Updated on 02.03.09

The End Is the Beginning

Trent Hamm

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.
Shunryu Suzuki

old and young_003 by ezloman on Flickr!When I first began my financial turnaround, I was open to trying anything to improve my financial situation. I signed up for online savings accounts at several different banks. I constantly strove to shave every penny I could from my spending.

I failed, a lot. I’d try things that simply didn’t work, or would end up saving me only a few cents for an hour’s worth of effort.

One great example is my endeavor to collect nickel cans. In Iowa, we have a aluminum can and plastic bottle recycling program. Every time you buy a beverage in a can or bottle, you must pay a nickel “deposit.” Then, if you return that empty can or bottle, the state will refund you a nickel. Most grocery stores function as return centers, so it’s easy to get that money back, yet many people simply don’t bother. I decided to take advantage of this and tried valiantly to make scavenging cans and bottles worth my while. Unfortunately, my hourly rate at this endeavor (collecting, sorting, and returning) was roughly a dollar – not really worth it.

This conclusion should have been rather obvious from the outset – it’s pretty clear to me that collecting cans is not going to earn a significant return for the effort put in. Yet, as a beginner at getting my financial house in order, I was willing to try it out of a mix of enthusiasm and a lack of experience.

That excitement – and the experiences that it gave me – was invaluable. It took me from a person who barely had the first idea about money management and helped me pay off most of my debts, get me into a house, and help me build a strong retirement plan and a big emergency fund and college savings for my kids.

Today, after years of trying all sorts of endeavors, I have a rather keen perception of what things will work and what things will not. I can consider experiments like collecting cans and quickly determine whether or not it’s worth the effort – and toss the losing endeavors very quickly. I have a strong basic understanding of most personal finance topics, and I can quickly identify things that work and things that do not.

Where does that leave me? As the Suzuki quote above implies, it leaves me in a seemingly limited place, without many options at all.

You can see some of this in the evolution of The Simple Dollar. When I first started, I would post as many as six articles a day. These articles were often very short – sometimes just a paragraph or two – and they were oozing with enthusiasm for all sorts of ideas. Some of these ideas were very good ones, like What Money Can’t Buy (a great example of my early realizations about the roles of money in life), but others were not so good, like The Power of the Pocket Change Jar.

Now, I only post two articles a day, but they’re much longer and often much more considered than they ever were back then. I toss out 90% of my ideas right off the bat – they simply don’t work or they won’t make for a compelling article. The ones that I do stick with tend to be much longer, more detailed, and based on a significant amount of personal experience or research. I stick mostly with things that I know work.

Many of you are probably in a similar situation when it comes to personal finance. You come to The Simple Dollar for fresh ideas and encouragement each day, but much of this material is at least somewhat familiar to you. You know the basics: spend less than you earn, find ways to cut your spending, try to increase your income, and seek what makes you happy.

Yet, if you’ve been following this path for years, how can it be fresh again? If you’ve been frugal for years, how can frugality be exciting again? If you’ve got your financials in order, what does it take to get you excited and engaged in it again?

Here’s what I do to keep things fresh.

I regularly re-evaluate all of my goals. I often do this in conjunction with my wife, and we usually do it once a month as part of an informal discussion about our financial state. Together, we question everything. Is saving for a house in the country still important? Or should we focus more on shorter-term things? Here’s an example: for years, we had been saving slowly for replacements for our current vehicles, intending to buy late model used automobiles. Now that we’re actually facing the need to replace vehicles, we’re doing some shopping and realizing that new versions of many of the best models are only slightly more than the late model used versions – and we’re very strongly looking at getting a new car. It’s a change from what we had considered a “set in stone” plan – and it’s only one example.

I make an effort to regularly try (or investigate) new things. I’ll go on “Wikipedia wanders” related to personal finance and other topics (seriously, try it – start with the entry about personal finance and click around until you’re in interesting new territory). I try out new inexpensive recipes all the time, both food and otherwise (like homemade laundry detergent). In each case, even if I find that the new things aren’t worthwhile, I still enjoy the experience and I still learn something new.

