Slow and steady wins the race

This article is the eighth of a fourteen-part series that explores the core tenets of Get Rich Slowly.

One reason I got into financial trouble during my early twenties was that I wanted everything right now. I looked at what my parents had, and it didn't occur to me that they'd been working their entire lives to get to that point. I wanted the same level of comfort, and I wanted it today. I wanted what I saw in the magazines and on TV. I wanted to start at the end, not the beginning.

In order to afford that sort of lifestyle, I went into a lot of debt. But even then, I couldn't manage for long. I lived high on the hog for a couple of years, and then found myself back in the Real World — but with lots of extra bills to pay. In an attempt to reach the “finish line” of life sooner, I'd put myself further behind.

It wasn't until a decade later that I finally understood that patience and perseverance are crucial to success — with money and everything else.

Patience and Perseverance

There are those who get rich quickly. People do win lotteries. They do sign sports contracts or get “discovered” by Hollywood or sell their small businesses to big conglomerates. And some are able to profit from risk and luck, picking the right stock at the right time, so that their $10,000 investment grows into a million. These things happen. But these lucky few represent a tiny fraction of all those who achieve financial success.

More typical is the story of my neighbor, a real millionaire next door. He worked hard for thirty years or more, practiced frugality, and invested wisely. He wasn't rich when he was young, but he enjoyed life while doing all of the “right” things. He was patient, and eventually this patience paid off. Now he's able to do what he wants without worrying about money.

Getting rich slowly doesn't mean you have to give up everything you love. Reducing your expectations and desires doesn't mean you can't spend on comic books or motorcycles or knitting supplies or shoes. It simply means recognizing that you can't have everything you want. And often, you'll have to wait for the things you do get.

Small Steps Become Big Strides

Personal finance can be daunting. When you first tackle your debt, the numbers are overwhelming. When you think about how much you need to save for retirement, you might ask yourself how it's even possible. And when you think about having to work every day for the next 30 or 40 years, you may feel a pit in your stomach.

But you can accomplish big things if you break them into small pieces. Last month, I walked a marathon. If I'd focused on how long 26.2 miles actually was, or how many steps I'd have to take (over 50,000!), or the blisters I'd get on my feet, I never would have started. Instead, I set a target pace, and I tried to meet that pace every single mile.

The same applies to personal finance. For example:

    • You can't expect to go from $20,000 in debt to having $20,000 in the bank overnight. It takes time. You get out of debt one month at a time, one payment at a time. You get out of debt by sticking with it. Wealth is built the same way.
    • Although it's important to take advantage of opportunities to save big, you should also do what you can to save on the small stuff. Big wins come along infrequently, but there are many opportunities to “sweat the small stuff”. Given time, these small habits have a huge cumulative effect, and they can lead to financial prosperity.
    • You can devote a lot of time to trying to pick the right stocks and timing the market for the best time to buy. But even the experts fail at this more often than they succeed. Instead, most financial advisers (and even billionaires like Warren Buffett) recommend that average folks take the “slow and steady” approach: Use dollar-cost averaging to make regular small investments in indexed mutual funds.

Instead of expecting to accomplish everything at once, recognize that meaningful change takes time. Be patient. Work hard. If your experience is like mine (and that of many GRS readers), you'll find that after a few months (or years), you're not only making progress, but you're making more progress than you believed possible. Your slow and steady movements have become large, graceful strides.

The Biggest Loser

Here's a confession: I'm a Biggest Loser junkie. Every season, the program follows a group of contestants as they attempt to lose weight by reversing a lifetime of bad choices. It's the only reality show I've ever watched, and I love it.

In one episode last spring, contestants were challenged to pull NASCAR vehicles around a race track. The muscular men sprinted to an early lead. Meanwhile, former model Tara Costa — who had demonstrated patience, perseverance, and drive every week — put her head down and pulled at a moderate pace. The men tired. They began to flag, but Tara's pace never faltered. One-by-one, she passed the jackrabbits and coasted to victory.


