, so you can’t learn everything you need at once. You just need to know where to look. So I do the same for Pay Dirt questions.

Sometimes it’s immediately clear to me that the letter writer needs to talk to a professional familiar with their specific details. Slate seemingly has many high-net-worth readers who write in for free advice instead of talking to an estate lawyer. But even if I’m going to tell them to find a lawyer, I can still give the broad strokes of what they’ll need to ask. I try to imagine that someone with that exact problem is Googling the question, and I want them to get enough information to take a few next steps.

The one money tip you wish everyone knew and followed?

Pay yourself first.  No one else is saving for you. For most of us, life goes: You become an adult, and you seemingly owe everyone money. Treat your saving account like a bill just the same as you treat your landlord, utility company, or car note—because those companies certainly don’t care about your savings the way you do. Even if it’s the tiniest percentage, even just 1 percent, make sure a small portion of every dollar you have goes toward your future self and not just someone else’s profits.

For advice week, you took a shot at giving sex advice for How to Do It. What was it like taking on a topic completely out of your wheelhouse?

Usually, when I sit down to write the column each week, I look at the questions I’m being asked and  generally know how I should answer each of them. There’s rarely a question that involves significant research other than grabbing the relevant IRS codes. So my biggest task isn’t figuring out what advice to give, but rather how to phrase it in an interesting and readable way.

Writing How to Do It, however, I looked at the questions and immediately thought, “Oh no, I’m out of my depth here.” I had to do far more research for a few questions about sex than I usually have to do for dozens of tax-related questions. It also felt loaded (pun not intended): Every question felt like it had significant repercussions on someone’s emotional and physical health. I felt afraid of giving the “wrong” advice in a way that I don’t feel with financial questions.

While writing it, I kept thinking about how both sex and money are stigmatized. We’re discouraged from talking about them openly. And if we do talk, it’s often in coded language. Because of that stigma, both industries have lots of sketchy advice or scammy “experts” looking to prey on people’s insecurities. In the end, both columns are about people looking for certainty in an uncertain world.

But man, writing that column was so stressful for me. If I ever harbored a secret dream to become a sex columnist, it was killed by one week of writing How to Do It. I’d like to back to questions about taxes now, please!

Favorite column you’ve written so far?

I had a lot of fun with the Jane Austen references in this one. I might have more Regency economics up my sleeve in a column soon…

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