Interview with a Savings Expert: Cameron Huddleston

We’re constantly faced with difficult decisions when it comes to money. What should we spend our money on and how can we get out of debt? Well, if you have questions, Cameron Huddleston has the answers! This savings expert shares what she’s learned over at Kiplinger, but we got the opportunity to ask her some questions here at CouponPal. Read on for Cameron’s awesome words of wisdom!

You write the “Kip Tips” column for Kiplinger.com. Where do you find inspiration for the topics you cover on the site?

I find inspiration from a variety of sources. I draw from current events and happenings. For example, when a holiday is approaching, I typically write about savings opportunities that will arise (such as retail sales or freebies). I am inspired by experiences in my life that prompt me to ask, “How could I save money in this situation?”

For example, when we found out that both of our daughters needed braces, that prompted me to write a column on how to save money on braces. And, I receive a lot of pitches from groups that want me to write about a particular company, service, or trend. These pitches make me aware of products or services that my readers might find useful. So, I’ll test them out and write about them if they can help people save money.

You have a master’s degree from American University in economic journalism. What made you decide to go into this field?

My major in college was journalism, but I never took an economics, business, or statistics course. After I joined Dow Jones Newswires, I realized that I needed to learn more about these subjects if I wanted to be a better financial journalist. Fortunately, American University offered a graduate program that allowed me enhance my journalistic skills while taking economics courses.

Like you said, before joining Kiplinger in 2001, you worked at Dow Jones Newswires, where you wrote about convertible securities and junk bonds. How has this background influenced the topics you choose to write about?

It doesn’t influence what I write about now, but it did prompt me to pursue a graduate degree (see above). However, when I graduated in 2001, it was in the middle of a recession. Dow Jones had a hiring freeze, so I couldn’t return to my position there. Other financial news outlets, such as Bloomberg, also weren’t hiring. But, one of my grad school professors knew someone at Kiplinger’s, which was searching for someone to join the editorial staff of its relatively new site, Kiplinger.com. I didn’t have any background in personal finance, but they took a chance on me. That was 13 years ago, and I’m still writing for Kiplinger.com today.

Kiplinger is one of the industry’s leading experts in personal finance. What other sites do you read to stay on top of trends in the financial world?

I read The Wall Street Journal’s site, Yahoo! Finance, U.S. News & World Report (money.usnews.com), and Money magazine’s site (which is now time.com/money). I read lots of blogs, such as Wise Bread, Money Crashers, and Get Rich Slowly, for tips on spending less and saving more.

Your articles tackle a myriad of subjects – from ways to earn extra cash to staying sane while traveling. You must be constantly learning new things while covering different topics for your column. Has your research ever influenced behavior in your own life?

I’ve learned so much from everything I’ve written. My research has certainly helped me become a smarter consumer and improve my finances. And my friends come to me for money-saving advice. I even find myself wanting to offer advice to strangers I see making bad shopping decisions – but then remind myself to bite my tongue. I did do it once, though, and got a strange look.

You frequently write about trying to save money on travel. What are 2 or 3 surefire ways to save on the costs of vacation? Do you use any specific sites for your travel booking?

Use a rewards credit card. If you’re good about paying off your credit card balance each month, get a rewards card, and use it like a debit card to make your everyday purchases and rack up points for free flights or hotel stays.

Comparison shop. Use sites such as Kayak.com, Expedia.com, Hotels.com, Priceline.com, and apps such as Last Minute Travel to find the best deals on flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars. For boutique and independent hotels, Stayful.com is a great site for getting a deal.

Join hotel loyalty programs. It’s free to sign up and you often get perks such as free Wi-Fi. It’s a good way to avoid some of the fees hotels charge – even if you don’t plan on staying in that particular hotel chain often enough to rack up free stays.

In addition to working, you’re a mom. As a parent, what financial lessons do you hope to pass down to your kids?

We talk about money in our house all of the time. My kids already know that when it comes to spending, you have to make choices. For example, we tell them that if we buy them every toy they want, we won’t have enough money for fun things like trips to the beach or mountains. My oldest daughter, who is 10, gets it. She’s a natural saver. And sometimes she goes overboard, questioning every purchase we make (every purchase except ice cream, that is).

My younger daughter, who is 8, likes to spend and will empty her piggy bank as soon as she has enough to buy a toy she wants. She’s starting to feel the pain, though, of not having enough cash to buy the things she really wants because she’s blown it all on little things. My youngest is 2 years old, so the main thing I’m focused on teaching him now is how to use the potty. We’ll get to the money lessons for him in a few years.

Many Americans are struggling with debt. What is the first step you would recommend taking towards paying off debt?

Figure out how much you owe and create a plan for paying it off. And, no, paying the minimum is not an effective plan for paying off your debt because it could take you decades.

Set a goal, such as paying off your credit card debt in a year (or perhaps two or three years if your balance is high and your income is low). Then, figure out what your monthly payment needs to be to reach that goal. Credit.com has a Credit Card Payoff Calculator that lets you enter your balance, interest rate and monthly payment and will show you how long it will take to pay off your debt at that rate. It also provides a table that shows you how much you should increase your payment to pay off your balance faster. Then, track your expenses to see what you can cut to increase your debt payments. Or find ways to earn more cash (a second job, dog walking, babysitting, tutoring, etc.).

In “7 Ways You Might Be Wasting Money,” you list some common ways people aren’t careful with their money. What is the most common thing people overspend on?

Given that Americans have $880 billion in revolving debt – most of which is credit card debt – I’d say we’re wasting a lot of money on interest payments by not paying off credit card balances every month. Often, we don’t stop to calculate how much paying the minimum is really costing us. For example, if you send in just the monthly minimum (2% of the balance) on a credit card with a $5,000 balance and 15% interest rate, it will take 32 years to get rid of the debt, and you will pay nearly $8,000 in interest on the original $5,000 balance.

Sure, it’s nice to have stuff. But think of it this way: Would you be willing to pay, say, $70 for a jacket with a price of $50? Of course not. That’s what you’re doing, though, when you buy something with credit, carry a balance, and pay interest.

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