Tara, in green, passing Mike and gaining on Sione

I think of this challenge often. It seems to epitomize so much of what I've learned about life — and personal finance. As Tara pulls her car, she doesn't worry about what the people around her are doing. She sticks to her game plan, moving slowly but surely toward the finish. Just as in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady really can win the race.

(And, as a final note, I'll point out that you're only racing with yourself — not anyone else.)

This is the eighth of a fourteen-part series that explores my financial philosophy. These are the core tenets of Get Rich Slowly. Other parts include:

Look for a new installment in this series every Monday through the end of the year.

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Ken
Ken
10 years ago

JD, slow and steady is how it gets done. To many people are not willing to delay gratification today in order to enjoy a better tomorrow. I’m a living testiment to the power of slow and steady; will turn 50 in a few months and should be able to hang up the spurs at 55 and become a full time volunteer, travel, or whatever I want to do. What a joy to see the assets grow from one month to the next and dream about the future!

Shawanda
Shawanda
10 years ago

Great example. I missed that episode of The Biggest Loser last season. I needed to be reminded to not worry about what anyone else is doing. Ultimately, it’s the choices I make that will affect the outcome of my life.

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

I agree that slow and steady wins the race. The problem is that this is a counter-intuitive reality. Our brains tell us that it is the Now that matters. It’s only when you get out a pad of paper and a pencil and work the numbers that you can appreciate the power of compounding returns. Another problem is that we live in an age of marketing. Marketing always appeals to the emotions. That’s what works when trying to persuade people to buy. The message that slow and steady wins the race does not generally possess a lot of emotional appeal.… Read more »

lostAnnfound
lostAnnfound
10 years ago

I agree with Rob about the marketing aspect. We are hit with ads everywhere…TV,newspaper, magazines, pop-up ads on the internet, billboards, etc. It takes discipline not to give into those ads that tell you, “you need this.” We hear so much about the lottery winner or the person that hit it right with their $10,000 investment and turned it into millions, but you don’t read about the millionaire next door on the front page of the newspaper or hear about it on the prime-time news. It’s not glamorous enough. We have become a society of “I want it now” in… Read more »

getagrip
getagrip
10 years ago

The hardest part for me is in focusing on where you were and your progress versus what society and those around you have. There’s a reason we’re wired to try and keep up with the neighbors and those roots go way back. Because we’re typically wired a certian way, marketing firms have spent large amounts of money finding out how to hit our buttons, which makes it harder to ignore the barrage of spending messages we’re hit with daily. Even family can make it a competition without knowing it, with parents oohing and aahing over one childs new house or… Read more »

virginia @ where you hang your hat
virginia @ where you hang your hat
10 years ago

Great post, and I’m glad you shared the picture from The Biggest Loser. It’s always nice to have another visual to keep your mind on track.

This post also reminds me that I’ve been meaning to ask you about a certain Money Magazine article for a while: what is your reaction to economist Zvi Bodie’s stance – basically that you shouldn’t invest your retirement funds in the stock market? I’d like to hear your take on this in a post someday, as it has me really concerned.

Also, a tinyurl to the article: http://tinyurl.com/nqyl44

Budgie
Budgie
10 years ago

I can see why The Biggest Loser appeals to you, JD. Even though I don’t watch reality TV – Including The Biggest Loser – I can identify with the show. Five years ago, I started my weight loss journey to lose 160 pounds. When I first decided to do something about my health, it seemed like I would never get there. 160 pounds is a lot to lose! But slowly and steadily, the pounds dropped off. I learned a new way to eat. I excercised. I got myself in a different mindset. And I did what worked for me. Here… Read more »

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

I think the point about seeing what your parents have and wanting it now is often overlooked. In a similar vein, it’s often hard to realize that just because “everyone” around you buys a new car when they get their first job doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. Too often we just follow along with what we see as normal without evaluating the consequences.

