The Magic of Thinking Small

There's an old man who lives down the street. I don't know his name, but every day I see him walking up and down the road with his cane. He moves slowly. He always wears the same thing: faded denim pants, a lightweight tan jacket, and a bright orange cap. For one hour every day — rain or shine — he walks up and down the street. Every day. We live on a steep hill, but he only walks on the flattest part. He's been doing this for months.

We've exchanged greetings before, but I've never asked him about his routine. Does he do this for exercise? Is he recovering from surgery? All I know is he's out there every day, making small steps, walking for an hour. I don't know where he's going, but he does.

The dangers of going cold turkey
When a person decides to make a lifestyle change, whether financial or otherwise, there's a temptation GO ALL OUT. With the zeal of a new convert, she leaps headlong into the life of the frugal, for example, giving up everything she held important before.

There's a problem with this method.

Most people who leap from a lifestyle of deficit spending to one of extreme frugality find the waters very, very cold. It's a shock to the system. It feels oppressive. They struggle to tread water, but before long decide they're going to sink rather than swim, so return to the warmer, familiar waters, the waters of debt.

I made several false starts before finding my way. I would decide to give up comics completely, or to never buy another computer game. These sorts of goals are foolish. Nobody has that kind of god-like self-control. Everyone needs an indulgence now and then.

Rather than quit cold turkey, I think the best way to begin a life of frugality is by taking small steps. Small steps eventually become big strides, but only after you've developed your frugal muscles.

Sweating the small stuff
This is true not just with personal finance, but with all self-improvement goals. You don't go from couch potato to marathon-runner overnight. Instead, you begin with a slow, measured regimen of sensible fitness, gradually working your way to what might have seemed impossible before. Likewise, you don't go from $20,000 in debt to having $20,000 in the bank overnight. You get rich slowly. You make one smart choice after another, starting with the small stuff.

If you've been putting off some financial goal, why not start today? Make a small meaningful step toward achieving that goal. If you've been intending to open a high-yield savings account, do it. Fund it with the minimum amount. Add $20 or $50 to it ever month. Don't worry if progress seems slow. Get in the habit. In time, you'll discover ways to accelerate your savings.

Or maybe you've been meaning to trim your monthly bills. Do it. Drop the landline. Quit playing World of Warcraft. Cancel some magazine subscriptions. Get rid of cable television. Recurring monthly expenses are money sinks, quietly eating at your ability to get ahead. Canceling cable is a small thing, but it's a small thing that can have a big impact.

Small, easy changes may not make much difference on their own, but they can have a real impact when combined with other small moves. It just takes a while for the change to be apparent. For a long time, I didn't think I'd ever get out of debt. Progress was slow. Eventually, however, because I'd been working so long and so hard at it, my debt snowball reached enormous size, mowing down all debts in its path. Now it's a savings snowball of equal might. But this avalanche would never have started if I hadn't begun with “snowflakes“.

There are those who argue that it's the big personal finance decisions that make the most difference. They may be right. But I haven't made any big personal finance decisions in the past few years — only small ones. Every day I got out there and took small steps, walking in the flattest part. And this made all the difference.

Start at the beginning
I recently started a weight-training program. I've never really lifted weights before, so it's like learning a new language. Plus I'm weak. I haven't exercised regularly in years. For many of my exercises, 3- or 5-pound dumbbells are enough to work my muscles to exhaustion.

These light weights embarrassed me at first. It felt demeaning to start with so little. But with the help of Get Fit Slowly readers, I realized there's no shame in using light weights. This is where I start. It's where anyone in my condition would have to start. And it's where I started with my debt, too — saving just $5 or $10 at a time.

More about...Psychology

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KC
KC
12 years ago

Totally agree on those monthly recurring expenses being a nuisance to your finances. They add up and just eat at your budget. I’d love to get Tivo/DVR, but I just can’t justify it. I made myself choose between it and Netflix. Interesting thing is with Netflix I’m down to two a month cause I couldn’t justify the cost of 3/mon. Cell phone is another thing – I use Virgin Mobile prepay. I just don’t use the cell that much and can’t justify the monthly contract, eventhough I could afford it. Sure I have some monthly expenses but its few, and… Read more »

KC
KC
12 years ago

One more thing 🙂 I use lightweights all the time and I’m strong as an ox! I will put a lighter weight and do high amounts of reps. It makes me long and lean and is an addendum to my cardio workout (this type of weightlifting keeps the heartrate up there even after I’m off the treadmill). The point is to get toned. I see fat people using heavy weights all the time, but I’d rather be toned and lean than have a layer of fat over my big muscles. No shame in small weights!