I listen carefully to people who are just starting their journey and share ideas back and forth with them. People who are at different stages in their life often have vastly different perspectives on the same topic. They bring different life experiences to the table and they bring new ways of looking at tired old ideas to the forefront. You might have noticed that I find myself as of late answering more and more reader questions – I do it because not only do I learn from reading about their experience, researching it, and giving my take, but I also learn from the ideas that others put up in the comments.

I keep reading. Many people are amazed that I’ve reviewed a book each week since 2006 on The Simple Dollar. I do it because, first and foremost, it keeps exposing me to new ideas and new angles on old ideas, and by reviewing them, I get the opportunity to evaluate those new ideas and also share them with you all (many of whom seem to really like the reviews).

Together, these things often let me see personal finance and frugality and personal growth through fresh new eyes, even if only for a little while. Doing that helps keep things fresh and interesting and helps me keep my eye on the ball in terms of managing my money and my life.

Good luck at seeing things in a new light!

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  1. DB Cooper says:

    Feel free to send your pocket change to me if you’d rather not save it – I still think it’s a good idea.

    As for pop and beer cans (“returnables” as we call them here), we pay a 10 cent deposit in Michigan, and there have been many occasions where one could easily fill up a large garbage bag in just 20 minutes of “scrounging” – particularly at a park after a crowded event – concert, 4th of July fireworks, softball tournament, etc. At 10 cents per can, a large bag full is easily $15-$20…at that rate, it’s certainly worth the effort. Along those same lines, I’ve never understood why people throw away so many dimes!

  2. Battra92 says:

    We do save our cans and bottles. I actually have a paper sack full of them from the soda I bring in my lunch every day.

    It’s good you admit that being a bum and checking pay phone return slots is not a good way to fix your finances. ;)

  3. Mickey says:

    I knew from the title, this was a post worth reading!

  4. Jessica says:

    I hope you know just how many people you are helping. I am a SAHM who has so much to learn and your blog is a great place to start. Thank you thank you thank you–I hope you never stop writing.

  5. Gabriel says:

    Great post. I think it reminds a lot of us of a great truth in life – we will never stop learning, growing or changing. If we do, we have some ‘splaining to do!

  6. Nice post Trent. It’s tough to try to put a fresh spin on old ideas, Everyone brings there own perspective so perhaps that helps keep things fresh.

    Nothing wrong with being reminded of the basics either.


  7. RJ W says:

    Very nice post. Your fresh view of PF is one reason I keep coming back. I do a similar goal review at the end of each month, and it always amazes me how fast things can change.

    The Michigan pop cans comments remind me of an excellent Seinfeld episode…

  8. Lisa says:

    When I first discovered your blog, I went back and read all the older articles you’d posted before I found The Simple Dollar. The enthusiasm was there, and it was infectious…even if I didn’t choose to implement all the ideas. I do see a change in this blog. Sometimes I see the change in the form of more thoughtful articles. I like those articles very much. Often, I just experience the more recent articles as being, well, just kind of plodding. They don’t engage me nearly so often now. I’ve seen the same thing in other personal finance bloggers who have made big strides in debt reduction and money management. Good luck with your endeavor to keep things fresh and interesting. I know it can’t be easy!

  9. Troy says:

    Regarding the vehicle purchase.

    We ran into the same issue in 2006. Looking at new Toyota SUV’s at the time and found that the used ones (2004-2005) were not much cheaper, maybe $1500-$3000 for a car that was a year or two older with 10-20K miles vs new with no miles.

    In fact there was one 2005 used with 15K miles that was MORE than a similar brand new one…at the same dealership. Couldn’t believe it.

    That being said, I would steer clear of new based on my experience. It may require a few adjustments but there are numerous vehicles coming off leases righ now that offer substantial savings.

    I understand that new vehicles are currently heavily discounted as well, and that was my rationale when I made my decision, but if I were to do it over I would buy different.