Alexandra
Alexandra
10 years ago

Great post and so true. I am one of five children, and all my brothers and sisters only know instant gratification. I think most people from my generation are like that (I am 35). There is a sense of pride and accomplishment in owning a possesion when you see something you want, and wait the time until you diligently save up for it, instead of wanting it and immediately putting it on your credit card. I think that saving up for things makes those things more valuable, because you know exactly how long and how hard it was to make… Read more »

Dustin | Engaged Marriage
Dustin | Engaged Marriage
10 years ago

Although I understand and fully believe everything you have written in this great post, I still find it one of my biggest challenges in life. I am not naturally a patient person, so it can be a struggle for me to accept that some things really do just take time to flourish. On my marriage website and in my interaction with newlywed couples, I see the same struggles in the relationship side of things. Young couples want a perfect marriage, great sex, excellent communication and an extraordinary lifestyle. My lesson to them is to get the fundamentals right, be proactive… Read more »

Little House
Little House
10 years ago

This is so true. It’s difficult at first to come to that realization that you can’t have everything you want when you want it. My husband is the one that struggles with this, but he’s getting much better and learning. Now, when I say that we have to wait it out and save for something, he often is in agreement with me. Sometimes, it even means he ends up not wanting the original item because he has waited so long, he no longer cares!

Ever
Ever
10 years ago

This is a very difficult lesson to learn. I know it is tough for me because the girls in my office are very materialistic. They think nothing of dropping $1,000 on a handbag. I come in with my $300 Coach bag (it was a gift) and they turn their noses up at it. It’s like spending money is a competition. I drive my 2006 VW Jetta around, but these girls have to have a brand new BMW or Mercedes. They make the same amount as me, and are the same age. I just smile at night knowing that they are… Read more »

ldk
ldk
10 years ago

I think the idea of ‘delaying gratification’ is partially innate…and with my daughter I am hopeful that it can also be taught! When I was a kid I would stash my Halloween candy, sort it into different types and ration it out to myself over months. (and would usually throw most out 6 months later.) My sister would blow through hers in a week. My kids exhibit the same type of tendencies…my son to hang on to birthday money, treats, etc. and ration it out slowly (some might say ‘hoard!’) and my daughter seems to burn right through it! When… Read more »

KM @ Long-Distance Life blog
KM @ Long-Distance Life blog
10 years ago

Idk, I was one of those kids who’d blow through my Halloween candy right away, while my sister would ration hers. And I’m the one with debt now, while she has carefully saved. …Not to make you worry more about your own daughter! Sounds like you’re taking a proactive approach in teaching her about money. I think the “you can’t have right away what your parents worked for over years and years” point is excellent. I see so many of my peers in their early 20s thinking you have to buy a house right away when you get married, rather… Read more »

Mary
Mary
10 years ago

It took me a while to come around to the idea of delayed gratification. I finally realized that as soon as I gave in to the desire to “have it now” and purchased what I wanted (on credit, of course) — there was immediately something else I had to have now. The wanting never ended.

Now, I save until I can afford something. I spend the same amount of mental energy (too much) wanting things, but at least I have more money and no debt.

Of course, the next step is to stop wanting things…but I’m not there yet!

R S
R S
10 years ago

I’m glad to see I’m not alone in watching The Biggest Loser. I find it highly inspirational. I am always astounded how much the contestants accomplish in a few months, and the incredible discipline they slowly learn to master. The episodes that affect me the most have been the episodes where they go home and are surrounded by familiar friends & family and how they are influenced by their peers. When it comes to money, I notice this same situation between myself and my peers, as we’re all at different levels of financial security. It is inspiring to see the… Read more »

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass
10 years ago

“But these lucky few represent a tiny fraction of all those who achieve financial success.”

OK, J.D., I’m calling BS on this, and I hope you can find the stats.

I seem to recall (was it in “The Millionaire Next Door” or somewhere else?) that the majority of millionaires are entrepreneurs, and that the folks who had regular jobs (+ pensions, as your neighbor does) were actually the minority.

I’d like real stats on this, not conjecture.

-Erica

EDIT: Okay, I’ve got some of the stats from “Richistan.” Sending you an email.

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

Heh. Erica, you have the right book but the wrong conclusion. While it’s true that entrepreneurs do well, it’s usually not from one-time windfalls, but from long-term success in what The Millionaire Next Door calls “dull-normal” businesses. And remember also from that book, that millionaires are “frugal frugal frugal”, working and saving for years to achieve their success. My point stands: Those who obtain sudden wealth are the exception, not the rule.

