Updated on 10.26.07

Making It Up As I Go Along

Trent Hamm

A couple days ago, a reader named Matt left the following comment on a post about debt freedom versus investing:

I’m starting to think that Trent makes a lot of this up. The “my friend quit his actuarial job to become a forklift operator” strained credulity and now it seems as though he can’t keep his story straight from post to post.

If he simply changes his mind a lot as he learns his way, what is the value to others in reading about it? We’ll never see the results of any of the choices because they never last long enough to be tested.

Let’s back up here. In April 2006, I was in dire enough financial straits that I was thinking about bankruptcy. Over the next eighteen months, I (a) built up an emergency fund, (b) paid off all of my consumer debt (leaving just a mortgage and student loans), (c) initiated college savings for my children, and (d) bumped my retirement savings up substantially. In this period, we also bought a house, moved to this house, and had a second child, the latter of which happened less than two months ago.

So, yes, I think it’s fair to say there have been major life changes in the last eighteen months in my life. The biggest change? I realized that buying stuff really doesn’t matter very much at all. After that, the immediate solutions became clear: get rid of that high interest debt and put my family in a good position (this is why we bought the house, because our previous living quarters would have been untenable with two small children).

Getting a good financial base means your possibilities open up. My financial situation now is completely different than it was then, and the possibilities are now a lot more open than they ever were before. When my son was born, almost two years ago now, the idea of either of us staying at home with him was basically completely out of the question – we would have gone bankrupt almost immediately. Now that we have a firm grip on our spending and have a second child, it’s well within the realm of possibility for one of us to drop out of the workforce.

This also means that we have the freedom to really establish realistic short term, medium term, and long term goals. With all of these possibilities, much of the conversation between my wife and I is about goals. Where do we want to see ourselves in one year? In five years? In twenty years? What’s the plan to reach each of these goals? What’s the most important of the goals to us? This is a living, active discussion – and we’re at the point where we are actually fleshing out our plans to reach our goals.

These plans aren’t set in stone, nor should they be. Things change. Children are born. People lose jobs. People find a passion. People get promoted and get a raise. A car breaks down. Someone makes a life-altering choice. That’s real life, the reality that most of us face.

So, yes, I am making it up as I go along. We’re defining plans that take us to our dreams, but give us the flexibility to change course if the situation changes. We want a house in the country in fifteen years, but we’d also like to be able to have one of us be a stay at home parent. And what happens if something else changes, like the arrival of a third child? We’d like to be able to handle that, too.

We are living a real life, not some cut-and-dried paper fantasy that you read about in a personal finance book. We change. Our goals change. We learn new things. We make mistakes, and we make good moves as well, and we toss all of it out there for you to see. I collect things I learn and put them out there for everyone to read. Sometimes, I’ll change a few details, but mostly it’s to protectthe privacy of people I know and of my readers, so if you want to classify that as “making stuff up,” feel free. I’m not here to write an expose into the life of anyone else.

If you think that the human side of personal finance doesn’t have value, you’re probably better off just running different models in Excel and not reading The Simple Dollar at all. I tend to think that the connection between, well, your money and your life is the key issue in personal finance, and I’ll keep writing about it. I like to believe that people will keep reading, too.

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  1. Wendy says:

    Just wanted to send you some encouragement, Trent. There are a lot of us reading your blog who find the process just as interesting as the results. I can honestly say I’m very fortunate that no one tried to hold me to my first few financial plans!

  2. chris says:

    The strength of your blog has always been that everything comes from real life experience. Anyone who takes your advice as if it’s coming from someone with all the answers is a fool. The value of your advice is that you’re someone in the same situation as a large amount of us out here. Readers should take your advice and adapt it to fit their lives. Not adapt their lives to fit your advice. If that makes any sense.

  3. scary says:

    This site is for entertainment purposes only. Trent is not a financial advisor and no information found on this site should be construed as financial advice.

    I like your posts, and dont care if you make them up, pay someone else to make them up, or are conducting some type of social experiment.

  4. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys. You’re the readers that I often think about when I write stuff for The Simple Dollar.

  5. Ro says:

    I enjoy reading your blog several times a week and am one of those who sees that as you progress, your goals don’t have to be set in stone, but can change to adapt to your lifestyle and dreams. Keep up the good work!

