Updated on 04.22.10

Reader Mailbag: The Trent Hamm FAQ

Trent Hamm

I receive so many questions about who I am, why I write this blog, and so on that I thought it might be worthwhile to simply answer all of them in one place. That way, when I receive such questions in the future, I can just point to this page.

I suppose I might update all of this in the future, maybe in a couple of years, but the answers are quite accurate as I write this.

What made you start writing The Simple Dollar?
– Jenny

In April 2006, my family experienced a near financial meltdown. We simply did not have enough money in our checking account to cover our outstanding bills – and there were a lot of outstanding bills. We had less than $10 in our checking account and a big pile of bills that were due well before the next time either of us would be paid. I was also working at a job that, while I liked it, wasn’t the job I had always dreamed of. What was I working for?

That’s the point at which we decided to turn things around. We sold off a lot of our stuff and I started reading a lot of personal finance books.

Eventually, we came to realize that an awful lot of people our age were going through similar issues as they struggled with their finances and their place in the world. I decided to start writing The Simple Dollar mostly to reach those people and make them realize that they’re not alone in that struggle and that there is a way out.

Do you write full time? What do you do for a living?
– Kenny

I don’t know if I would go so far as saying that writing is my full time job, but it does provide a healthy portion of our income. I don’t have a typical “nine to five” job by our family’s choice. Instead, I write and engage in other income-earning opportunities as they come along.

The biggest reason for doing this was so that I could spend more time with my children. At my previous job, I was often distracted in the evenings by work tasks and I also traveled a fair amount, even missing my son’s first coherent words and first steps. I didn’t like that – and neither did my wife.

We were quite happy to take a serious pay cut in order to add some major flexibility to our lives, allow me to stay home much more, and give me a chance to work on things that I loved. My wife, thankfully, has already found a career she truly loves.

What are your hobbies? What do you do when you’re not writing?
– Cam

My primary hobby is reading. I read about three books a week – two for personal enjoyment and enrichment and one for review purposes for The Simple Dollar. I also read quite a few articles of various kinds throughout the week.

I enjoy board games. My wife and I host an all-day event once a month or so where we invite several friends over to play board games all day long. Not Monopoly or Pictionary – games more like Ticket to Ride or Power Grid. Games that require a pretty sharp mind but also offer tons of room for conversation and socializing.

I also enjoy cooking. About two or three times a week, I’ll cook up some sort of special meal, usually riffing on a recipe or an idea I found somewhere.

I don’t watch much television outside of Lost. We’ll slowly move through itneresting series on DVD on rainy days and late evenings, but that’s about it.

Why don’t you post your novel that you’ve talked about, “Rings of Saturn,” for us to read?
– Irene

I enjoy writing fiction a lot. I usually write a short story a week and also polish up an older one. I also have a largely-complete novel that I’ve kicked around for a long time, tentatively titled Rings of Saturn. I would love to someday publish some of my fiction.

I have never shared more than a scrap or two of my fiction with anyone other than family and a few very close friends. I once made the mistake of convincing myself that my fiction was good and it was met with a big pile of rejection letters and only one remotely interested tug.

Since then, I do believe I’ve improved as a fiction writer. However, I’m still not comfortable sharing it. For some reason, the fiction I write seems more personal to me than the essays I write for The Simple Dollar.

Don’t worry – if I ever do decide to do something with them, I’ll announce it on The Simple Dollar.

What is your family like?
– Sally

I have a wife, Sarah, and two children, a four year old boy (Joe) and a two year old girl (Katie). We are just about to have a third child (a boy) and, in fact, that child may have arrived by the time you read this.

We don’t live anywhere close to any of our extended family. My parents and Sarah’s parents live fairly close to each other (and my extended family is in that area as well), but her parents are transplants – most of Sarah’s extended family lives fairly near each other in another state.

We travel back to visit our family several times a year. This is one of the big reasons we own two vehicles – a Prius (with great gas mileage) for Sarah’s work commute and a Pilot (with tons of seating) for family travel.

Do you actually do the frugal stuff you write about, like make your own laundry detergent?
– Ed

I try all of it at least once just to see if it actually works. I usually wind up adopting quite a few of the ideas in terms of my normal routine.

My process usually goes something like this. I hear of a frugal idea from some source – often, it’s a friend or a family member. I’ll do the math on it to see whether it’s feasible or not. If it’s not, I’ll usually toss the idea out immediately. If it is feasible (I usually check the hourly rate to see if it is – if I can save $10 or more, I’m interested), then I’ll give it a whirl to see whether it’s something I could easily incorporate into my routine and whether it’s something I could write about.

