Updated on 09.17.14

Figuring Out What’s Really Important

Trent Hamm

Whenever I spend time thinking about my life, I get caught up in a lot of ideals. I think about writing a great novel. I think about some volunteer projects I’d like to work on. I think about the house I’d like to build and the great travel I’d love to do in the next ten or fifteen years. I think about my own physical fitness and I think about riding in RAGBRAI.

These are wonderful dreams. I enjoy taking little steps toward them because, honestly, I usually enjoy the process.

Yet, when I step back and look at the broader scope of my life, that’s not what’s really important to me.

First and foremost, my family (and I consider my closest friends a part of that) is the single most important thing in my life. Bar none. Secondary to that is learning new things and, hand in hand with that, sharing what I’ve learned.

Almost every other interest and passion I have in my life is secondary to those things.

I’ll give you some examples to illustrate what I mean. Anyone who has read the site for very long knows that one of my favorite pastimes is playing board games and card games. I love playing games with other people across the table from me.

Yet, when I dig deep into it, it’s not really about the games. I do enjoy them, don’t get me wrong, but what I love about them is that it gets people I care about around a table engaging in a shared experience.

If you asked me what my favorite memories of board gaming are, they revolve around people. I think of playing Old Maid with my children. I think of playing Risk Legacy with my wife and three of my closest friends in the world. I think of sitting in my friend John’s living room, playing Descent with him and another of my closest friends.

Another great example comes from reading. If a friend or family member really enjoys a book, I’ll almost always give it a read. Why? Beyond merely being a good book, it becomes a shared experience with that person.

So let’s bring this home: what does this have to do with personal finance?

Personal finance is all about goals. If you’re not selecting a goal – whether it be freedom from debt, saving for an abundant retirement at age 70, or something else entirely – you’re either already incredibly rich (and you probably got there due to goals) or you’re spinning your wheels. Progressing toward a better and more secure financial state is something that pretty much every reader of The Simple Dollar shares.

However, goals are useless if you don’t feel completely motivated to move forward with them. You might desire a change in your life, but unless you’ve reached a point where that change feels vital to your future existence, it’s not going to happen. If you’re not getting out of bed with the feeling that today you’re going to move toward that goal, you’re probably not going to move toward that goal.

So, what is it that’s truly important to you? There is no right or wrong answer. It’s a matter of simply figuring out what’s truly important to you.

Here’s an example. I have a friend who dreams of being a sports announcer. He talks about it a fair amount. However, he also has a wife and a child at home. Recently, he told me that he thinks his sports announcing dreams are going to go on hold for a while. I asked him why, and he told me that chasing that dream requires a level of time and commitment that he can’t give to it right now. He had realized that his family was more important to him and he was sticking with the things that motivated him deeply every single day.

Does that mean that he’s abandoning the dream? Not entirely. Instead, he’s finding new ways to channel that passion that’s more in line with the rest of his family. He’s gotten involved with youth sports, assisting with the production of videos and other materials for other parents. This allows him to follow his passion while also being involved with his children. In fact, he’s starting a small video production company as a side business, where he creates professional videos highlighting a team and sells them for a reasonable fee. Several youth sports leagues are going to partner with him, so all he has to do is hire a few people to film the games, then edit them at home. He can film his own child’s games himself and involve the family in the production process at home.

Spending time with his family is the most important thing to him. Because of this activity, he’s spending time with them, earning some money on the side, and showing his children an entrepreneurial spirit along the way.

I can tell a very similar story about The Simple Dollar. My motivation to change my financial habits came from my oldest son. My motivation to write about it was many-fold: I enjoyed writing (value #2), I wanted to share some ideas with my friends and family (value #1), and I hoped to earn some money on the side to make our financial journey better (value #1), plus I would be able to involve my wife and my children in the process (value #1).

My dreams of making a living from writing didn’t start happening until I oriented them around what truly mattered to me. The same thing is true of my sports announcing friend.

So, what’s important to you? I think the easiest way to identify those core things that are important to you is to evaluate what you actually do over a long period of time. I’d focus on activities outside of the workplace, because we all need to earn a living, unless you’re already doing a job that’s key to what you value.

