The Simple Dollar blog (“Financial talk for the rest of us”) is a trial and error success story by which founder Trent Hamm, 31, found his voice and in the process gained 500,000 readers.
As with many financial blogs that put the “personal” in personal finance, The Simple Dollar originated as a platform for Hamm to tell how he took control of his finances and dug himself out of staggering debt. Hamm’s background is in science and research, but he is passionate about writing. After some initially unsuccessful attempts at blogging on different subjects, he started a parenting blog that was starting to get some traction, he said, but he became uncomfortable with some of the more disturbing user comments.
Launched in 2006, The Simple Dollar originated as a kind of online journal that he sent to his circle of friends. “They were going through many of the same things I was,” he told Millionaire Corner. “They were struggling with debt and dealing with the financial impact of marriage and having a child. I sent them links to the blog and said, 'Maybe you’ll find this interesting.’ A lot of them sent it on to their friends (and it spread from there). I hit some sort of chord.”
Hamm, who lives in rural Des Moines with his wife and children, writes two posts a day. One recent post deals with how the under-employed can make more beneficial self-improvement use of the downtime on their job. A new recurring feature weighs the pros and cons of reader-suggested frugal tactics. Those new to the site are recommended to read "Trent’s 14 Money Rules” and his own story.
It is a familiar one. Hamm grew up in “an extremely poor household,” he said. “There was very little money. On the rare occasions when my parents would come into a little bit of money, they would usually spend it on a treat for the family, like a little vacation. But there were big gaps where it would be a struggle to put food on the table.”
Hamm did not want this for his own family, but a well-paying job gave him access to “a significant amount of money and I happily spent it for awhile,” he said. “Before I knew it, I was in debt and I knew I would have to change.”
His first stop was the library, where he checked out personal finance books. One that had a big impact, he said, was Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, which Hamm called “a cheerleading book” that presents a straight-forward, easy-to-follow plan. Another was the “more philosophical” Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez with Monique Tilford. This book, Hamm said, asked questions that examine the reasons people spend money the way they do.
Hamm himself has written two books, The Simple Dollar: How One Man Wiped Out His Debts and Achieved the Life of His Dreams and 365 Ways to Live Cheap: Your Everyday Guide to Saving Money. A third book is in the works.
Hamm’s blog is reader-driven, he said. He estimates he gets about 100 emails a day from people asking specific questions about their personal finance situation. “There is just a general fear of the future and that’s not surprising given the (political environment) right now,” he said. “People are afraid the dollar is going to collapse and they want to know how to prepare for that.
“There’s also a large group between 35 and 50 who all of a sudden wake up and realize they are in bad shape when it comes to their retirement. A third group has emerged in the last year or two who say their financial situation isn’t working and wants to know how to change their behaviors.”
Among the most common mistakes he sees from his emails is people who haven’t thought through why they spend money on certain things. “Some readers get angry when I suggest that they shouldn’t eat out three or four times a week,” he laughed.”I don’t know if it’s delusional, but people get very defensive about the way they live their life. They want to have financial success without making any changes.”
There are many personal finance blogs out there. It may be difficult for those not money-savvy to know which ones they could trust. One red flag, Hamm offered, is if a blog features a number of posts describing financial products. “More often than not those posts are paid for,” Hamm said. “I’m approached daily by credit card companies, brokerage firms, banks, and credit unions. I could make some very good money.”
Another warning sign, he said, is if a blog posts dodgy get-rich schemes. “If something doesn’t make sense to you or you get a sense that something is not right, then get off the blog.”
Hamm has engaged his own young children in the family finances. A main topic of conversation, he said, is setting a goal and saving toward it, whether it be a $300 blender for Hamm’s wife (she’s still using a $30 model she had in college) or a trip that Hamm takes annually with his friends.
The Simple Dollaris a full-time job. He left his other position so he could spend more time with his family. “I love writing,” he said, “but the big reason why I do this is so I can be home for my kids. At my previous job, I couldn’t be there when they got off the bus after school.”