I usually wind up discarding more ideas than I end up writing about. There are a lot of ideas for saving money out there, but most of them only save a dollar or two for an hour’s worth of effort. That’s not worth it to me – my time is more valuable than that.

Isn’t your friend ticked off at you because of that post?
– Kelly

No, I’m pretty sure he’s not.

Whenever I write about others on The Simple Dollar, I usually do one of two things. I either get their explicit permission to write about them or I edit enough details so that the exact person I am referring to would be impossible to identify.

I don’t think it’s right for me to expose the private details of a friend or anyone else on this site unless they allow me to do so.

I can’t believe you actually make money writing obvious and stupid stuff like this. It’s so easy that even a chimp could do it.
– Bill

That may be true.

The challenge of The Simple Dollar isn’t in writing an individual article. If each of you merely had to write a single article on a frugal topic once, most of you could do a bang-up job of it.

The challenge comes in writing two articles a day. Every day. Without cease. Every day of the week. Every week of the month. Every month of the year. In order to build an audience, you have to be consistent and worthwhile in your writings. That doesn’t even include the other writings I do – articles sold to publications, the two books I’ve written since The Simple Dollar started, the promotion of my work elsewhere, and so on.

It takes both discipline and passion to do that. There are a lot of days that it would be easy to convince myself to skip out and just go do something else. I have days where I have severe writer’s block. I have days where I can’t come up with a good idea or a good phrase choice.

If it’s so easy, I encourage you to start your own. Write enough worthwhile content to grab an audience (meaning it has to be of at least minimal quality and have enough ideas in it to intrigue people – oh, and you have to write consistently, like clockwork), then put in all the footwork necessary to build it – sending your best articles to other sites for links, participating in carnivals, designing your site so that it’s easy to read, trying to get media mentions.

It certainly can be done, but it requires a lot of footwork to do it.

Why do you allow negative comments on your blog? I’d just delete them all.
– Chelie

Not everyone thinks alike, nor should they. Nothing good has ever come out of everyone thinking in lockstep.

Yes, many comments could be worded a lot better. You can offer criticism and alternate ideas without being bitter and negative. If your comment comes across as just full of anger and rage and hate, no one will take you seriously.

Sometimes, there are comments that seem to be nothing but bile. I usually delete the worst of these – the ones that contain personal threats and the like. I’ve seen enough of these kinds of things that many of the “tamer” attacks don’t really seem very bothersome to me.

To a degree, I think I’m so steeled against negative comments that they just don’t bother me at all any more. If someone makes a “scathing” comment, I just really don’t care what they have to say. If they can’t be enough of a human being to word a thought, criticism, or disagreement in a reasonably polite and respectful way, I don’t have time or energy to concern myself with what they’re saying.

The Simple Dollar is great. I’d like to read some of your other writings.
– Andy

The best place to start would probably be my personal site, TrentHamm.com, where I post all kinds of different things. They’re mostly short snippets, but there are some good bits there.

You would probably also enjoy my two books. My current one, The Simple Dollar: How One Man Wiped Out His Debts and Achieved the Life of His Dreams, will be available in bookstores on June 24. My previous book, 365 Ways to Live Cheap, is available in bookstores and libraries everywhere.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag. However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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  1. Molly says:

    This is unrelated, but I just remembered it – can you give us an update on the friend who bought the giant tract of land with the intent to build a house and a farm?

  2. SwingCheese says:

    I think it is a sad commentary on a person’s ability to express themselves when they resort to making personal threats over a blog entry (which no one is forcing them to read)! I understand that not everyone is going to agree, and I respect why you allow alternate viewpoints in your comments. It makes me sad, though, to hear that you’ve received personal threats.

  3. brad says:

    i second, third, and fourth the followup article on john. not sure if april is warm enough to start doing work on it again, but heres hoping it is.

  4. Esme says:

    I’m with #2. I’m always amazed at how bitchy and vitriolic people get over a blog that is basically one man’s personal journey. If you dont like it, go read Ramit or someone else! I suppose its the ‘internet troll’ thing- spme people aren’t happy unless they’re picking on someone else for every little thing they do and say.
    Even though I might do things differently than Trent, I still think he’s a good guy.

