Updated on 05.08.08

Rinse and Repeat

Trent Hamm

One of the most frequent complaints I get from readers of The Simple Dollar is that I often repeat some of the basic tenets of personal finance. Let’s face it – in some respects, The Simple Dollar is repetitive. By now, I must have riffed the principle of “spend less than you earn” at least a dozen times (well, let’s see … one two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve).

So why do I keep writing about this stuff? Why do I often try to hammer away at the same points? Here are a bunch of reasons.

Repetition Breeds Success
Repetition of the key principles every once in a while is good – it serves as a reminder of the basic moves we all need to make. I know that for me personally, repetition and constant reminders of the keys to success, particularly through someone else’s words and thoughts, are key for keeping me on the right path. That’s why I read about 30 other personal finance sites every day and also keep up with tons of reading on the subject.

Repetition is a key factor in many personal finance tactics. The day in and day out repetition of making the choice to drink the less expensive coffee is one that leads to having more money at the end of the month. The month in and month out repetition of investing that money in an index fund leads eventually to a nice big chunk of change. Repetition and persistence are keys to the game.

Easier Said Than Done
The principles may seem easy, but they’re often incredibly hard to actually execute. It’s easy to know the right move to make, but it’s hard to always make that correct move. There are a lot of reasons why this is so, and a regular re-examination of the basics, particularly in terms of personal failures (and personal successes) offers a lot of insight on how and why it’s worth moving forward.

A perfect example is an essay I wrote a while about about failure in achieving short-term goals. I write quite a bit about goal setting – I think it’s a very valuable thing to do. But I often don’t reach my goals – what can I learn from that failure?

Reaching Someone New
I get hundreds of new readers every day, in addition to all of the regular readers. These people often find my blog through Google, searching for things like ” how can i change my life around financial” and “i am scared to get into student loan debt” (yes, two real search terms from people who found The Simple Dollar in just the last hour or so). These people are out there seeking answers and I want to be able to give them the right answers – the best answers.

That means teaching the fundamentals and doing it in a variety of ways so that when that desperate searcher out there types in a term and finds The Simple Dollar, they at least have a good chance of finding the answers they need to get themselves on the right track.

I get emails all the time from readers who have gotten themselves on the right track financially because of The Simple Dollar – and those are the people I write for. Every time I help someone realize how they can improve their financial life, I’ve achieved what I set out to do – and the more people that are helped by The Simple Dollar, the better. Along the way, that might mean some repetition – but that’s a price I’m happily willing to pay.

From Another’s Eyes
Everyone is living a different life and looks at these principles from a different perspective. Take a minimum wage earner – “spend less than you earn” to that person is going to mean something much different than what it means in my life. Similarly, my idea of spending less than I earn is far different than, say, Warren Buffett’s idea of the same principle.

Because of this, it’s easy to analyze these principles through all sorts of filters. How does a college student spend less then they earn? How about a blue collar worker? How about a self-employed person who deals with irregular paychecks? This is why I love talking about reader’s questions, even on issues that were covered before – someone else’s experiences color everything differently.

A Fresh Perspective
A new angle can make an old idea seem fresh again and breathe new life into it. Whenever I think about basic principles, I try very hard to look at them from a new angle. How am I applying this right now in my own life? How did I fail to apply this in the past? How could I apply this in the future? What would happen if I lost my job?

I can also throw in other contexts as well. For example, about a week ago, I looked at how you can apply basic principles to living your dreams and I covered (again) the idea of deliberate practice. But in the context of using it as just a piece of the puzzle to assemble a larger dream – in this case, my reader’s dream of being a golf professional – put it in a different context. It was deliberate practice with a focused and career oriented purpose.

Down the road, I see other contexts for deliberate practice within personal finance that can cast a new shadow on the principle – these currently reside in my “idea box” for future posts.

The Basics Are What Works
In the end, I cover the basics because they are the parts that work. Spending less than you earn is the key to personal finance. Deliberate practice will make you better at whatever you’re working on. Index funds are the best choice for most casual investors. Keeping track of your spending will help you corral the cash that leaves your pocket.

Why do I write about it again and again? It takes vigilance to make these things work. It takes new angles to inspire me – and likely to inspire you. It takes a fresh perspective to grab someone’s imagination and convince them to make a big challenging change.

And in the end, the basic stuff really does change the world.

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  1. Saving Freak says:

    The basics are what most people tend to miss. The repetition keeps people from falling off the wagon and prompts new comers to get on the wagon in the first place.

