Updated on 05.04.10

The Incremental Change

Trent Hamm

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to reduce my hobby and entertainment spending by 50%. Each month, I budget a certain amount to spend on my hobbies and other entertainment sources, with any “leftovers” rolling over into the next month. My goal for 2010 was to spend an annual amount that equaled half of what I spent in 2009.

I knew this would be a bit difficult, mostly because I like to buy books (that’s where the majority of my “entertainment” money goes). So, I decided to make the change a bit progressive to see how it worked.

The first thing I did was calculate the amount I could spend each month in 2010, which was easy enough – take my total from 2009 (somewhere around $3,000), divide it in half, then divide it by twelve, leaving me to shoot at an average of $125 a month.

Rather than radically re-shift my spending right off the bath, I decided to try incremental change to push my spending habits in the right direction.

So, in January, for example, I set a target of 75% of a typical month from 2009, capping my spending at $180. In February, I dropped it to 70% – $165. Each month thereafter, I’ve dropped it another 5%, leaving May at 55% of my spending from an average month in 2009. In June, I’ll be at 50% and I’ll stay there for a couple of months, then start dropping further, ending with November and December at 35%. For the year, the total adds up to 50% of my spending for 2009.

Making the changes small and incremental has, at least so far, made it much easier. Each month, I’m pushed just a little more to use the library instead of the bookstore. I’m pushed just a bit more to eat out less. I’m pushed just a smidge more to hold off on buying a new board game, holding off a month or two. I’m pushed to conserve money for things later in the year that I intend to do.

This idea of “incremental change” works well for other personal goals.

For example, I’m slowly increasing the amount I walk each day (on average). One week, for example, I’ll set an average of two miles a day. The next week, I’ll raise that average to 2.1 miles.

Now, how do I work through that average? Some days, I’ll walk three and a half miles. Other days, I won’t take a walk or I’ll take a walk for just a mile (sometimes with my son and daughter over at the park).

The key, though, is that I meet my average for the week and that the average is slowly going up. I keep track of the data carefully using a pedometer so that I’m sure I’m meeting my goals.

Another example is moving my diet towards a vegetarian diet. To do this, I’m including meat in fewer and fewer of my meals gradually over time, replacing the meat with protein-heavy vegetables like beans.

This type of “gradual change” can be used for almost any personal finance goal.

Paying off debt matches this tactic very well. Slowly ratchet up your debt repayment over time, adding a little bit more to your payment each month and figuring out how to live on what’s left.

Saving for a goal works in a very similar way. Ratchet up your savings a little bit at a time by changing your automatic savings plan to transfer a little bit more each time.

Working through your financial to-do list can be handled by doing one thing today, then two things tomorrow, then three the day after that… and the next thing you know, it’s done.

The next time you’re trying to adopt a new habit in your life or make a significant change to how you do things, consider working to it gradually instead of cold turkey. It can really work.

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  1. Linda Kanagawa says:

    It reminds me of the time I tried to diet. If I would eat a fixed number of calories each day, how many could I eat each hour.
    The process didn’t work very well.

    Sophie B

  2. Melissa says:

    Great suggestion. I am going to try to do this both to lower my grocery bill and to pay off my credit card. Thanks!

  3. Crystal says:

    My husband and I have individual fun money accounts that are funded with $75 a month plus 10% of any side money we bring in.

    The only problem with this system for us is that my husband’s hobbies have big costs all at once every few months. For Curling, he has league fees every 6 weeks and then nothing for months. For Magic: The Gathering he buys a box or two and then lays off for months.

    I solved this by padding each of the accounts with $500 from our vacation account. That way, if we need more than we have, we can dip below the $500 mark and then pay ourselves back by laying off for a couple of months.

    This enabled hubby to buy the Curling shoes and pay the league dues when the system first started without the feeling of immediate failure. He’s now in the positive and climbing, so we may get rid of the padding sometime soon.

  4. Trent,

    Great article. I am also a fan of incremental change. It is much more sustainable over the long haul. However, I am also trying to incorporate radical change as well. Radical change is good for quick bursts. I talked about this in a blog post that you might find interesting:

    Radical Change versus Incremental Change

  5. Edwin | Finantage says:

    Incremental change is the only way to make those changes permanent at some point. It works for everything including budgeting, hobbies, weight loss, you name it.

    You just have to take it day by day and sometimes minute by minute. You may be tempted at the mall to pick something up because its only $10 or $20 dollars, but if you are on an incremental system you may just think “well, I have to cut out that $20 somewhere, why not here?”.

    Things like this have definitely worked for me in the past and seem to be the most realistic way of achieving something.

