By Doris Degner-Foster
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
“Riding is more than just a hobby or passion. It’s a lifestyle that teaches me so much about communication, which is the core of what I do,” said Kerry Hannon, a financial columnist for The New York Times, Forbes and Money magazines. She’s also a writer and speaker who focuses on advising women and retirees about jobs, financial planning and money management. “I’ve learned to pay more attention to my own behaviors because I realize that my horse just mirrors back even the little tensions that have troubled me during my day.”
Kerry combined her love of writing with horses as a teen when she interviewed riders at horse shows and sold the stories to horse magazines to help cover her showing costs. She remembered her father advising her that if she had a love of horses, anywhere she went in the world she’d always have friends, and she took that advice to heart.
A Financial Columnist
Kerry loved to write and knew that to make a living at it, she’d need to become a journalist. After college, she began a freelance business in her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she wrote for a variety of magazines and newspapers about local activities and business. But her goal was to write for Forbes magazine, her father’s favorite publication.
“I grew up with a family business, which we always talked about around the dinner table, and about what my dad was currently doing,” Kerry remembered. “I knew I could never go into my father’s business but I knew I could get a job at Forbes magazine.”
She put together some clippings of things she had written and sent them with a letter to the Forbes office. She followed up with a phone call, where she casually said that she was going to be in New York City and asked if she could stop by for an interview. “That’s Chutzpah! When you’re 24-years-old, why couldn’t you come by for an interview?” Kerry laughed. “They said yes! I had no plans to be in New York but I quickly made plans to be in New York. [During the interview] I was asked why I wanted to work there and I said because it’s my dad’s favorite magazine and Forbes makes business fun.”
Kerry wasn’t offered a job immediately, but she must have made a good impression because she got a call six months later and was offered a position. She took the job, moved to New York and never looked back. She worked there for five years and made the most of the experience. “It was like graduate school; it was everything! They sent me all over the world to do stories and company profiles — it was magic!” Kerry enthused about the job. “It put me on the path to financial journalism.”
She cultivated mentors and maintained relationships, which was beneficial in several ways. When an editor Kerry had worked with moved to Money magazine, she followed and focused on personal finance. “For once, I was going to write about something that I could relate to,” Kerry said. “I was never going to run a billion-dollar business like some of these CEOs that I’d interviewed, but I sure did understand personal finance because I’d run up credit card debt.”
Understanding Personal Finances
Kerry admitted to living above her means as a 20-something in New York City. “I knew what it was like to try to scramble to pay for things, so when I started writing for Money magazine, I really drilled down into personal finance and tried to help people,” Kerry recalled. “That’s when I started to develop my mission, which is to really make a difference in people’s lives. If you can help people understand how to manage their money, it’s just an incredible gift.”
Kerry knew firsthand how stressful a bad financial situation could get. With the interest rapidly piling up on her credit cards, she sought help from her father, who didn’t bail her out, but advised her how to budget and get caught up on her finances. “My dad helped me work out a plan to get things paid down,” Kerry said. “I have never carried a revolving debt in my life since I was 32 and I’m 56 now. Except for a small mortgage my husband and I have on our house, every month everything is paid in full so I feel really strongly about having no debt and being financially fit.”
As a result of her experience, being financially fit is Kerry’s message that she works to convey to others because she knows how scary it can be. “I think other people have been in that situation where you really feel financially vulnerable and you keep saying, ‘Well, I’ll just make more money and everything is going to be fine,’ but it starts accumulating when you have interest and it just steamrolls you.”
Learning What’s Important
Throughout her positions as a writer with Money magazine and later for U.S. News and World Report in Washington D.C., Kerry wrote about a broad range of things having to do with careers and taxes, and retirement and personal finance was always the spine of it. At USA Today, she had a column called “Your Money,” which ran once a week and met another of her goals to have a column in a national publication with her picture on it.
Kerry became very interested in helping women manage their money and get over their fear of finance and as a result, she began writing books including “The 10 Minute Guide to Retirement for Women” and “Suddenly Single, Money Skills for Divorcees and Widows.”
It was a busy time for her and she had reason to pause and re-evaluate her life. “As much as USA Today was a tremendous opportunity for me and it was so exciting to reach that goal for me personally, it wasn’t a good fit.” Kerry said. “I remember walking on the beach with my dad in Florida one day and he said ‘How are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Miserable!’ I just wasn’t a daily news type of person. Working in a big newsroom with people wasn’t a good fit. It took me years to try to understand that but I came back and I quit.”
Fortuitously, just after quitting her job, Kerry had the opportunity to work with a friend on a book when a writer backed out. It was to be a coffee-table kind of book about Navajo weavers and Kerry and her friend went out to the Four Corners area of New Mexico and spent time on the Navajo reservation interviewing weavers and taking photos.