What do you spend your spare time on? I spend mine with my family and close friends as much as I can, and when I’m alone, I read and learn things. I bridge the two by finding ways to express what I’ve learned. This is what I enjoy doing.

My personal finance success came entirely from those things. My family inspired me to make changes with my money. My desire to read and learn educated me on how to do it. My desire to share what I learned launched The Simple Dollar.

You can follow a similar path with what you value the most. The key thing is to always remember that, no matter what your goals are, a solid personal finance foundation makes it all much, much easier to achieve.

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  1. Raya says:

    It’s a good idea to look for your passion OUTSIDE of work. We often work jobs just for the money. So it makes sense that your passion is about what you do when there’s no one around to give orders.

    About that friend: sometimes we hide behind family and obligations and turn them into excuses. If you’re afraid of taking a chance, it’s easy to say “Nah… family’s more important”.

    I think that if you really, desperately want something, you’ll make time for it no matter what.

  2. valleycat1 says:

    Yet if a woman puts her career plans on hold to raise a family, she’s forever doomed to the mommy track….

  3. Johanna says:

    Learning new things and sharing what you’ve learned are important to you? Then why do you keep regurgitating the same old same old on this blog?

  4. Tracy says:

    Johanna +1000

    I liked the “I can tell a very similar story about The Simple Dollar”

    Newsflash, Trent. You’ve told that story. You’ve told it over and over and over. If you look at your website, it’s even a link at the top of the page to one of the (many) versions! What have you learned *RECENTLY* ?

  5. Angie says:

    I thought he was going to end it with stating he’s leaving the Simple Dollar.

  6. Gretchen says:

    Trent, you enjoy the process more then the end game. own it.

  7. Other Jonathan says:

    Really, folks, I don’t know how you expect Trent to come up with hundreds upon hundreds of unique topics after 5 or so years of writing the blog. He really has two options – he could stop writing articles, and all of his regular readers would disappear; or he can rehash old topics, leading to tons of regular readers coming back each and every day to bemoan the lack of startling new insight into the world of personal finance. One option generates readership. The other doesn’t. Hmm…

  8. Johanna says:

    Other Jonathan, there are lots of things he could write about. There are new laws and other developments going into effect all the time that affect personal finance. He could report on those, and it would be a valuable service. He could learn something about taxes and write something on that topic that’s not complete nonsense. Or he could expand the scope of the blog – which he’s already done to a certain extent. A lot of his posts – on cooking, personal development, “inspiration,” etc. – are already pretty tangentially related to personal finance, so if he wanted to write more about history or science or literature, or whatever these new things he’s learning are (without trying to connect everything back to “family is important and you should spend less than you earn”), that would be fine with me.

    I think the whole problem is that he does keep trying to come up with “startling new insights into the world of personal finance.” And he keeps trying to derive those insights solely from the course of living his own life. His life is not that special – the rest of us have lives too, and can figure out much of the same stuff on our own. There is a whole world out there of things he can write about that are not all about him and his family and his board games and his Prius and his paid-off mortgage.

    Or, if he just wants to keep writing about family, board games, Prius, etc., he should consider whether it’s really true that learning things and sharing them are two of his top three priorities.

  9. Johanna says:

    Also: Although he posts twice a day, he’s got things set up right now so that he only has to come up with two posts of original material per *week*. That should not be that hard.

  10. Tracy says:

    @Other Jonathan

    It doesn’t have to be a unique topic – it just has to be something fresh and new. It could be:

    Reactions to current events…

    New angles on the same topic. He never does a new angle, he always does the same angle and with the EXACT SAME references.

    Actual posts about other people [with *their* opinions/stories, not Trent’s view of it … which usually come across as packed with his assumptions, not the result of a conversation]

    Or here is a GREAT idea – Trent’s talked about volunteers/volunteer projects several times in just the last couple of days. Yet does anybody have any idea if he *actually* volunteers himself? There’s a story in that – how he balances it around other things … how he got involved … what he expected going in and how those expectations were met or challenged.

