There is a famous story about Muhammad Ali in which, in his native Kentucky in 1954, an opportunist thief stole the-then 12-yearold’s bicycle to unwittingly set in motion one of the greatest careers in sporting history. And so, when in 2011 a thief stole a piggybank belonging to Iona Bain, they too inadvertently sparked the chain of events which ended with the Edinburgh- born financial journalist being crowned IPSE’s 2018 Freelancer of the Year.
“After graduating, I was in Glasgow trying to earn a living as a musician. It was very tough because being a musician is a very uncertain existence. I was having to find gigs here, there and everywhere and I’d put all the money I’d earn from these gigs in a piggybank in my bedroom,” Iona tells me.
“At the time, I thought I was being very astute because I wouldn’t spend it immediately and could instead save it up and spend it on something sensible in the future. There was quite a lot of money in there – about £500.
“But returning from a gig one night, I found my room had been completely ransacked and the piggybank had been burgled. In that moment, I thought: ‘I’m going to need a better saving strategy than this!’”
It wasn’t an immediate epiphany where her exact career trajectory was laid out before her, but more the sowing of a seed that took a few months to sprout, and then a few more to flourish. Iona, a creatively- thinking right-brain person, who by her own admission had never seen eye-to-eye with maths, instead used a music degree from Oxford to pursue of a career in music journalism.
But as Iona now happily attests, the only thing harder than a career as a musician is a career as a music journalist. After a few months of wondering whether she would ever be financially independent and a few candid conversations with her parents, Iona – at first reluctantly – channelled her penchant for writing down a new avenue: finances.
“There were so many negative media reports about the prospects for my generation and I just didn’t know what my future was going to be like,” Iona continues. “I spoke to my parents, who are very wise, and they told me I had an opportunity to do something different. Why don’t I write about money? Once I realised there was nobody else writing about financial issues for our generation – and certainly not in a down-to-earth, accessible way – I thought I could do that.” The Young Money Blog was born.
“I hoped that within a few months I might get some work writing for other websites. It was just something to help me, and I hoped it would help a few other people too.
“I soon accepted a job in London and kept the blog going on the side, but on a bit of a low-burner because I didn’t realise the full potential of it. I found it immensely satisfying to write the blogs in my own style and think about what a young person would want to read about when it comes to money. I kept it going almost for my own pleasure.”
As Iona’s niche in an incredibly saturated industry started to manifest itself, her stock slowly started to grow, and she was rewarded with freelance work with The Times and the Financial Adviser – a highly respected subsidiary of the Financial Times. There, she began to learn more about not just the industry, but how to develop her skills as a specialist reporter and financial authority. As the ‘young money’ agenda began to grow, the Young Money Blog took on a new life.
“I was getting contacted by broadcasters, publishers, advisers, financial companies, all wanting to hear my views on young people’s financial problems. I started understanding there was a gap in the market that nobody else was filling and in the absence of anyone else, they were coming to me.
“That was when I started to realise that I didn’t need to aspire to have a conventional career. Perhaps I could make my blog into a career in a way I enjoy, to suit me and on my terms. I now receive so many really interesting opportunities. I think the turning point was a few years ago when I did some work at
The Times and realised I could really pursue it. I’ve not looked back since.”
Riding that wave, Iona has since carved out a trailblazing career in the industry, breaking the status quo to become the authoritative source of financial guidance for the so-called ‘Generation Y’. Her list of freelance credits includes the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent, Mirror Money and The Herald newspapers.
She regularly appears on ITV Tonight, BBC Radio, BBC Scotland, Channel 4 News, across local radio and in 2016 she published her first book: Spare Change. Until recently, she cited Spare Change as her most significant achievement but that has now been surpassed by a recent invitation to become the youngest ever governor of the prestigious Pensions Policy Institute (PPI).
“The different areas I now work in all provide me with a different kind of satisfaction and it’s very hard to measure each one against each other,” Iona adds.
“Until recently, the proudest moment in my career was publishing my book. But to be asked to be a governor of the PPI was a real indication of my worth because I’d said a lot of things about pensions on my blog which have not been well received by the industry because they challenge the status quo.
“The PPI was very cognizant that we needed to be having those difficult conversations and it all resulted from what I’d been doing on the blog. I never dreamed that seven years on it would become the cornerstone of my career and provide all these incredible opportunities.
“I often get contacted by people who have never thought about money in any meaningful way before. Recently someone got in touch to say they were a creative person and had always thought that meant they had to be at odds with being money-savvy. Instead, I’d helped them realise that you can actually have a new and more enlightened identity by being ‘creatively good’ with money.
“I know that sounds quite abstract but that’s how I’ve always tried to view it – it’s not just about spreadsheets, budgeting and boring concepts. I think being good with money is also about being aware of the difficulties of life and how we’re all under pressure all the time to be constantly consuming. It is about understanding your own values, what you want to get out of life and using money as a means to an end. Her feedback meant a lot to me.”
Iona credits her ‘wise’ parents as the influence behind her career, but their wisdom has very evidently rubbed off on her. She is mature beyond her 30 years and sees positive reflection as important to both motivate herself and reinforce her worth. It was this quest for reflection that brought her to IPSE’s Freelancer of the Year awards.
“Freelancers can suffer from a confidence deficit, partly because we have to motivate ourselves and tell ourselves that we’re worth it. Putting forward my application was very easy because I had nothing to lose.
“To actually set out my achievements felt like a really positive process in itself. Sometimes we don’t take enough time to reflect on our achievements. Entering the IPSE awards allowed me to do that and then obviously being shortlisted and winning is going to have an immeasurable effect on my career.”
And with the dust settling on her crowning evening at National Freelancers Day, the ambitious Iona could be forgiven for a few moments of nostalgic reflection. On an evening seven years ago, when the wheels to her journey were set in motion. Ali was never reunited with the thief who stole his bicycle, but what would Iona say if afforded that opportunity?
“I would tell them they did me an enormous favour – though it didn’t feel like it at the time,” she laughs. “Not only did it teach me a huge lesson in sound money management, it was a big reason why I decided, not long after, to start a blog to teach myself more about personal finance. And if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It was clearly meant to be!”