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Jonathan Clements

THE COLUMN I WROTE for The Wall Street Journal for more than 13 years was popular with readers—which was just as well, because it wasn’t always popular with Journal editors.

As best I could tell, top management appreciated the column, as did most of the editors I reported to directly. But others were critical. One editor, during his annual review of my performance, even demanded that I change my approach to writing the column. I threw a world-class hissy fit, the deputy managing editor intervened and I was able to carry on as before.

Still, the criticisms I received during that employee review, as well as those I heard over the years from other editors, say a lot about how the financial media operates—and why it often does a disservice to everyday investors. So, what were the criticisms I received? They were threefold:

You’re repetitive. Week after week, I’d hammer on themes like the superior long-run return from stock investing, the importance of diversification and holding down investment costs, and the futility of trying to beat the market. Was I repetitive? Absolutely.

But there’s value in repetition. Amid the financial markets’ daily turmoil, investors often lose sight of fundamental truths and make foolish changes to their portfolio. To stay the course, many folks need to be regularly reminded of what sensible investing looks like.

Equally important, the alternative to repetition—espousing a new investment strategy with every new column—would almost certainly hurt readers’ portfolio performance. Some writers, of course, do indeed devote every article to a new stock, mutual fund or market outlook. That certainly gives them plenty to write about. But I’m not sure it does much for readers, beyond getting them to fret unnecessarily over their investment mix and probably trade far too much.

Your advice is unsophisticated. Journal readers often have high incomes and fat portfolios. Some editors believed that meant these readers should be pursuing “sophisticated” investment strategies, and that I should be writing about such nonsense in my columns.

“Sophistication,” of course, is a Wall Street ruse to extract hefty fees from ill-informed investors. How many investors have ended up regretting the money they sunk into hedge funds, real estate partnerships, managed futures, private equity, family trusts and goodness knows what else?

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I believe the low-cost index funds I own are an appropriate choice, whether the value of someone’s portfolio runs to four figures or eight. I can’t recall ever hearing an investor regret buying broad market index funds—but I’ve heard plenty of regrets about purchasing purportedly sophisticated investments.

Your columns aren’t newsy. If you kick around for long enough, the latest hot thing seems suspiciously like some earlier hot thing. Who couldn’t observe 2021’s housing frenzy and not think of 2005 and early 2006? Who couldn’t watch the rise and fall of Cathie Wood’s ARK Innovation ETF and not recall the late 1990s and managers such as Ryan Jacob and Garrett Van Wagoner?

The financial media focuses on the markets and its key players because there’s constant change—and that makes for easy news. Is the Dow Jones Industrial Average up or down? For the financial media, it doesn’t much matter. What does matter is the market is open five days a week, delivering a ready-made topic that helps fill that day’s news hole.

But the truth is, each day’s news offers little of value to longer-term investors. Instead, for those striving to be prudent managers of their own money, the big wins are to be found in subjects that rarely rank as news, things like when to claim Social Security, what insurance you need and don’t need, estate planning, trimming taxes, saving for college and funding retirement accounts.

When I’d write about such topics, editors would want to know what the news hook was. I’d tried to cook something up. But I’m proud to admit that I often failed.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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Liarspoltergeist
Liarspoltergeist
27 days ago

Mr Clements, your writing gift is your clarity, your consistent wisp of genuineness. and everyman counselor abilities. Reading your column was like having a cup of coffee with a wise friend. Thank you.
(Btw, your “Humble Dollar” articles are that 2nd cup of coffee).

Crystal Flores
Crystal Flores
1 month ago

I loved those articles and the simple, no-nonsense advice. I followed it to the best of my ability. Now in my mid-forties, working for money is optional. I have choices in how I use my time. Thank you.

Jeff Bond
Jeff Bond
1 month ago

Great story. I faithfully read your WSJ Money Weekend articles back in the day. You provided guidance and continuing confirmation for those of us without a financial and investment background. You did then and continue to make a difference.

Ted Meek
Ted Meek
1 month ago

Wise advice-again.

Rick Hagan
Rick Hagan
1 month ago

I started reading your column in college in the 80s and I have to say it was a big influence on me. I try to influence every young person to adopt your simple investment philosophy starting with saving to invest. I tell the story of driving home from work in Oct. 19th,1987 and hearing on the radio the Dow dropped 22% which was about $10K of my $50K portfolio. As bad as it was, I hung in there and today my 7 digit portfolio typically can move $10K up or down in a day and it is immaterial.

Last edited 1 month ago by Rick Hagan
Mark
Mark
1 month ago

Jonathan, don’t ever think you didn’t make a difference. You did. I recall your WSJ columns with fondness. Repetition just drove home the points.

Investing is simple, but not easy.

