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Personal Finance Interview with Shelley Elmblad of About Financial Software

Name: Shelley Elmblad
Age: Well, someone recently told me I looked like I was 34…but I am really 43.
Net-worth range: Around $225k
Profession: Journalist/Writer – online media.
Websites: I currently write for About Financial Software and Suite101 Personal Budgeting; Cranial Dump is my personal mind-dump on the Net.

Who is your current personal finance hero?

Some people find my personal finance hero’s often loud communication style to be…well…annoying. But I have learned so much from him in less than a year that I call Jim Cramer my personal finance hero. Cramer taught me how to analyze companies as investments and market trends in simple language while being quite entertaining. Anyone who is interested in investing needs to read Jim Cramer’s Real Money: Sane Investing in an Insane World to learn how to do the home work necessary to choose investments that are appropriate for their situation, and check out Mad Money on CNBC too.Cramer is not just another “talking head,” he is an educator. Everyone should understand at least the basics of investing because even if you have someone else manage your investments, it is still your money and no one will care about it like you will.

Your husband and you took a 40% cut in income because you had to leave work to raise your child. What methods did you use to handle this financial challenge?

I tried working part-time when my daughter was a baby but my husband and I were not comfortable with the day care alternatives available, so we decided to take the plunge into the one-income world.The major thing that enabled us to take that cut in income was that we have always spent less than we earned so other than our mortgage, we had no debt. And, our mortgage payment was low. Just because the bank said we could afford a certain mortgage payment didn’t mean we wanted to spend that much.While I was home with my daughter I decided my job was to save money where ever I could. During that time we rarely ate at restaurants, and I stocked up on sale items and planned meals around what was on sale. I would go between three grocery stores to buy what was on sale at each store, and I clipped coupons and used them on double coupon days at one store (the savings in double coupons was amazing).I read everything I could find on living on less money and chose the methods from those books that would work for my family. Online, I used The Dollar Stretcher and I still do (you interviewed Gary, the guy running the show on that site).I discovered rummage sales in some wealthy neighborhoods where I could get gorgeous baby and toddler clothes and toys for very little money. We did not go to the movies (babysitter plus movie tickets = money needed for groceries) and did not take vacations. To keep from feeling very deprived, I kept my mind on my goal of raising my daughter and I enjoyed the simplicity of our family life; that season of my life would not last not forever. I was grateful for what we did have and spent little time dwelling on thing we chose to do without for awhile.We had monthly savings goals then as we do now, and we saved up for Christmas gifts and other larger purchases so we would not get taken by surprise by a big outflow of cash. I bought some Christmas gifts in August because they were on sale then but would be priced higher in the fall.

Although I wasn’t sure how we would be able to keep tithing at church, we chose to continue to do so during our financially scarce years. At the end of each month we always had enough. It is an amazing principle; when we give to others, the world gives back.

You have mentioned that your parents frequently discussed earning, saving, and investing money around you and your brothers, so personal finance is a topic that became natural for you. Do you think parents can be a big influence on how their children will handle finances when they grow up?

Parents absolutely influence their children’s financial choices. Kids imitate what they see and the home environment they grow up in provides them with a compass for what is acceptable. Of course most kids naturally rebel and make spending mistakes, but if they were exposed to sound financial practices growing up, they will likely go back to those fundamentals to recover from mistakes and move on to make better decisions in the future.

What is your method in teaching your child the basics of finances?

My husband and I teach by example as well as explaining finances to our daughter. My daughter has seen us save for things we want, and she has seen us do research to get the best value for our money, and we discuss financial responsibility with her at her level. Now she saves her money for the latest Nintendo game and she helps me to figure out the best buy at the grocery store. I also teach her that some things are worth paying more for because of quality or because they are simply more enjoyable.

How do you handle your finances with your husband? Does a single person handle all the details or is this a joint effort?

I handle the majority of our finances but I would never make a major decision without asking my husband what he thought about it. I think we fell into this arrangement because I was interested in researching how to save money and how to grow investments.

While we’re on that topic, what is your opinion for those couple that handles or don’t handle their finances together (e.g, keeping separate accounts etc.).

I have not thought about this for years. I thought my husband and I would keep separate accounts plus a joint account when we were first married but I quickly found it to be unnecessary because it’s just easier to keep one account, and each of us knew what the other was spending anyway. I suppose if two people had very different ideas about spending, a his/hers/ours set up would be ideal. I can also see how problems could result if something is needed for the collective household that is more expensive than anticipated but one person wants to use their money on themselves instead of contributing to defraying the costs.I think the answer to whether separate accounts work is, “it depends.”

