Updated on 07.30.14

Seven Unexpected Things I Read For Personal Finance Inspiration and Motivation

Trent Hamm

I read a lot of material on personal finance for this blog, from at least one personal finance book a week to issues of Money, The Wall Street Journal, Consumer Reports, and so on. What might surprise you, though, is that most of my reading that really inspires me to write about money issues comes from other sources. Here are seven things I’ve read that have inspired me to keep my financial house in order – and a few of them might be quite surprising to you.

The New Yorker I’ve repeatedly been inspired by The New Yorker to think about my situation in a different way, from how to thrift shop for clothes to the power of checklists in managing your life. In fact, there’s usually at least one article a week that inspires me in some way to think differently about money, time, and how I write about it.

Classic literature I enjoy classic literature quite a lot, as it explores the lives and thoughts of people who live in a different world than mine. It encourages me to see things through a different set of eyes, different experiences, different everything. Such a paradigm shift often reveals many interesting ideas and truths. For example, lately I’ve been rereading the novels of John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row – and I’ve been thinking in detail about the lessons of disasters and extreme poverty.

Writer’s Digest I started reading this magazine hoping to learn how to polish my writing skills for publication, but the most useful parts are the ones on how to creatively assemble ideas and how to structure them in a usable way. Naturally, I apply these techniques directly to personal finance materials, and they often end up revealing new ideas and angles that I hadn’t considered before.

The local newspaper The weekly newspaper in my local town is free – entirely advertising supported. I pick it up faithfully at the local gas station because it lists all of the activities going on in the town, most of which are free and are also great places to meet people and expand my social connections. Plus, there is a general utility in being aware of the latest happenings in my local town.

BusinessWeek I’m able to read BusinessWeek thanks to a subscription at work. What I learn about most from BusinessWeek is efficiency, because in the end that’s what this magazine is really about. In my mind, efficiency is a key part of personal finance, because if you are inefficient with your money or your time, you wind up in debt – or at least with diminished amounts of money in your life.

Personal productivity books There’s a reason I review a personal productivity or personal development book each week. Time is money, and having a poor concept of how you spend your time or wasting a lot of time is basically a waste of money as well. I strive to constantly improve on my time management and my sense that I’m covering all of the important areas in my life and devoting appropriate time to each of them – without it, my life would feel empty in some way and I would also not earn nearly as much money as I did before.

Vogue I often see this on the table at various office visits (dental, doctor, hair, etc.) and I always pick it up because it reminds me on every single page of the absurdity of rampant consumer culture. $1,500 for a pair of sandals that I could assemble a reasonable facsimile of at home for about $10? In my eyes, this type of thing is the enemy, because it devalues our work and our time.

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  1. beloml says:

    Trent, in an earlier post you mentioned that gourmet food was the one thing you’d most hate to part with in the name of frugality. For me, it’s magazines like Vogue. I wouldn’t pay $1,500 for sandals even if I could afford to, but magazines such as this provide a pleasant escape for an hour or two every month, and the quality of the writing is actually very good.

  2. The article on checklists is incredibly insightful as well as useful for nearly everyone.

  3. I don’t think I would look at an issue of Vogue unless there were nothing else to read. The New Yorker on the other hand I think I might enjoy. Thanks for the tips!


  4. You forgot to mention the apex of journalism and all of the wisdom espoused – the magazine known as US Weekly. :)

  5. Heidi says:

    East of Eden is one of my favorite books of all time. I also get a lot of inspiration from BW – but I do the online version.

    I recently got some inspiration from a free local paper that is directed towards people under 35. That’s where I got piece on improving your credit. (This particular publication is mostly dedicated to articles related to the consumption of alcohol, but every once in awhile I will find a gem with really bad career or financial advice that turns into a post on my site).

  6. ClickerTrainer says:

    Trent and Peter, I am shocked that you don’t read Vogue regularly.

    Part of the fun of reading fashion mags is trying to figure out how to duplicate the look for a fraction of the cost. Kind of like IKEAHacker but with clothes. Get it? I would think this is almost exactly in keeping with the spirit of your blog…..

  7. junk mail man says:

    I second Heidi on East of Eden, and don’t miss The Winter of Our Discontent – a meditation on the moral no-man’s land where community, family, and greed intersect.

