Award-winning journalist and author Sharon Epperson graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School and went on to Harvard University and Columbia University for a master’s degree in international affairs. She is currently senior commodities correspondent and personal finance correspondent for CNBC and author of “The Big Payoff: 8 Steps Couples Can Take to Make the Most of Their Money and Live Richly Ever After.” Her late father, David Epperson, served as dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, and her mother is a retired public school teacher. She is married to fellow journalist Christopher John Farley, and the couple live in Westchester County, N.Y., with their children. The 46-year-old will be speaking at United Way of Allegheny County and United for Women’s Dinner, “An Evening With Sharon Epperson,” at the Fairmont Pittsburgh Saturday. For information, call 412-456-6767 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was wondering how you went from majoring in sociology and government at Harvard to becoming a broadcast journalist?
Oh, I’ve always been interested in journalism. When I was a student at Taylor Allderdice High School, I had a fantastic English/journalism 101 teacher. Her name was Marsha Tharp. We did advertising campaigns and we did radio shows on a cassette tape, and we wrote stories hoping one day they would be in the school newspaper. I stuck with her for three years and eventually did write for the school newspaper. In my sophomore year, she introduced me to the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation because it had just started a journalism workshop. That is where I got my start, learning and working with real journalists. So I knew going into college that is what I wanted to do. I also had the feeling that in order to write about something, I had to know about something. I was very interested in people. I am a people person. But I also had my father in my ear saying, “But what about law school? Government might be good in case you want to go to law school.” That is why I did a double major.
When did you interest switch to money?
When I was in the New York bureau of Time magazine, I was encouraged to be as general as possible, meaning I should cover health care stories, social issues, local politics and since I was in the New York bureau, I should cover business. I was actually a little afraid of it. I had a colleague who was doing a big story on derivatives at the time and explaining why they were so popular and what that meant. That seemed so complicated. She said, “You have to find a business story. We are in the mecca of the financial capital of the world.” I found a story about a philanthropist, a woman who had worked for the IRS for many years and had invested on the side in the stock market. She ended up passing away as a multimillionaire after only making $30,000 tops, I think, in the height of her career. She did it from investing. So it was a people story. So that was the first of a couple of business stories I did that had a more human angle to them.
I had been at Time for about 2 1/2 years, and I went to a journalism conference and I met some folks from NBC. They were like, “Wow, you really like business stories.” Of course, you always say yes. They said we are looking for people who can really write for our business channel, CNBC. That’s what I did 17 years ago. I am so glad I did it. Really, following the money is the key to any story.
You recently did a piece on life/work balance. So how is yours?
My daughter, who is going to be 9 next week, watched that story. My friend watched it with her, and said, “Your daughter called you out. You are always on your phone.” It’s true, I have my mommy phone and my work phone, and I am kind of checking them constantly. If I see my area code, I am always worried it’s the baby sitter or the school, so I pick that up right away. I just feel like we are in news. so I am kind of always on. I don’t want to feel that way but it is just how I have been trained as a journalist. I feel if something happens I need to know about it. My husband is a journalist as well, and I think we both spend way too much time on our phones. I try to put it away during family time.
For many baby boomers, work time will never end because they don’t have enough saved for retirement. How does that impact the work force and the economy?
I think that we are becoming more and more of an entrepreneurial economy. Baby boomers are going to have to realize this pretty quickly, that if they are getting pushed out of the corporate jobs or the traditional positions, they may need to still work and they have to figure out how they can do that like freelancing, consulting, creating their own companies and pursuing their passions.
Many aren’t interested in the traditional route of retirement anyway. They aren’t interested in just golfing all the time and hanging out at home. They want to be able to still contribute in some way. That might be volunteering, but that might also be volunteering with a consulting gig on the side. Also trying to figure out a way to mesh part-time work with Social Security and any investments that they have made. I think of my mom, who is 77 and retired, and has not worked full time for 15 or more years. She is still active in the community and on some boards. I think many people will continue to do that kind of work and also see how they can get some kind of payment for it.
Your father lived to see your success, so how did your parents react to it?
He passed away three years ago, but I think the people who ran into him may have been really tired of hearing about his Harvard graduates. Both my sister and I went to Harvard. My sister is an attorney and a professor of law at American University. He was able to see her land that great job, and he was able to watch me. He really did watch me every day. Every day. He was on many, many boards and contributed a lot to the Pittsburgh community and the wider community globally, but he did have time to be home and watch me on television. He always thought I did a great job. I miss him for many, many reasons. I do miss talking to him regularly about my work on TV.
In other interviews, you have said your parents taught you that education was the key to success. You grew up in a comfortable middle-class home. Do you think that lesson has been diluted by some measure when it comes to the greater African-American community?
I think education is the key to success particularly for the black community. I don’t think it’s been diluted at all. I think one of the big issues is, and this is not just for African-Americans but for everyone, that the price of higher education has become so out of reach for so many people. Or they assume it is out of reach for them, and they may not pursue it. I think that is a big issue we need to grapple with as a country. Those that do are saddled with so much debt.
Education opens so many more doors and allows you to make so much more money, but you have to be strategic about it. Pittsburgh is a prime example of changing with the times, of moving from a manufacturing economy to a technology and health services-focused economy. Those are where the jobs are, and those are where the jobs will continue to be.
Speaking of lower income, as a newspaper journalist, I subsist primarily on the joy of the job. So tell me more about the woman who only made $30,000 a year but was a multimillionaire.
[Laughs] If you have a job that allows you to put money into a retirement plan on a regular basis, you need to be doing it. You need to figure out how to live on less now so you can live with more later. I have something in my book I call the 60 percent solution. It’s a very simple way to budget. If you can limit your expenses to 60 percent of your gross income, then 20 percent should go to long-term savings. That includes retirement savings or college for your child. Ten percent should go to short-term savings so you build an emergency fund, which everyone should have. It should be a least six to eight months worth of living expenses. The other 10 percent is for fun. Many people today, working today, are living in this moment, and they are not thinking about the future. We are living longer, and that means we are going to be paying so much more for our health care. So you are going to need more money to live.
Hmm, that 10 percent for fun in your plan leaves me with a lawn chair from Wal-Mart and a view of the garden.
You can make it work. The other day, my daughter was on a slip’ n slide in a neighbor’s backyard, and she didn’t want to get her hair wet and she didn’t have a swim cap, so my neighbor gave her a shower cap. I just had to laugh because I have pictures of myself in my backyard on Murtland Street in Point Breeze going through the sprinkler. We never had a pool. I never went to a pool. I didn’t know what a pool club was, but that was a great time. So there are ways to make it work.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at @pasheridan.