    Or … and while some of it is probably covered by a non-disclosure, I’m sure not all of it is … Trent just SOLD HIS BLOG. He’s mentioned it, but that’s about it. Did he contact them, or did they contact him? Was he conflicted? Worried that he’d lose control? How did he decide it was the right move? There was no way this wasn’t a major, scary, huge financial decision on his part and here we are in his personal finance blog and we got *nothing*.

    I mean, Trent’s life is *happening* all around him, right now. How can there not be new and fresh ideas in that?

    These ideas were off the top of my head in just a few minutes … and I feel like in just generating them, I’ve put more thought into Trent’s blog than he has in months.

    But it is true, this does work for him, he does get readers from it. And he probably doesn’t really care.

  11. Andrew says:

    Johanna, you forgot to mention the broken blender and the $200 Le Creuset pot.

  12. Johanna says:

    You’re right, Andrew. How could I forget?

  13. Tracy says:

    (And all of mine even let Trent keep his navel-gazing approach … Johanna’s notions of actually putting into practice his stated ‘love of learning and sharing’ branch him out even more.)

    I mean seriously, does anybody believe that Trent’s learned *anything* new in the last month? His great insights this post were that 1) his friends and family are important to him and 2) good personal finances make that possible to prioritize.

    We get that same startling insight every *week* – sometimes multiple times.

  14. Johanna says:

    Tracy, I like your suggestions too. I’d forgotten that there are aspects of Trent’s life that he’s hinted at but never written about in detail.

    Of course, he doesn’t have to write about anything in detail if he doesn’t want to – he’s allowed to keep his private life private. But “writing a blog that’s all about me” + “keeping most of my life private” = “regurgitating same old same old.” I’m sure you can prove this with a calculator.

  15. Gretchen says:

    He could cut down the quality, for one thing.

    Or ADMIT that they are the same topics over and over.

  16. Tracy says:


    Wait, is it *possible* to cut down the quality?!

    (Heh, I know it was just a typo but it took me a second!)

    Here’s another idea – he does the Weekly Link Roundup post with only a one-line comment/though fragment per link.

    Blogging can be a really interactive medium … so instead of a one-line response/summary, he could do a thoughtful reblog, with reflections on how it applies to his own life. That only works if it’s not one of the same topics he’s already hashed and rehashed again, but it’s another way to add something fresh.

    For example, look at this from last week:

    “‘The Habits That Crush Us’: For me, the crushing habits are ones that eat up unnecessary time. I am “crushed” when I find myself without enough time to do something I want to do with my family or with my friends.”

    That was a very … uniformative and meaningless answer. I mean, what a *fantastic* opportunity for a (potentially) insightful story! What habits specifically? How did it you find yourself sucked in/losing track of time – are they stress habits or hobby habits? What activity did you miss? *How did that make you feel?* How did you/are you addressing it?

    I mean, as long as the story doesn’t turn out to be: “I spent too much time browsing in a video game store looking at games I couldn’t buy so I missed Pixar Night with my Family”

    Or from the week before:

    “Economic Lessons from “Farmville”: For me, the real lesson of Farmville is the microtransactions. I’m amazed at how many people will pay a few bucks to get a little bit ahead at this game.”

    God, how EASY would it to be to write a post on that? Particularly because microtransactions are barely mentioned in the post he links to at ALL (just how much they cost) … so there’s so much room to explore.

  17. Tom says:

    There was no way this wasn’t a major, scary, huge financial decision on his part and here we are in his personal finance blog and we got *nothing*.

    I mean, Trent’s life is *happening* all around him, right now. How can there not be new and fresh ideas in that?
    I don’t really use the “+1” comment; but this one, +1 billion.

  18. Andrew says:

    Tracy, I really hope Trent is reading this and takes your suggestions to heart.

  19. Steven says:

    You like taking little steps towards a lot of different goals because you’re afraid of committing to one and working towards that one goal aggressively. So long as you’re making little progress on lots of goals, it’s gives you a false sense of accomplishment and keeps you complacent.