  2. Will says:

    It’s true that repetition breeds success. After all no matter the skill we end up mastering in our life, we’ve probably been practicing it for a while, having someone repeat the basic principles to us over and over before we actually get the hang of it. Whether it be learning to drive, learning to play an instrument, or getting a degree, it’s the same.

    And yes, the basics are what works. All the rest simply builds on them.

    Financial literacy is a skill just like any other. The learning process shouldn’t be any different!

  3. Foxie says:

    I never mind reading things on the same basic principles over and over again. Sometimes you get so caught up in everything else finance related that you miss those basic points. It’s great to see the same thing from so many different angles, it shows how versatile the techniques are and proves that ANYONE can do it, whether a born saver or spender.

  4. TylerF says:

    Funny you should mention this. I often get irritated when sites repeat themselves at length, but then realize after I’ve heard it 10 times that I’ve been missing something the entire time.

    I do think it depends on the subject matter, though. There’s another blog I read that I’m _this_ close to unsubscribing from because for awhile all he could talk about was _proving_ we were in a recession. I hated it. Fortunately he’s switched topics and has avoided my axe, but his feed flirts with death more closely now. Every time I read something mediocre on that site it reminds me why I should stop wasting my time there.

    It’s a fine balance.

  5. Aaron Kulbe says:

    Trent, I think it’s real simple. Humanity, as a whole, is stubborn. Dense, if you will.

    If we learned our lessons the first time around, repetition wouldn’t be necessary.

    As it is, we continue to make the same poor choices, and we don’t learn from history. This makes hearing the same things necessary.

    I don’t know who to attribute this quote to… but I think it’s fitting. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

    In my opinion, I think you do a GREAT job with this blog. Keep it up, and I wouldn’t give these complaints too much consideration.

    What you are saying NEEDS to be said.



  6. Penny Squeaker says:

    Dear Trent,

    I totally agree w/Repetition Breeds Success. If i didn’t live this mantra, it would have gotton myself to where I’m at today.

    I live on 50% of my income, save the other 50% (long & short terms). Retirements accounts, emergency, car repairs, gardening budgets, etc…

    NO DEBT what so ever……

    I never mind reading things on the same basic principles over and over again, it just refreshes the mind w/new inspirations towards frugality.

  7. teelag says:

    For me, the daily ritual of reading The Simple Dollar keeps frugality and financial sense fresh in my brain. Rinse and repeat is very helpful!

    I appreciate the repetition of topics because some days it seems to “stick” better than others. I naturally procrastinate, so sometimes when I see a topic come up again, it is just the kick I need to get things done and off my “to do” list, like automate savings, etc.

  8. Heidi says:

    I commend your ability to find a fresh perspective on topics you’ve written about previously – it’s a gift. That is something I really need to work on – typically once I address something, however briefly, I’m over it and on to the next thing.

    Maybe I’m too ADD and need to spend more time on the basics.

  9. FMF says:

    FYI — as a marketing executive I know that it takes 7-9 times for someone to see, read, hear something before it registers even once. And you need it to register multiple times to get people to understand it and take action. So keep on preaching the same principles…

  10. Diane says:

    I don’t mind the repetition at all. Different basic topics that I might skim over the first time may become pertinent later on. For example, although I would frequently make my own bread in the past, I have now gone to full time bread baking because of the rise in food price. I went back and read Trent’s Homemade Bread topic and got a shot of fresh enthusiasm. Same goes for the car buying topics.

  11. Kris says:

    I LOVE this website, been reading since January 08. Just when I’m ready to fall off the frugal wagon and spend, you’ll have an article that reminds to stay the course. So please do continue repeating yourself, it’s working!

  12. Michael says:

    I agree that repetition and habits are helpful to one person. And I agree that repetition is a good way to help new readers. And readers of any publication should notice that it is just as repetitive. But I still hope you never mention CFLs again.

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “But I still hope you never mention CFLs again.”

    I’ve moved on. LEDs are the new CFLs. Oh, yes, just you wait, Michael.

  14. Donna says:

    I’m a big fan of repetition. It keeps reminding me to keep my head on straight!

  15. And sometimes it’s just good to remind yourself of what works.

    I heard a story about a famous golfer who would go to his golf coach once per year and say, “So, I’m thinking about taking up the game of golf. Can you teach me the fundamentals?”

  16. Lets face it too: people who read financial blogs have seen most of the basic tenants over and over again. Thats not what keeps people reading, its the personal touches on it, fresh takes, new details, etc. If it wasn’t for that, everyone would just buy a book and read it over and over again.

    Plus I’d be willing to bet that at least 1/3 of all readers are new every day…or at least not “regular readers.” Even of the regular readers, who doesn’t miss and article here and there?

    Long story short: don’t sweat it :)

  17. Ryan says:

    @Trent, message 13.

