Getting to know IPSE's Freelancer of the Year: Iona Bain

Iona Bain resized 2.jpg
© Nisha Haq Photography

Following IPSE’s National Freelancers Day, we caught up with the 2018 Freelancer of the Year Iona Bain – founder of the Young Money Blog – to talk about piggybanks, the future of work and overhauling the financial status quo.

Iona Bain, IPSE Freelancer of the Year 2018 – has it sunk in?

It has sunk in now, but the first couple of days were still complete shock. Now I’m processing what it means and how I can use it as a springboard for my career – contemplating all those possibilities is very exciting.

What were the overriding emotions you felt when your name was called out?

The main emotion was disbelief. I was in such a strong field, and for some time in the run up to the awards I was preparing myself for not winning, because that’s the sensible thing to do. I genuinely thought someone else would very deservedly win.

I was in complete shock when Lucy (Porter – event host) called my name, and then I realised I had to get up on stage! My brain was saying ‘come on Iona, you better get up!’. Once the disbelief subsided it was a case of wanting to show my gratitude and show that the faith placed in me by the judges was justified. Now I want to use this to not just help myself and my career, but help other people too.

How did you come to create the Young Money Blog?

After graduating I was living in Glasgow, trying to make 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 all the money I’d earn from these gigs I’d put in a piggybank in my bedroom. At the time, I thought that was very astute because I wouldn’t spend it immediately but instead save it up and spend it on something sensible in the future. There was about £500 in there 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 a sudden realisation that I might have to change not only my money management approach, but my career too. Instead, a few months passed when I wasn’t getting as much work as I wanted to – I was trying to work as a music journalist too, and if there one thing tougher than making it as a musician, it’s making it as a music journalist! I really struggled and had to move back home with my parents. I spent quite a few weeks and months wondering if I was ever going to be financially dependent and feeling quite despondent about my future really.

There were so many negative media reports about the prospects for my generation and I just didn’t know what my future held. That was when 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? I was very hesitant at first because I’m not very mathematical and I consider myself to be a more creatively-thinking right brain person.

I realised I had nothing to lose and it was surprisingly easy to set up a blog – anyone can do it. 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. So, I did that and hoped that within a few months I might get some work writing for other websites. I never dreamed that seven years on it would become the cornerstone of my career and provide all these incredible opportunities. It was just something to help me, and I hoped would help a few other people too.

From the get-go, was the Young Money Blog your primary focus, or a side project?

I was living in Edinburgh and had started looking for work in London because that’s where the opportunities are. I was offered work with a website and accepted that job. I got the opportunity because I met someone at a party who had seen my blog, and they thought it was very enterprising that I was writing about money without being commissioned to do so. I 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. It was always enjoyable. 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.

It was only after I’d done a couple of more high-profile jobs for the Financial Adviser, where I started learning a lot more about the industry and gained a lot more skills in reporting. I also did a stint at The Times, and after doing those jobs there was suddenly a new interest in the young money agenda alongside the main work I was doing. 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 that work at the Times when I realised I could really pursue it. I’ve not looked back since.

Was the growth immediate?

It took a long time and I felt very much out in the wilderness for those first few years. That was partly because I didn’t spend as much time on the blog as I do now. I didn’t have a very aggressive plan for it; right from the get-go it was all about doing it to help me and in an authentic way. I have experimented over the years with commercial models because I would get offers from companies who wanted to write a guest blog or advertise. At first that was attractive but in the long-term it really erodes the integrity of the blog because you’re becoming something else, rather than an outlet for genuine views on young money. You have to be quite imaginative to maintain that independence and still make money.

I’ve decided that I’d rather people just found the blog naturally and even if that means it has a cult audience rather than a mass audience, I’d rather that the people reading the blog understood it and were engaging with it. I’ve always treated my readers as if they were intelligent and they can take that information and apply it to their own lives. It has grown organically over time and is focussed on the quality rather than the quantity of engagement. I wanted it to strike a chord with people by providing information that they wouldn’t find elsewhere.

Why is it so crucial to engage with younger generations, and break the stigma associated with money?

Some of us, myself included, were lucky enough to receive financial lessons in the home. But I understand not everybody has that background and a lot my peers had no formal financial education at school. While there is a debate about the effectiveness of that education, my opinion is that we may as well try and see if it can work. My instinct is it would help but too many people have missed out. We get very little information in the workplace which is wrong especially when you think of the amount of people being enrolled into a workplace pension for example. It is astonishing the number of young people who are enrolled in a pension, yet don’t understand what one is.

There’s a taboo around money. People don’t like talking about it around their friends and even their partners. There are so many young people who regard finances as the elephant in the room. We have a very difficult relationship with money and we don’t really know where to go for help. My job is to break down the stigma and encourage young people to see there is help and information out there and that it is a subject that will help them should they engage with.