“One woman was in her 80s and she lived 45 minutes down a dirt road from a paved road, had no running water, no electricity and she raised a family of eight kids in her hogan [a traditional Navajo dwelling],” Kerry said. “Her loom, I think, took up almost the entire thing, but she wove monumental rugs that were spectacular and beautiful. It just opened my eyes. This woman not only was an amazing artist and craftsperson, she just radiated joy. I looked around outside of where she lived and it was so beautiful. I just took away from all of that experience out there how important it is to do work that you love and to also surround yourself with beauty.”
Financially, Physically, and Spiritually Fit
Although her 10 books, including “Great Jobs for Everyone 50+,” “Getting the Job You Want After 50,” “Love Your Job” and “What’s Next?” are successful, Kerry loves speaking to a live audience. She’s a sought-after national keynote speaker and moderator covering a variety of career, personal finance and retirement topics. “I get so high off of it — it’s the best. Although I love writing, you don’t know who’s reading what you write,” Kerry said, “but when you’re standing in front of an audience and you’re looking them in the eye and you’re making this connection, it’s so empowering! I can tell that I’ve helped somebody directly. I never get nervous before I speak and I can’t think of any better way to spend time. It’s really my favorite because it’s that immediacy and that human connection.”
Kerry has been greatly affected by seeing the fear on faces in the audience that they will outlive their money. She advises them to make changes and get physically, financially and spiritually fit. “When you’re physically fit, you give off this energy and a positive attitude and people say, ‘I want what she or he has.’” Kerry stressed that a simple, regular exercise program like walking will do the trick.
Being financially fit, or getting your personal finances under control by cutting expenses and setting a budget, can open new doors of opportunity. “If you get your expenses down to your essentials, you have the choice to take those jobs that maybe paid less than you made in your last job, which is pretty much going to happen for older workers,” she said. “It gives you the opportunity to take on those jobs that you really want to, that you feel passionate about. If you’re not tied to a certain salary, you can also negotiate other things like vacation or flexible work. Those kinds of things are really more important as you get older.”
Recognizing the stress of changing jobs, Kerry emphasized the importance of getting spiritually fit or getting centered. Yoga and meditation can have a calming effect to step away from the world of pressure. Simply spending time in nature can have a similar effect and Kerry enjoys a pastime that accomplishes both. “I get [a sense of calmness] just going out walking my dogs for a couple of miles through the country, or I get it riding my horse,” she said.
Positive Effect of Riding
Although Kerry’s parents grew up as children of the Great Depression and didn’t have the opportunity to ride, her father always loved horses. She got riding lessons for her 6th birthday, which was part of his plan for the family. When Kerry was a child, her father brought a saddle home one evening and explained to her mother that they would one day have horses. That dream became a reality and they eventually moved to a home with a barn and obtained ponies for Kerry and her siblings.
“There were four kids in my family and all of us rode at one time,” Kerry remembered. “We had a five-stall barn of our own and we rode in Pony Club, foxhunted and we showed in the summer — so it was idyllic. All of our friends wanted to come hang out at our house because we had such fun.”
It was a common practice then for hunt horses to show in the summers and foxhunt during the winters. Her father drove the van to hunt meets and horse shows and it became a family affair that they all loved, and Kerry took it a step further. “As I got older in high school, I started getting really serious about showing and I really loved it,” she said. “I started working with a trainer and I showed at Devon and competed at the A shows from Ohio to New York to Pennsylvania and as far south as North Carolina.”
Although Kerry lives and works in Washington D.C., along with her husband, Cliff Hackel, a documentary producer and editor, and their Labrador retriever Zena, she has a small house that she calls her cottage in Virginia and makes the drive to Middleburg where her horses live. One is a retired mare and the other she recently bought to ride in the Adult Amateur Owner classes. Caparino Z is a gelding that Kerry is excited about showing because she has a great connection with him, which she feels reflects in her work. “The communication with the horse clarifies the skill you have to bring to human relationships,” she said. “It really starts with your horse.”
Although Kerry rides about three or four times a week, she credits her trainer, Jonelle Mullen at TuDane Farm, with keeping her horse on top of his game while she juggles her schedule around her work and travel.
“My goal right now isn’t to be champion at Harrisburg, I just want to do well at HITS Culpeper,” Kerry said. “I want to go in the ring and jump eight jumps and be happy with my performance. I set myself reasonable goals and we can notch them up as we go.” Kerry compared setting attainable long-term goals in riding and her work when she said, “I love to compete and what riding teaches me from a competition level definitely translates back to my work.”
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds when she isn’t interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. She enjoys writing fiction and is working on a novel where a horse appears mysteriously in people’s lives to help them through a crisis. She’s also writing a middle-grade series about kids who ride horses and solve mysteries.