The Power of Baby Steps

Today’s simple graphics will enlighten you on the power of baby steps and the potency of small repeated marginal gains.

A Baby’s Growth

It’s easy to overlook the rapid growth that humans undergo.

At first, we’re a helpless whiny lump that’s capable of only three things: eat, sleep, bathroom. This baby, one might assume, must have a pretty low ceiling.

Fast forward two full years and…ok, some progress has happened. Our baby is now zooming around of her feet, and she’s babbling, and she’s feeding herself, albeit poorly. These are some true baby steps. Small progress. But this is largely still a helpless child.

Walking Baby GIFs | Tenor

By age five, she’s talking. That’s cool. She can eat food without spilling, she can read (whoa!), and she can run around. Compared to an adult, she’s small and weak and dumb (sorry, it’s true!). But there’s been fantastic progress.

I won’t go much further. We know that brains and bodies continue to grow into adulthood. And we know that adult humans are capable of amazing accomplishments. But the path from helpless whiny lump to amazing adult—that path was walked one baby step at a time.

Let’s bring back Wallace

Remember Wallace from “The Best Time to Invest?”

He’s back, and he’s trying to improve himself via a similar baby step method. What’s he improving?

It could be anything, financial or otherwise. Perhaps Wallace wants a fully funded emergency fund. He wants to eat a healthier diet. Or maybe he wants to be a better writer.

I’m going to refer to these improvements as levels. Wallace is at Level 1 right now. He’s a whiny helpless lump, but he’s looking to grow.

Wallace is going to focus on building towards his goals using a simple 1% improvement every week. Whatever the goal, whatever the skill. Wallace’s wants to take baby steps of 1% improvement each week.

Wallace’s will improve from 1.00 to 1.01 in Week 1.

And then he’ll improve from 1.01 to 1.021 in Week 2.

Slowly but surely, Wallace will progress. His level will improve.

But baby steps are slow

Baby steps are slow. And that’s why baby step improvements can be frustrating (at least for adults—not so much for babies). Take a look at Wallace’s first year of progress. It’s that little blue streak at the bottom of the plot.

baby step year 1
After one year, Wallace has grown from 1.0 to 1.7

Whether he’s saving money or writing a blog or improving at chess, Wallace has barely made any progress (at least, based on my chosen Y-axis).

But Wallace is a grinder. He believes in the power of baby steps. So he continues to focus on weekly 1% improvements for two more years.

baby step year 3
After three years, Wallace is at Level 4.7

Ok! At least Wallace’s growth is no longer looking like a flat line. Let’s fast forward another couple years.

baby step year 5
After five years, Wallace is at Level 13.3

Wallace hits the curve

After five years, it’s apparent that Wallace is starting to “hit the curve.” His 1% improvements no longer look like a straight line. Instead, those improvements are building on one another in a compounding manner.

When he started, Wallace was at “Level 1.” His 1% improvement was tiny—1% of 1 is 0.01. But after hundreds of 1% improvements, he’s now around Level 13. The 1% improvements now increase his level by 0.13 each week. In ~6 weeks of Year 5, Wallace grows more than he did the entire Year 1.

All styles of exponential growth exhibit this behavior. Growth compounds on growth. The early steps feel slow, barely making progress. The last steps feel monumental. But those monumental steps wouldn’t have been possible without the years of slow progress beforehand.

Many 4-year olds can’t read, but many 9-year olds can read chapter books. Five years of consistent practice can bring a sea change of improvement.

It’s just like the parable of rice filling up a chessboard.

baby step year 10
After ten years, Wallace is at Level 177

The curve continues to steepen through Year 10. Now at level 177, the idea of being at level 1 is a distant memory for Wallace. It’s just like the idea that “a lot can change in ten years.”

But are baby steps always possible?

I’ve shown you an assumed scenario where Wallace is always able to make 1% improvements. And maybe that’s too ambitious of an assumption.

