The head of personal finance at interactive investor is the inaugural guest in a new online Women in Finance column. Moira O’Neill talks to Nina Kelly about pension ‘smugness’, investment highs and lows, and meeting her match at tennis.
Moira O’Neill is head of personal finance at interactive investor, the second-largest online investment platform in the UK. Moira was deputy editor of Money Observer, personal finance editor at Investors Chronicle, and editor at Moneywise, before taking up her current role in 2018. She is a recipient of the Wincott Journalism Award, has written two personal finance books, Finance at 40 and Saving and Investing for Your Children, and is a Financial Times columnist and regular guest on the FT Money Show podcast and TalkRadio.
Growing up, what did you learn about money?
At my primary school in Lancashire everyone had a National Savings and Investments savings book, and the school secretary would deposit our pocket money for us – we could then withdraw it to spend in the school’s sweet shop. It was bad for our teeth, but I remember children really getting to grips with coins. At secondary school, the deputy head showed us how to write a cheque in sixth form – it was clearly a skill that she felt young women about to go out into the world needed – but we didn’t have any formal financial education, which was a shame. I went on to read Classics at the University of Cambridge and was learning to manage a grant, budget and do my own shopping. Learning how to manage money should take place at school, as not all parents can offer advice so there needs to be some kind of leveller that equips children with the skills they need.
Who takes care of the money in your house?
Mostly me, because that’s my day job and I know more about it. My husband has been an investor to varying degrees at different times, although he did get burned in the tech boom.
What was your first investment?
My first job was at Pensions World magazine. Friends joked that I was going to work for a publication about pensioners, but it was a technical title aimed at actuaries, pension lawyers, and pension fund trustees. I quickly learned how important pensions are, and joined the work scheme. I remember feeling a bit smug at having started a pension at 22 and my friends telling me to shut up!
What was your best investment...?
Investment trusts. City of London, F&C, and Finsbury Growth and Income are all trusts I became aware of early on. I have been in and out at different times in my life, depending on my circumstances, and I understand them as solid, highly diversified trusts with really good track records.
...And the worst investment?
A pension. I stayed at my job at Pensions World for under two years, which meant I couldn’t leave my pension invested when I left. Instead, I was given a transfer value of under £2,000. In my next job at Money Marketing, a newspaper aimed at financial advisers, I took some financial advice. The adviser recommended that I put the small sum into an insurance company pension scheme. In hindsight, it was a terrible idea. I was charged a lot for the advice, the scheme was not very dynamic and the charges were high. Years later when I was looking to consolidate my money in a Sipp, I looked at the performance of the scheme: it was awful.
What's the best thing about your job...?
Satisfaction from helping people make investment decisions and secure their financial futures. For me, it’s about putting the right content in front of people at the right time in the right format. I’m passionate about investment and personal finance journalism, which needs to be jargon-free, engaging, and entertaining. We need to work hard to bring dry subjects to life so that people don’t read them because they feel they have to, but because they want to. My recent FT columns have included “Barbie at 60 — how much pension can she expect?” and “Adrian Mole: the secret diary of an emotional investor, aged 52 and ¾”.
...And the worst thing about your job?
Keeping track of regulatory changes has been challenging at times. However, the worst thing about my job is seeing people get it badly wrong - it breaks my heart a bit. People proudly tell me “I’ve got it sorted” because they’ve been to a particular wealth adviser, and I think “Goodness, have you not done a Google search?”. They don’t realise how much they are being charged – and how much this can add up over the years, when they could achieve the same thing by themselves very simply and cheaply.
If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Jargon. When you’ve been immersed in the industry for more than 20 years, like I have, you get used to using certain phrases. If you mention some topics to a cousin or friend, they often have no idea what you’re talking about. For example, some people don’t know what a pension is. It’s just a tax wrapper, but you have to be conscious of not using such jargon in your explanation too.
If you had to save money, what could you do without?
Lunches and breakfasts bought at work. A lot of us get sucked into this habit because we feel we’re time poor, but it’s easy enough to make your own lunch a few times a week. Since working at Moneywise, I’ve trained myself not to be a fritterer. My one luxury is holidays - we like Turkey and Italy – but we’ve got a house that needs renovating so that’s on our minds, too.
What financial advice would you give your younger self?
I wish I’d got more interested in shares earlier. I’ve always enjoyed following funds and trusts but there’s general knowledge to be gained by following UK and global companies. I like buying a newspaper and reading the Business section, but in my twenties that would have been a section I binned. I’ve told my children [13 and nine] about shares and explained that they can own a bit of Apple or Tesco, for example. They have Junior Isas, which are invested in trusts, but I’ve explained that trusts pick good companies to invest it.
What do you do for fun?
Ballet classes. At 11, I auditioned for the Royal Ballet but didn’t get in. At 13, I discovered the pain of dancing on pointe, and was then glad that it hadn’t happened! I enjoy going to watch ballet too, and recently saw Natalia Osipova dance at Sadler’s Wells in London. I also like to play tennis, which is how I met my husband. It’s also how my parents met, while my brother is married to a girl he met at our tennis club when we were “tennis orphans”. You could say that tennis is a bit of theme in our family.
In another life I would be an...
Architect. However, at 16 I did some work experience and the architect I was shadowing was designing a house from scratch for a client. He told me that he knew it was his one chance to design something amazing, and that once it was over he would be constructing office blocks.