Diatryma
Diatryma
12 years ago

I keep trying to budget and starting *too* small– there’s nothing for me to do, so I don’t do anything. This led to a very minor crisis (okay, this and UFB Direct’s Absolutely Horrible Savings Account) but I’m still doubting my ability to do this.

So I’d say to start small, but start with something you can or will do often.

AJC @ 7million7years
AJC @ 7million7years
12 years ago

Here’s my formula:

Small Vision + Small Steps = Poor

Big Vision + Small Steps = Wealthy

Mrs. Micah
Mrs. Micah
12 years ago

My current workout idea isn’t particularly impressive to anyone who has done ballet, yoga, etc. It’s definitely not pushing my cardio limits (though there’s some cardio involved). But that matters is that it’s getting me somewhere. Like that guy on the hill.

Starving Artist
Starving Artist
12 years ago

Hey JD. I’ve been avoiding putting money into my savings account, and I’m going to suck it up and take your advice by putting a few dollars aside every paycheck. You’re right-even if it’s twenty bucks, it will add up, and I’ll probably find ways to put more money away over time. Good luck with the workouts! Everyone I know at the gym is impressed when people in less-than-stellar physical condition come in and show progress by sticking to it. Think of the small weights as initiation–something a little embarrassing you have to do to join the group! The weights… Read more »

jasmine
jasmine
12 years ago

hey. this is a great post. i tend to do that all the time…jump in with great gusto only to fizzle out. i guess my hardest problem is that because i live with roommates, a lot of those ‘montly expenses’ don’t get cut out because its a majority-decision. i’ve only recently started to get serious about taking care of my finances. but with my tendency to jump in feet first, i’m a little worried i might have taken on too much. nonethelss, i’m going to keep going at it. i’m cutting out the coffee habit a bit by bit, learning… Read more »

Mira
Mira
12 years ago

I agree with the post. Two things that have also helped me along the way is slowly making payments and savings automatic. I did this in small steps. Also writing down my plans and progress. But like JD stated, it’s been working best for me in small steps. Large steps are overwhelming for me and makes the task at hand seem too daunting to accomplish. @ AJC, that’s a good way to sum it up. You should put that on a bumper sticker. @ Diatryma, why don’t you like UFB? I’m with ING but I’ve been looking around and UFB… Read more »

Steve
Steve
12 years ago


It’s a shock to the system.

Yep. I’ve been working on changing myself in various areas. It feels too alien to me if I make changes too fast. Sort of like how you feel if you move to a new city and take a new job at the same time.

Zachary
Zachary
12 years ago

I had to go through a sort of experimentation process to discover exactly how ambitious I could be with my financial lifestyle changes. Some months I overshot it, and other months I was too conservative. I think I have found the proper balance now.

Meli
Meli
12 years ago

/gasp cancel World of Warcraft? never!

Duff
Duff
12 years ago

I love this. I just cancelled two recurring things that I’ve been holding on to for no good reason. Thanks for the inspiration.

Get A Grip Girl
Get A Grip Girl
12 years ago

I need to cancel my cable as soon as my contract is over. I am watching so much crap and get caught up with advertisements! I end up spending more. That would help me cut my expenses. You are right..little by little makes a significant difference.

Walter
Walter
12 years ago

I have adopted a pay-myself-first strategy recently. I put 10%/pay of my gross income into my 457 plan. Then I put 10% of my net into a Roth IRA every pay. I am sure I can do higher percentages of either, but those are the small steps and I will acclimate to those levels of investment and step up every few months. So, the 457 will become 10% + $20 in a few months as will the Roth, until I feel a pinch. I can always back down to a more comfy level, but will try to never go below… Read more »

oldman
oldman
12 years ago

i am that old man and my daily walk is the highlite of my day. i have all the money i want and need. my day starts with coffee and a bowl of cereal. then my walk. then i read the paper and check out current events on my computer. watch some news and then a short nap. reading books in afternoon and enjoying sitting in the sun. if you notice, i dont speak of spending money any any such thing concerning money. the simple pleasures are the best.

thehungrydollar.com
thehungrydollar.com
12 years ago

It’s amazing how much you can save by trimming the fat from your monthly “fixed costs.” A lot of the things we think are mandatory expenses really aren’t!

Kacper
Kacper
12 years ago

It is how I wrote in my post: http://www.kacperwrzesniewski.com/try-opposite-strategy/

For some people, ‘cold turkey’ is good approach and gives amazing effects. But not for everybody. Then it is good to take opposite approach.

