Updated on 03.17.07

Insights Into My Mind: A Recent Interview

Trent Hamm

In the last few months, I’ve been interviewed several times as a result of the success of this site. One recent interview, however, really stood out because the interviewer went immediately into questions a lot more interesting than “why do you write about money” and “how popular is your site” (the usual questions, in other words). I thought that the answers might be interesting for all of you. Here’s the meat of that interview, with the earlier “introductory” questions excised out.

What would you consider your greatest achievement in the last few years?

Less than one year ago, I had five figures worth of credit card debt, a large outstanding loan on my primary vehicle, and I barely had enough money to cover the minimum payments on both. I had nothing at all in savings, either.

So what’s the accomplishment? Without increasing my income at all, I currently have zero credit card debt, I own that vehicle free and clear, and I have several thousand dollars in the bank.

Some people might not view that as a great achievement, but it did lead into the creation of The Simple Dollar, which I launched in November 2006 and currently reaches 7,500 visitors a day. It describes what I learned during this process of turning my financial life around, and the success of it is now aiding me to begin saving for some bigger life goals.

What was the key to achieving that success for you? Was there one thing, or were there a number of factors?

The key moment was the birth of my first child, a son, in November 2005. Before he was born, I was reasonably organized in terms of time management, but the management of a lot of other aspects of my life were a complete train wreck.

I remember distinctly one night, when he was about four months old and I realized that my financial situation was a complete nightmare. I was literally wondering whether I could come up with the money to pay for our housing that month. He was very fussy that evening, so I sat in his bedroom with him, held him in my arms, and rocked with him for several hours. He finally fell asleep on my chest and as I sat there in the darkness and felt him breathing against my chest, realizing how utterly helpless he was and how much he depended on me, I broke down completely. I put him in his crib, sat there in his room in the dark, and hit bottom.

I realized I needed to turn things around with my life, and if I didn’t do it now, I would lose everything that had value in my life.

In other words, the key to achieving this success, for me, was finding inspiration, and it was in the form of a baby.

What are the essential habits that you’ve formed to help you achieve your goals?

I could go on about that for hours. Here are the first two things that come to mind:

One, I avoid situations where I would spend money. I used to go to book stores and browse and usually leave with a book or two in hand. I would do similar things in electronic stores and so on. By simply avoiding these temptations as much as possible, I find it much easier to not waste money on such things – or time.

Two, I review my finances weekly, and do a major financial review monthly. This involves several things, such as checking the balance of every account in my name. Each month, I calculate my net worth (sum of all assets minus sum of all debts) and I strive to ensure that it goes up as much as I can possibly make it go up from month to month.

How often do you think about your goals, review them, and take action on them?

I have different regular cycles for the goals, but the key word is regular. For me, evaluating goals and determining further action is something I have to do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis without fail in order to keep moving forward. Whenever I slack off on it, I find myself slipping into bad habits and laziness.

How do you overcome failure? In other words, how do you pick yourself back up if you are struggling, and how do you motivate yourself if your enthusiasm is lagging?

Honestly, I play with my son. It’s really hard to feel too much like a failure when you walk into the house and a toddler who has just learned how to walk yells “Daaa!” and comes running towards you as fast as his legs can carry you. He often makes me feel like I’m the champion of the world by doing little things like building giant towers out of blocks in the living room so that he can knock them over.

Again and again, he reaffirms that I am not a failure in life. I realize parenting isn’t for everyone, but this little child has turned my life around and made me far more productive and positive than I’ve ever been before.

Could you describe your productivity system and any productivity tips you have for people?

My general productivity system is a lot like a simple GTD. I just write anything I have to do on a piece of paper as soon as I think of it and toss it in my “in” box if I’m busy. Then I process my “in” box regularly. Projects are on their own sheet of paper (or collected sheets with paperclips) where the top one is just a list of the tasks for the project. I also have a filing system for long-term storage. Instead of using the figurative “43 folders” of GTD, I just write due dates of things that are upcoming in the upper right and leave them in the inbox until the date comes. That’s it – that’s all I do to keep things going.

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  1. Todd says:

    I’m really curious how you went from negative $BIGNUM to positive $SOMETHING in less than a year.

    I mean, I know you’re providing all sorts of tips and information every day. In looking at our finances, I just don’t see *that* much that can be cut; at least, not enough to make such a dramatic turnaround in a year. Or even two. We couldn’t even come close to that.

    Were you really “blowing” so much money that, once you throttled back, it was easy to make such great progress? From the numbers you described, it would seem like you’d need to make a net change of +$2000/month to effect that kind of change.

  2. st says:

    Is there a link to the full interview article? I’m actually interested in reading the introductory questions and such. Thanks!

  3. eR0CK says:

    I agree with Todd, I’d like to see how you’ve managed.

    I had around $5K in debt post-graduation and it’s only my side job that’s allowed for me to pay off $5K in one year.

    How you would do this in one year with four times the amount of debt and no increase in income?

    I just can’t figure out how the math works out, unless you were spending so much that cutting back a bit worked. For me personally, I already cut back and it wasn’t enough, so I got a side job and that’s been a huge help.

  4. argus says:

    i completely understand your motivation for changing your financial situation. i had a similar epiphany when my twins were born, i was watching them and thinking they aren’t secure enough and decided to turn myself around. after doing that i’m even a better father and husband

  5. Tricia says:

    I also agree with Todd. How did you pay down that much debt in 1 year? I am currently drowning debt and have 2 jobs to keep afloat monthly. I am sure if I take a hard look at spending, I could trim $200 off spending but that would not pay off the debt in a year and have a savings account.

    I am new to your blog and love it. How do you find the time to blog so much and have a day job and be a father/husband etc?

  6. rob in Madrid says:

    I have to agree, the biggest problem when your maxed out in debt is not having anything to draw on when a bill comes up. Budgeting is great but what do you do when the car breaks down or the furnace goes in the middle of winter. Usually what happens is you have to put in on Credit.

    My biggest personal struggle is making sure my I dont’ go over my weekly budget. I’ve got a great budget but it’s hard to stick to

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