    How about sticking to a couple of things and going after them with intensity and intension? You do an awful lots of talking about all the things you’d *like* to do, but you don’t talk so often about the things you are actually doing that you enjoy today. Want to volunteer? Volunteer. Don’t just think about how wonderful it would be. Good intentions aren’t very useful.If you keep thinking about the travel goals you have in the next 10 to 15 years, you might die before you ever leave.

    Why are you always pushing your ideal life into the future? What’s wrong with today? Stop planning and start doing! No one is ever 100% ready to pursue their dreams, but the ones who “get off the pot” so to speak are going to be a lot more successful than those who just keep talking.

  20. David says:

    One could argue, I suppose, that Trent writes these articles primarily for new readers on the subject of personal finance. That is: he talks about the same things at the same level year-on-year just as a school teacher gives the same lessons year-on-year, for although the lessons are the same, the students are different. Would it be reasonable for a twelve-year-old to enter a class for eight-year-olds and berate the teacher for giving the same old, same old lesson?

  21. David says:

    I should say, having found that this post has not automatically entered moderation (unlike my several attempts to reply to comments on the tire pressure thread), that:

    Whereas regular followers of a blog of this (or any other) nature may reasonably hope that the originator will continue some kind of narrative, providing fresh material at every stage, they have no rational grounds for complaint when this does not happen. Trent started this blog as part of an attempt to turn his life around; he has done so (and is to be congratulated therefor); but it seems to me reasonable to some extent for the blog to continue to be about how he did it, not some kind of sequel to having done it (there is a reason why many more people have read “What Katie Did” than have read “What Katie Did At School”). If this involves rehashing old material – well, what do you want him to do? Go broke again in order to provide new material on how not to?

    Moreover, since this blog is more closely allied to economics than physics, it is entirely to be expected that it will ask and answer the same questions from year to year. An old joke runs thus:

    “Professor, these questions are exactly the same as in last year’s exam!”

    “Don’t worry. This is economics, so the questions are the same but the right answers are different.”

  22. Tracy says:

    David, I think you missed the point where this was in response to Trent’s claim that he loves learning and sharing *new* ideas.

  23. David says:

    Missed it? No more than I would miss an individual cherry-picker in a cherry orchard. What Trent wrote, and I quote it here in order to save you the trouble of scrolling up, was:

    What do you spend your spare time on? I spend mine with my family and close friends as much as I can, and when I’m alone, I read and learn things. I bridge the two by finding ways to express what I’ve learned. This is what I enjoy doing.

    Well, that is an account of how he spends his *spare* time. It is not an account of what he does at work, nor is it a guarantee that he will express to us (his “customers”, so to speak) the new things that he has learned – those he reserves for his family and close friends.

    At least, that is what the paragraph actually says, nor can it closely be construed as meaning anything else. Those who assert that Trent should write more carefully are entirely correct (for sufficiently vague values of “should”). But it would at least be possible to argue that from time to time, they should also read more carefully. If Trent were to read the views of the regular commentators here, he could be forgiven for not at once admitting all of them to the circle of “family and close friends”.

  24. Raya says:

    Well said, David.

    Some readers apperantly think they’ve personally hired Trent to write per their demands. When you’re a reader it’s easy to just want and want and want, like a kid just wants and wants stuff. But if you become a blogger you quickly see it’s not so easy, just like when you become an adult.

  25. moom says:

    The odd thing is to say that you should find your passion outside work when what Trent has done (and what I’ve tried to do throughout my career) is get my work to reflect my passion. Not everyone in the world can do this obviously. But it is so much better when you aren’t spending 2000 hours plus a year doing stuff you don’t like or are not interested in.

  26. Tracy says:

    You missed: “My desire to share what I learned launched The Simple Dollar. My desire to share what I learned launched The Simple Dollar.”

    Hey, check it out, his desire to share and learn IS linked to the Simple Dollar. Neat, what reading can do.

    Trent claims to still be learning and growing. His posts aren’t show that he is. He doesn’t OWE me better posts – but

    Raya, I think Johanna and my previous suggestions show that it really *isn’t* that hard to come up with new ideas … and that’s all people are asking for. NEW ideas. It really, really isn’t that hard – do you know how many bloggers do it every day?

