Book review: The Simple Dollar

My colleague Trent Hamm from may have started his blog six months after I did, but he's ahead of me in books. He published his first 365 Ways to Live Cheap! [my review], at the end of 2008, and his second, The Simple Dollar, was released this summer.

I'm a huge fan of The Simple Dollar (it's the only personal-finance blog I read regularly besides my own), and I count Hamm as a colleague and a friend. I think there's a lot of value in his new book, especially for readers who are financially flustered and ready to change. That said, I think The Simple Dollar (the book) has a serious flaw.

Bad News First
The Simple Dollar by Trent Hamm

I usually save my complaints about a book until the end of a review. I'm not going to do that here.

My chief beef with The Simple Dollar is that it's disorganized. For most of the book, there's no central thesis, and the chapters jump from one topic to another with no discernible pattern. There are chapters on social capital, networking, and relationships, for example, that might make sense when strung together. Instead, they're peppered throughout the book in what seems like random order.

This makes The Simple Dollar tough to follow. I'm reading about cash flow and frugality, then the book turns to networking and careers, before jumping back to saving and investing, and then hopping forward to money and relationships.

As a reader, it feels like the book is a puzzle that has been mixed up and re-assembled incorrectly. As someone who has written a book of his own (and who has talked to many other writers), it feels very much like somebody — read “the publisher” — came through after Hamm had finished and then arbitrarily changed the order of the chapters. In fact, knowing how methodical Hamm usually is, I'd be willing to bet money this is what happened.

A Framework for Freedom

Still, while The Simple Dollar as a whole is confusing at times, the chapters themselves are not. Hamm has a talent for cutting to core concepts and discarding the junk. He does that here, too. Where Hamm especially shines — and you know this if you read his blog — is when discussing frugality.

Here, for example, he writes about frugality as a framework for freedom:

Many people associate frugality with sacrifice: You have to give things up. They hear stories about having to give up lattes or giving up eating out or giving up nights on the town, and it sounds incredibly tedious.

A more appropriate view is that frugality is an exchange: You're trading things you don't value for things you do value.

Yes! A thousand times yes! It took me years to get this concept, but now that I have it, it guides every financial decision I make. I've written 1000-word articles trying to get this point across, but Hamm does it here in just a few sentences.

Hamm says that all of frugality can be boiled down to five simple rules:

  • Don't give up the things you love. Yes, you may have to cut back in the short term, but you don't have to give up the things that make life worth living. Let's use my own life as an example. As you know, I like comic books. When I was digging myself out of debt, I had to cut back on my comics spending, but I didn't give them up completely. Instead, I followed Hamm's second recommendation, which is…
  • Find inexpensive ways to enjoy the things that are important to you. There are almost always cheaper alternatives for pursuing your passions. In my case, that meant borrowing comics from the library. It meant reading the ones I already owned. And it meant buying collections on DVD. (Comics on DVD can't compare to the printed page, but it's a cheap way to feed the habit.)
  • Cut back hard on the things that matter less. I've written extensively about how important this is. In my case, I don't value television. I rarely watch it. So why was I paying $65/month for a deluxe cable TV package? By cutting back to $15 basic cable, I freed money to pay off my debt or to spend on the things that mattered to me.
  • Never go shopping without knowing exactly what you want. “If you ever walk into a store without a plan,” writes Hamm, “it's highly likely you're going to walk out the door with something you didn't intend to buy.” This sort of accidental shopping simply kills frugality and intentional financial goals. Shop with purpose.
  • Use the 30-day rule for any unplanned purchase. If you do find yourself tempted to buy on impulse, do what you can to defer the spending. Instead of buying today, put it off until next week — or next month. If you still want whatever is tempting you to spend, then consider the purchase — if you can afford it.

Each chapter of The Simple Dollar contains great advice like this, and Hamm concludes each chapter with five steps to help you change your life for the better.

Note: This book isn't really about personal finance. There's personal finance in it, sure, but like Hamm's blog, The Simple Dollar is about personal and professional transformation. This is a book about change.

There's a lot of information in The Simple Dollar, and Hamm encourages readers to check out other books and websites to learn more. Along the way, he shares bits of his personal story, as well as anecdotes from folks who read his blog. These real-life stories give depth to the concepts he's trying to convey.

What Does It All Mean?