  8. Karen says:

    I’d love to reread Great Expectations by Charles Dickens from a personal finance perspective. When I first read it I saw it as a story about love and redemption, but from memory there’s a lot in it about spending frivolously and living a lifestyle beyond your means.

  9. m says:

    “$1,500 for a pair of sandals that I could assemble a reasonable facsimile of at home for about $10?” Hmmm . . . would you say the same thing about a Basquiat (or whoever) painting: “I could create a reasonable fascimile of such and such work of art at home, why all the fuss and money?”

    With all due respect and I mean this with no animosity or obnoxiousness whatsoever (sometimes tone is hard to read online), I don’t believe the average person could design and manufacture anything closely similar to the products featured in Vogue and similar magazines anymore than the average person could recreate something like a Pollack or Rothko–despite thinking he can when visiting the modern art wing of a museum.

    Besides, part of what you pay for is the design itself, a cost you don’t have to worry about when replicating someone else’s original work. If you could come up with an equally appealing design and recreate a piece of equal quality and worksmanship, why perhaps you are in the wrong field and ought to be a shoemaker, designer, etc.

    If you are a skilled, talented shoemaker, seamstress, etc, perhaps you can create something like one or two items found in Vogue. Even then probably something only slightly similar, and even then likely only if not studied at close range. I have never seen a $10 shoe that is in any way similar in quality and craftsmanship as a $500+ or even $200 pair.

    Also, I believe art, which fashion is, is largely about aesthetics and beauty. Functional art, like fashion and design is about beauty *and* utility–throwing together a homemade replica of a designer sandal is not likely to truly replicate the level of either the form or function found in the $1500 pair.

    Would your sandal be made impeccably, with some of the finest materials available, using sound design principles, be aesthetically pleasing, last for many years despite repeated wear, stand out as exceptional in its category of product, etc. as the Vogue pair would be? If so there is no way the cost could be anything even close to $10. And if so, like I said earlier, you must have a previously not revealed talent and skill that is quite impressive.

    In addition to including lots of high quality writing within its pages, Vogue offers readers insight into the fashion industry, and in depth coverage of concepts regarding design and fashion.

    The magazine features the more “upscale” version of the fashion equivalents of $20 cheeses or $400 video game systems, in that the products featured are merely high-quality splurges for those who care about fashion just as the higher priced cheese is a splurge for a food lover, or some other higher than average priced item is a splurge for those who care about whatever category that particular item is in.

    You just today wrote about being frugal precisely so we can afford those things which we care about and that bring joy to our lives and that might be considered “splurging.” For you it might be food or video games or whatever, for someone else it might be traveling, an art collection, cars, or clothing and $1500 shoes.

    Why are the splurges in Vogue a reflection of what is wrong with consumer culture but the pricey video game systems, or cheeses, or sportscars or whatever people spend more than necessary on are acceptable choices for splurging?

    I don’t buy that it has anything to do with the actual absolute cost because many pricey items are considered acceptable splurges, despite costing much more than $1500; and the cost of course has to considered relative to the category the item is in ($1500 for shoe vs. $1500 for a glass of wine will be quite different).

    I think for at least some who think this way it is because it is about the desire for clothing, which many consider frivolous and unimportant and shallow,that that judgment is made. Otherwise, the principle is no different from that of paying a high price for a fancy, high quality dinner, or for a nice vacation or whatever else.

    The point is the common denominator with any splurge is that you could get a much cheaper substitute but choose not to. You (meaning “one” not you personally) could buy a used Atari instead of a Wii, it is all about what you want, care about, consider worth it, etc. To some the Atari would be a perfectly fine replacement, to others that would be a joke, just as your $10 sandal might seem a good substitute for you for $1500 designer sandals (usually sandals don’t cost that much however, even for the most exp. brands), but to others, ridiculous.

    The “worth-it-ness” of the splurge is in the eye of the beholder and buyer, and if one splurge is okay, I can’t understand then judging other’s splurges based on simply not being particularly interested in that category of item or experience.

    I believe many people are just fine with splurging and see it as a good thing when it is planned for and one can afford it, just so long as the splurge is on an item they personally consider worth the cost. In other words it often boils down to a case of “What I splurge on is worth it; your splurge is outrageous and represents consumer culture gone awry.”