Nate Allen
Nate Allen
1 month ago

Please keep up the repetitive, unsophisticated, and non-newsy articles for years to come here at Humble Dollar.

splits241
splits241
1 month ago

As Jason Zweig, one of your WSJ colleagues once wrote. “My job is to write the exact same thing between 50 and 100 times a year in such a way that neither my editors nor my readers will ever think I am repeating myself.” I certainly appreciate the way you and your Humble Dollar contributors manage to do it.

JDC
JDC
1 month ago

As one of those WSJ editors who did oversee your work, Jonathan, I recognized your repetitiveness and lack of sophisticated investments (i.e. crap) as strengths of the column and highly supportive of our efforts at reaching beyond traditional WSJ readers. (Thanks for the plug, Mr. Cameon (below); I was the guy who got the WSJ pages in the Minneapolis paper.) One of my fondest memories of your column, Jonathan, was one week you took off. As I recall, my editor’s note went something like this: “Jonathan Clements’s column will return next week. In the meantime, save as much as you can and invest in index funds.” Cheers, David Crook

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
1 month ago
Reply to  JDC

I loved writing for WSJ Sunday, with its network of 70-plus newspapers, more so than for the regular WSJ. With WSJ Sunday, it really felt like we were reaching everyday investors.

Howard Cameon
Howard Cameon
1 month ago

Mr. Clements, I have been following your advice since reading your column from the Wall Street Journal published in the Minneapolis Tribune in 2003 and on. I clipped the columns that I liked best and still have them.The other person I saved columns from was Humberto Cruz who wrote for the Orlando Sun Sentinel. Despite that information I did invest money with a friend who is a financial advisor. After a number of years when I filed a required financial report for the state of Wisconsin due to my employment I looked up the cost of the funds. Oh my goodness, some of them were 2 1/2% on top of the 1%fee. As you noted in a book you wrote, It’s hard to tell a friend that you’re going quit using them because they’re too expensive. But my wife and I did. Lesson learned, keep following the good advice that is simple and not complicated. Both you. and Mr. Cruz’s columns were easy to understand and contained practical advice, I just have to follow it. Thank you.

UofODuck
UofODuck
1 month ago

Like a lot of investment advice, the oft asked question is: where’s the sizzle, where’s the secret sauce that will allow me to achieve the riches I deserve. In other words, tell me the easy way to make money. As most people who have worked (myself included) in the investment business know, some skill is required, but luck, time and patience are often the primary drivers of investment success. Clients would frequently ask for tips that would improve their returns, and my answer to their question was always: “If I could predict winners and losers, I wouldn’t still be working here.” Needless to say, that was seldom the answer they wanted to hear!

Mel Turner
Mel Turner
1 month ago

You have helped many of us hack our way through the jungle of financial misinformation. Your columns are the antidote to the poison of the financial press. Your work is appreciated.

Play WizMe (PlayWizMe)
Play WizMe (PlayWizMe)
1 month ago

I wrote this as part of a review of your “Little Book of Main Street Money” which I bought for my nephew out of college: “I always considered Jonathan Clements to be something of an oasis in the “Wall Street Journal” desert, in that amongst all the advertisements and columns of different people wanting to encourage you to trade or buy their funds or stocks or financial advice for (unadvertised) large fees, Jonathan was there telling you to watch out and buy low-cost index funds and if you wanted financial advice to engage someone on an as-needed basis for an hour or so, rather than allow someone to suck up 1% or more of your account’s balance (a much bigger bite!) on a yearly basis. I was always rather surprised WSJ kept him for almost 20 years, since his advice was almost counter to all the “get everything you can out of the consumer” stuff the rest of the paper was espousing. But his advice was so good, someone with a conscience and sympathy for the average investor among the editors there kept him fortunately. I commend Jonathan’s work in this book and still follow him on his humbledollar.com website to this day.”

Linda Grady
Linda Grady
1 month ago

Thanks, Jonathan, for all your great advice. And nice to “meet” Alan Roth, the former Money Mole. That column was the main reason my husband subscribed to Money some years ago. Thanks in no small part to good, practical advice from both of you, I’m now living financially secure, one adult son has a very successful career in financial services, and now the third generation (you who read my comments know I’m referring to the grandson) is benefiting as he reads your books and others, while experimenting with trading through his custodial account. Thanks to all of you!

baldscreen
baldscreen
1 month ago

Great article, Jonathan. I am sure you helped more people through the years than you will ever know. I know you have helped me through HD.

Allan Roth
Allan Roth
1 month ago

I suspect your columns weren’t very popular with the WSJ advertising sales force. I was writing the anynoomous column back then called “The Mole” for Money Magazine with advice echoing yours and was told how much the sales force hated me as it made it so much harder to sell advertisements for expensive and exciting financial products.

Peter
Peter
1 month ago

Jonathan, you and Walt were the best of the WSJ in that era. You both did a great service for the readers. Thank you!