But is it a magic of ‘thinking small’ or rather ‘small steps’?

Hannah
Hannah
12 years ago

This is so very true! It’s the reason doctors always recommend small changes in diet as opposed to going from McDonald’s and pizza daily to vegetables and protein bars.

The worst part of the “cold turkey” approach? When you do collapse, you’ll fall into a hole deeper than you were when you started. You just won’t be able to help yourself, and it will be that much harder to get out of it again.

Flaime
Flaime
12 years ago

Give up World of Warcraft? Not me…Though, trutfully, I don’t spend a lot of other moeny on hobbies because World of Warcraft is my primary hobby.

But if I could just get my employer to let me work from home. I could give up paying for gasoline (or at least reduce that cost by a significant amount)…

My.cold.dead.hands
My.cold.dead.hands
12 years ago

This is a great article. From what I’ve observed this is what causes a lot of people from cleaning up their financial lives, the inability to identify a small step and stick to it or feeling that a small step is to insignificant so they take a ‘why bother?’ attitude.

Cutting out that $4.00 Latte every morning won’t make you rich and it won’t wipe out that $10K in cedit card debt, but over the course of a year, combined with other small changes can really add up.

Diatryma
Diatryma
12 years ago

Mira at 8, it’s only partly their fault; I expected them to be much more flexible than they actually are, and expected to not need the money in the savings account for a while. I’m just having a lot of trouble getting to that money– the ATM card they sent didn’t work, and now is imprisoned at my actual bank’s ATM, and will be sent either back to them or, if I can get there and convince the bank people to just let me try it again, maybe to me. Who knows. In order to do a wire transfer, they… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

Yup: evolution, not revolution.

Most of us don’t get a personality or life transplant when we want to change something in our lives; we have to work with our lives and who we are. Some changes will work for us without much effort, some will take a lot of experimentation and adjustment, and some just won’t fly.

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad
12 years ago

That’s me – I usually jump in head first and go all out, quickly burning out with whatever new endeavor I’ve chosen. Slow and steady always wins the race, and gets better results as well!

Jennifer
Jennifer
12 years ago

If you don’t start small you will usually give up. If you are starting to live a frugal lifestyle I think starting small is usually the only option. Big ticket purchases don’t come up that often for most people and of course you want to handle them frugally, but for most people it is the small things throughout the day that do add up in the end.

I wonder what that old man is doing on his walks.

handworn
handworn
12 years ago

Faith in the nature of happiness is what this requires. If you can have faith that if you forgo the most efficient things in your personal life– the most efficient in manipulating your mood, the most efficient in entertaining you– your mind will find other things to replace them that will make you just as happy or entertained, you have then mastered your lifestyle, with all its personal-finance implications. This year, I made a New Year’s Resolution to drink no alcohol for a year. Yep. Haven’t touched a drop in almost three months. I rarely feel the lack; other stuff… Read more »

Moneyblogga
Moneyblogga
12 years ago

My usual modus operandi is to go “all out” and then “burn out”. Personally, I am tired of that fruitless cycle. I have wasted so much money over the years that I have no choice now BUT to go full throttle and stay there. For once, I may just actually accomplish something. I wish I had started saving years ago but I didn’t. It would’ve been a lot easier to accumulate in a sane, steady fashion rather than doing it this way.

rstlne
rstlne
12 years ago

I don’t have cable TV or World of Warcraft, and I’ve already cut all magazine subscriptions many years ago. So I’ll have to think of something else to cut.

kat
kat
12 years ago

Saving money is a lot like losing weight and getting in shape. Both require you to make permanent lifestyle changes, but you won’t accomplish either if you don’t start somewhere you’re comfortable, achieve a tangible goal, and work from there. We hear a lot about recurring monthly expenses, but for me the change came when I could walk out of a Target having spent $4.29 on cat food… and not a penny more. I had to practice little by little, but I eventually trained myself to stop WANTING. That ended up saving me more in the end than changing my… Read more »

Tom
Tom
12 years ago

This is just the kind of information that got me started into my personal finance state of being. Since I ran across this site around the first of this year, my financial life has truned around, I am tracking, I am budgeting and I am saving. I even started my own blog a couple of weeks ago. I do not expect this to become a full time thing as others, like yourself have done, but it keeps me going down the correct path. And who knows what the future might bring. Check out my site at http://nowmymoneyismine.blogspot.com/ Thanks for getting… Read more »