    I would buy a used vehicle for half the price of new. That would be my criteria. I remember you saying you were leaning towards an Odessey? Nice vehicle – we looked at those as well as Sienna’s.

    If I were buying right now though, I would go buy a 1 year old Kia Sedona. Very similar to the Honda, literally half the price for a one year old with 10K miles.

  10. aaajbec says:

    While collecting cans may not pay the bills, I think it is an excellent way to get kids interested in saving money and teaches them that a little hard work can pay off. Young children are usually thrilled to make any money. Also teaches kids that it is OK to get your hands dirty to make a dollar or two.

  11. I too hope to one day have that clarity, where I can easily identify what is a good idea and what is not… Until then, I will I will continue to move forward, I may stumble a lot, but at least I am moving forward.

  12. brooke says:

    Yikes, I thought you were going to say TSD was closing and you were starting another blog somewhere else! Now that THAT scare is over, I’ll read the article : )

  13. Eve says:

    I have always bought used cars and have never regretted it. Many friends have these brand new cars, but I am the one with no car payment. I have a fund that I call the car fund that I budget monthly for, so when my 2000 Toyota Sienna is put to rest, I plan on paying cash for another car with no car payment yippee!!! works for me.

  14. Jade says:

    Well, as far as collecting cans goes, my dad drinks diet coke like there is no tomorrow. Won’t drink store brand (that’s why I own their stock, lol), and won’t drink it out of anything but a can. So I have a separate bag for all of my cans. I’m going to go to the grocery store anyway, might as well drop off the cans there while I’m at it. It’s an extra 30 bucks every few months to stick in my IRA, and it keeps the garbage bill lower because there’s less trash to throw away.

    And as for cars, my boyfriend pointed out to me a few years ago one of the benefits of buying a new car, you know exactly who has worked on it and what has been done with it. If you’re buying a used white Ford F150 that used to be an Enterprise rental car, for all you know someone may have gotten it stuck in the sand on a camping trip and needed 2 other cars to pull it out (I’ll put the video on YouTube one of these days…). But if you buy a 6-12 month old car, you benefit (hopefully) from a lower price and hopefully nobody has managed to trash the car too much in that time.

    And when buying a new car, I’ve been told that they’re cheaper around October or November because the dealers are trying to get rid of the old model year to make way for the new model year (although my boyfriend ended up going for the new model year that came in early because it cost just the same as the old model year). Of course that assumes you can wait that long…

  15. Jules says:

    Here they have these little stamps, where every 5 euros you spend at the supermarket gets you one stamp, and once you have 200 or so, that gets you a 1 euro discount on your groceries. A rather ridiculous system, if you ask me, and most people would agree–but there are people who will ask you for yours if you don’t want them, and we’ve even gotten letters in the mail asking us to send our unwanted stamp-things to so-and-so at such-and-such an address. Point being, it could be worth it, depending on how shameless you are ;-)

  16. Isabelle says:

    We are at a similar stage in our frugal life. At first we were able to find ways of saving hundreds of pounds each month.

    At first I read a forum on living ‘old style’ and got a lot of advice there. Now I read information and ideas on sites like this. However I still re-read ‘Tightwad’ to keep me on the straight and narrow!

  17. Hackerette says:

    Great post! I especially like the part about trying new things – I’ve saved so much money (and had a lot of fun!) learning how to do things for myself rather than paying someone else to do it. Most of the time, there is minimal effort involved.

  18. Simply put– trial and error is how we learn and grow. We have crawl before we walk and wal before we run– even with our finances. Good post.

  19. Simply put– trial and error is how we learn and grow. We have crawl before we walk and walk before we run– even with our finances. Good post.

  20. renee says:

    Collecting cans is like free money. I get about $1 a day just from the person who works next to me, so with very little effort I get about $30 a month. At a party – we have a “can bin” which everyone puts their emptys in,lots of dollars there. This summer our can money will almost finance our vacation. Pennies do add up. Change jars also add up. These are things we can do with very little effort, but make a difference.