You’ve written a book, Spare Change, can you tell me about that?

A couple of years ago I thought there was a real gap in the market for a handbook for Millennials about money issues. I was approached by Hardie Grant, a small publisher within a larger publishing house. The whole process was far better than I could have expected because I was given complete editorial freedom and they allowed me to write the book exactly how I wanted to.

Once I’d done it, they packaged it beautifully with some incredible illustrations. When the book came out I was incredibly proud because there was nothing else like it. I’d read lots of books to research Spare Change which were very useful and well meaning but quite dry, out-of-date and certainly none were talking about the contemporary issue of Millennial finances. Spare Change really met that desire but I’m hoping to do a follow up because, while it has had a fantastic reaction, I’d like it to help people more widely.

With your book, blog, all the freelance journalism credits and now your work with the Pensions Policy Institute (PPI), do you have an achievement you rank as your proudest?

The different areas I now work in all provide me with a different kind of satisfaction and it’s very hard to measure each against each other. Until recently, the proudest moment in my career was publishing my book because that was far harder to make a reality than set up a website. It’s a tangible object that’s on another level to anything else I’d done to that point.

But to be asked to be asked to be a governor of the PPI was a real indication of the work I’d been doing through the blog. I’d said a lot of things about pension on my blog over the years which have not been well received by the industry because they challenge the status quo. But the PPI was very cognizant that we needed to be having those difficult conversations.

Is there a piece of feedback from someone who reads the blog that you’re most proud of?

Whilst my audience has grown over time in an organic way, what’s lovely is people get in touch genuinely and those moments are so important because 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 they’d always thought that meant they had to be at odds with being good with money. Instead I’d helped them see that actually you can have a new and more enlightened identity of 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. Being good with money 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 in that regards meant a lot to me.

What does freelancing mean to you?

It means being completely autonomous and being able to make your own decisions and conduct your career on your own terms. When I first started out, I was quite open minded. With that mentality I would try to chase fulltime roles and a career ladder that I think now really belong to times gone by. The new way of working is one where you are managing yourself, you are setting your own goals and you are deciding what matters to you; then you fit all that into your life. To me it means being in control and making up my own mind. I’ve had a lot of advice over the years about my blog and how to run it like: adopting a commercial model or be more like someone like Martin Lewis. But I always think if you copy someone else you’re just going to be a pale imitation. You’ll never find that model that will work for people and be groundbreaking. I like to do things my own way and freelancing allows me to do that.

Are there any specific challenges you’ve had to overcome as a freelancer?

I work on my own but since setting up my agency with my father last year, I’m very lucky in that I work with family, so we can talk to each other in a very straightforward way and we understand each other in a way that may not be possible when working with someone else.

Freelancing can be quite isolating though, and you can sometimes feel as if you are working against the grain and some of your ideas are a bit too outlandish. That can be quite threatening, especially when you’re working in a traditional industry such as financial services. It takes an awful long time to turn around that ship and when you’re trying to really aggressively turn it around, you can get some push back. Generally, with freelancing there’s so much uncertainty but I’ve always relished that and I’d hate to be stuck in a rut. I see the disadvantages as advantages most of the time.

What would you say to someone considering entering IPSE’s awards?

I would say go for it! I had no idea, all those months ago when I made my application, that I would be here now. Freelancers can suffer from a confidence deficit, partly because we have to motivate ourselves and tell ourselves that we’re worth it. Especially at the start of your career, you don’t necessarily have the achievements behind you to justify the frequent moral boosts.

But If you don’t go for these opportunities you’ll never know whether you could have made the cut. Putting forward my application was very easy, and I had nothing to lose from it. To actually set out what my achievements were actually 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 now winning is going to have an immeasurable effect on my career. But you just don’t know until you go for it.

What does the future hold for Iona Bain?

I want to make the most of the platform I have. I spent a fair amount of my early career maybe taking it for granted, not fully understanding what it can do. Now that I realise what an unbelievable opportunity there is, I want to make the most of it. Whether that’s doing more broadcast media or writing a second book that will be up to date and reflect the zeitgeist that we’re in now of people being worried about their money and wanting to take back control. Doing more work with the financial industry to make them more user friendly. There are so many things that I’m doing today that I didn’t think were possible a year ago, let alone seven. I’m open to whatever might come my way and I’m very excited about what the future might hold. 

If you saw them now, what would you say to the person who stole your piggybank?

I would tell them they did me an enormous favour – though it didn't feel like it at the time! 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!

Meet the author

Tom Hayward

Senior Press & PR Officer