Even if Wallace hits the top of his game—like Lebron, Adele, or Meryl Streep—he will probably hit some sort of plateau. You can’t necessarily get better forever. But the goal doesn’t need to be infinite growth. Instead, the goal is to find an effective mindset to achieve growth. And that’s what the baby step method provides.

A widely shared story of baby steps involves coach Dave Brailsford’s leadership of the British Cycling team.

Have a Laugh with the 20 Best Cycling GIFs! - We Love Cycling magazine

Brailsford’s vision expanded beyond training and racing and physical attributes. Instead, Brailsford wanted to improve every aspect of a cyclist’s life—diet, sleep, even relationships. Of course, it included their training and recovery and equipment, too. Brailsford was thinking about baby steps. If he could find 70 different places to make a 1% improvement, the cyclists would end up 100% better (1.01 ^ 70 = 2). Sounds easy, right?

They bought more comfortable pillows to help the cyclists sleep through the night. They cut out refined foods, replacing them with something nutritious. The team considered every component on the bicycle where mass could be reduced, even if only by a gram.

These small improvements worked wonders.

Under Brailsford’s leadership from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 5 Tour de France titles. And they won 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals. Oh, and they won 178 world championships. British cycling dominated the world cycling scene.

Baby steps work.

Baby steps in personal finance

There are plenty of opinions about simple financial goals that you can add to your baby step to-do list.

Unburying yourself—from debt, from bad habits, etc.—isn’t a one step process. It takes time. And it requires small improvements. You know—baby steps.

You can earn money in bits and pieces. A little raise here, a side hustle there. You can find odd jobs or use smartphone apps that pay you money. Little baby steps all over.

College loans and mortgages can take decades to repay. Learning a new budgeting system requires patience. The math behind interest rates might take a few attempts to understand. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And your personal finance success will take time too. But it’ll come if you stick with it.

This plot shows the small baby steps I’ve made over the past two years. In blue are my slow and steady investments. In red is my slow and steady debt payoff. And the white circles combine the two to show a steady increase in net worth.

Winning the lottery would be cool. So would investing in next Amazon, Apple, etc. while they’re still a startup. But if I don’t get that lucky, I’ll be ok. My baby steps are slowly building up.

Keep on Growing

Take it away, Clapton!

And, as always, thanks for reading the Best Interest. If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.

And thank you to Feedspot for including me in their Top 100 personal finance blogs. What an honor! Gotta keep on growing…

Source: bestinterest.blog

By the numbers: My spending for March 2019

March was a mixed month in my financial world. I ended March with a slightly higher net worth (up 0.6%) but my spending was the highest it’s been this year: $5989.10. Yet, that spending was mostly mindful. I wasn’t frittering away money on silly things.

If I wasn’t buying dumb stuff, then where did my money go? A few worthwhile places:

  • I spent $653.31 on the yard and garden. Specifically, Kim and I tore out a big cedar tree in the corner of the yard, then converted that space to a small orchard. I use the word “orchard” loosely here. We planted three fruit trees, four blueberries, four grape vines, and a bunch of strawberries. I hope to write about this more in the near future.
  • I spent $625.72 on health and fitness. In the middle of the month, I had quite a scare. Out of nowhere, I had chest pains, so I visited the local hospital ER. My co-pays and prescriptions are reflected in March’s spending — and there’s more to come. (We’re about to have a l-o-n-g article on the $6800 hospital bill I received in the mail yesterday. That’ll happen in April or May.) Meanwhile, Kim had knee surgery at the end of the month. I paid for some of her stuff out of my pocket.
  • I spent $579.36 on gifts in March, which is very very unusual.
  • I paid the $450 annual fee on my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. (Yes, I know this seems like a lot. But remember the card comes with a $300 travel credit, which means my effective annual fee is $150. I believe I receive $150 in value from the card’s other benefits.)

I don’t consider any of that spending frivolous although I recognize that some of it isn’t necessary. (Do we need an orchard? Do I need to give gifts?)