  10. Mrs. Micah says:

    Reading Vogue makes me feel like I’m on the right track by not spending all that money. Not that I read it often, but I’ll flip through them sometimes in stores. Brides magazines can be fun too.

  11. guinness416 says:

    Eh. Snarky “I’m just sayin'” dismissals of spending on fashion are no different to the same type of dismissals targeted at television, or cars, or travel, or computer games, or baseball tickets, or whatever. We all (should) have something we spend on.

  12. I get 3-4 fashion magazine subscriptions – all that are mostly free through credit card mailer promos including Marie Claire (I paid $4 through a promo online for a yearly subscription), Harpers, Elle and New York Magazine (it’s got a heavy emphasis on designer clothing).

    It’s about discipline and balance. I don’t view the magazines as promoting superfluosness or consuermism. Fashion is art and self-express. I read Vogue sometimes for inspiration clothing and writing styles. I love to study the colors, patterns and shapes in clothing through those magazines. Anna Wintour is one of the most revered fashion editors in the business not because of her clothes but for her magazine’s well-written pieces and ability to revolutionize style. You’re paying for $1,500 shoes because of quality. In Marie Claire there’s a section that dissects the difference between a knockoff and an authentic purse or shoe and breaks down the cost. It’s the subtle differences such as the zipper used or the quality of the leather.

    The high cost is because of the materials, craftsmanship and labor. Quality leather shoes can’t replace genuine imitation leather. Try it on for size before you write off the $1500 shoes. I just dumped a pair of $20 sandals from Mervyns made in China. I purchased a pair of leather pumps that were made in Brazil. I got them for $20 but they were originally $200. The smooth leather and solid construction (heel wise) can’t replace a $50 Nine West pump made in China.

    Your time is valuable clearly. You wouldn’t want to waste it on constructing a shoe for a better price. That kind of labor takes years of experience you must hone. The book “naked economics” book in the trade and globalization chapter describes what you wrote about constructing your own shoe vs having someone make it and sell it at the store. It will change your mindset.

  13. Marjorie says:

    Thank you, M, for your very insightful response. It’s exactly what I would have written had I read this post sooner.

    The products in Vogue are indeed primarily very high-quality clothing and accessories that reflect not only the required marketing and brand snobbery of luxury goods, but also the materials and labor that go into them. An Hermes Birkin, for example, starts at about $5,000, which may seem like an awful lot to spend on a purse, but when you consider the type of material used (only the very best leather in the world, including rare crocodile and ostrich), the amount of labor involved (it’s entirely handmade and takes anywhere from 2 to 5 weeks), and the fact that most women who buy this will keep it for their entire lifetime and will likely pass it on to their daughters, the price tag seems reasonable. I couldn’t ever afford one, but I would never judge someone with the privilege to own one.

    I do own a Fendi, which my mother bought for me for about $350 or so when I was in college and have had for almost 20 years. ($350 was a lot to pay for a purse back in the late ’80s!) Unlike all the cheap, $20 purses I’ve bought at Target and discount shops over the years, this one has remained a sturdy, beautiful purse that has withstood all the years of use and travel I’ve inflicted on it. I used it for years in Japan (where I lived for a couple of years after college), South Carolina (where I attended graduate school), Texas (where I grew up), and now Colorado (where I currently live). It looks almost brand new, and when the strap broke, I took it to the Fendi counter at Neiman Marcus. They fixed the broken clasp in no time, and at no charge whatsoever.

    On the other hand, most cheap purses will last no more than a couple of seasons, given how much abuse they endure. They’re exposed to the elements, often hold a tremendous amount of load, and often don’t have “feet” (the metal posts screwed underneath the purse to protect the leather from dirt and scratches), so it would indeed be unusual if they withstood all of that without so much as a scratch. And they often reflect a very specific trend that looks dated within a year, whereas luxury purses — especially because they hold up so well — generally have very classic looks that last a lifetime, if not longer.

