[Duke’s we have a new honored guest dining with us as we celebrate his arrival, a blogger and forbes contributor – Mark from The Vital Dollar. Learn more about the lessons he learned about personal finance when working as an Investment Banker!]

Let’s start with the questions!

1. Vital Dollar is fairly new, having launched in 2018. What motivated you to launch this new blog?

I’ve been managing different websites and blogs since 2007, and I’ve had an interest in starting a financial blog for a long time. One thing I always struggle with is the urge to start new projects and take on more than I can realistically manage. I try to stay focused on what I’m doing and only start new things when I will actually have enough time to give them a chance to succeed. So, although I wanted to start a blog like Vital Dollar for a long time I just never got around to it because of other projects I was working on.

There were basically 3 main factors that motivated me to start the blog:

1) I wanted to share the things I’ve learned and continue to learn about money.
2) I wanted to learn more about finances by immersing myself in the topic.
3) From the business side of it, I thought there was potential to make some money from the site.

2. Do you have a retirement goal? If so, how close are you?

My goal is to be able to retire at 55. I’m 39 now. I say “able to retire” because I highly doubt I will totally retire. If I’m still running my business at that time I’ll probably try to scale back. I get bored extremely easily, so I’ll definitely need something to keep me occupied.

We’re on track to meet that goal, but still have a ways to go. We’re a little over halfway to our retirement goal (in terms of net worth), but almost all of our net worth has been gained in the past 10 years since I started my business.

Our strategy the past 10 years has been to build and sell websites and use those lump sums to quickly grow net worth.

3. What’s your investment strategy? Do you utilize retirement accounts?

I max my 401(k) contributions and max whatever we’re allowed to contribute to IRAs, based on the qualifications. I have an individual 401(k) with Vanguard, and our IRA’s are also with Vanguard. The money is invested in index funds, target date funds, and what Vanguard calls “life strategy” funds.

Whatever we’re not able to put into the retirement accounts goes into a non-retirement account with Vanguard (in the same types of funds), money market or savings accounts. We keep more in savings and money market accounts than most people because we’re a family of 4 with 1 income, and that income is inconsistent. So we keep more on hand to cover bills if needed.

I’m currently in the process of making some changes to our investments. I’m going to try dividend stocks and possibly some real estate crowdfunding or some other passive income ideas that I’ve come across.

4. Do you think it’s more important to increase income or save expenses? Does this change over the course of a typical earnings career?

I think both are important, but in most cases I’d say that increasing income can have the bigger impact. Of course, in order for it to have an impact you need to manage your money effectively.

Earning more money is always good, but I’d say it can really have a big impact early in your career. That’s partly because when you’re young you have more time for your investments to grow and compound. But also because making more money when you’re young will put you in a position to make more for your entire career. Most pay raises are based on a percentage of your salary. For example, if you were to start your career with a salary of $50,000 instead of $45,000, every time you get a percentage-based raise you’ll be getting more of a raise because your starting salary was higher. Each subsequent raise will have a bigger impact.

5. You have an entire blog section for easy money. I like to call it “free money” – out there to capture for so little effort. Historically, what are some of your biggest free money wins?

For me the biggest thing is credit card rewards. I use credit cards for just about everything and I always try to maximize the rewards I can earn by using different credit cards for specific purchases (a 2% cash back card for most purchases, other cards that earn 5% cash back in certain categories).

I’ve also signed up for credit cards just to get a few hundred dollars as a bonus. You can also stack rewards and earn faster by combining with other offers, like purchasing through Ebates. And if you’re self-employed, you can also get a cash back credit card for your business purchases. I have an article where I share my strategy for maximizing credit card rewards.

6. You’ve made huge windfalls from your photography sites, congrats!! This takes an enormous amount of effort to maintain the discipline and build the content and products that you did. What daily or weekly habits of yours do you credit for your success?

I always try to do something to move forward each day. That could include writing a blog post that I think will attract some traffic, work on a new product, improve an existing product, line up a promotion with another site or an affiliate, or anything else that will improve the income in some way.

My biggest daily and weekly habit is to use a to-do list to keep me on task and focused on things that will get results. There are a million different ways you could spend your time when working on a website or blog, but not everything is equally productive or urgent. I found early on that I got easily distracted and lost productivity if I wasn’t focused on the right tasks. I use a weekly to-do list so I stay focused on the things that are most important. And then at the end of each day I pull things from the weekly to-do list and create a list just for the next day.

7. We like to focus on mental models to help drive success. Have you come across a mental model that is especially helpful to you?

I’ve read a little bit about mental models, but to be honest the topic is of very little interest to me. I can’t say that any of them have been especially helpful.

8. You credit good timing with the success of your photography sites. Do you think that ship has sailed? How much harder is it now to make money the way you did?

No, I don’t think the ship has sailed, but I wanted to be honest about the fact that there is more competition now for the types of products that I sold. I don’t think it’s any harder now if you use some creativity and come up with a unique product idea, or at least come up with an angle that makes your product different or better from what’s out there.

If you just create a product like everyone else’s it will be hard to get potential customers to care about your product since other sellers are already established. The same exact approach I used (creating a product, selling at third-party sites while building up your own site) can still work today, it’s just that there is more competition.

If you’re creating a digital product to sell you need to get familiar with the other products that are offered by your competitors. Try to find a way that you can specialize or make your product fill a need better than any other product that is currently available. Once you have that unique angle, you can market and promote your product as being the solution.

9. We both work from home – woohoo! But there are some drawbacks. For example – I run into trouble making sure to maintain and foster social contact. What are your biggest challenges from your non-traditional work environment? Strategies for overcoming these challenges?

I’ve been working from home for 10 years now, so I am pretty used to it. But you’re right, there are definitely challenges. The first couple of years my biggest challenge was just feeling stuck in one spot all the time. Instead of just working at my desk all day I would work at the public library for a few hours to get a change of scenery and get out of the house.

One of the challenges I face now is dealing with noise in the house from having 2 young kids. At our old house my office was in the basement, and that was ideal because I had some separation from the noise. At our current house my office is on the main floor and I’ve just had to adjust and get used to working with noise.

I also struggle with working too much. I wind up working whenever I have down time, which isn’t really a good habit. The best thing I can do to avoid that is to keep myself busy and find activities to do with my family. For example, on New Year’s Day this year we took a family trip to the aquarium because I knew if I was at home I would wind up working.

10. What advice would you give to others who wish to work from home?

In terms of productivity I would definitely suggest having an office in a location that will be as quiet as possible, especially if you have kids. I really liked having an office in the basement because it gave me a lot of privacy.

I would also suggest taking time to get outside. About a year ago I started taking quick breaks to go for a walk around the block. Most days I take two 10-15 minute walks to get fresh air and clear my head. I have no idea why I didn’t start doing that sooner.

11. What can readers expect if they follow along with Vital Dollar?

They can expect to read articles with practical information that they can put into action. Some of the articles provide tips for saving money or managing money, and there are also other articles on topics like making money. I want all of the content to be really useful and something that readers can take action with, and improve their own finances.

I have a good bit of experience with making money online and I hope to be able to help other people who want to do it for themselves. My business started as a side hustle and I’ve also turned a photography hobby into a successful business, like you mentioned earlier.

I think those experiences are pretty similar to what a lot of people who have side hustles are looking to accomplish, so hopefully the information and tips I can share with readers will help them in their own side hustles and money making journeys.


That wraps up the interview – thank you Mark and thank you Dukes for reading!