The information in The Simple Dollar good, and it's sure to be useful to many people. I do recommend this book, especially if you're struggling to get your feet on the ground. But, as I mentioned, the book's content is so jumbled that it's difficult to see the Big Picture.

Until the final chapter, this book lacks a thesis, a clear theme that ties the content together. Finally, on page 235, Hamm writes:

If there's a single overriding point of this entire book, it's this: Money is nothing more than a tool with which you can create the life you truly want. The challenge is knowing what you truly want…

Amen. That's a great point, and a fine thesis, but it belongs on page one, not page 235. Putting that at the front of the book and then referring to it throughout could help the reader parse the pile of ideas in The Simple Dollar. They're great ideas, but what's the point? We don't know until the very end.

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Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

I’m bummed that I’m blocked from commenting on TSD. Moderation limbo for eternity makes me a lot less interested in ever visiting that site or buying anything he’s written.

I don’t know if it’s personal or that I’ve been marked as a spammer, but either way I would hope that it would be something that would be fixed eventually.

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
9 years ago

I too stopped reading TSD after comment moderation started eating all of my comments again. Some of his posts also seem judgemental to the non-thrifty, so I just gave it up. I actually LOVE Get Rich Slowly because you are not judgemental, so I was surprised you and Trent get along so well.

Paul Williams
Paul Williams
9 years ago

Nicole and BITFS, you’re not alone. I, too, have been stuck in moderation limbo on The Simple Dollar forever. It’s frustrating, but I’ve just about given up. I still read Trent’s stuff, but I don’t engage because I know I can’t comment. Stinks. Thanks for the review though, J.D. I’m sad to hear that the book is disorganized, but it sounds like Trent included some good tips. I agree with what you said about his thesis at the end of the book. That is a good point, but it would be better if the book were focused around that rather… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

Has anyone e-mailed Trent to let him know about the comment issues? Maybe his spamfilter went on the fritz too.

As you may recall, the spamfilter here at GRS broke a few months ago. TONS of legit comments are being routed to spam, and I’m having to fish them out by hand. This means a lot more work, but I try to stay on top of it so it doesn’t get out of control. The same thing may have happened to TSD.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

I did email with the original email, but that probably just got eaten too (no reply). I posted the problem under a different email that got through into the comments section. And I’ve seen other folks commenting on his comments about moderation limbo occasionally. It makes one think that he either does not read or care, or perhaps just doesn’t want to investigate. It’s been months…

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
9 years ago

I’m not sure what you mean by “moderation limbo forever.” I am looking at my moderation queue right now and there are 0 comments in it. I have only blocked three or four non-spamming commenters ever from commenting on The Simple Dollar. That’s not to say there isn’t a bug somewhere, but I literally don’t see any unapproved comments.

Anna
Anna
9 years ago

Thanks for a honest and candid review, J.D. I imagine it is hard to be true to the readers while preserving your working relationship with Trent over at TSD. Great review!

uncertain algorithm
uncertain algorithm
9 years ago

Don’t feel bad Nicole: my comments don’t go through on the Simple Dollar either.

However, Trent is an excellent writer and covers financial topics well like J.D. does. In fact, Trent’s review on Getting Things Done was a delight, and the book was well worth it. I noticed here at our local Barnes and Nobles they had Trent’s book, The Simple Dollar, and it felt a little odd. In some ways, though he’s a blogger, it almost seems like I know him better than I actually do.

Either way, excellent book by a great blogger.

Valerie
Valerie
9 years ago

I too am a regular reader of TSD….the one hesitation I have about the book is that there wouldn’t be enough new content for me to want to keep it around (also reading Unclutterer) I’m hoping it makes it’s way to the library so I can check it out without a copy in my house! Failing that, I have a family member who could probably benefit from it when I’m done 🙂

Sara
Sara
9 years ago

I posted a few comments to the Simple Dollar, but what irked me was that my last one was on 6/21 and when I checked on 7/12 it was still awaiting moderation. I just checked again, and now I don’t even see it there waiting for approval. I don’t know if it’s a trend or a natural outgrowth of writing a personal finance blog, but I really haven’t had the urge yet to pick up any books. I far prefer reading about it in blog format, because I like the interaction of the comments (and reading many different viewpoints) and… Read more »

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago

Count me as another person who stopped reading TSD after having comments remain unpublished. I won’t speculate as to why comments aren’t going up, but it made me disinclined to return.

