The power of small (literal) steps

My primary form of transportation is walking. Most of my trips are in the 15-25 minute range, but I’ve certainly been known to walk 40 or 50 minutes to get somewhere.

Last weekend I found myself looking at a 2.5 mile/50-ish minute walk and felt a bit overwhelmed: that’s a ridiculously long walk (never mind the fact that it would take me probably 40 minutes on public transit so I might as well get some exercise in)! Who would do that?!?[*]

And then I realized: most days I do double that and think nothing of it since it’s just routine.

Sometimes I’ll string together a couple of trails to create an 8-mile hike, which I did for my first one of the season a few weeks ago

Little things add up

My five miles a day feels much different than doubling that one really long walk. With a fifteen minute/2,500 step walk here and another few hundred steps there, by the end of the day I’ve somehow racked up enough steps usually to surpass both my 10,000 step and five mile goals for the day. And obviously four fifteen-minute walks a day feel much more attainable than two hour-long walks a day, but they add up to the same thing.

So I’d rather make slower, more consistent progress that I know I can do instead of aiming for bigger things that I might talk myself out of because they seem like too much (not that a 50-minute walk is unattainable and I’ll gladly walk that far. I definitely went that route last weekend instead of hopping on the Metro or a bus).

Surprise, surprise, this translates exactly to money! There’s been some backlash lately about frugality and whether it’s worth it to focus on cutting costs instead of focusing on growing your income instead. To which my answer is “um, of course it’s worth it!” Growing your income is a huge part of the equation, and I’ve already said I don’t plan to earn my current salary forever. But it’s not everything.

As someone whose rent eats up half of her 9-5 paycheck, frugality and selective spending on what aligns with my priorities is a huge part of the picture. Still not convinced? Let me tell you about my student loans for what’s likely to be one of the last few times I mention them(!).

Student loan saga

When last I talked about my debt after paying off my credit cards in February, I was sitting on about $800 in student loans. By accident I now suddenly find myself with only $143 left to pay down on my student loans before they’re gone. This was totally unplanned—I got bored last weekend and decided to throw $360 of last month’s extra paycheck to my student loans, which would’ve brought the total down to about $300 and I’d just ride that out. Or so I thought.

I guess the $44 payment is the minimum I owe and my loan provider decided to revert back to that amount instead of the extra I’d been paying (not that I was warned about that. Plus even if they did tell me, I wouldn’t be able to find it on their horrendous website). My previously auto $110.25/month payments were actually one for $100 and another, random one that I could never control—and it never showed up in my listed auto payments—for $10.25 that came out of my account the following day. I have absolutely zero idea where the single $110.25 payment came from, and the only one that was ever “processing” was my deliberate $360.

Now that the other two have magically appeared/cleared as well, they’re listed as “auto payment,” even though two payments a month isn’t how auto pay works and I in no way approved those changes.

I’ll need to pay my car insurance in May so I was waiting to pay off my loans until after so I could make sure I had the cash flow for that. But there’s no point in paying $110 in May and the rest off in June. Guess I’ll be debt-free in May, even earlier than I thought.

That’s not what got me here

All of the extra payments I’ve been making on my loans are large steps. But it’s the small, monthly $110 (or $44. Or $100 + $10.25. WHO KNOWS ?‍♀️) payments I sent over automatically that got me to a place where I could send over $360 and halve my debt in one fell swoop.

I’ve always said my debt payoff story isn’t sexy, and it’s not. Thanks to some hefty scholarships, work-study and a Pell grant my last two years, and help from family, I graduated with only about $7,000 worth of student loans (plus the credit card debt I accumulated in the years after, which was 100% me being stupid). In May it’ll have been four years since I graduated college. Those debt payoff stories of $15,000+ a year make my story look laughably adorable in comparison. Aw, it took you how long to pay that off? That’s cute!

But the fact remains that in a matter of weeks I’ll have paid off that debt. I sent larger amounts over periodically, but for the most part I got here by consistently chipping away at it every month.

I’m glad I’ll be seeing the end of my loans pretty soon but I’m also miffed about how this happened. Complaining about accelerated debt payoff is pretty ridiculous, I understand. But I’m also damn thankful I could afford (and had the money in the account so it didn’t overdraft!) a surprise $150 extra in payments this month. It wasn’t so long ago that that would’ve sent me into a serious case of some money anxiety because I didn’t have that amount just sitting around. So there’s the power of a year’s worth of time, as well as the continual progress of saving bits of money here and there so that I’ve now built up a modest amount of savings.

Back to the literal steps

I’ve talked before about how the path to FI feels like an impossibly long slog with the end nowhere in sight because I’m too afraid to crunch the numbers to figure out exactly how long it’ll take me. Much like anything that requires more than an hour of walking in the city (or a hike that’s longer than about 8 or 9 miles), focusing on the whole journey feels discouraging.

But a bunch of consistent small steps over time? That’s how I whittled down my student loans to under four figures and now to one month away from zero, that’s how I paid off my credit card debt, and it’s how I’m saving for my future. And it’s how I hit my Fitbit step goals most days.

[*]Hello there, bike enthusiasts! I can hear you wondering why on earth I wouldn’t just rent a bike to travel that 2.5 mile distance! The answer is because other than a few brewery tours and study abroad daytrips I haven’t been on a bike at all since probably seventh grade. Couple me currently not being comfortable on a bike with DC traffic and that sounds like a recipe for disaster. Walking is not only my primary form of transportation, but also my preferred one 😉

23 Replies to “The power of small (literal) steps”

  1. I’m all for small steps! It might be less sexy, but it’s so much more realistic and relatable for most people. Congrats by the way on almost being done paying off your student loan! That is so awesome!