  27. Tracy says:

    And while that was snarky – all of my suggestions above were sincere and ideas I do hope Trent does think about.

    This blog ISN’T dead and Trent could really tap back into his passion for it, *if* his passion isn’t dead. I hope it isn’t dead and he’s just hit a combination of writer’s block/writing slump and not being really sure what he could add to freshen it up.

    But it could be after selling the blog he really HAS checked out and all his writing energy is going to his other projects. Only time will tell.

    IF that’s the case though, there’s also a great post in that (particularly if it relates to the difference of pressure between being the owner and being the contractor and how it doesn’t effect output but does effect quality.)

  28. Tracy says:

    ** Quality is the wrong word – originality is better.

  29. Johanna says:

    Tracy just said most of what I was going to say, but I’ll say it anyway.

    Raya, of course we’re not entitled to have Trent meet our own personal demands. That’s why we’re making suggestions, not demands. And my suggestions were directed not just at Trent (although I hope he considers them) but also at small-minded people like Other Jonathan, and now David, who seem to think that it’s absolutely impossible for Trent to come up with any better ideas than he already is.

  30. David says:

    Oh, I don’t say that Trent could not produce some newer and better ideas. I say merely that if someone were to come to this blog because her financial situation had reached its nadir, she would not be all that likely to be encouraged by a dissertation on the microeconomics of Farmville.

    Still, I agree with Tracy, Johanna and others to the extent that there is less enthusiasm than there used to be in Trent’s posts. The commentators will just have to try harder to make up for it, I guess.

  31. SLCCOM says:

    I think Trent is perhaps putting out too much content. Two posts a day is more than most people do, and makes it hard to come up with new angles on everything while maintaining privacy. And privacy is very important to the people in his life, I’m sure. Also, he does have three young children!

    That said, he is getting new readers who are at the beginning stages of turning their lives around, and he needs to keep doing that. But he has a lot of long-time readers, and some posts for “advanced” readers would go over well.

    Posters on the forum could help by offering additional advice to newbies, as everyone is pretty good at with the questions posts.

    So, I’ll start. For new readers, when you set goals, take plenty of time to really think about them and why you are choosing those particular ones. Goals can have several purposes: relationships, personal growth, giving back, or even just plain fun. Many are mixed motives.

    If you aren’t reaching a particular goal, there is probably a reason. Figure out the barrier, and either accept it and move on to something else or find a way around it. As we grow and change, and our circumstances change, goals need to change as well.

  32. Sarah says:

    Wow, I thought this was a good post. In my own mind I need to regularly remind myself why I’m doing the things that I am doing. We all need self reminders about what is at the core of our values so that we keep plodding ahead. Also, I thought the connection that Trent made between games and shared time with family and friends was important, too. After reading this I pulled out the Yahtzee box and had a blast with the kiddos. Thanks!

  33. Raya says:

    I personally think that two posts A DAY is quite a challenge. And there really aren’t that many topics in personal finance, so I’d say it really is hard to keep coming up with new stuff. FOR YEARS.

    I’m not saying you don’t have a point – each opinion reflects some part of the truth spectrum.

    But there ought to be a more, um, diplomatic way to express what we’d like to read. I can’t speak for Trent here, but if I were getting as many heated comments on my blog I’d pretty quickly lose my sparks for writing.

    Maybe a good way to inspire a blogger for new topics would be to send questions to them. Or send suggestions by email?

  34. Johanna says:

    But Raya, the thing is, he doesn’t have to come up with two original posts a day. Between the “365 Ways” series, the reader mailbags, the weekly roundup, the ten pieces of inspiration each week each week, and the book reviews, that’s 12 of his 14 weekly posts right there (although the book review series is ending and we don’t yet know what will replace it). That leaves two, maybe three, original posts per week.

    Plus, he says that he sold the blog so that he could focus on writing instead of getting bogged down in tedious administrative stuff. Fair enough – but it seems reasonable to expect that renewed focus on writing to show in those two or three original posts per week. And so far, it really hasn’t, so much.

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