Miguel @ Great Stops
Miguel @ Great Stops
10 years ago

Nice post. My favorite slow & steady financial advice is Roth IRAs. I love the way they can be provide very big savings if you start when you are young enough. I have had one since I was 21, and I love my projected returns right now. Every month I put just enough in so that I max out every year.

Once again Great Post!

Craig
Craig
10 years ago

Ever since reading Ramits I will teach you to be rich book I have taken this approach. It is all about timing. Get started early, even the littlest and it could go along way, at least develop proper habits and you will see yourself more safe and secure and less stressed for the future.

Kevin
Kevin
10 years ago

Here’s all I’m going to say about The Biggest Loser. It’s a fantastic show, if you want to know what people can accomplish when they don’t have to worry about bills, family, or jobs, when you remove all distractions and temptations, when you surround them with like-minded peers and a constant accountability framework (i.e, TV cameras), and provide them with professional fitness coaching and meal preparation. As for how much “reality” can be found in such a “reality” show, well, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say it’s completely unrealistic, to the point of being downright… Read more »

CreditShout
CreditShout
10 years ago

“Getting rich slowly doesn’t mean you have to give up everything you love.” Finally someone said it. When you go overboard with frugality you just can’t sustain it and will end up crashing and giving into your old routines. I think that you need to set realistic goals and move gradually cutting your expenses so that you can still enjoy life and aren’t completely miserable.

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
10 years ago

Well, it’s good advice. BUT – you made me want to watch Biggest Loser! aaahhhhhhh!!!

Oleg Mokhov
Oleg Mokhov
10 years ago

“Let thy step be slow and steady, that thou stumble not.” -Ieyasu Tokugawa Hey J.D., When you take your goal one step at a time and pace yourself, you not only build something sustainable, but you leave less room for error. Obviously, when you can quickly achieve a big win, you should go for it. But that is an exception, not the rule. When you pursue your goal in a slow and steady manner, you build momentum and the foundation. Rather than putting all your effort into throwing a stone up a high window, you take the time to build… Read more »

kenyantykoon
kenyantykoon
10 years ago

These bad financial decisions are what i am trying very hard to fight. I think financial stupidity comes with youth where we want everything that we see at the time we see it. The problem is that most of us never realize that we are in a black hole until it is too late. So everyday i choose to learn more financial education and control my financial whims so that i can get that wisdom about good money management out of long practice and not out of having been burnt

James
James
10 years ago

Kevin, The point of the show is really to save these people’s lives and show them how to live healthy. It isn’t assumed that people watching at home are going to be able to match the weight loss the contestants experience over a given time period. In fact, the show often mentions how much harder weight loss is to accomplish at home. What the show does do is really drive the point home that you have to make your health a priority and by doing so you’re family and other areas of you’re life will benefit as well. They teach… Read more »

Foxie || CarsxGirl
Foxie || CarsxGirl
10 years ago

No surprise again, but I love this. 🙂 I try to remind myself of this a lot, as it happens to me frequently when it comes to cars. No, I can’t afford every car that I want yet, but I’m also only 21! Yikes! Most people make a LOT more than I do, or have been racing MUCH longer than I have. (I only started this year, but I do get pretty hard on myself about not doing better.) I hate to say it, but it sucks being young and broke, only to think I can be old and well-off,… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin
10 years ago

@James (#26): “It isn’t assumed that people watching at home are going to be able to match the weight loss the contestants experience” James, I disagree. Each season, they send the contestants home for a week or so, and you’re right – they always show Ali or the trainers warning the contestants that they’re going to face new challenges and new temptations outside the safe sanctuary of “The Ranch.” However, they also show teary speeches from the contestants at each weigh-in, when after learning they lost another 9 pounds (in 7 days), they epiphanize about what you can accomplish if… Read more »

Miriam
Miriam
10 years ago

This is a great article. Taking the little steps will start you on the path. Most situations are not made overnight, but with consistent effort you should be able to accomplish your biggest goals. Too many people are trapped in the now mentality and fail to look to the future and to plan. Great post!