    No kidding, once they drop in price, bam! I’m all over them, maybe I’ll donate my CFLs to charity, or some poor sucker friend still heating their place with incandescents.

    As an aside, I’m waiting for the “eco bulb” from the cc crane company (http://www.ccrane.com/geobulb/index.aspx) to come down slightly in price, 120 bucks for a bulb! Yikes!

    Anyhow, so may people miss the basics, it’s ridiculous.

  18. Family Man says:

    I think it is always value added to return to the roots. I coach little leauge, and that is one of our basic things. No matter what else always review the basics. Besides, your gain new readers, and you gain experience. No two people hear the same thing the same way.

  19. Rob in Madrid says:

    The nice thing about a blog/google reader is that posts are short and if it doesn’t fancy my interest I simply skip it. But rather suprising inspite of being a long time reader here and other blogs I still enjopy reading them and still learn new things.

  20. Charlie Park says:

    Another benefit is the universality of “Spend less than you earn.” When I started paying attention to our finances, I remember getting really frustrated by pat answers and platitudes like “pay yourself first” when I was making so little that I really couldn’t afford to save *anything*. I get frustrated now by experts’ claims that you should spend X% in housing or Y% on food, since your spending percentages really need to be individually crafted. But “spend less than you earn” applies to *everybody*, in *every context*. It’s simple, essential, and so neglected by so many people that it really bears repeating. Thank you for doing that.

  21. KellyB says:

    One of the things I most enjoy about TSD is your ability to go over a familiar topic and still approach it from a new perspective. As with some of the other readers, I may *think* I know that topic, but seeing it again at a different angle or with a new story may make me see it in an entirely unique light. I admire your ability to do this, I think your writing skill shines through on these repeat topics!
    Keep up the great work as always.

  22. Frugal Dad says:

    Trent, I appreciate your occasionally repetitive points on key issues because they represent the tenets of a strong personal financial plan. And because so many people need to hear them, and often! Keep up the good work, and keep spreading the message to “spend less than you earn.”

  23. Steve says:

    I think people get worked up because they are looking for some magic beans and instead they keep finding the same “spend less than you earn”, pay down your debt, get an emergency fund and then buy into some index funds mantra on every good pfblog. The complainers probably don’t get that those statements are the magic beans.

    I did find one ‘millionaire’ on the web who was giving some different advice, but I wonder if it will work. His advice was for all of us to use the power of positive thinking and wish ourselves into ‘millionairehood’.

    Thanks for your words- Keep up the good work!

  24. Jon says:

    I’ve found that most of the more successful bloggers and writers are the one’s who implement the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle. The best way to reach the most people is to keep things easy, light, and quick. Most people I encounter don’t want to think or be truly mentally challenged. I’m not saying that to be insulting. It just seems to be the going trend with society.

  25. imelda says:

    Your last 2 points say it all for me, and explain perfectly why your “repetitiveness” doesn’t bother me at all. Except for CFLs, LOL, you approach the same concepts from different angles. And plus, they’re the basics. The more you repeat something, not only will we remember better, we’ll actually believe you more. Repetition, I think, breeds credibility.

  26. Robert says:

    While the basic message remains the same, I think different posts provide that message in a fashion that convey slightly different details. It’s those details that I, and I suspect most other readers, are looking for.

    In a number of your posts, you mention some specific ideas on how to save some money and get closer to the goal of spending less than you earn. While the basic message is the same in these posts, each is valuable because the ideas you discuss may give someone an insight into how to improve things for themself.

    Two ideas that I’ve picked up recently (I believe both came from posts here, though one may have been from another blog I also read) were:

    1. To start baking bread at home. I’ve since discovered that a loaf of home-made bread is both great tasting and, even with the recent inflation, very economical at about $1 to $1.10 a loaf. And with that bread to supplement my meals, I find myself buying quite a bit less of other foods, resulting in a noticable savings in the grocery store. The only “down side” is that a savings reward I earn on gas at a station my grocery store owns in my neighborhood has slowed down a lot, but given that I have to spend $50 for every roughly $5 I save on gas, it’s actually better in the long run that I am earning fewer of these “rewards”.

    2. I recently picked up a copy of “Getting Things Done” after I saw your review. While I am shamed to admit that my copy was lost after only a few days (it was “borrowed” without permission when I was at the laundromat last weekend) so I have only read part of the book, I’ve started to adapt parts of the system it details to improve my organization at work and I’ve seen my productivity pick up quite a bit. Once I get a chance to pick up another used copy, I plan to finish it and see if it has some further suggestions that I can adapt for my personal organization system.