  5. Sean says:

    “I once made the mistake of convincing myself that my fiction was good and it was met with a big pile of rejection letters and only one remotely interested tug.”

    You probably already know this, but this is common–everyone starting out writing fiction gets a giant pile of rejection letters. I’m still expanding my pile at the moment. The trick is to not make the mistake of letting rejection letters convince you that your fiction is bad.

  6. I think it is part of the community to have people who disagree with the advice or suggestions which are being presented. That is what makes things interesting and allow people to expand their thinking. It would be very boring around here if all of the comments were just a bunch of “Great article, Trent!”

    That said, I think it is really stupid that a person resort to making threats to Trent. As much as I disagree with his message at times, many times I find I gain a great deal of insight as well. When I don’t agree with his opinion, or think there is another way to look at things, I try to point it out in as constructive a way as I can (and maybe be a little snarky at the same time), but I would NEVER make personal threats against him or his family. That just doesn’t even make sense.

    Thanks Trent for allowing all sorts of opinions about your messages. The comments are really what keep me here because oftentimes I learn more reading the responses than I do from the article itself.

  7. Des says:

    I also appreciate Trent’s mature attitude when it comes to tolerating, appreciating, and even welcoming comments that disagree with himself. Part of the appeal of this blog is the discussion that goes on in the comments, which would be non-existent if everyone simply agreed on everything.

    To the commenters that say “If you disagree, go somewhere else!” I would respond that if you don’t like someone’s comment, simply take your own advice read a different one.

  8. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    It’s not healthy to agree with someone 100% of the time. If you do, they’re writing such vague stuff that it’s not of any real world use. You absolutely should disagree with me – and as much as I write, it’s probably going to be somewhat frequently. The real question is whether or not you grow whether you agree with the material or not.

  9. Johanna says:

    I think there’s a bigger distinction to be drawn between the people who say “I think you’re wrong” (even rudely) and the ones who say “I think you should shut up” (even politely). Expressing a different viewpoint is contributing to the conversation. Trying to shout somebody down to get them to stop talking is pretty much the exact opposite of contributing to the conversation.

    I haven’t seen what kind of threats Trent’s been getting (obviously, since he deletes them), but from what I know of angry internet people, they’re not making threats because they don’t like the blog and can’t be bothered to find a blog they like better – they’re making threats because it makes them feel good to make other people feel bad, and it makes them feel powerful to shut people up.

  10. Mol says:

    I have two questions. 1. Have you ever seen any reasonable recipes for shampoo and conditioner? and 2. Is it worth doing dishes by hand as opposed to using a dishwasher?

  11. DiscoApu says:

    The main reason I come to this blog is the comments. Sometimes I dont read article and go straight to the comments to try and figure out what the article was about.

  12. Evan says:

    I have been running a PF Blog for 2.5 years less than Trent and I can’t imagine his schedule. Anyone (Bill) that wants to give it a shot I say go for it!

    Keep up the great job, Trent

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I agree with Johanna, actually. I think, quite often, people come to blogs to vent steam and often blow that steam at the first little thing they see that’s a potential target for their rage.

    The problem (for me, sometimes) is distinguishing between that kind of rage and a valid comment from someone who is upset for a genuine reason. Given that internet comments are lacking a lot of the nuance of face-to-face communications and also given how each person can read the same thing differently, it’s often very hard to tell. I have in the past mistaken the two to my own detriment.

  14. I too, love the comments here. I think even though he maybe doesn’t come off as ‘polished’ as some other PF writers might, the sense of community and the willingness he has to give his readers a voice makes this the only PF blog I actually read.

    @#10, I’ve never tried recipes for those, but I have read in multiple places that hand-washing can actually use more water than a dishwasher. We tend to let the water run more often than we realize, so unless you have an uber-efficient way of doing it and you’re not constantly turning-on the tap for each dish or dumping/re-filling rinse water, a reasonably new dishwasher is a much more effective use of water!

  15. laura k says:

    OT-The first question was from Jenny, the second from Kenny. I sorta hoped the third would be from a Penny.

    @Mol (#10) – Baking soda makes fine shampoo. Just add water to make it runny enough to scrub into your scalp. Rinse well. Vinegar is good to get rid of dandruff, and since you can use it for fabric softener, it can probably also be used as conditioner. I haven’t been able to figure out how to entirely get the smell out though. I also haven’t done a cost analysis.

