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.

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