Joan Otto Knows Money

A few months ago I had the opportunity to attend for the first time and speak at the Financial Bloggers Conference, #FinCon12, in Denver. One of the very first people I noticed was a woman, now known to me as Joan Otto, sitting at the check in table. She was friendly and super nice, and for some reason she looked familiar to me. The next day I noticed she was still there…and again she was there the next. It was really starting to bug me that I couldn’t place her face, and I really wondered who this amazing volunteer was.  Taking a quiet break in my room one of the conference days, I jumped over to our Financial Blogger Women’s group on Facebook, and then I realized…wait! That woman whose face I couldn’t place was Joan Otto from Man vs. Debt. Deciding that I needed to get to know her better, I e-mailed her and asked her if she would be interested in being part of our Knows Money series, and she happily agreed.

Joan Otto Knows Money

How did you start writing about finance and what motivates you to continue to write about finance?

When I joined the Man Vs. Debt team in late 2011, I actually didn’t start out by writing for the site. Though my experience is in journalism (13 years as a reporter and editor), I was originally doing a lot more behind-the-scenes stuff, like project management and customer service.

Baker and I had the idea that I’d write a couple of posts for the site and introduce myself to the community, and sort of play it by ear. I did, and our story was incredibly well received, so we just kept going, so much so that Baker and I now split the primary writing roles, with me having the bulk of the posts!

I’d say that what keeps me going is twofold. First, I’m living the life. For at least the next two years, our family’s biggest focus will be paying off debt, so writing about it is not a problem in the slightest. It also definitely helps keep me accountable, to be documenting our progress against the debt to a community of tens of thousands of people each month.

But looking beyond that, I’d say I keep going because I truly believe that sharing my story, and the stories of our community members, is how I can most help other people who are struggling with too much debt and too much crap in their lives.

I’m not a counselor or a financial professional, but one of the biggest lessons I took from journalism is that personal stories make a difference. You don’t have to be “somebody special”to have a story that can change lives. You just have to be willing to share.

What are the 3 most important tools you use for blogging?

  • My Personal Story: My personal story is the biggest tool, honestly. I’ve owned and written for several major blogs in the past decade, and in all of them, my own experiences were the single biggest driver in my success!  Specifically on Man Vs. Debt, that means I share the dirty details of our family’s war against almost $90,000 in consumer debt (not including our mortgage), complete with all the numbers.
  • WordPress: As far as technology, of course there’s WordPress, though I think people get too hung up on what platform to use, honestly. I’ve run successful sites on any of a handful!
  • HTML and CSS: More specifically, I think having a solid working knowledge of HTML and CSS is a must for any blogger, on any platform.

What is the best and worst financial decisions you ever made?

It’s funny, the single worst financial decision I made is really not one thing. In fact, unlike most people with major debt, I don’t have a “big purchase”- a house, a boat, a car – that led to the debt; for me, most of it was due to medical issues.

In my case, the worst decision was assuming that the little things, like the $5 in convenience-food lunches and snacks every day, didn’t matter. They did. I was so proud of myself for not having the expensive car or the pricey vacations that I didn’t notice for quite a few years the hundreds of dollars being bled away each month by a book here and a bag of chips there. Realizing that was a major key to our turnaround.

The best? Deciding to not only pay off all our credit cards, but to commit as a couple and as a family to being debt free FOR LIFE. We don’t intend to ever take out another loan or mortgage or open another credit card. I’m not saying that’s the choice for everyone, but I’m emphatic in saying it’s what works for us. Having that big picture to look toward of a debt-free future is amazing.

What is the single best piece of financial advice you ever received?

It’s probably this, from Man Vs. Debt’s founder, Adam Baker: Find your “big why”for what you’re doing. No one gets out of debt “because debt is bad.”Not really.

You get out of debt because there is something deep down that compels you to act and think differently. In our case, we needed the career flexibility that would allow us to homeschool our 12-year-old daughter, who has Asperger’s and who was withering in our school system. When we had that solid “why”in place, our progress became almost unstoppable – $30,000 in debt paid down in a year and a half, and no signs of stopping till it’s all gone!

If you could write about something other than finance what would it be?

I actually do! Our passion is unschooling – homeschooling that doesn’t involve assignments, tests, or much that looks like traditional education – and I write about our family learning lifestyle on our personal blog, Our School at Home.

I have a dream of someday being kind of a “modern homemaker”blogger. My family and our life together are my passions, and all the other stuff – finance, education and more – is tied into the vision I have for what being a woman means in the 21st century!

What 3 bloggers do you read and why?

  • Paper Great.com: This is going to sound corny, but my husband’s blog is far and away my favorite read. It’s called Papergreat, and it’s about old books and ephemera. He can take the tiniest scrap of paper tucked inside an old envelope and tell an interesting story about it. He is definitely the person who motivates me to be the best story-teller I can be.
  • Bohemian Bowmans: I read a ton of homeschooling and unschooling blogs. Probably the top one in that category is Jessica Bowman’s Bohemian Bowmans. Jessica is just drop-dead authentic and honest – and FUNNY!
  • Post Secret: And I don’t go a week without checking out the Sunday Secrets on Postsecret. It’s kind of my reality check – an addictive one at that!

Joan Otto Knows Money

 Joan Otto
Editor and Community manager for Man Vs. Debt
Our speciality is paying off your debt and selling your crap so you can do what you love!

Do you have any follow up questions for Joan? Leave them in the comment section below!

Knows Money is a series focusing on a variety of great writers in the financial blogging world. Be sure to check out each writer’s blog for more information about them and finance. If you know someone you would love to know more about, feel free to offer your suggestions in the comment section.

Kelly Kinkaid

About Kelly Kinkaid


Kelly Kinkaid, professional blogger and freelance writer, enjoys writing about such topics as stretching a dollar, personal finance, diet and fitness, and living a life well lived. She spends all of her spare time in her many roles including but not limited to soccer, basketball, swimmer, band, and piano mom, runner and wife. You may also contact her on Twitter as @Kellyology, or on Facebook.

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