    I’ve also used conditioner to wet down the baking soda, sort of a “shampoo and conditioner in one.” You can wash your hair with conditioner alone as well.

  16. deRuiter says:

    “itneresting”??? My question Trent is why the obvious refusal to use spell check and edit? A professional writer ought to know how to run an article through spell check. A person married to a teacher ought to be able to have her read the article through once for a quick edit.

  17. deRuiter says:

    For any of you writing, or thinking of writing, a frugality / personal blog, you have to realize that there is only a certain amount of material and then to keep going, you have to recycle old work. Amy (name rhymes with “decision”!) ended her work when she was finished. She didn’t want to continue with only rehashing. As a PF writer you cover why to spend less than you make, HOW to spend less, then run a few comparisons of two famililes with one spenders, one savers, then you justify the frugal life style, then you do gardens, household savings, vehicles, electronics, running a yard sale, decluttering, whether to prepay on a mortgage, how to invest, and a few other topics like recycling / mending clothing, making things at home, taking lunch from home, couponing. Then you’re done, and you either recycle topics, or you stop. If you’re making money, you recycle old material. Amy D. got three books out of her formula: trying different ways of saving, often saving only pennies per action, describing the process and thoughts, and the result. She fleshed these experiments out with bits on her personal philosophy and observations, made a lot of money and quit when she came to the end. Amy was also very thrifty so she could retire to that nice farm in Maine without ever having to be frugal again if she chose, and I am thrilled for her, she has achieved the American dream, with one idea and a lot of hard work.

  18. Esme says:

    #7. You’re clearly referring to me and that’s not what I said. I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing or offering a different view, its the outright rudeness and clear contempt of Trent that I find so appalling. ‘If you don’t like it, go somewhere else’ not ‘if you disagree’. Not agreeing with him isn’t the same as disliking and disrespecting him and his words. Politeness and respect are the key and seem to be far too rare these days.

  19. Geoff Hart says:

    Trent notes that “I once made the mistake of convincing myself that my fiction was good and it was met with a big pile of rejection letters and only one remotely interested tug.”

    Been there, done that. And ended up getting one of the stories published later by someone who loved it, and lots of nice pats on the back from people who like what I’ve written despite a file cabinet full of rejection letters. (No, they’re not all friends. *g* Actually, my friends tend to be more honest in their criticism than strangers because they know I want the truth.)

    Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because the big publishers rejected you, this is a fair assessment of your skill. As you noted in today’s main article, it doesn’t really matter what other people think when they judge you, so long as you’re being realistic about the things being judged.

    I read (and review) two of the main science fiction magazines currently being published. Typically, they have half a dozen slots per issue available for stories, of which at least half are reserved for “names” who have already published there. That only leaves a few slots for newcomers, and there are hundreds or thousands of people submitting good to excellent stories–including those “names”. You can figure out the odds of being the one who gets accepted in the few remaining spaces, even if you’re really doing good work.

    fwiw, a huge amount of crap gets published commercially–not because it’s good, but because it’s commercial. (Vampires that sparkle? Puhlease…) Being published is not a sign that you’re writing well; it’s mostly just a sign that you got lucky enough to find the right editor on the right day, when they were in a good mood and looking for precisely the kind of story you’ve written. Those same editors sometimes publish crap by “names” just so a big name appears on the cover, which sells newstand copies.

    Keep writing to please yourself, and subject your work to reasonably objective criticism from people whose opinions you trust. But don’t be afraid to share your work just because a publisher doesn’t want it. That’s a false criterion by any objective standard.

  20. littlepitcher says:

    Chimps only write in L. Neil Smith’s novels, and his characters aren’t blogging.

    Keep up the good work, Trent.

  21. Cade says:

    I have always seen you as a gentleman and a guy who does his level best to present objective information while interjecting personal insight. There are times I stay away from your blog just because I get tired of (or want to punch) some of the jackass venomous people who troll here.

    You’ve had to put up with a bunch of verbal attacks through the years, yet you remain gracious and positive in your approach. (Your response to @Bill certainly demonstrates that.) There is no excuse for a personal threat. I’m sorry you have to endure stuff like that.

    Congratulations on your writing successes and I wish you even more in the future. Say, how has your weight-loss plan been going?

  22. Nane says:

    I love reading your articles and has helped in a lot of ways with my personal situation, finance etc and am sure with other people as well. Thank you. Keep writing and sending those emails out……. God bless you and your Family in every area of your life. Thank you again.

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