Updated on 06.10.11

The Center

Trent Hamm

When I first got started with personal finance, I began by cutting away at my spending. First, I trimmed away the obvious things – buying too many books and video games, for one. I moved on from there to more difficult things, like moving to cooking more foods at home, cutting a few subscription services, and so on.

Eventually, I reached a point where it was difficult to find additional things to cut. A lot of the “fat” spending is obvious and easy to cut, but once you reach a certain point, it begins to feel more difficult as you cut away things that feel important to you.

Even worse, I often felt somewhat conflicted about many of the things that I had cut. I’d convince myself that my life was worse because I had cut some stream of spending in my life. Often, this attitude did far more to bring my mood down than any actual spending cut that I made.

More often than I would like, I felt resentful toward personal finance. I would often go through periods feeling as though living frugally was keeping me from things that I would enjoy, and I didn’t like it.

It is very easy in that mindset to backslide and start spending money again. My speculation is that many people backslide at that point.

What I didn’t realize then was that I was taking the exact opposite perspective from what I should have taken. Rather than taking my life as it was right then and cutting away fat, I should have started at the center.

What do I mean by that?

As soon as I realized that my financial life was out of whack, I should have taken it as a sign that my life in general was out of whack. If I’m in a big pile of consumer debt, my values and my behaviors are misplaced.

How do you fix that? You revert to the center.

Don’t worry (directly) about cutting this or cutting that. Instead, spend a few weeks getting in touch with the things that you value most in your life.

Re-establish your key friendships and relationships. Get in touch with the hobbies that you love but try to convince yourself you don’t have time for. Find the time for things like this by dropping back from many of the elements of your normal day.

I’ve found that a big debt hole often comes from a life that’s going off the rails in a lot of ways. For me, I was so caught up in the stresses of my job and a seeming need to “show off” to a circle of friends that weren’t really good friends that, to a certain degree, I lost track of who I was, what I valued, and what I enjoyed doing.

When I corrected those things, my finances began to practically correct themselves.

After concert
My three children, at the end of a concert

I feel happiest about my life when I have a book that I’m engrossed in. I feel most centered when I’m creating new things, usually via writing. I feel like a day has been a good day when I’ve spent some time with my kids and spent some time with just my wife.

That’s the center of my life. The more time and energy I spend maximizing that center, the better I feel each night when I fall in bed, the happier I am with the direction of my life, and the easier it is to keep my finances in balance.

When your whole life is centered, personal finance balance follows. When things are out of line, the money tends to go astray as well. Thus, if you find your money going astray, ask yourself what really matters in your life and focus on just that for a while. Amazing things will happen.

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  1. kjc says:

    With all due respect, TSD needs an infusion of new ideas, and perhaps another voice. It has turned SO inward in the last year or so, you’re narrowing your niche, and what’s worse, there’s a pervasive sameness to so many posts.

    Take a hard look at GRS (I know, perhaps not a fair comparison, as J.D. now has a small “staff” of writers) and give it some thought. GRS would be just like TSD – if J.D. devoted 85% of his posts to his garden and his cats.

    Time to get beyond your “center,” and look outward a bit. I’m moving on; the comments are the main attraction at this point, and that’s not quite enough. Good luck!

  2. Courtney Sperlazza says:

    I’ve got to come to Trent’s defense here. I can appreciate someone who stays true to himself, rather than trying to be like Joe Big Shot. That’s the beauty of blogging – you can be purely YOU. Garden and all. I just read a post on Problogger by Gabrielle Conde that says there are 25 million online users worldwide – you’re bound to find a group of them who “get” you.

    If you feel that the natural next step of this site is to hire staff writers or even change direction, by all means do so, as long as the message jives with your mission. Or, if you want to keep things as they are, that’s just as well.

    At risk of sounding trite, please allow me to thank you for keepin’ it REAL.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    “If I’m in a big pile of consumer debt, my values and my behaviors are misplaced.

    Not necessarily – some people go into major debt when a catastrophe happens and eats up all their savings and the only recourse they have is to use whatever credit cards, workday loans or store loan options they can access.