Why and how did you become a guide at the Financial Software section at About.com? And Suite101?

I’ve always liked About.com and have used it for years as a resource for research on just about anything (and I do research just about anything!). I would occasionally check to see if I could cover any of their topics, and when I saw financial software was open it seemed like a good fit because I had used many financial software packages and have designed and taught computer classes.I like to teach people how to use software to automate tasks and to reduce redundancy. I worked for a crazy lady once who insisted that I enter inventory data into a spreadsheet even though it automatically went into a database as raw materials were used. Well, that’s one of my definitions of crazy: spending time doing something that is already done. There is more to the crazy lady story, but I’ll leave it at that was the worst job I’ve ever had. I think she ties for worst boss I’ve ever had as well.I started writing for Suite101 because I like writing about personal finance in general. While my About.com work is about personal finance software tools used to manage money, I can’t get into more specific information there like types of mutual funds or IRAs.

What is your approach when evaluating personal finance software?

I approach the software methodically and ask myself several questions. Does it have all the standard features other finance software has, and does it have unique features? Does it navigate easily? Is the help documentation complete? As I use the software I think about who would benefit from the features. I also consider what the software offers for the price, and of course, the “kewl factor” of how the software looks and functions is something to note.

As a writer on personal finance, what are some of the challenges you face to convey the concepts to readers?

With financial software, I need to explain how people can benefit from features, and I can’t take for granted that a reader understands what terms like “download” and “OEM” mean so I link to definitions. When I do tutorials, I give background information to make sure the steps in the steps in the tutorial make sense.With general personal finance writing, I like to explain concepts at a very basic level or I give background information before I get into details. It’s important to give the reader information they can build their knowledge base on.

Current Financial Strategy:

Save and invest for retirement, save for unexpected expenses and save for a nice family vacation in a few years. I save some for college for my daughter as well, but retirement savings has to come before college. There are ways to finance a college education but you can’t finance your retirement.

Best Financial Tip:
Take care of your stuff. If what you are trying to sell looks clean and newer, you will get a lot more money for it when it is time to sell.

Do not neglect keeping your home in good repair and reasonably updated. Enjoy the comforts of updates while you live on the property, then get a better price for the home when you sell. The same goes for vehicles. My husband does an amazing job at keeping our vehicles clean and maintained and we get great trade-in values or get top dollar on vehicles we sell ourselves.

Worst Financial Move Ever:

This ties in with my Best Financial Tip: While my husband and I kept our first little starter home in good repair, we did little updating and it really needed more. We thought we were saving money by making do with things as they were, but we just broke even on that sale and we would have taken a loss had our real estate agent not taken pity on us and cut her commission.

Financially, I need help with:

I need to consolidate IRAs from five or six brokerages into one or two so I can track them easier. I don’t actually need help with doing this, I need to stop procrastinating and start filling out the forms to do it.

What personal finance tools do you currently use to track and manage your money?

I use Quicken to enter or download account transactions and to keep a budget. I use the online tools my brokerages provide for analyzing the portfolio and investment-related stuff. I use tax software for my quarterly and annual tax reporting.

What are the problems in your personal finance tools?

Sometimes my financial software refuses to download from financial institutions for days at a time. Financial institutions have been putting new security measures in place and that is likely messing up these downloads. Determining whether it is the bank or the software causing the problems is usually difficult to do since they each point a finger at the other.

How would your ideal personal finance tool work?

It would be awesome to find software that sold features ala cart so it wasn’t bogged down with “whistles and bells” I don’t need while having all the features I do need.

How much do you think you currently spend on eating out?

I work from home so I rarely eat out on my own. I maybe spend $20 a month to grab lunch while I’m out of the office. I’m more likely to spend $15 of that on ice cream cones over the month….does that count as going out to eat?

How often do you want to know about your personal finance?
Two or three times a week.

What is in your wallet?

(Unzips wallet) Whoa! This is like opening a closet that is crammed full of stuff! Scrunched up receipts, scrunched up money, Amazon Visa, ATM card. Stein’s Garden gift cards. After spending $500, you get $10 back (woo-hoo!). It took me over two years to get that 10 bucks.

Mint’s Note: If you are interested in personal finance software, or even just personal finance in general, we strongly recommend you bookmark or subscribe to Shelley’s Suite 101 personal finance site or About.com’s financial software guide. You will find many tips, tricks, and updates on using financial software at About.com; and an abundance in personal finance information at Suite 101.

Further Reading on the Topic

Personal Money Software

Money Management Software

Personal Finance Software