  6. Mark says:

    Great blog Trent. No one will ever agree with everything in a blog, but that is the point, it is YOUR blog. Keep up the good work. I think many of the negative posts come from jealously because you are in a fantastic financial position. I can only hope to reach the level you have achieved. Thanks.

  7. Mike says:

    I have to admit that the post Matt responded to did seem a little confusing, but you later clarified the point. I agree with scary, though. I don’t care if you make things up–in fact, I assume that you might sometimes want to create composite characters to protect the identity of your friends and family. The essential truth of the financial lesson you are contemplating remains the same.

    I’ve only been reading your blog for about a month, Trent, but you’ve really helped me take control of my finances and I’m very grateful for that. Thanks for the work you do in producing an excellent blog. Please keep it up.


  8. Scott says:


    While I liked the tone of your response to the above mentioned E-mail, I think you missed his point. This person is calling you a lier and questioning the truth behind some of your stories.

  9. Sammy says:

    Down with the naysayers. I view this blog as a place to share life experiences. Life is not static but fluid and everchanging. Bravo to Trent for being so adaptable! Moreover, financial success is not a destination but a continuous process. If you want a quick, how-to guide there are plenty of bogus books/tapes/seminars out there who all purport to have the “formula” for success. For the rest of us who are living in the real world, we’ll just keep reading Trent’s blog.

  10. Vixen says:

    Hm. I’m always struck by people who leave such negative comments. It makes me question if their reasoning is because they haven’t succeeded as you have. As you stated, this is real life, not something out of a personal finance book. Financial models are only that: models.

  11. Frances says:

    It’s because you are REAL with us that I read what you write! Actually, my favorite posts are the ones in which you share your heart, even as it is wrestling with issues and possibilities.

  12. Steve says:

    Great post Trent, keep making it up as you go along. This reminds me of the insanity of holding some politician accountable for something he or she said in Junior High School. Personally, I want people around me who are continually growing and maturing through experience.

  13. Carlos says:


    I’ve been reading your blog for a few months and really enjoy it. Your writing is clear and compelling and you have good book reviews. I think your advice is sensible and your personal journey adds a lot of credibility.

    I wanted to thank you for one thing. I also have a newborn, and I have implemented a tip from a post of yours awhile back on using generic baby formula. My newborn daughter was unable to breastfeed and the savings from switching from a brand name to generic formula will make a nice contribution to her college fund. Keep up the good work.


  14. Barry says:

    Don’t worry about that guy… for every 1 of those, there are many, many more of us that enjoy your work. I didn’t think anything negative at all about your friend quitting his actuarial job! In fact, there’s a guy that I used to work with that left his job as a high level manager with a large, international company to go deal blackjack in a casino! He and his wife had already raised their children, and had made a decent living, and it was something that he had always wanted to do… so he did it! People do things that some of us may from time to time perceive as strange… but that’s the beauty of choice!

    As others have mentioned… this is YOUR blog, about YOUR journey… write it the way you wish! That’s one of the things that makes it so appealing…

  15. Jasmine says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. As humans, we are allowed to change our mind and decisions based on new information. And that’s what you are doing, I enjoy reading about your progress, and see how it changes.

    I have gone through similar changing thought processes over the last few years. I always thought I had this master life plan but then realized life changes and it’s how we deal with those changes and adjust our plan accordingly that matters. And that’s what you do and are gracious enough to let us in and learn with you!

  16. debtdieter says:

    Trent, I really enjoy reading your posts because you ARE willing to change things up as things change in your life.

    I’m working towards eliminating my debt to have those freedoms and possibilities open up for myself (or at least be able to make a choice whether or not to act on them), and reading about other people doing it before me, and continuing to make choices ongoing, has been a huge part of keeping me motivated.

  17. Andre says:

    Damn, that irritates me when people have a negative comment like that to someone who is clearly doing some difficult and yet successful things. Trent, this blog has brought a whole new awareness for me, especially being 2 years out of college.

    I’ve started working toward ending my consumer debt and then working on the whole student loan and house thing (since I got married this year).

    When did Trent say that he was a financial advisor working at a finance company? The reason this blog is so successful is that we can relate to you. Keep it going.

  18. justin says:

    I agree with Scott. You responded great, but missed his point.