    As M mentioned, with all due respect, I would be very surprised if you were able to create even “reasonable facsimile” of a $1500 shoe, purse or even scarf. As someone who loves fashion but detests cheap trends, I respect the art and creativity and craftsmanship that go into the creation of a luxury product and understand that, unlike the Made-in-China purses and shoes overflowing the shelves at Wal-Mart, quality, durability and beauty will always come at a price.


  14. justin says:

    @M & Marjorie

    Someone is very protective of their $1,500 sandals! What a waste of money! There is a fine line between spending on what makes you happy, and just throwing money into a fire pit. lol

  15. feefifoto says:

    I love the New Yorker too. As a dyed-in-the-wool art student and English major, I have great fear of anything having to do with economics, yet I always enjoy the weekly piece on the economy. I recall a piece a few months ago about why Americans can’t give up their gas guzzling SUVs without being forced to by the government, that made perfect sense to someone who’s admittedly afraid of number stuff.

  16. chris says:

    Well, thanks a lot. You just got me to spend $47.00 on a new New Yorker subscription! Actually, I was thinking about subscribing for a while now, you were just that final push. Seriously – I like Vogue. I subscribe to it. I like reading the articles and it always reviews good books. Once my kids passed a certain age I left behind Glamour, Parents, etc. and now its Vogue, Prevention, Money and so on…. Also, splurges are worthwhile. I had a coworker who carried the same Louis Vuitton bag for about 25 years – every day. I finally left behind handbag fads and constantly buying a new trendy one and plunked down the big bucks for my own LV bag – the only one I use for everything. If done right, expensive purchases can pay off big time in the long run.

  17. Joseph Sangl says:

    I also study great leaders. I watch what they do, and ask questions!

    Sometimes I get the opportunity to meet with them directly, and that is a HUGELY educational experience!

  18. Jason says:

    Interesting the various sources we can find personal finance inspiration. I’ve looked through both Vogue and GQ while at the doctor’s office and noticed the same outlandish outfits. It’s hard for me to believe the economy is down when there are people out there willing to spend $1000 for a pair of shoes!

  19. vh says:

    Hang onto your hat now, Trent….

    How about the AARP Magazine? OK OK I KNOW YOU’RE JUST A YOUNG THANG! But — every time I read a new issue of that rag (when you hit 50 they figure you’re automatically an old folk and start sending you copies), I think about your blog. It contains a LOT of PF ideas, especially stuff on living well frugally & long-term financial planning — some of the articles are very short, but they give you ideas for things to track down.

  20. PiFreak says:

    I couldn’t create a “reasonable fascimile” of a sandal for ten bucks, but I will say this –
    I would rather get 150 pairs of sandals, which each last me 3 years, giving me 450 years worth of sandals for that $1500 price tag.
    My favorite “nice” sandals are about $20, but my daily wear sandals are only 9.88 at walmart
    Dresses for winter formal and prom are the same way. I buy from thrift stores, so the selection is minimal, but I’ve only spent about $30 on three winter formals and one prom, plus a $20 pair of sandals for this year’s prom.
    My friend spent “$250, marked down from 600”, on a dress, which she has worn once, and was ripped in one spot by the end of the night, and didn’t quite fit right. My dress that year was $5, didn’t quite fit my shoulders, and has only been worn once.
    Splurges have a time and a place. I figure I have saved enough these last few years, that I could actually get a NEW dress for my senior prom, but I still might not. I need a winter formal dress for this year, but my average cost for a dress has been about $7, so it’s not a big deal, and I have shoes that match almost everything.
    On purses – I don’t carry one, if I did, I’d get about 10 from dollar tree in different shapes, sizes, and colors. That way, I wouldn’t get bored, and if I needed a new one, I’d only be out a buck.
    That’s just me though, to each their own.

  21. Nursecap says:

    That’s very interesting you find inspiration for personal finance in the least obvious places.

    I’ve always looked at magazines like Vogue as concentrated OJ. You’re not supposed to drink it right out of the can; you have to dilute it with water first. Vogue is the inspiration. One should try to adapt the ideas to their own life.

  22. I also read The New Yorker and I’ve found that it really helps when it comes to exposing myself to new things I’ve never heard of. I like to call it being Outside the Box.

  23. George says:

    The best source of inspiration reading for me are the Berkshire Hathaway annual letters written by Warren Buffett.

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