A Game of Inches

FootballI recently read this post over at Dream Beyond Debt and it really resonated with something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.  So, since it’s the opening weekend of NFL football, I thought I’d write a post about it.

Personal finance, like football, is a game of inches.

Small achievements can really make a big difference.  You never know when making a small adjustment will lead to progress, which in turn leads to more progress.  Going with the football analogy, have you ever seen a running back pick up a few inches which gives their team a first down, and then the next play is a 50 yard touchdown pass?  That touchdown never would have happened without the few inches picked up on the previous play.

As an anecdote, this idea is exactly how I quit smoking cigarettes nine years ago.  I started cutting back to a pack a day (yes, I was smoking too much), then it was 15 cigarettes a day (there are 20 in a pack), then 10, then 5, then only after meals.   After about three months I was only smoking when I was drinking.  And believe me when I tell you that it was damn hard to stop that.

What ended up getting me to quit was exercise.  I started working out.  After working so hard in the gym, I didn’t want to “undo” all my good work by smoking.

The point of this little story is you never know what small positive change is going to permanently affect your life for the better.  I didn’t start exercising because I thought it would help me quit smoking.  That was just a happy side effect.  And when I got lazy about six months later and stopped working out, I didn’t start smoking again.

A game of inchesIn personal finance, maybe you decide to shop around for new car insurance, which saves you $30 a month.  After a couple months, feeling good about that step, you decide to downgrade your internet/cable package which saves you another $80 a month.  At the end of the year, maybe you’ve saved $1000.

Not wanting your effort to go to waste, you look around and realize that with $1000 you can open an IRA at Vanguard, investing in one of their target date retirement funds.

Well, now that the account is open you decide you want to try to contribute regularly to it. You start with the $110/month you saved on insurance and cable, but quickly up it to $200/month after seeing the numbers start climbing.

Now you’re really building some momentum so you decide that next year you’re going to max out the IRA by making a couple more changes to your lifestyle.  Maybe you pick up a side hustle, or maybe you go out to eat a little bit less.  Either way, that account balance is growing and you’re feeling better and better about your ability to manage your finances.

With your new-found confidence you decide to go talk to your HR representative to see what’s up with the retirement plans at your job.  You find out that you’ve been missing a 6% employer match on your 401(k) and decide to immediately start contributing 6% of your salary so that you get that free money from work.

You’ve gone from nothing to maxing out an IRA and contributing 12% of your annual salary (6% + 6% match) to a 401(k).  And all this happened because you decided to shop around for a better insurance rate.

You might think this story sounds far-fetched, but it isn’t.  This is actually how many people go about getting their financial house in order, myself included.  You start making small changes and, encouraged by your progress, you keep making more progress.

People don’t just wake up suddenly knowing how to manage their money.  They gain a few inches, then gain a few more, and suddenly they are marching down the field picking up yards in chunks.

Mrs. Dragon likes to do Jillian Michaels workout videos and this week I heard Jillian say something that caught my ear,

“Transformation is not a future event.  It is a present day activity.  That’s why you must bring everything that you have in every moment.  And it doesn’t have to be perfect.  It’s not about perfect.  It’s about effort.  Bring that effort every single day.  That’s how transformation happens.  That’s how change occurs.”

In other words, just take steps in the right direction.  Don’t worry about figuring everything out at once.  Recognize that it’s a game of inches.

Have you made any new changes in your personal finances recently?  What’s one small change that really helped get you on the right track with your finances?

Expenses: August 2015
The Hoard: September 2015

12 thoughts on “A Game of Inches

  1. Every little savings makes a difference when we are striving to become FI. Recently, Mrs. Budgets noticed the internet bill went up. She called the next day to have it lowered and the rep said they had “no current promotions” at this time. Mrs. Budgets calls again the next day and they lower it!

    Great job on quitting the cigs though you talked about exercising which I’ve been lagging. :/

    • Isn’t weird how a representative will adamantly tell you there’s nothing you can do, and then you call again and get a rep who does it no problem? We had a similar experience with customer service not so long ago. I guess the lesson here is that persistence is key.

      Yeah, quitting smoking is one of the better decisions I’ve made in short-ish life. Good for the wallet and even better for the health. Cheers!

  2. Right on. I think any big goal–like saving enough for a secure, comfortable retirement–can feel so overwhelming when you first have a look at it that some people will feel paralyzed about how to start or even throw up their hands and go into denial mode, thinking ‘I can never do this.’ But as you point out, just getting started, with whatever small step, can break the door down and lead to success. I like to set monthly and annual goals that I think in the end will support my long term goals, but I don’t obsess about how I’m doing vs. the long term goal. Just keep my eye on the short-term ball–the rest will take care of itself. At least that’s my hope! 🙂

    • I’m with you! Those big dollar figures can look mighty intimidating. It’s way easier to just think about something immediate/short term you can get done. I like the idea of monthly and annual goals. I sort of do annual goals, but nothing set in stone really. I just try to handle things day-to-day and, as you say, let the long-term stuff take care of itself. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Cheers!

  3. I read the title and thought, “Football”, immediately. Was glad to see that the link on Rockstar Finance led to your page! I think this is a great analogy. I don’t know how many times I’ve caught myself thinking, “Oh, it’s just $5 at Walgreens for pretzels and a coke” . . . then the same thing twice a week, then three times, then you realize that it actually adds up to maybe $100/month, which is no insignificant ==> $1,200/year!

    It’s empowering to gain control over that type of spending – just like I’m sure it was empowering when you quit smoking! Turning a double negative of smoking and spending on smokes to a double positive of quitting and exercise.

    -DP

    • Hey DP, I couldn’t resist the football analogy. It was opening weekend! It’s crazy how the little things can really add up to something big. Both for better and for worse. A small victory can lead to a large one just like that pretzel and coke habit can rob you of thousands of dollars. Putting down the squares was definitely one of my better life decisions. Double win, just like you said. Cheers!

  4. Its very interesting to put it to a game of football.. In theory it makes complete sense to me with how it should work. But in reality all of my wins seems to where I nail it on a 4th and 18 to go. I feel like I have the right plan and I do things on a weekly and monthly basis to make progress towards my end game of early retirement… However, I struggle all the time and even seem to get hit with what I would call penalties that set me back here and there… Then all the sudden I’m back in for a 1st down and again continually get knocked back week after week and somewhere I pull off a play.. The problem is I get knocked back ALL YEAR before I get a little win… And the cycle repeats itself… I keep telling myself to stick with it… but it is a challenge…

    • Hey Tim,

      What you’re describing sounds pretty rough, man. Sometimes you have to fight through a bad quarter (or three) and just stick to your game plan to see results. Without more details I can’t offer specific advice. However, you can always look at tweaking your finances as “rebuilding.” Then, after you’ve got the right systems in place (and after a few kicks in the teeth), you start seeing more regular success. Just keep trying to do the little things right and I think you’ll be OK. Good luck!

  5. Yes! I couldn’t agree more (although I probably wouldn’t have thought of the football analogy 😉 – saving small bits where you can is a huge part of my savings philosophy and it has paid off. We found this helped us pay off our mortgage – first small lump sums then bigger and bigger and we became more motivated and excited. You’ve totally hit the nail on the head here.

    • Thanks, Jess! I think a lot people underestimate the power of small changes. Any positive change leads you further down the path to your goals. Also, I don’t know if I’ve said this in previous comments, but congrats on paying off the mortgage!

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