That said, I did have some weak spots in my spending. I bought several movies on iTunes. In fact, I spent $72.63 on iTunes in March. I need to be careful lest I return to my former profligate ways. No more looking in the iTunes store! I also spent $230.15 on alcohol during the month (most of which was beer).

How did I do with groceries? As you know, my food spending had grown out of control, which is one of the primary reasons I’m tracking my spending in detail this year. Last year, I spent over $1000 per month in food. This year, I’m spending less than $700 per month.

I was very proud of my food spending for most of March. I spent a total of $658.21 during the month: $468.27 on groceries and $184.24 on dining out. That’s my lowest monthly food total in two years (excepting months during which I’ve been on the road).

Going into the last week of March, I’d only spent $241.87 on groceries. That’s amazing! Things fell apart, however, when I stocked up on food for Kim’s convalescence. Meanwhile, we only had three restaurant meals during the month. For one of those, I paid for two guests. Not bad. Not bad.

Quarterly Spending

Now that we’ve made it through the first three months of 2019, I was curious how my quarterly spending compared to last year. Monthly spending can fluctuate quite a bit. You can get a better idea of your actual habits by looking at a bigger picture.

Here are some highlights:

  • I spent $116.56 at the iTunes store during the first quarter of 2019. That’s less than I spent on movies and TV shows during any single month last year, so that’s a win.
  • I spent $2076.54 on food for the quarter, which is lower than any quarter in 2018. I spent $1179.53 on groceries, $323.52 on HelloFresh, and $542.29 on dining out. That restaurant spending is another big win. The grocery spending was good — better than any quarter in 2018 — but I feel like I can do better.
  • I spent a lot on health and fitness during the first three months of the year: $1752.60. And the thing is, it’s not going to get much better.
  • This year, I decided to separate hot tub expenses into its own category. I spent $151.88 on hot tub stuff (chemicals, etc.) during the first three months of the year. And, no, that doesn’t include electricity.
  • Our zoo — three cats and a dog — cost us $447.54 during the first quarter of 2019.
  • You know where I could save big bucks? By drinking less. I spent $586.36 on alcohol during the first three months of the year (and that includes four weeks during which I didn’t drink a drop!). That’s $6.44 per day. Time for me to cut back on my craft beer obsession…

I spent a total of $15,364.85 during the first quarter of 2019, an average of $5121.62 per month. That’s not a great number, to be honest. It’s pretty much what I was spending last year. Still, I’m trying not to get too stressed about things…yet.

The whole point of this exercise is for me to figure out where I’m spending my money and why. Once I have a clear picture, I can make some course corrections.

April is the Cruelest Month

Unfortunately, April is going to have some crazy, crazy spending numbers. My accountant called yesterday to give me my tax bill. I owe $20,000. (I’m not joking.) The hospital called too. They wanted to let me know that I owe them $6800 for the ER visit in the middle of March. To cap things off, payment is due on the vacation that Kim and I booked a year ago. We’ll be headed to Greece and Italy in August — but we’re paying for it today.

Fortunately, I knew that some of these expenses were looming, so I have cash set aside to pay for taxes and our trip. (The ER visit was a surprise, obviously, and I don’t have money set aside for that.) That doesn’t change the fact that April’s expenses are going to be insane, though. It just means I’m somewhat prepared for the insanity.

The upside to having a $6800 hospital bill so early in the year? It gives me a chance to make maximum use of my health insurance! My max “out of pocket” is $7900 annually. Since it looks like I’m going to hit that, it makes sense to address all medical issues that are bugging me in 2019.

At the end of 2018, I had a net worth of $1,334,227.20. At the end of March, my net worth was $1,397,545.18. That’s a leap of more than $63,000 (or 4.75%). That’s great! In reality, this simply reflects a hot stock market. My investment accounts are up $77,933.04 this year (11.45%).

A hot stock market can cover a multitude of sins…

Source: getrichslowly.org