Interview with a Savings Expert: Susan Johnston

Anyone with personal finance questions should listen to Susan Johnston. Her extensive research and interesting topics have gotten her work published on many leading financial websites. We got the chance to grill her on the ways she budgets her money and what she’s learned as a true savings expert.

As a writer for publications like USNews, AOL Jobs, and LearnVest, you’ve covered a variety of topics regarding personal finance. What got you interested in this field?

My parents always taught me to live below my means and going to yard sales with my mom or seeing how my dad would hand-make doll furniture or birthday party favors (one year, I had an American Girl-themed party, so he created a linoleum stamp with the logo and hand-stamped stationery for me and all my friends) got me interested in strategies for saving money. They could have bought things new (and sometimes they did), but they taught me not to spend frivolously. That lesson has really stayed with me.

Our readers are always interested in ways to get their finances in shape. In “Should You Go On a Financial Fast?”, you write about some drastic ways individuals have cut their budgets. What are some easy steps to take towards reducing spending?

-- Buy store brand toiletries, groceries, etc. on sale when possible. The combination of a lower starting price and extra sales (and possibly coupons on top of that) can save you a ton of money!

-- Cut back on alcohol. Many personal finance books and blogs talk about how much money people waste on lattes, but if you drink cocktails, wine, or beer, that adds up even faster! For many people, alcohol is a way to unwind, and I’m not saying that everyone should become a teetotaler. But if you’re someone who spends a lot of money on booze, you can cut back by enjoying a bottle of wine or some beer with friends at home instead of going out, or you can choose less expensive drinks or go out during happy hour when drinks are cheaper (then go home before they jump up to full price.)

-- Search for coupon codes before you order something online. That’s an easy way to save money whenever you shop online.

You have over 7,000 followers on Twitter! How do your interactions with fans influence the topics you choose to write about?

I follow lots of personal finance bloggers and sometimes participate in Twitter chats, so they sometimes become sources or provide inspiration for me to explore a new topic.

The stories you’ve covered for USNews follow the span of a lifetime of money concerns starting with finances for newlyweds to money tips for retirees. Is there one consistent financial rule that you think should be followed by every age group?

As my parents would tell me, live below your means! If you make a habit of saving in your teens or twenties, you can build up some savings even though you aren’t making much money. The combination of compound interest over time and the habit of saving are valuable. Of course, if you haven’t started saving early, there’s no better time than the present to start.

I read that you’ve wanted to be a writer since you were a young girl. However, writing isn’t always the most stable of careers. Do you think being a writer has impacted the way you view money?

Certain types of writing are more commercially viable than others. Certainly my frugal lifestyle and the low overhead that accompanies that made it less risky for me to go out on my own, because I didn’t have an expensive apartment, car payments, or credit card bills to support. I’ve been freelancing full time for six years now, so I’ve been able to build up my network and create some semblance of stability so that I can afford a nicer apartment and other things I enjoy while still living below my means.

You’ve written several articles about the ins and outs of buying a home, including “7 Homebuying Mistakes to Avoid.”  What would you say is the number one error homebuyers make?

Based on my interviews and research, I suspect that falling in love with a property and having that love blind you to potential flaws is a big problem. I understand how alluring stainless steel appliances and brand-new bamboo floors can be, but if the property is in an unsafe neighborhood or it has structural issues, then it’s probably not a wise purchase.

You must get a lot of reader interaction for the stories you cover for USNews. Are there any particular topics that get people the most impassioned?

Stories about how consumers paid off large sums of debt are often popular. Some readers really empathize with the subjects or find inspiration in their stories, but others take issue with how they amassed so much debt to begin with. It definitely stirs up conversation.

At CouponPal, we’re pretty obsessed with finding great bargains. Because of your experience, you probably have some good tips for saving on shopping trips. What’s your favorite, sure-fire way to cut costs?

Don’t buy what you don’t need, even if it’s on sale and even if you find a coupon code. If you find a coupon code or a sale on something you need or really, really want and can afford (instead of just adding it to your shopping basket, because “hey, it’s on sale!”), then that’s a real bargain.

You must do an incredible amount of research to cover such a vast array of topics. Have you written any personal finance stories where you learned something surprising and then incorporated it into your own life?

Hmmm … good question! Often story ideas come from areas I want to research in my own life (how does disability insurance work? how do self-employed professionals qualify for a mortgage?), so I pitch a story on the topic and get paid to do that research and share it with others. I’ve learned to use the same diligence I apply to researching stories and interviewing sources to making large purchases, whether that’s an apartment or a new computer. I do my homework and probably drive the real estate agent or salesperson crazy with questions, but it’s my money and I choose to spend it carefully.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions, Susan! Any last words of wisdom for our readers?

Thanks for hosting me! Readers can find out more about me on Twitter (@UrbanMuseWriter) or on my website.  

Like this interview? Check out the rest of our Interview with a Savings Expert series. Have a question for an expert or someone you want to see interviewed? Tweet your suggestions with #SavingsExperts to @CouponPal!

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