  19. plonkee says:

    Perhaps Trent isn’t who he says he is. Who cares? I too think its unlikely that someone would switch from being an actuary to a forklift driver but people do unlikely things all the time, and that was hardly the point of the story. There are many sorts of truth, and literal truth is one of the least important in this context.

  20. Staci says:

    Trent, The Simple Dollar is the only blog I look at everyday and because of your blog, I have really started to make progress on making a plan to achieve my goals since I have begun reading your site. I value your opinions and truly enjoy your posts…keep up the great work!

  21. Jessica says:

    Isn’t everyone making stuff up as they go along? I certainly am. Life IS making it up as you go along. It is wonderful to read about a person who is honest about the fluid process of life, someone who is not perfect and has made mistakes and YET is making great strides and progress. Makes me feel like I CAN TOO. Because I am SO just making this whole life stuff up as I go along.

  22. Tori says:

    @Plonkee- Trent is who he says he is. I’ve known Trent and his wife for 10 years as of this fall. I’m his son’s godmother. Furthermore, we had the same tastes for buying lots of stuff in the past. He’s just gotten out of debt.

    @Trent- I’m SO proud of what you and the wife have accomplished. I’ll be thinking about you all this weekend – I hope you have a wonderful time!

  23. JReed says:

    We are ALL making it up as we go along…what do you think life is? By the time we have all the answers, we are dying. And by that time, we are realizing that not a whole lot of it truly mattered except our relationships.
    I think The Simple Dollar is informative, interesting and enjoyable to read. To Matt, I say,
    “Here’s to those that wish me well and those that don’t can go to…..their church and I’ll go to mine.

  24. Mrs. Micah says:

    I enjoy reading blogs about personal finance mostly because people are making it up as they go along, like I am. It’s encouraging and it gives me new ideas!

  25. vh says:

    Matt, the poor ignorant wretch, probably never heard that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

    Trent, your blog is interesting & fun because of the humanity it displays. Part of humanity is change & adapability to change.

  26. sunny says:


    I look forward to reading your blog everyday. I enjoy reading about and am motivated by other peoples personal finance and frugal life styles.

    Remember that you can please some of the people some of the time . . . maybe Matt was having a bad day.


  27. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    As for “lying” on this site, I do sometimes change specifics to protect people’s privacy. I don’t intend to write anything that damages anyone’s life on this site. Other than that, I don’t make stuff up – I would have no reason to.

  28. Andrew Stevens says:

    For what it’s worth, I happen to work in the same actuarial community as Trent’s actuarial friend. Because of my unique situation, I was able to figure out pretty easily exactly who Trent’s friend is (though I have never met the man). I can’t actually verify that he quit to become a forklift operator, but I can verify that A) he exists and the basics of the story are true and B) Trent did indeed change some details for privacy purposes.

    For Trent’s peace of mind, I should stress that I was only able to determine who the friend was because I was uniquely situated to do so. I apologize for what could be thought of as “cyber-stalking.” It’s purely harmless curiosity; I viewed it as a puzzle to try to see if I could find out who the guy was, since you had given enough clues that I could piece it together. Needless to say, I have no intention of doing anything with the information (though I did make an innocuous comment on your friend’s blog, which I found a pretty good read).

  29. infix says:

    I’d like to know who isn’t making it up as they go along? How many people are sticking to exactly the same plan (financial or otherwise) that they had 5 years ago? Change is the only guarantee – it will happen, circumstances will change. Real Estate was the hot ticket back in 2005, but how many people think it’s good to load up on RE now (or anytime in the next 3 or 4 years)? Plans have to be adapted to changes in the environment.

  30. DRI says:


    I to very much enjoy your blog. The thing I find most enjoyable is that it reflects life changes. I will keep reading.

  31. Reagan says:

    I’ve been reading for a few months. I like 90% of what you have to say. (I disagree a bit with your investing strategy, but to each his own.)

    Keep it up, and thanks for the solid book reviews!

  32. shanks says:


    I too agree that it really doesn’t matter if you keep changing your plans or make up stories to post. If it makes sense, I use it else ignore it.

    I’m from India, the CFL bulbs made sense, so I went out and bought 6, replaced the normal bulbs in the house.

    Lots of your advice in terms of actual investment is US specific but I can figure the equivalent in India.