  6. Matt Maresca says:

    I’m a big fan of incremental changes. Make one small change to something you do, hammer it in, and then build from there. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all.

    I think this works because it allows us to get used to the changes without dramatically effecting our lifestyle. Oh wow, this just inspired me to write something. Thank you! Inspiration comes in weird ways. I love blogs! And you’ve got a good one. Keep it up, Trent!

  7. RJ Weiss says:

    I did something very similar with my eating habits. I started off with not eating any meat at lunch. Moved to no meat at breakfast. It was just natural to not eat meat at dinner.

  8. NMPatricia says:

    As Trent said, this can work in a variety of areas. One of my goals was to drink more water. My goal: 64 oz each day (8 cups). However, I knew that I just couldn’t do that right off the bat. So I began with 8 ounces during the month of January. I was successful EACH day. In February, I bumped it up to 12 oz each day. Doing it incrementally (and I know this is really slow) allows me two things: (1) I am successful every day and (2) doing it for a whole month allows it to become a habit. So the next month isn’t so tough. I actually am finding myself drinking more than my goal for this month because I have gotten into the habit. But a habit that has been pretty painlessly acquired!

  9. Brian says:

    I would worry that by December it’s going to feel burdensome because your goal will be so far UNDER your goal of 50% to compensate for these early months of spending.

    I hope we hear an update on this experiment at the end of the year.

  10. Ellen says:

    Some people do better with gradual change; others with just biting the bullet from day one. I think the important thing is setting that goal # & keeping it in mind/sticking to it.

    When I bought a house in the 1980’s, the owners had left behind one book – The Gradual Vegetarian (I think the copyright was in the 1970’s).

  11. Leah says:

    You spent $250 a month on books? How is that possible?

  12. Debb says:

    Did you not hear of the library? Books are free there for several weeks, frequently renewable past that point, and can be reserved at any time.
    You can save a lot of money!
    And in upping your veggie consumption: buy dry and learn to flavor up.
    You would be amazed at what a few spices or the addition of additional veggies can do for flavor.
    Shop the thrift stores or stop at a friends to play their games at their house.
    Lotsa more ways to save!

  13. @#5-Leah: I was wondering the same thing myself. It makes me wonder how “frugal” Trent actually is when he “exposes” real numbers. If you go by how he presents himself on this blog, you would think he had a good handle on his spending but it really doesn’t seem like it (in my opinion). I kind of wonder how much of what he writes is written simply for the sake of writing an article and how much of it is actually stuff Trent applies in his own life.

    Then, of course, is the arguement that being frugal is all about spending on things you value…and no one can argue that, I suppose. It is the almighty loophole in frugality.

  14. anna says:

    I love books as much as the next person but with a library accessable how can anyone spend $250/month (let alone a year) on books when you can get them free with your tax dollars. That doesn’t seem frugal to me at all.

  15. DiscoApu says:

    I believe Trent at one point in time said he reads 3 books a week(seems like an addiction to me). So I could see how that easily adds up. I think Trent does practice what he writes, but we have also seen that he has no problem tossing out his frugality if its something he wants.

  16. Dennis Robert says:

    This is probably a healthier way to approach change. I tend to be an all or nothing guy.

    I also have been moving more towards a vegetarian diet, with a goal of ending up at a mostly raw vegan diet. I’m curious to know your motivations behind giving up meat.

  17. Adam says:

    I love reading too, but usually by only 1 book a month or 12 a year tops…usually 2-3 at once before a vacation. I like to re-read books I love.

    I really don’t understand the value of spending less on hobbies and interests though, that’s a place where cutting isn’t justified unless you’re being really stupid about it.

    Hobbies and interests are part of the joy of life and should provide the maximum happiness per dollar spent.

    To each his own!

  18. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    $250 a month included all spending that I defined as “hobby and entertainment.” That includes travel, eating out, board games, social events, movies, plays, DVDs, gadgets, and so on. Of the ones I would strictly call “entertainment,” books were easily the largest part and probably the majority in 2009. That adds up to maybe $60 a month, or four trade paperbacks. The other books I read in 2009 came from the library or PaperBackSwap. Sorry if that was unclear.

  19. Kathy says:

    Incremental change is a much more healthy, and ‘stealthy’ way to readjust overspending. I’ve gone cold turkey on much of my spending, but there are areas where I could gradually shave some fat. I intend to do this slowly, and with what will be better success (I hope). Groceries and retail spending.

  20. Becky says:

    I share some of your pain with books. While a library is a lovely and beautiful thing having a book that I love that I can read over and over again is awesome. I have found paperbackswap which has allowed me to save alot of money and get rid of some books that I didn’t like quite as much.