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

funny you mentioned world of warcraft.. because i recently started playing again.. i actually think the $15.00 monthly charge is worth it.. because it’s a pretty cheap way to keep myself entertained.. and prevents me from spending money outside of the house

just gotta keep it in moderation because the game can get pretty addicting =O

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
12 years ago

What you say has a lot of merit to it, especially when you’re talking about a huge change in lifestyle. Some things, though, you really have to do cold turkey. Getting off the sauce is one of them. Like handworn, I made the decision that I would stop drinking for a month (a year sounded a bit extreme). In the past, I’ve thought I would limit the swiggles to one a day or even one a week–laughable! Setting a day to quit and then just doing it worked spectacularly. I’ve felt no particular desire to run out and buy another… Read more »

sal
sal
12 years ago

re: cutting cable tv

maybe a bit too radical for some, but how about cutting the tv itself?? so much toxicity comes through that little box.

if you need something to do with all your spare time, put in a small garden bed, maybe just 4’x4′ to start.

it will take five years to learn the how-to of efficient organics and is a good place to invest for when the fdic does tank.

Kenney
Kenney
12 years ago

I’m new to this blog and I’m finding a lot of the information quite useful. However, it is becoming ever clear to me that the level of a person’s frugalness is something that they have to arrive to on their own. What’s too frugal for one, is not frugal enough for the next. In response to your post, I think it is all about cutting back where you can first, and where it hurts later (if need be). Some would say to absolutely cancel netflix because it’s a waste of money, where I think it’s a good way to have… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
12 years ago

Magazines are also nice at the library. I have two subscriptions that are already paid for, I read my fitness magazine cover to cover the day it comes and sometimes consult it later, but my Working Mother magazines often go untouched month to month . . . I find if I really want to read a magazine I will, and I can find them all at the library. The articles are so short that I can read almost an entire issue in a half hour or so, and a lot of magazines have their most current news on their web… Read more »

Teacher
Teacher
12 years ago

Good topic. I have been kicking around the idea of dropping DISH Network. We do use it (maybe a bit too much sometimes) but the $90/month is ridiculous. I don’t NEED it. I have an HD antenna on the garage that will be able to pick up NBC,CBS, FOX, ABC all in HD. These are the channels that I mostly watch anyway (except for ESPN and the Food Network). WE would also miss the DVR but we got along fine without it before. The $1095.96 that I will save over the course of the year will be put to a… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
12 years ago

Teacher – we got rid of digital cable over a year ago, and saved about $1100 a year since. We miss the DVR occassionally and sometimes we miss on demand and IFC, but we honestly have spent more time reading, going to the park with our kids, and visiting the library. Also the Writer’s Strike was SUCH a blessing – no TV to watch meant things got done in the evening instead of piling up. I’m not bashing TV, it’s just amazing how much more time we got back than just saving money. We do spend $5 a month for… Read more »

lyza
lyza
12 years ago

I totally agree. I would love to do it, but every time I have a few so hard saved dollars or my credit card is 0 balance my husband have a emergency and I have to resolve it. I have told him that he needs to put some money appart in order to keep his business going, but he doesn’t hear me. What can I do? Nothing I think.

star
star
12 years ago

I am a single mother with one child. Our television broke three months ago, and I couldn’t afford a new one so I cancled the cable and we have been living t.v. free. At first it was a challenge (5 year old son) but it has been one of the most rewarding experiences ever. My son now helps me with dinner and lunch, we are putting puzzles together, and reading more. When he walks in the house… his imagination gets turned on. Since then, I have had at least ten offers from people to GIVE me a television and I… Read more »

Miranda
Miranda
12 years ago

Great post on the importance of slowing things down! It is so much easier to replace costly habits, little by little, with something less costly. This is what I’ve been doing with my bagels.

Instead of buying a bagel every couple of days at the stand, I’m now buying a package and some cream cheese at the store. I get more bagels, they’re better, and it saves me time and money.

It sounds silly, but a lot of these small lifestyle changes really start to add up.

Lily
Lily
12 years ago

I don’t get the “toxicity” argument about tv. There is crap, but also good shows, cartoons and films, information… If you think tv is Evil and rules your life, there is something wrong somewhere anyway. I had my share of cartoons when I was a child, but used to get outside, use my imagination, read comics and books, which my parents made me familiar with. When you forbid children tv, you give it much more importance it should have and it sure becomes an object of desire. Talk about stuff instead, make children think…

Joe
Joe
11 years ago

about tv…

if you are near a library, check out this book:

“Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television”

definitely will make you think.

–Joe

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