Being a young person with a lot of debt working in finance can be pretty jarring. Writing about the movement of billions or trillions of dollars can be a dissonant exercise when you’re overdrafted a couple hundred bucks.
So when I read in this Wall Street Journal story that economists are expecting consumer debt to rise to over $4 trillion this year, it made me wonder about how I can tell financial stories in a way that matters to people like me.
The Journal story quotes a few consumers about their debt to bring a macroeconomics story down to eye level. These quotes illuminate how debt can pile up in different ways, and the human touch they add is what inspired me to write this piece.
Charles and Valerie Cyrus of Knoxville, Tenn., say they believe their student- and auto-loan debt is the highest it has ever been. They owe about $85,000 in student loans, $38,000 in auto loans and $16,000 on their credit cards. In 2017, they financed a new car for their daughter, adding to the two loans the couple have for their own cars.
The couple recently started paying more on their credit-card bills every month, and they are cutting back on how often they use their cards while trying to save more. They plan to pay off their nonmortgage debt in less than five years, Mr. Cyrus said.
“We just got in deeper this time than we did in the past,” said Mr. Cyrus, a 42-year-old nurse practitioner.
Reading this insight from working-class people among quotes from executives at Moody’s and Citigroup made me mentally sift through my own slice of the $4 trillion debt pie—student loans, a car loan, a small balance at the IRS.
Hearing from regular people made the article’s content resonate with me so strongly that it clashed with the charts-and-quotes-from-experts approach of the rest of the piece. It made me want to read a whole article that focuses on the consumer impact of this rise in debt.
I’m not knocking the Journal for focusing on data and expert sources. That’s their beat, and its audience of financial professionals needs that information.
But for the rest of us, finance stories should be written from the perspective of the people they affect. That’s my mission statement here at The Basis Point, and I plan on using my role here to tell those stories.
(And as an aside, how do reporters find these regular people to talk to? Is there a giant rolodex of middle-class Americans that they give you on your first day at a legacy media company? Where do I get that?!)