JB
JB
9 years ago

I enjoy TSD and Trent’s site was the first Personal Finance Blog I started to read regularly.

Tien Le
Tien Le
9 years ago

I too have left many a comment on TSD only to have them go unpublished. Well, some of them, anyway. I doubt the issue is a “bug” as Trent disingenuously claims, because the only comments (of mine) that seem to stay in limbo are the ones that express constructive criticism. On several occasions i’ve killed time waiting for one of my critical comments to show up by biting my lip and submitting glowing commentary just to see what would happen… only to see the positive input get the green light while the original comment remains unpublished. Of course, that was… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

@Sara (#10) Hold on! Don’t pick up my book if you’re wanting my personal story. You won’t find it there. In fact, that’s one complaint long-time GRS readers have about it. My book has very little of my story, in fact, and is very much meant as a literal personal-finance manual for folks who don’t want my background. A possible second book would include much more of my own story, as well as the stories of other people. But that’s in the future. As for comments not getting published at TSD: I confess that I’ve had comments languish in moderation,… Read more »

ftbllmom
ftbllmom
9 years ago

I like TSD, but didn’t really care too much for the book. I found it really was too much about how he wiped out his debt, as the subtitle says. I guess I was looking for an approach for how I could wipe out my debt.

JenK | Sex & Money
JenK | Sex & Money
9 years ago

Don’t pick up my book if you’re wanting my personal story. You won’t find it there.

It may upset some readers, but not all. Yes, the “Here’s what I did and how it worked” can be inspirational to those in a similar situation, but much less so for those who aren’t.

Going just on the titles, the subhead of Trent’s book (How One Man Wiped Out His Debts and Achieved the Life of His Dreams) would steer me away. 😉

Genavieve
Genavieve
9 years ago

I threw in the towel on TSD after “The Great Swimsuit Debate of 2010.” Prior to that, I’d been reading for about three years, but that post and Trent’s responses were the proverbial straw and camel’s back. Everyone makes mistakes both in “real life” and in the online world. When a blogger can’t take responsibility for what he wrote and say with humility and sincerity that he was wrong, it makes me suspect any and everything else that comes after. I care less about the fact that someone screws up than I do about their ability to own it. The… Read more »

Christina @ Northern Cheapskate
Christina @ Northern Cheapskate
9 years ago

I found Trent’s book to be an enjoyable read.

As a busy stay-at-home mom and a frugal living blogger, I didn’t feel like the book was lacking a thesis or disjointed at all…

But maybe that’s because I read it in little bursts and didn’t try to read it straight through in a day.

I’m sad that the commentary on this post has taken such a negative tone. Usually GRS is a much more positive place.

Paul Williams
Paul Williams
9 years ago

@J.D./Trent:

It seems that Akismet filters out some comments before they even get to a moderation/spam folder. I’ve read a few other blogs where they’re having this problem.

I contacted Akismet and they said they fixed this for me, but I’m still having comments disappear on several different sites. This is extremely frustrating because I try very hard not to spam but to add to the conversation and participate.

Sorry to take this off topic, J.D.!

Dink
Dink
9 years ago

I also stopped reading TSD because my comments never seemed to make it through moderation. Also, the content has gotten a little stale lately. It’s strange, some days both TSD and GRS will have pretty much the same content… with either JD responding to Trent’s post or Trent responding to JD’s post; I’ve noticed this a handful of times. I guess there are only so many ways you can tell people to stop spending themselves into debt.

JD, I’m glad my comments make it through here at GRS. It keeps me reading knowing that I can contribute.

Big Al
Big Al
9 years ago

Love both the sites,follow the blog and daily twitter. Rarely comment,but had to say something about this back and forth whining! Alright already! It was a book review not a chance for you to tell millions you were hung out to dry by a spam filter. Move on,go outside, last time I checked the world was still spinning. Keep up the great bloggin gents!

J.O.
J.O.
9 years ago

I also gave up on TSD because my comments were stuck in moderation. After seeing this book review tonight, I checked TSD and see that my comments are finally published (although this is a very recent development). For the others who were having this problem, you might want to check again.

Good review of the book, JD. I’m surprised to hear about the illogical order of chapters. From following Trent’s blog, I would never have expected that; his writing is always organized. Too bad authors don’t have more say over their own books.

