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Voice of the ‘Dear Penny’ column talks about patience during strange times

St. Petersburg-native Robin Hartill discusses what she’s learned from writing the financial advice column and more.
Robin Hartill
Robin Hartill [ The Penny Hoarder ]
Published Jun. 29

Meme stocks gained ground in 2020. The pandemic fueled inflation. Fears grow of another recession. Then there’s cryptocurrencies.

Plenty of people wondering how to navigate the economy and their future have come to Robin Hartill for advice. Hartill is a senior editor at the Penny Hoarder, a personal finance media publisher based in St. Petersburg. She’s been the voice behind the “Dear Penny” advice column since 2019. “Dear Penny” is published online and syndicated in the Tampa Bay Times Sunday business section.

Hartill spoke with the Times about her career, what she’s learned through studying personal finance and writing the column and trends she’s seeing in this economy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into writing about personal finance?

I’m actually from St. Pete originally and started my career as a local newspaper reporter for a community weekly in Sarasota. I was interested in personal finance back in the day after completely destroying my credit in college. I tried to build back and get my finances in order on an entry-level reporter’s salary, which was definitely a challenge.

I’d also watch Suze Orman in 2008 and 2009 and started reading the Penny Hoarder around 2015. When I came back to St. Pete, I started out as an editor and then switched over to being a writer. I became a certified financial planner in 2020.

What’s one of the biggest surprises you’ve learned while studying financial planning?

One thing that always surprises me, because it seems like we’ve heard it so many times, is just how many people want a low-risk way to beat the stock market. Of course, it just doesn’t exist in the long term. People always think that there’s some magic or secret investment out there. But it’s really about patience and keeping your money put for the long term and that will build wealth for the vast majority of people.

What questions are you being asked more recently?

It’s always hard to say is it a trend or is it just that the longer I do the column, the more letters I get? Recently, people are worried about a stock market crash and recession. In a lot of cases, they’re wondering if they should put their full retirement savings in super-low return, low-risk investments. The other day, I got a letter from a gentleman who put his entire 401k in money market funds, which of course, doesn’t even come close to keeping up with inflation. Usually it’s people who are getting close to retirement who are more likely to have this question, but I’ve even gotten it from 20-somethings on occasion.

There’s been so much interest in crypto. Time will tell if that’ll change after the latest crash but people still seem very much interested in that.

One thing that we couldn’t have predicted a couple years ago is that savings bonds would become a source of interest to people. I bonds with 9.62% annual return, that’s certainly become appealing. It has a fixed interest rate component which is at 0%. But then it also has an inflation component that’s tied to the overall inflation rate.

What financial trends worry you the most right now?

The amount of shortcuts that people want to take in investing, especially for younger investors. A lot of people started investing for the first time in 2020 and 2021. We had stimulus checks and the stock market went on an unbelievable tear, we had GameStop, and AMC and all the so called “meme stocks”. So a lot of people who started investing in the past couple of years don’t really know what a normal investing cycle is like. They’ve never experienced a prolonged downturn or what it’s like not to get these unbelievable returns.

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As someone who lives in the area and has seen its growth, how should locals think about their personal finance during this time?

Housing is the core of every decision that you make. It’s more or less a fixed expense. When people are getting $500 or $1,000 a month rent increases, it’s just so, so hard to make progress toward their other financial goals. The No. 1 thing to understand is that this is not a normal time and that you might have to adjust some of your personal finance goals. Maybe that means you’re not paying off debt as aggressively as you hoped to or maybe that means that you’re not saving at the rate that you’d like to.

The other component of it is that, especially for people who are earning in the lower-middle income range, it’s just so frustrating that they’re told that they’re in that situation because they have a Netflix account or because they go out to eat once in a while. And really, it’s just that people are being struck with exorbitant housing and childcare costs. Those things are so hard to change. If there’s any way in that situation that people can find ways to earn more money, they should: whether that’s through looking for a higher-paying job, or at the very least getting an offer and taking it back to their current employer. Maybe it’s taking on a side hustle or finding other ways to make money.

What is the best financial advice you’ve ever gotten?

Patience. Whether you’re trying to invest or pay down debt, improve your credit score, none of this stuff happens overnight. It can be it can be really tempting to spend your money in ways that provide short-term gratification, but patience is really the key to achieving any goal.

How does the ‘Dear Penny’ column fit into the evolving media ecosystem with social media platforms like Reddit and Tiktok growing as a place for people seeing advice?

Advice columns seem like such a throwback to another era, but it’s still really popular. I’ve always been somewhat of an advice column addict. Part of the fun is people being able to chime in and be the columnist themselves on social media or in the comments. With Reddit and other forums like that, it almost seems like the more the merrier. I don’t think people are tired of reading about other people’s problems and giving advice about other people’s problems. I definitely think that advice columns are here to stay.

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