    Also, just thinking about an eight hour hike makes me tired. Eight 1-hour hikes? No problem. Brains are weird that way.

    1. Thank you, Britt! I can’t wait!

      Haha you’re so right. The thought of eight hours of walking in one day makes me want to go lay down even though I’ve done it before. Brains are incredibly weird!

  2. Yay for almost totally debt free!!! I had a similar not on purpose extra draw to a Roth a few months ago, but I decided just to leave it instead of ask for it back, since I could afford it, and it’s better sitting in retirement accounts anyway 😉

    And I am all about walking over biking, so I totally get it.

    1. Haha plus your double payment of the mortgage a few months ago too! ? Oh well, there are way worse things to happen with your money.

  3. Hi from another walker here, I love walking, and think a 50 minute walk is perfectly acceptable.

    And I like the paralel to financial progress, all the small steps really do add up.

    1. People look at me weird when I tell them I just walked almost an hour to get somewhere but I don’t know what’s so odd about that!

  4. I would be pretty scared to ride my bike in DC traffic too. I totally get the needing to be patient thing with FI, because, you know, I have to live life right now too. I just spent quite a bit upgrading some things which will hopefully by good investments in myself and my career. Sure I would have love to have spent nothing, but it’s not always possible.

    1. It’s so hard to be patient but it’s the only thing that’s not going to be miserable! I’m happy you realized you could spend some money on things that are an investment in yourself and your career and that you allowed yourself to go ahead and do it!

  5. No matter how big or little, the steps you took in your debt payoff were definitely significant! And it’s all paying off in the end (paying off – get it!? ?)

    One thing I really need to do is get more steps in my life, what you do one way is sometimes what I do an entire day! ?

    1. Bahaha your prize for that fantastic/awful pun is that I don’t kick you off my site for that bad joke! ???

      Walking to work is a huge portion of my steps (plus moving about during the day now that I’ve moved offices an am not as close to things anymore). Hopefully that’ll become more of a possibility for you soon!

  6. That’s how I killed off my car loan when I bought my first car at 18 and hadn’t quite realized what a huge financial mistake I’d made. My monthly payment was probably $300 or $350, and I made it a point to pay $500 each month no matter what. I think I got the notion from a friend who commented that she was doing double payments to pay it off quicker and that was literally the first time that I’d ever heard of such a plan. It sounded great! And I’m so glad I did it, that 5 year loan was paid off in 3 years.

    I keep looking for big wins against our mortgage but I’m not forgetting how small steps whittled down that car loan, so we are doing something similar with that mortgage. I overpay a little bit every month so it’s effortless but I know it’s making a bit of difference with every payment.

    1. Revanche, that’s so great that at 18 you were already paying a lot extra on your car, even if you couldn’t avoid the mistake of getting it in the first place! I also love that one of your friends was doing the same thing, too, and told you about it.

      I’m sure with the much larger numbers with the mortgage the extra each month seems pretty ineffective, but that’s such a fantastic habit to get into even while you are looking for the big wins.

  7. I love building walks into my days too. And yeah, I like biking now, but is still be terrified to bike in DC. When we vacation in big cities we walk everywhere and don’t rent bikes.

    And hey, you still have time to learn to love biking. My husband has always loved biking, so he helped introduce me biking as an adult. I learned to bike in 3rd grade then stopped in 5th or 6th, so I was not talented or confident. Fortunately as an adult I learned in a very small city, but i still managed to get hit by one car (mostly it was my fault). (I’m not remotely graceful)

    1. Oh no, getting hit is such a scary possibility! Hah I’m similarly not remotely graceful. My years of ballet training have meant I’m just no longer quite as much of a danger to myself ? It’s good to know it’s not too late for me to get comfortable on a bike!

  8. Very cool. It takes a while sometimes to notice the tremendous progress that you make with the incremental, daily behavioral changes. I think the math shows that the first $150,000 is the hardest and after that the compound investing returns start to take over and before you know it (and especially if you don’t pay close attention), you have $500,000, then $1 million, etc. You are well on your way to making tons of progress to that $150,000 now 🙂 I hike back and forth to my kid’s school (she stays at her Dad’s house a couple of days a week so I don’t walk with her on those days, but I did some quick back of the envelope calculations and the .9 mile walk in each direction (steep uphill) on average 7 days a week for 38 weeks of school is 479 miles of walking – it’s steeply uphill in one direction so it gets the heart going. The distance to drive is 1.6 miles each way so we will have saved 851 miles in the car by the end of the year. It doesn’t seem like much progress on a daily basis but over the course of a school year, that’s a lot of miles, fitness and fun conversations. And no, even after doing this since January 2017, the uphill part is STILL not easy (it is that steep). My kiddo gets out of half of those miles but I think she has gotten a ton of fitness benefit too.

    1. Love that decision to walk to your daughter’s school instead of driving: you save money on gas and wear and tear on the car, avoid the emissions of driving, get in a good walk, and get to spend more time with your daughter than if you’d driven. You’re right, it all adds up!

  9. Loving the small area analogy 😉
    Also congratulations to you on paying off the student debt (big or small, it’s an achievement).

    PS I’m the same – more comfortable as a walker than a cyclist. You get to see more along the way walking too!

    1. Thanks, Maria! You’re right, I notice so many small details while I’m walking that I’m sure I’d miss going faster on a bike and worrying about traffic.

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