Courtney
Courtney
9 years ago

Count me in as another ‘moderation’ casualty, even sans links or anything ‘controversial’ – and like Genavieve, I had been majorly turned off by the swimsuit debacle too. I’ve mostly just been clicking on the Reader Mailbags lately, and more for the reader comments rather than Trent’s. Big Al, I think it’s relevant to the book discussion – we’re not interested in supporting someone (through a book purchase) who isn’t on the ball enough to moderate their comments regularly or fix the ‘false negative’ problem. I’ve had comments occasionally go to moderation here, 5CN, and AFM – they’re always released… Read more »

Bill
Bill
9 years ago

It seems that hyperlinks get you censored on TSD. It is just the law of the land. That being said, I can’t help but go back to TSD after a few days… even if he makes me mad 🙂

Bill
Bill
9 years ago

Hey JD,

If friends shouldn’t lend each other money maybe they shouldn’t review each other’s books.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

ooh, links to the swimsuit debacle? I missed that one. Or is that too drama seeking? Ooh, found it. I think that’s the very first time I’ve seen Trent actually apologize, though it took a few awful Trent-comments first. Kudos for the admission. @22… so before I posted @1 I double checked to see if I was still blocked and moderated… yep. Checked again after @6 posted and my test post had been approved. All previous posts that had been in moderation before (from August 1st and prior) are no longer either there or in moderation like Sara @10 is… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

@Bill
I like Trent’s book. But I didn’t expect this to thread to turn into a referendum on how Trent runs his blog. He does things differently than I do, but that’s fine. I still like his site and his book.

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
9 years ago

Yikes, this is a rough review. Funny how two people see things differently, as I thought the book was a page turning thriller and really enjoyed it!

Doing a 3 book giveaway on my site as well. I think the winners will be happy to read it.

Patricia
Patricia
9 years ago

Thanks, JD, for the review and the link to the blog. I read and like the blog and have bookmarked it for daily reading, right after GRS. Since I rarely post comments, reading these comments about posting ccmments to that blog don’t scare me off from READING it!

J.O.
J.O.
9 years ago

@ JD – Just a note of explanation on why so many of us, I think, are using this thread to air our frustration – we have no other way to get Trent’s attention! I emailed him three times on the issue; only the first email seemed to reach him, or at least it’s the only one he replied to. I thought quite possibly that whatever was messing up the moderation could also be rejecting my emails to him. In my case, I really do enjoy his blog and want to get back to reading it and participating in it… Read more »

Mary D
Mary D
9 years ago

I stopped reading Trent’s blog after he gave illegal and unethical advice, and I will never buy his books or read his blog again. Worse than the initial advice was his subsequent attempt to hide it and to not be held accountable. Trent had a blog posting that instructed people to give any money that belongs to their children to someone else, like an uncle, so that the child qualifies for more financial aid for college. Then, if the family member “happens” to return the money when the child graduates from the college, everyone wins! This is criminal fraud. It… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago

What I thought was fishy was that only one of my comments was awaiting moderation, one I feel went against trents view. I still read the site and agree I wasn’t happy with the swimsuit debacle.

Agree w others about reviewing friends book!

dotCOMreport.com
dotCOMreport.com
9 years ago

Thanks for the honest book review. Like many of the others, I agree about the disorganization of the book. The thesis, will a good one, is definitely in the wrong spot.

Shahrul Azwad
Shahrul Azwad
9 years ago

I love both JD Roth and Trent Hamn.
They’re basically on the same page.

Maria
Maria
9 years ago

I feel so much better reading that I am not the only one whose comment did not go through. I emailed Trent but got no reply as well. Sorry JD for using your site to air out our frustration. Thanks for reviewing the book. 🙂

Jill S
Jill S
9 years ago

I’m so glad to learn I am not the only one who had issues with comments on TSD. I have only ever tried to comment twice ever(no links). Both times I was offering advice to someone who was deciding to become a SAHM. Always thought my advice was pretty good since I am a SAHM. After that, I stopped reading TSD. Hopefully this will clear some things up and I’ll go back.
I’ll be checking out Trent’s book if it comes to our library!

Diane
Diane
9 years ago

Dang, now I can’t find the swimsuit article. 🙂

Shalom
Shalom
9 years ago

Nicole (@26), you’re cracking me up!