    If you only would STOP this habit of
    “Top 5 ways to…”
    “5 easy ways to…”

    you start sounding like those Cosmo magazine adverts! :-)

    I understand that listing/numbering things makes it easier as a checklist to tick off but it so comes out like a cheap ad.

    No matter, carry on….


  33. Laura says:

    I’ll keep reading The Simple Dollar until it stopd offering good information. (Guess I’m stuck for life :P)

  34. Kate says:

    I know the phrase “Sing it, sister!” is gender-incorrect, but I think you get my meaning. Rock on with your bad self, Trent.

  35. Lori says:

    Trent is always so testy when he gets criticized

    “If you think that the human side of personal finance doesn’t have value, you’re probably better off just running different models in Excel and not reading The Simple Dollar at all.”

  36. Dr. Mark says:


    First, I appreciate and admire you for being willing to be so transparent with the intimate details of your life for the benefit of the blog and your devoted readers.

    I am acutely aware of the need for confidentiality in our current social and cultural context. So, the idea of changing some details to protect someone’s privacy is not optional, it is normally mandatory. You have done a great job of preserving the main point that you are trying to make by using someone else’s experience as an analogy. I do this all of the time as a Physician.

    As far as “making it up as you go along,” isn’t this what we all do?! That is referred to as normal life behavior, and it is actually quite essential. I am always learning new things, and incorporating the new with my underlying principles and goals. You must remain plastic and adaptable in the complex world in which we live, or you will guarantee that you will fail.

    Again, this is what I do constantly as a Physician. For example, in Medical School, all Doctors learn the basics of Pharmacology and Physiology (among many, many other things.) What is EXPECTED of you, is that you can take the underlying principles and adapt them to change, like with the development of new drugs. Not only that, but also when you are faced with a very complex Patient under unique circumstances, you have to be able to synthesize everything you have ever learned, change it to the unique set of variables that you are currently facing, weight the risks and benefits of a proposed course of care, and then ask yourself what you really want as far as the results go.

    Sound familiar? Is this not a reflection of life in America today in general for most people? I am closer to 50 years old now than I am to 40 years old. I have noticed that over the years my wife and I have learned, re-learned, experienced successes and failures, and propsed dozens and dozens of different life-defining financial strategies. The only constant in all of our life together has been the ability to change our strategy depending on circumstances and learning new strategies. I have often noted that it has not been unusal for me to define a strategy for financial management only to change it in a matter of a relatively short period of time. We do this all the time. However, our real desires never change.

    Rock on Trent. Please don’t change anything. If our lives were “cookbook,” then humans would only need one manual to live by — well, if we only looked at the Bible…another discussion!

  37. dave says:

    when i read matt’s comment i think it refers to the fact that he thinks that a lot of the story’s that trent writes about are fictional and “made up”. in essence he is saying that the forklift driver friend doesn’t exist, nor do some of the other people who trent writes about. i don’t think he is referring to the fact that trent is changing his financial tactics as he goes along. re-read matts comment with that thought in mind and you might see a different point trying to be raised. whether the people in trent’s story are actual or not, i think he does a good job of using them to show good financial thought processes.

  38. guinness416 says:

    It’s always been clear to me that you’re just an ordinary guy figuring things out, and like others above that’s why I read this blog and especially the associated comments to each decision you post, with their recommendations and experiences. I guess I can see that more recent or less regular readers might read some of the correspondent-questions etc posts and think the blog is set up to be an advice site rather than a personal blog, so I do think it’s important you wrote this. I’m quite the cynic, but even I would never think you are actively lying about this stuff! It all reeks authenticity, in my opinion.

    Shanks, all bloggers seem to love lists even though readers hate them. Unfortunately it’s now a well established problogger-recommended “get links” blogging format.

  39. Cathy E, Chicago, IL says:

    Just wanted to say that I’ve been reading this blog for only a week and the guidance Trent gives hits me at the perfect time in my life. Kids are growing up and husband and I are trying to devise a better money plan.

    Keep it up Trent!

  40. lynn says:

    Yeah, some people are just cranky! And worse than that, they don’t believe that change can happen. Like the actuary/forklift guy, my dad went from successful NY insurance agent/owner to pig faming in the Midwest. He’s happier and healthier for it. Even if you changed the details a bit, Trent, I was glad to see that example. What my father did inspired all of us not to get too “stuck” (which is what I think our cranky blog-basher might be feeling.) I enjoy reading your comments and struggles and successes.

