Expert Interview with Jon Wittwer About Money Management and Financial Planning for Mint

While working on his PhD in mechanical engineering, Jon Wittwer founded Vertex42, and now he is a leader in the field of spreadsheet templates, financial calculators and time management tools. He took some time to share with us about his company, his background and some tools for financial planning and management.

Please tell us a little of what inspired you to start Vertex42.com.

Vertex42.com started out as an experiment and learning experience. I was still in school in 2003, working on a PhD in mechanical engineering at Brigham Young University. I wanted to figure out how to sell something I had invented, so I did a bunch of internet research and checked out some books at the library about how to start a business. I learned that a person could create an online store with almost no upfront investment and no physical storefront.

An online store sounded like a fun idea to me. Besides a typical engineering education, I had quite a bit of experience with web development from various part-time jobs that I took to help me pay my way through college. I was also starting to get a reputation among my peers as the local Excel guy. I used Excel for everything I could. So, I decided to experiment to see if I could make a side business out of writing articles and providing Excel-based solutions for whatever problems seemed interesting and worthwhile.

The slogan of my site also represented my goal, which was to have Vertex42.com become "The Guide to Excel in Everything" by providing spreadsheet solutions for business, home and education. It isn't necessary to know what the 42 means, but if you are a fan of Douglas Adams's books, you may realize that the 42 and the slogan kind of go together.

What are some of your most successful templates?

That really depends on how you measure success. If you define success as having a positive influence on people's lives, then based on feedback I've received, the budget spreadsheets and debt reduction calculator top the list. A calendar or invoice template might save a person from having to spend a couple hours creating something from scratch. But helping a person gain control over their finances can indirectly affect nearly every aspect of their life.

How can Vertex42.com make things easier for a family's budgeting and daily life?

Most people only know a little about spreadsheets, if anything at all. I try to design templates so that if a person knows almost nothing about Excel, they can just fill in the blanks. If they know a little more about Excel, they can customize the template to get more use out of it.

If you look up synonyms for template, you will find words like model, example, guide and blueprint. So, templates are not just time savers, they are learning tools. In addition to doing the math for you, a budget spreadsheet can provide a sample set of categories, customized for a special purpose such as a wedding budget or college student budget.

In addition to budget spreadsheets that help manage finances, I've created many different types of planners, schedules and calendars that can help people plan and manage their time. For example, if you find it difficult to plan your meals, you could download a meal planner template.

How can your financial calculators help with debt reduction and money management?

Financial calculators don't make decisions for you, but they can help you figure out whether you have $200 left in your budget to devote to paying down debt. They can tell you how long it will take to get out of debt if you continue to make the $200 extra payment each month. They can tell you what your monthly payment will be on a home mortgage so that you can avoid getting into too much debt in the first place.

Understanding financial principles is important, but you also need to run the math and weigh your options. A spreadsheet-based calculator allows you to run "what-if" scenarios and save a copy of the spreadsheet for different scenarios. Even if you don't quite understand how to calculate a monthly payment on a fixed-rate mortgage, you can still get a good idea how things work by playing with the calculator and trying different scenarios.

What are some of the different financial calculators you provide?

All of my budget spreadsheets could be considered calculators. If you have variable income and expenses, then a yearly budget like the Family Budget Planner can be useful. The Money Management Template allows you to create a budget, record checking and credit card transactions, and see how your budget and actual spending compares.

With the Debt Reduction Calculator, you list the balances and rates for your various debts and then choose what type of snowball strategy you want to use (highest rate first, lowest balance first, or some other custom order). The calculator will tell you the order the debts are paid off, how long it will take and the total interest paid. You can view the payment schedule to see how much is paid on each debt each month and also add occasional extra payments (i.e., debt snowflakes).

The Home Mortgage Calculator is a handy spreadsheet for analyzing a fixed or variable-rate mortgage. It shows you the full amortization schedule and allows you to see the effect of making extra payments.

Savings and retirement calculators are also useful. For example, the Savings Calculator can help you estimate how much you will have in savings based on an initial investment, monthly deposits and an expected rate of return. If you are interested in estimating how long your retirement nest egg may last, you can try the Retirement Withdrawal Calculator.

Here is an Excel tip for financial calculators: If you want to solve for a value that a calculator uses as an input, you can try using a feature that most people don't know exists: Goal Seek. For example, if you know what monthly payment you can afford, you can use Goal Seek with a mortgage calculator to solve for what the home price could be. In Excel 2010, you can find the Goal Seek tool by going to Data > What-if Analysis.

Where do you envision Vertex42.com going in the next few years?

Everydiv is going crazy over phones and tablets. So, I'm working on updating my website, templates and calculators so they are accessible on mobile devices.

As long as people keep needing and wanting my templates, I plan to keep creating and updating them. I still haven't reached the goal of creating templates for everything. I imagine that will take a few more years yet. ☺

You can find Jon at FacebookGoogle+ and Twitter.