Mary D(@31), I agree with you. That is why I quit reading The Simple Dollar as well.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

@38 Thank you thank you, I’ll be here all week. For more of my unmoderated brilliance, check out my blog. Today is a rant on children’s literature.

@31 Wow.

@40 Double wow.

J.D., I really appreciate your professionalism. GRS really is one of the best blogs out there and it’s because of you.

Alexandra
Alexandra
9 years ago

Trent actually DID respond to one of my comments via email – he sent me a very nasty note in response to my comment that it wasn’t nice for him to take a notepad to the bookstore and write down pertinent parts of a book instead of buy the book to support fellow authors. Funny that he took the time to email me about my comment…but never bothered to actually take my comment out of moderation. I would never buy any book written by him…but I’d encourage anyone to just go the bookstore, grab a coffee and read it there… Read more »

Money Smarts Blog
Money Smarts Blog
9 years ago

The “swim suit” article is here (one of the reader mailbag items).

http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2010/07/08/reader-mailbag-singing-bedtime-songs/#10

Gretchen
Gretchen
9 years ago

#40 Illustrates my main problem with the books of PF bloggers in general.

Use the library or paperback swap to save money. But then buy my book.

Adam
Adam
9 years ago

Trent first irked me with his whole “any one who doesn’t reproduce genetic offspring is a candle in the wind” spiel a while back. There’s a chunk of judgementalism in his posts that doesn’t sit right with me. The bathing suit fiasco were he suggests anyone who spends more than $3 for a bathing suit is just being vain kind of made me cringe, but I do think he back tracked and conceded he was wrong eventually on that? I never had a problem with moderation unless I put a link in it, though. Odd. All that said, I still… Read more »

Kevin M
Kevin M
9 years ago

Trent is a good writer so I’m sure the book is just fine, but I won’t be reading it. I stopped reading months ago because I outgrew his website and to me a blog is more of a conversation, which is not Trent’s strength.

It’s amazing to me that both TSD and GRS write about similar topics probably 90% of the time, but the conversation is so drastically different (at least when I was reading TSD).

Jason @ Redeeming Riches
Jason @ Redeeming Riches
9 years ago

Funny how JD’s downside of the book makes me want to read it to see for myself. What is this, reverse psychology! 😉

I think this is great:

“Money is nothing more than a tool with which you can create the life you truly want. The challenge is knowing what you truly want…”

I totally agree!!! We need to get to the point of understanding what we truly want in order to understand what our money is going to do for us!

Paul Williams
Paul Williams
9 years ago

Well, sorry to take this back to the whole comments thing, J.D. But I wanted to add that my most recent comments have been approved now on The Simple Dollar. I’m guessing they got caught in spam. This isn’t Trent’s fault and I don’t want to tarnish his image due to my earlier comments. Part of the problem has been some difficulty I’m having with Akismet’s spam filter.

OK, back to the topic at hand! 🙂

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
9 years ago

I apologize if anyone has had a comment eaten by my spam filter. I have it turned up pretty high because in the past, I’ve had some spammed pornographic links get through and I don’t want that on my site. I check the spam folder sometimes, but there’s so much junk in there that I usually can’t get through more than about three pages of that spam garbage before I simply want to log out and wonder what’s wrong with humanity.

Diane
Diane
9 years ago

I read a lot of financial sites for daily motivation and generally peruse the comments for additional points of view. There are some people who add nothing constructive to the discussion. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even read comments from them. Others who consistently add something useful to the discussion, seem almost like friends. I can’t say I’m too surprised at all the whining in the comments about TSD. Some bloggers seem to encourage screamfests by making outrageous statements or by asking provocative questions, which seems to be a ploy to drive up their numbers. Trent doesn’t… Read more »

momcents
momcents
9 years ago

I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who stopped reading the Simple Dollar after the great swimsuit debate. I was somewhat looking forward to this book, but I found several of Trent’s recent blog posts to be, well, not quite understanding of women. Especially of the different nature of female anatomy & physiology versus his own. I took the book off my to-read list because of it.

Money Smarts Blog
Money Smarts Blog
9 years ago

I recently added a comment plugin which requires a captcha in order to comment.

It’s more work for the commenters, but it has cut down my spam moderation to almost nothing.

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