Cammer Michael
Cammer Michael
1 month ago

Actually, I didn’t thing the 2021 housing frenzy had the implications of the craziness in mid-2000s. But this is a detail in an otherwise accurate article. I keep reading this blog.

Last edited 1 month ago by Cammer Michael
Richard Stolz
Richard Stolz
1 month ago

I was pleased to read that one source of flak you (apparently) didn’t receive was from folks on the ad sales side of the WSJ who, probably worried about the possible ad sales impact of your consistent debunking of the investment merits of gimmicky investment products. In financial trade publications, particularly those funded entirely by advertising dollars (i.e. no paid subscription revenue), sometime that pressure can be acutely felt.

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Stolz

At the WSJ, the paper’s ad reps could get in deep trouble simply for calling a reporter, let alone pressuring the reporter to change what he or she wrote.

Philip Stein
Philip Stein
1 month ago

I couldn’t agree more that there is value in repetition. Often, after reading only once about a principle or piece of advice, the lesson slowly drifted away over time.

There are books on my shelf that have inspired or educated me in the past. I’ve found that I gain even more useful knowledge and insight after reading them a second or third time.

If you read books by luminaries like John Bogle, Charles Ellis, William Bernstein, and, of course, Jonathan Clements, you’re also repeatedly exposed to the same basic investment principles. I believe this is an advantage because this repetition cements these principles in your subconscious, enabling you to recall them with ease and put them into practice.

Also, after reading about fundamental principles more than once, you don’t merely absorb them at face value, but begin to question why they are important and thereby acquire even greater understanding.

The editors at WSJ who found your column repetitive, possessed the same mindset as the editors at so many other publications and news broadcasts — attract people’s attention to sell more newspapers or attract more advertising dollars. Unfortunately, any benefits that may accrue to the reader are secondary.

Thank goodness you stood your ground and were able to keep writing the Getting Going column you wanted to write. And thank you to those WSJ editors who supported you. Like so many other Humble Dollar readers, I benefited greatly from your advice over the years.

Margaret Fallon
Margaret Fallon
1 month ago

I always enjoyed your columns at WSJ. While there was some repetition it was necessary to get the message to sink in, however I always found I learned something new, there was information on bonds and other… I never would have uncovered myself without a lot of ‘digging’ which the ordinary person commuting to a job wouldn’t have time or inclination to do. You are so passionate about what you do & your ideology, I could just imagine your editor’s reaction to you throwing a “hissy fit”, it would be ‘geez, let’s leave this guy alone’. Now if only I had taken more of your advice, I’d be much better off. I love HumbleDollar & look forward to reading every Saturday morning. Thank you, Jonathan

Last edited 1 month ago by Margaret Fallon
Tooney
Tooney
1 month ago

I enjoyed your recent interview on Consuelo Mack’s Wealthtrack program. I had to laugh at Consuelo’s repeated questions to you prompting what to do differently in today’s “different” financial situation. Most of your responses were the same advice you have been giving for years, including your same “one investment for a long-term portfolio” of VG Total Stock Market index fund.

At the end of the program Consuelo laughed and mentioned your repetitive advice.

I’m glad she has had you on her program over the years, despite your advice being too repetitive, unsophisticated, and not newsworthy enough to sustain a weekly TV show like hers.

My favorite article of yours is “Make a Child a Millionaire, Just Take Your Time”, WSJ, April 22, 1994. I still have the clipping, which I’ve shared with many other parents.

Paul Wolgemuth
Paul Wolgemuth
1 month ago

I remember those columns. The first thing I looked for in the Sunday paper was the Sunday Wall Street Journal pages to get the latest Getting Going column. I have a number of those columns in my “financial bible” that I still find helpful.

Some things never change. Now the first thing I look for in the morning is the latest article on Humble Dollar.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 month ago

When I stumbled on HumbleDollar a few years ago, I said to myself, I know that name Clements, but from where. Then I read your bio. I had a subscription to the WSJ for years, reading every morning was part of my daily routine and reading your columns was a highlight. Must have been since I remembered your name and no others 😎

When I read that you considered submitted articles for HD, I thought, wow, imagine if I could get an article on HD. My name on the same pages as Jonathan Clements. Thank you.

In my opinion the value in many of your columns and HD today is being unsophisticated. That is also reflected in all the real life articles you publish here. Real people need real advice and ideas and reasonable guidance. I maintain the reason so many people can’t move forward financially is because everything is presented in such a complex manner, it prevents decisions and actions. Unsophisticated is what most people need and want in their financial lives.

Patrick Brennan
Patrick Brennan
1 month ago

I read Jonathan’s column at the Journal and really benefited from it. It came at a time when I had 4 youngsters and things like life insurance and sensible college planning mattered. Besides, I was busy earning a living so keeping it simple was not only beneficial, but necessary. I had tried a financial advisor and he sold me whole life before I got married. Imagine that! So I ditched those guys as kept it simple. I was disappointed when Jonathan left the Journal for greener pastures.