    I’m about come to kjc’s point regarding the navel gazing.

  4. chuck says:

    i’ve been here about a year and have to agree with kjc. seems like most posts are the same simple idea with only a very slight twist. would like to see more variety and depth. how bout a deep series on declaring bankprutcy?

    for the pf posts, the main article usually provides the basics and the comments cover all of the special cases very well (and sometimes correct errors in the article). a good example of this was the 401k post a few days back. the comments have become one of my fav parts!!!!

  5. Karen says:

    Actually, I found this article on centering quite timely for me. I’m not in consumer debt, but I just suffered the loss of the dearest person in the world to me. I feel like my life has been off-center for a while, as I was over-extended doing many things while not spending time with the people most important to me. I am determined to re-center now.

  6. Carole says:

    I follow Suze Orman on tv and she has a similar philosophy–if one’s emotional life is out of whack, overweight and debt will follow. Buying things is an attempt to fill an inner emptiness. I suppose food does the same thing, in her view anyway.

  7. Vanessa says:

    “GRS would be just like TSD – if J.D. devoted 85% of his posts to his garden and his cats.”

    Possibly, if that were all JD was into. But he travels, is a commentator (I’ve heard him on NPR at least twice) attends events with fellow bloggers–even without his staff he’d have plenty to write about.

    I remember this site during the early years and tone it had then. Now I tend to think of this site as an online diary of sorts. It’s a place for Trent to express his thoughts/opinions which may or may not be related to money. That’s the only way I can figure out the 10 Pieces of Inspiration. I mean, hey, his kids are cute and all, but they don’t do much for me personally, ya know? (Plus, don’t you eventually run out of things? We’re on #23 now, that’s 230 inspirations!)

    Trent should turn this into just a personal blog, then he could talk about his children to his heart’s content. He wouldn’t be expected to stick to a single topic (personal finance) and there would be less criticism for not researching and correcting misinformation.

  8. Catherine Hayes says:

    Ive been reading this blog for a couple of years now and this is the first time I have been inspired to say how much I agree with the thoughts expressed. Not that previous ones havn’t been useful but this one really resonates with me.At the moment I am going through a period of simplicity and stillness to sort out my beliefs about the world,and about how I connect with money and other resources ( like time) so that I can put in place a good foundation for the rest of my life.Better late than never.Thanks and keep it up.

  9. eaufraiche says:


    I love this post – cuts to the heart of the matter.

    I’m a daily reader of TSD – some posts speak to me; some don’t, but always enjoy your writing and topics.

    MUST say that it’s generally a drag to come to the feedback section to post a comment. Wonder each time why readers feel compelled to rag on when they feel they didn’t get their money’s worth (huh???)

    Trent, you’re an inspiration and I’ve recommended your wonderful site to fistfuls of people who want to turn their fiscal lives around.

    Thanks for posting – and thanks SO MUCH for keeping the posts coming on a regular basis. I used to work for the most highly syndicated advice columnist in american history, and know that it’s a challenge to meet a deadline (as imposed by publisher OR self)

  10. Wayn says:

    Good post. I would like to see more of this type.

    “as though living frugally was keeping me from things that I would enjoy”

    I think sometimes we focus so much on cutting out things we don’t think creatively about ways to get things and experiences for free, barter, or borrow.

  11. Mark says:

    Hi All,

    I’d reiterate “I’m a daily reader of TSD – some posts speak to me, some don’t, and always enjoy your writing and topics.”

    One thing that’d I thought might be useful for others struggling with trimming is a practice that I learned a number of years ago regarding books. Yeah, they are expensive and I love to hold a book in my hands, I’ve tried friends ‘readers’ but its not the same for me. The crux of the matter is that Yes, I could go to my local library to find the books I like but library budgets are tight these days causing long waiting lists for books and often times they might not even have or be interested in ordering the book I need. SOLUTION: I believe strongly in giving back as a part of one’s budget, so I buy books on Amazon read them and then donate them to the local library for which I acquire both a tax deduction but also the sense of helping out my community.