  21. Wide Moat says:

    There is a profound beauty in the simplicity of doing one thing. I’m not there yet.

  22. Shevy says:

    Back in the days when I used to drink, um, 2 litres of Coca Cola per day I was also a single working parent with 3 school aged kids. Hmm, maybe that’s *why* I used to drink all that Coke! I needed all that sugar and caffeine to get through my long, busy days.

    Anyway, I used to save the money I got from returning the bottles and cans in a special container. One day there was enough money in there to pay for 2 sets of Corelle dishes in my (then) favorite pattern (a set being 20 pieces).

    I’d say it was worth returning the bottles. I would never have had the money to buy new dishes otherwise.

  23. Wise Finish says:

    Reading can keep you from spending money, as long as you use your local library! Actually any time-consuming activity that doesn’t require money saves you from shopping or something else more expensive!

  24. Tony says:

    Trent – I believe this may be the first time I’ve commented. Excellent post material, as usual, but I’d like to know more about how you came across Shunryu Suzuki! That quote on the concept of shoshin was the governing philosophy of the school of karate I came up in, so much so that my instructor named the school Shoshin Karate-do and my black belt certificate has the same quote as your post. The book that quote is from has had an enormous effect on my life, spiritually and philosophically speaking. Indeed, experts do look at things with stale minds. Without a beginner’s mind any activity, and possibly one’s life itself, becomes formulaic, trite even.

    Are you a fan of Suzuki’s or his brand of Zen Buddhism?

  25. loi tran says:

    I like Shunryu Suzuki’s quote. He’s basically saying to approach everything with a beginner’s mind. Experts are always closed off to new ideas and as a result, do not reach their potential. Reading a book a week is a very good idea. I’m trying to read as much as I can as well.

  26. Bruce weaver says:

    I too live in Iowa, where we have had the deposit law for 30 years. Oddly enough the law only applies to carbonated drinks. While the nickel is nice, I am equally motivated by the impact of our activities on the environment. Over the past 30 years the per capita waste stream has increased dramatically. I read an article a number of years ago stating that the United States throws away enough aluminum beverage cans each year to replace our entire domestic airline fleet SEVEN TIMES OVER! In one year no less.
    As a custodian at a local college, I recycle constantly from one building I work in. The bldg has four classrooms and about 13 offices. The five-cent containers add up to around $75 per semester. I rinse them and dry them on a shelf, bag 40 at atime and cash in five cases (120) for $6. The stores know me and do not make me put them in flats. They know they are all legit and clean & dry. I save 1,2, and 5 plastic, steel cans and glass as well, and periodically drop them off at our local recycling center, along with household items that overwhelm my curbside container. Egg cartons go to the farmer’s market; Newsprint to the animal shelter, along with old towels and cardboard flats. Any easily retrieved baked goods and apple cores go to the wildlife. I have cut my waste stream at home and at work by 75%. The can/bottle fund, along with pocket change evry few days, adds up to several hundred dollars per year in a seperate kitty, for whatevery I decided to do with it. My behavior is so automatic it is just part of my day, and requires no more time or effort since I am organized. Some things I save for the art dept. About every semester I aquire a gallon storage bag full of pens and pencils that I give to a teacher friend for her middle-school students. Books and magazines are offered up at a high traffic location and quickly get snapped up. I also save discarded wood and fallen branches found on walks for patio fires. If I have excess, I give it to others all cut up and boxed. I try to use cloth shopping bags (you need two sets, so they are always handy). The occasional plastic grocery bags go back to the store, or to the Goodwill or other thrift shop. one-sided paper that does not have persoanl info on it finds its way home for use printing out fun things and coupons from internet. Paper clips, and big clips add up fast also. I keep a variety of boxes and packing material stored for staff to use when they need some. I never make a special trip for these things; only combined outings. It is time we all wake up and realize we cannot throw anything ‘away’.

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