    Had I simply read the suggestion to “spend less than I earn” and moved on without continuing to read your site I don’t believe I would have likely picked up on either of these ideas, and I’d still be struggling to find ways to make that principal work. Reading the posts that you and a few other PF bloggers post every day continues to give me new ideas to consider for how to make gradual changes in my own life.

    Thank you.

  27. A.M.B. A. says:

    If saying the same thing over and over works for Dave Ramsey, it sure can work for you!

  28. Mark says:

    Trent, I’m not going to say it again “keep doing what you are doing”.

  29. Oliver says:

    that’s so true. I think the average savings rate in NZ is around -5%, so we’re spending more than we earn. I think it’s negative for the US too, but I’m not totally sure. Anyway, it’s obvious the message hasn’t gotten through to alot of people so it needs to be said still..
    Although I can understand how it may be hard for some families with low incomes.

  30. I agree with this, so I have no problem. Some people click with one analogy and some with another, so trying out different ways to say the same thing isn’t a big deal. Occasionally I’ll find myself saying “Oh he just wrote about that,” but then I’ll just scan the rest of the article and move on. No harm, no foul.

  31. Hannah says:

    The “repetition” (I’d call it reinforcement) of down-to-earth, focused principles of money management are exactly what my husband & I love about The Simple Dollar. It’s so easy for me as a dreamer to lose sight of our future goals. It’s the same reason why we go to church on a regular basis – even though we are both fiercely independent, we need to be reminded that we can’t to do it alone. And the same reason why we always kiss each other good-bye or good-night even when we’re angry with each other. All of these things help keep our eyes on the prize even when emotions get in the way.

  32. Allie says:

    It’s really easy to get side-tracked from the basics with all of the different wants competing for our money. A refresher of the basics for me helps to bring me back to reality and rein in my spending if it’s gotten out of control. We all need these little reminders in life. Even though the basic message might be the same, you always have a new spin which is what I enjoy about your site.

  33. sara says:

    I just wanted to say that principles you teach have helped me out.

    For example, the reminder that you can cancel services you don’t need.

    My husband was laid off recently, and when driving to an interview the tire on his car popped. So we had the car towed with triple A and left it in the driveway, I am taking advantage of discounted student bus pass to get around now and he uses our remaining car.

    So, that means we don’t need car insurance on the car missing a tire! Well I pay ahead my car insurance 6 months (they give me a sweet discount for doing that). I called them, told them to take on car off the insurance and reduce the other one to “for pleasure” rather than “for driving to work”. Guess what, they sent me a check for about 100 dollars. And while they were at it they asked my level of education and knocked a few more dollars off my premium.

    You repeat things, and I remember them. Sometimes you say something that won’t affect me, “cancel your Cable or your extra Cell phone features.” I don’t have those, but the mentioning it from several different ways of application helped me think outside the box and get nearly $100 dollars of my own money back.

    That is just one example of how you have helped my family out. The principals I learn here have actually allowed us to reduce our budget enough that we aren’t much damaged by my husbands lay off.

  34. Phil A says:

    The basics and fundamentals of finance are all you need. Everything else you learn about money finance can actually be a detriment. Read one good article covering the fundamentals of finance and you are set for life.

  35. Robert says:

    sara, I hope you turned in the plates on the car you are no longer driving. Otherwise you may be hit by a huge fine by the state, since they will insist that you “could” be using the car to drive without insurance.

    Maryland got it in their head that I didn’t have Insurance on a car for a period of a week several years ago. Every other year or so they would send me a demand to either provide proof of insurance (which I did, repeatedly!) or pay a fine of several hundred dollars. After the 3rd or 4th time It got to be rather annoying, but I refused to pay since I knew I had insurance during that period. If I hadn’t had it, it would have cost more in penalties for that week than I pay for several months!

  36. Lisa says:

    A big thank you for all you do!

  37. Kyle says:

    It was maybe two or three days ago I had this small and obscure epiphany. As a kid everyone always figured that being grown up was when you got to do whatever it was you wanted…But then you grow up and you compromise what you wanted. You don’t need to be an astronaut anymore, but you do more gardening than you thought you would; you’re not a millionaire rockstar, but you’re a little leery of the drug-soaked culture surrounding them anyway…

    Being a successful adult, as it turns out, is a matter of finding something that works and then doing *that* over and over and over…It’s not about having the perfect job, so much as having a job that is tolerable and funds the things that are important to you.

    You are not your vocation. Particularly in a culture where we change careers multiple times before settling into a working retirement, it’s good not to be defined by our employment-of-the-moment.

    But repetition…that’s an unexpectedly important part of being a grown-up.

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