  12. Olivia says:

    Just took a two-day time management class last week. Along these lines, the instructor suggested a personal or family mission statement. Perhaps you’ve written about that before, but seems fitting with getting back to center. Your mission statement is an expression of your center.

  13. Trent,
    You’re spot-on! Just to prove your point, when mortgage companies foreclose on homes, the homes inside and outside are in a shambles. Obviously, the owner’s financial life is in ruin, and their surroundings are simply a reflection of that.

  14. Joan says:

    Trent: I can’t improve on what EAUFRAICHE #5 said. I love reading your posts. Of course, some posts do not resonate with me; but that is to be expected. There is no way to please all the people all the time. I only subscribe to four blogs, and yours is the only one that I feel the need to read every day. Thanks for posting. You are a real inspiration, I loved the post about all the things that can go wrong in a day with children. I had to laugh. Knowing you aren’t superman makes me appreciate even more the fact that you post daily. Keep up the good work.

  15. Kathy says:

    Ditto #5.

    I feel this post provided the missing piece in my Return to Frugality. I used to make bank and have to fight feeling resentful and entitled now that I don’t and need to adjust my spending habits. Then I’d get frustrated with myself because those aren’t rational or constructive feelings but I wasn’t sure of a way around them. Centering will provide that. This post makes so much sense and rings so true – I feel reinspired about the current leg of my journey. I think it will help me stay on course.

  16. Johanna says:

    What bothers me most about posts along these lines is the implication that because the things Trent values most don’t cost money, nobody can possibly truly value anything that costs money. Not true.

    In my life, my “center” right now is music. And since I started really focusing on that, my spending has gone up, not down. Between buying new instruments and other equipment, paying for lessons, buying new albums to listen to for inspiration, and paying train fare to meet with my partner for rehearsals and to go to open mics, I’m spending, easily, $500 a month on this, probably more. That’s fine – I can afford it, because my other expenses are in balance, and because I’m fortunate enough to have a job that pays well. But if either of those things were not true, “just focus on your center” would be bad advice for me. It would not cause amazing things to happen.

  17. Steven says:

    “Center” is different for everyone…

    While I really can’t relate to Trent on a personal level, I try to take the general message from his posts and apply them to my own situation. More often than not, I think he lives in a bubble and has no perspective of the world beyond the four walls of his house (since he never talks about doing much outside of them) but there are times when he makes a point which causes me to ask questions about my own life. That’s what I’m looking for.

    I might be a fierce critic of Trent, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find at least some value in his writing every now and then. And, as far as critics are concerned, I think the dialogue on this blog is particularly respectful and constructive compared to other blogs or websites. More often than not, when I read the comments, it’s there that I find myself reflecting on the post and what I originally thought. So often I say to myself, “Wow, I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

    That’s why I continue to read.

  18. Karla says:

    The timing on this was perfect, as I’ve been feeling a bit out of balance lately. Kind of funny how a simple blog post can smack you in the face and get you moving.

  19. partgypsy says:

    I found this article to touch upon something that is true, that spending or focus on spending can be a symptom of a life out of balance and to get in touch with what is important, IS really integral to refocusing life. But like #5 said, yeah the comments are getting to be a drag. I feel that some readers come to TSD simply to find some kind of fault no matter how minor with Trent and post it in the comments. All I can say is GET A LIFE.

  20. Regina says:

    I have enjoyed this blog for many years. However, recently I find it has become too “family centric”. I am the parent of two grown sons and so I admire dedication to family, but I must say that it is important to be more well rounded because kids grow up and have lives of their own, not always “appreciating” your sacrifices. Debt reduction support drove me to this blog and thank you for your inspiration but I too must move on at this point. Good luck to you!

  21. Lilly says:

    What a helpful post! I know that I am an anxious person, and honestly, I know how that affects my mood and my eating habits (and corresponding weight gain), but I had never thought of my finances.

    I love your blog, but man, your commenters are mean!

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