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A Mind for Money: Jean Chatzky

Personal experience led finance guru Jean Chatzky to discover the deep link between financial security and a healthy, happy life. Now she’s helping the rest of us make the connection.

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Money coach and best-selling author Jean Chatzky has not always walked her talk. Fresh out of college, she landed a job as a business reporter, but she had very little knowledge of personal finance. “I was a mess!” she recalls. “When it came to my own money, I was making every classic mistake in the book, from racking up credit-card debt, to withdrawing the balance or not rolling over the balance from a 401(k) when I changed jobs, to letting my husband — who is now my ex-husband — manage pretty much our entire financial life.”

Such youthful missteps are not uncommon; plenty of us fall victim to the same kinds of mistakes today. “I think what drives that kind of self-sabotage is a combination of not having the information, not having the time, and not feeling competent or worthy,” says the 44-year-old mother of two from her home in Westchester County, N.Y. “What changes things is usually some sort of life event. People finally take the reins or ask for financial help when a door is smacking them in the face. It’s a divorce, it’s a baby, it’s a marriage, it’s an inheritance, it’s a job loss. It’s some major change that makes you wake up and smell the money.”

Chatzky began to take notice of her own money when she started making more of it. “I wanted more control over what was happening to it,” she says. “It was also probably a sense, somewhere in the back of my mind, that I might not be married forever.” Her role at work was changing, too, with more reporting on personal finance. “I felt like I couldn’t tell other people to do things if I wasn’t incorporating them in my own life.”

Since then, Chatzky’s been on a mission to help the rest of us “wake up and smell the money.” The financial editor for NBC’s Today show, she also writes a regular financial column for the New York Daily News, hosts a daily radio show on the Oprah and Friends XM Radio channel and is a contributor to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her best-selling books cover financial topics ranging from overcoming financial fears to paying off debt and building wealth.

Chatzky has seen firsthand the connection between good financial habits and good health and happiness. “I’ve done a lot of work in the area of money and happiness,” she says. “I know that you need enough money to pay for your basic needs, and a little bit more than that, in order to be happy. Beyond that, more money doesn’t make us happier. But an overwhelming amount of debt will make you miserable.”

Debt is particularly corrosive to good health, she explains, because debt is a “savings killer” and saving money is one of the most self-loving things you can do. “People who know how to save money also know that the act of saving money is healing.”

Debt can make us feel ashamed, she adds, and that shame can cause its own set of problems, particularly in primary relationships. “Debt is probably the most frequently lied-about financial subject between spouses. I get an awful lot of calls to my radio show from people who say, ‘I can’t tell my spouse I have debt.’ I think shame is at the heart of it, although I am doing my best to convince people that they are not their credit score.”

Chatzky has long advocated a four-part plan for how to take control of your financial life. “Step one is making a decent living,” she says. “Step two is spending less than you make. Step three is investing the money you aren’t spending so that it can grow, and step four is protecting this financial world you are building.”

Getting past the first step — making a decent living — has proven challenging for enough of Chatzky’s followers that she began to wonder: Why do some people find it easier to escape a paycheck-to-paycheck existence?

The question led to her most recent book, The Difference: How Anyone Can Prosper in Even the Toughest Times (Crown Business, 2009), in which she explores the character traits that separate people who thrive from those who struggle. Thrivers, she discovered, have the same cultivatable character traits as the healthiest and happiest among us. “These people have an important combination of attributes and personality traits — from optimism and resilience to hard work and gratitude — that moves the ball forward for them financially,” she explains. In The Difference, Chatzky shows readers how to cultivate those habits and characteristics.

Chatzky is now launching an interactive, online coaching program at her Web site, www.jeanchatzky.com, where people at all levels of financial literacy can go for advice and support. She wants everyone to be able to experience the security and contentment that comes with financial peace. There is nothing, she notes, like the satisfaction of knowing we can afford what we need “in the years to come — for ourselves and for the ones we love.”

For a complete listing of Jean Chatzky’s books, visit her Web site, www.jeanchatzky.com.

Laine Bergeson is an Experience Life senior editor.

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