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

@ Budgie – wow, congrats!

@ Erica, I believe that Millioniare Next Door talks a lot about plumbers, electricians, teachers, etc. Some are entrepreneurs, but the point is that whether they are or not, the Millionaires do not increase their lifestyle when their pay increases. For instance, many still clip coupons, most have never paid over $100 for a pair of shoes, etc. The more money they make, the more they put away. It is definitely “slow and steady”.

corey
corey
10 years ago

I really appreciate this series on fundamentals. Really helps keep me on track. Which reminds me, I should just give a big shout out of thanks for doing this site to begin with. JD, it has really helped me. This weekend, I was going over in mind some financial things I needed to do, including transfer an extra $500 from my paycheck into savings. I realized that I would have $2500 in savings after the transfer. I have never had $2500 in savings before!!! I still have debt I’m paying off and I know this isn’t a true emergency fund,… Read more »

Ever
Ever
10 years ago

Since I’m seeing so many comments about the Biggest Loser I thought I’d post this. You can have the same results you see on the show if you work out a lot and start eating right. I have a friend who weighed almost 300 lbs and was losing a good 7-10 pounds a week. What did she do? She got a trainer and worked out at the gym at least 2 hours a day and started eating very healthy foods. For those of you who say it can’t be done, you are wrong. She now weighs about 130 and recently… Read more »

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
10 years ago

I’m glad JD brings up luck as a lure. A lot of people expect luck to bail them out because there are legitimate examples of people hitting it big through sudden good fortune–at least that’s how it appears on the surface. What looks like a lucky break is often the product of years of hard work and sacrifice. But the point is, for the vast majority of people, slow and steady will be the ONLY way to get ahead. It can be a tough pill to swallow, and the lure of what we think of as luck is enduring beyond… Read more »

Gina
Gina
10 years ago

OK — I have a big problem with the show “The Biggest Loser” — namely, that it encourages the mindset that it’s good or desireable to lose 9 lbs in 7 days. It absolutely is not. It’s harmful to lose weight that rapidly. For starters, they are setting themselves up for easy weight regain by dropping that fast. For another thing, especially for anybody with any significant weight, the amount of toxins being dumped on the liver losing weight that fast is incredible. Any reputable doctor or trainer will encourage 1-3 lbs of weight loss a week. 2 is just… Read more »

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
10 years ago

Gina (34) – I’m in complete agreement. When ever I see that show all I can think is that people carrying 100-200 lbs of excess shouldn’t be pushed that hard. I know they have built in risks being so heavy, but it seems that the physical activity and food reductions have to be a shock to their systems. It would be if they were normal weight, but more so as they are. Lifestyle changes or gastro bypass surgery seem like better answers. I’m sure they’re doctor supervised, but you’d hate to think that some other extremely heavy person would follow… Read more »

E
E
10 years ago

When you have a long ways to go, small changes can make a big difference. That’s true in finance or fitness. I’m part of an online fitness community, and very overweight people can do one thing – like switch from soda to water – and suddenly lose a LOT of weight very fast. Or people with a lot of debt can change one thing – like put their coffee or cigarette money towards their debt – and suddenly have a smaller balance faster than they ever expected. It’s when you get close to goal that you really have to work… Read more »

J Brown
J Brown
10 years ago

I found that you need to have that plan, in order to get all the small pieces to line up. The slow and steady piece is a bit frustrating, while you are stuck in the middle of it. It takes a lot of keeping score to keep me on track. Right now, my debt snowball is moving faster than it was 12 months ago. It is almost at the point of cruising downhill.

dash
dash
10 years ago

contrary to what you wrote, I like to believe that we can have everything we want…we just can’t have it all at the same time.

Rick Vaughn
Rick Vaughn
10 years ago

This is a great article. You are absolutely right about sticking with a plan through thick and then. Your numerous examples are right on. I adequate it to the Indianapolis Colts. They are the best team in a league full of change because they have continuity and have very little turnover. Maybe that’s a bad analogy but that’s what comes to mind for me. Thanks again!