Newsboy
Newsboy
1 month ago

Your Feb 27, 2015 column “Three Questions That Can Change Your Finances…And Your Life”, you examined George Kinder’s three life planning questions) is still pinned to the wall in my home office. Your last column before leaving WSJ is hanging right next to it.

You have a tremendous body of work, Jonathan – and WSJ has not been the same since your departure. Their loss is our gain. Thanks for taking a leap of faith by launching HD!

Newsboy
Newsboy
1 month ago
Reply to  Newsboy

Footnote: You and Walt Mossberg (Walt covering personal technology) were the primary reasons that I stayed with WSJ as a subscriber for so many years.

Last edited 1 month ago by Newsboy
Nick Politakis
Nick Politakis
1 month ago

I loved your column and I’m glad you left the WSJ because now I get so much more from humbledollar.com.

Jo Bo
Jo Bo
1 month ago

Your weekend columns were the primary reason that I bought copies of the Saturday WSJ. I justified the expense (and what was otherwise generally a waste of paper) as reassurance for staying the financial course. Thanks for consistently reassuring us all those years ago.

William Perry
William Perry
1 month ago
Reply to  Jo Bo

Being recently retired and thinking of ways to minimize costs I have added going to the local branch of my public library to read the current version of the WSJ which is 2.1 miles from my home and on the way to many on my weekly trips.

Like many other who comment I am grateful to Jonathan for Humble Dollar and enjoy my daily read. I am also enjoying going to the various blogs of the other writers on Humble Dollar. A recent favorite read of mine are The After Action Report blogs by Michael Flack. His named blog initially caught my attention because I have been able to read the now declassified after action reports penned by my father a WWII company company tank Captain.

I often read, enjoyed and have benefited from the comments and blogs of Misters Quinn, Conner, Grossman, Lim and the many other HD writers that I would would never have found if not for Jonathan’s creation of Humble Dollar.

John LaRosa
John LaRosa
1 month ago

Completely agree with your column. People need repition to stay the course. 90% of what happens in the market every day is noise that long term investors should ignore. I have a sizable investment portfolio and 83% of the equity portion is in the Vanguard Total Stock Market fund at a cost of 3bp mgmt fee. I have owned the fund for over 20 years. I have two daughters in their late 20″s and all of their investment portfolio is in the same fund. I always thought “sophistification” was euphemism for higher fees on wall street.

William Ehart
William Ehart
1 month ago

Your columns had a big impact on me, and I admired the Journal for running them while other financial media got caught up in the game you describe. I’m sure I had some of the columns saved in my clippings.

Bob Drake
Bob Drake
1 month ago

Agree – and still saving copies of a couple of your WSJ columns from years ago as a guiding light/reminder. Thank you.

Gail MarksJarvis
Gail MarksJarvis
1 month ago

As a personal finance columnist myself, I must tell you that your Wall Street Journal columns were the best of the best. I followed them for years. You presented crucial concepts; then made them completely understandable through examples. As for the sophistication of your readers: Your editors made the error of assuming people with a lot of money are sophisticated about investing. I took calls and emails from thousands of readers over the years and found most people — regardless of income and education — ill equipped for investing and often desperate for reliable help about planning their future. You have always helped these people. Great job!

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
1 month ago

Thanks for the kind words, Gail. Means a lot coming from you.

Jeremy Finger
Jeremy Finger
1 month ago

I could agree more. Good stuff needs o be repeated. For one, you may have a first time reader. Second and more likely, the reader may finally wake up to what works. Same as core spiritual principles; the same old lessons written 100 different ways…

David Schlesinger
David Schlesinger
1 month ago

Having been a reporter and editor at a major news organization, I can well imagine the conversations you had! Because of my former job, I never wanted to hold individual stocks or do anything fancy with my money—the perceived conflicts of interest were always there in my mind, even if they weren’t always “actually” there in a strict legal or code-of-conduct sense. So, I’ve always been boring and repetitive with my own money—and boy did it pay off. Stay the course.

Boss Hogg
Boss Hogg
1 month ago

Two columnists stick in my mind from that time. You for your WSJ column, and Brit Hume for his computer technology column that appeared in The Washington Post. Both struck me as pioneering and something I should read. Regarding repetition I’d think it is also good for new readers who aren’t going to dig into the archives.

Mark Hirsch
Mark Hirsch
1 month ago

I, for one, greatly appreciate the “boring” stuff. I’ve learned from a number of writers, including you, that I will be better for diversifying, keeping fees low and not chasing much, if anything. That’s been a good path in both up and down markets. Thanks for helping me keep my head up and looking to the future instead of getting caught up in the vibe of the moment.

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