  41. Celeste says:

    Trent a Kiyosaki? No WAY. If you are blogging about your friends and are NOT changing any details, you are not only doing them a disservice, you might be outright endangering them.

  42. Peter says:

    I think it is rare to find someone who has it all figured out and never changes. I know my views on personal finance have evolved and matured over time. I say good work and stick to your guns. It seems to be working very well for you! Good luck.

  43. Joan says:

    Superb! Direct hit response! The barometer indicator, when we are succeeding, usually includes more nipping at our heels by others.

  44. QuiteLight says:

    I wanted to thank you for having the guts to post your thoughts & experiences. My partner & I are relearning how to live with money too, and I felt really alone, like everyone else had it figured out & I was just ignorant. But reading your site (it’s one of only 2 financial sites I read on a regular basis) has really helped; it’s the “real human struggling through” quality I’m here for.

    You’ve never claimed to be an expert, but what you’re doing is clearly working for you. I like hearing the new things you’ve learned, and pick & choose what I think will work for us.

    I think people are too eager to hand over their thinking duties to “experts”, on-line or otherwise, and you were getting sprayed with some resentment that you weren’t “qualified” to do his thinking for him.

  45. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “all bloggers seem to love lists even though readers hate them.”

    The biggest reason why bloggers do lists is because they’re often the best way for bloggers to get attention on social bookmarking sites like digg, reddit, etc. This is often the best way for blogs to get new readers on the site and reading the material you have.

  46. Jillian says:

    I actually really related to the story about the forklift driver. A few years ago I got to the point where I really hated being in an office all day so I quit my graphic design job to go drive a truck for my friend who managed a nursery. The pay was terrible and I was always covered in dirt and diesel fumes, but I loved the freedom of being out and about in the sun. I also learnt a great deal about horticulture which will be extremely useful once I get a house with room for a vege garden. There’s more to life than having money and clean clothes!

  47. Diane says:

    Trent, yours is the only blog I read. My family is tired of hearing “Trent” or “The Simple Dollar”
    because you have helped me learn so much since I started reading a few months back. I’m being quiet and giving them a break, but I’m still reading and learning. I realize you have have to change a few details to camouflage people or situations, but I like the basic truth. I prefer non-fiction over fiction. I think you do a good job.

  48. Jonathan says:


    Haha, I can’t believe that I was naive enough to think that you would need a supportive comment from me to cheer you up after that negative comment…well maybe I can fit one along with the 50 great ones here.

    In any case, please keep up the great work. Like many of my fellow readers, your blog is one of the few that I seriously follow, simply because you do not try to portray yourself as a financial expert…you portray yourself as a man who one fell down and then had it in himself to pick yourself up, wipe off the dust, and rethink and reorganize your priorities; you also had it in yourself to teach us the lessons that you learned along the way. You are a personal finance model because we have taken the ideas that you have presented to heart. Keep telling your stories, reporting your observations, and teaching your lessons. I, among many, will keep on reading…

  49. Cat says:

    Hi Trent. This is my absolute favorite personal finance blog.

  50. Heather says:

    Just wanted to add my two cents and let you know how much I enjoy your site too! There always seems to be something insiteful, motivational, or just plain interesting to get me thinking about my own life and goals. I also have really enjoyed the practical applications you share, ie. cooking, organizing, shopping, etc. Thanks!!

  51. Rob in Madrid says:

    “Trent, yours is the only blog I read. My family is tired of hearing “Trent” or “The Simple Dollar” ”

    time to switch to getrichslowy.org :)

    yes I know the feeling, I try not to forward every bit I read.

    this and other blogs have had really help my wife and I change years of bad habits. Not there yet but well on our way.

    You know the odd troll does liven up a blog.

  52. Shem says:

    Personally I recommend this blog to everyone I know experiencing trouble with finances. I love this blog and have been a reader for some time, mainly because the solutions you offer are real-world applicable. I don’t expect your advise or statements to be exactly the same month in, month out, in fact I would probably not trust them if they were.

    I also like your focus on not making finances the main point of life, another obsession. Your objective is similar to my own. Make money something that is controlled and contained, so ones brain is freed up for more important things.

    Don’t stop writing and keep up the great work. Here’s one reader that won’t stop reading. At least until I make that million ;)

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