David/yourfinances101.com
David/yourfinances101.com
10 years ago

All great stuff, summarized into about a pge of text. It really sums it all up.

Although I could never, ever, watch an episode of the Biggest Loser

Mey
Mey
10 years ago

I really love this article- of all the core tenets so far this is the one I really have trouble with. My husband and I are both quite sensible with money, we have well paying professional jobs, a big savings account (20% house deposit and emergency fund) but we also have short and medium term goals, like an upcoming round-the-world trip. We have zero debt so are really very fortunate. However I am the youngest of 6 daughters (the eldest being 21 years my senior) and it bugs me that I am so far behind my sisters. They all have… Read more »

Jason B
Jason B
10 years ago

I know not everyone reads all the comments (guilty) but I still want to share some anecdotes that illustrate this point. This summer I started focusing on building muscle. Nothing happened fast, but looking back now four and a half months later, I’m 20 lbs leaner and much, much happier with how I look with my shirt off (and on, too!) It was tough at times making sure that I made it to the gym every scheduled day, but then as the momentum grew, it really helped reinforce my good behavior! Financially, I kept trying to find new goals and… Read more »

Sayjaybay
Sayjaybay
10 years ago

Small, thrifty steps story, maybe a little bragging, maybe inspire someone: At my wedding, my wife and I knelt at the alter to receive the priest’s blessing, and I heard giggles and chuckles from our assembled friends. Later I asked my brother. “Oh, we could see the bottom of Bettyanne’s shoes with the price still marked: one dollar.” She hasn’t been to a mall in 25+ years. She buys at thrift stores, estate sales and consignment shops in upscale neighborhoods. Sometimes a little polish, always a big shot of Lysol, and she’s good to go. Last year we paid $400k… Read more »

Brett McKay
Brett McKay
10 years ago

Thanks for the reminder, JD. I’m re-learning this bit of timeless wisdom. I’ve noticed the past few years I’ve developed the “instant results” mentality. Must be all the lifehack stuff I’ve been reading. I don’t know. Needless to say, the instant results mentality has only resulted in frustration for me. I’ve got a lot of big goals, but I’ll often try to make big changes in my life really quickly only to find I burnout and I’m back to where I started. My wife and I have $67,000 of debt we’d like to pay off. I enjoy sitting down and… Read more »

Steve Churchill
Steve Churchill
10 years ago

J.D.,

The repetition of these “core tenants” is great. I wouldn’t mind reading through updated versions of these pillars once a year. Repetition is key to learning and changing habits.

Thanks for the articles!

s.c.

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

For what it’s worth, I am really disappointed that Tara didn’t win last season, because she really deserved it, for all the reasons you mentioned.

Caitlin
Caitlin
10 years ago

Generally, one doesn’t “feel a pit in their stomach”, but rather “feels it [a strong emotion like fear, dread, etc.] in the pit of their stomach. 😉

Kim self improvement and motivation
Kim self improvement and motivation
10 years ago

Thanks for a terrific reminder that building wealth and getting out of debt takes time. I’m one of those who wanted ‘everything now.’ I learned the hard way and had to get ‘real.’ Since I’ve learned to be more discipline, its made a huge difference. Maybe those lucky enough to read this can learn from our mistakes. Thanks again for the terrific reminder.

Sierra Black
Sierra Black
10 years ago

Right on. I’m about a year into this process and it’s exhausting. I feel like I don’t have much to show for it yet, even though I know things are really getting better for us financially. I’m still putting all my “extra” money into paying off debts, and that gets hard.

My mother always said, ‘You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want.’

Jane
Jane
10 years ago

I generally enjoy your blog. I find your posts interesting and often enjoyable. I take the advice with a grain of salt since your qualifications appear to be “life qualifications” rather than academic. I suppose the blog is more of a forum for sharing, rather than financial advice. But I really wish you’d publish more articles on people who have in fact “gotten rich slowly” – so far in the last year of reading your blog, I’ve only heard about your next door neighbour. He can’t be the only one! Can you find any data to support the saving practices… Read more »

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