    I have also been working the small piece by piece….it is very similar to flylady and doing the get anything done in 15 minute chunks.

  21. Julia says:

    Great article!
    In 2009 I gave up dieting and chose a new goal – to be healthier. The first step was to work out twice a week. Then 3 times a week. Now, going to the gym 3 times a week has become a habit (after 8 months), I’m trying to make it 4 times a week.
    Working out is having a snowball effect on my other goals. I’m trying harder to save so I can keep hiring a trainer. I’m more driven to be efficient at work so I can get to the gym in the evening. I’m more driven to eat healthier to can have more effective workouts.

    At the same time I’m trying to improve my eating habits. Step 1, prepare more meals at home. I’m doing this gradually. I used to go out for 10-12 meals a week. I’m trying to decrease that number by 1 meal each week.
    This is having a snowball effect too. Since I’m lazy about cooking all my recipies have few ingredients. I’ve discovered that good recipies with few ingredients almost always have healthier ingredients as well. Eating at home has decreased my food budget, which has increased my training budget, etc.
    So 2 big steps, done in increments, is having a snowball effect on my overall health. As I have more success on each of these two things, my other goals (which I’m not so focused on) are becoming easier and easier. So I’m actually making incremental improvements in those areas by making incremental improvements in my working out and eating at home.

  22. Great concept.

    Of course, I wouldn’t get rid of hobbies. For those of us living in debt, a hobby is sometimes our only outlet.

  23. Gretchen says:

    Just your portion of the travel/eating out/books or everyone’s expenses?

    $60 a month on books still seems like a ton of money, although in some posts you talk about how you can’t get enough of the library and some posts talk about not going there enough.

    I tend to agree with Ellen that sometimes gradual is better (probably in this case), sometimes cold turkey is best.

  24. Thea says:

    I’m glad that Trent clarified his monthly spending, but I’d just like to point out that if you’re spending money on popular books and paperbacks, 250 would be a whole lot. However, if you’re buying less-popular/rare/specific subject books that your library doesn’t carry (and they can’t get them to you on ILL), you are going to be spending a lot more. Sites like Amazon, Alibris, and Paperback Swap don’t always carry them, and when they do, they’re often much more expensive than normal. If you have access to a university library, you can sometimes borrow them, but that’s a little rarer, at least in my experience.

    So for the kind of books that Trent usually says he buys, if he had spent the whole 250 I would think that would be a lot, but it’s not necessarily outrageous. (Unfortunately.)

  25. Thanks Trent for clarifying the category a little bit more. Now it seems to be more reasonable, especially when considering travel and eating out. I have been trying to cut my own restaurant budget to about $85 a month and it has been quite a task…and if travel is factored in, I would be through the ceiling!

  26. MP says:

    That would be an area I would cut if I had lost my job, was worried about income streams and wasn’t sticking to a savings plan for emergencies, retirement, home repairs etc. But I’m not, so I wouldn’t cut back. There needs to be reward for hard work and if I’m out of debt, saving what I should be saving, and my hobbies don’t contribute to clutter (usually my rule is bring something in the house, something of equal space must leave) or out of control spending, it’s not where I’d cut back. To me I’d ask for what purpose? If it was to pay down debt, or bring savings rates in line to where they should be then of course. If not, why would I need to?

  27. Moby Homemaker says:

    Great advice!!!
    Cutting back/saving in small doses really helps to take the “sting” out (particularly when it comes to entertainment and fun related expenses)…and it makes your financial goals seem more attainable.
    Good stuff!!!

  28. b lawson says:

    Our family did this with our sugar consumption. We decreased by 1/2 the amount of sugar we were using in our coffee and tea gradually. Example: I went from 1 tsp to 1/2 tsp. When I grew accustomed to that amount, I went down to 1/4 tsp. From there down to none. I have been drinking my tea with no sugar for about 2 years now, as has my husband with his coffee. We have also started halving the amount of sugar we used in recipes with no detrimental effects to the recipe as of yet.

  29. Stephan says:

    Its a great way to get yourself adjsuted to living with less. A drastic change is much harder to stick to as you are not used to it, but if you change it slowly over time, you dont notice it by the time you reach your goal. I think the best example i have seen is with automatic savings withdrawls. Instead of saving 5000$ a year split evenly among the 12 months, start slow and build up so that you can reach teh 5000$ goal without really missing the money you would have otherwise spent.
    Preferred Financial Services

  30. Kevin says:

    I have a question for your next mailbag, Trent:

    It’s clear you read a lot of books. You also have a wife and 3 children. We also know that living “frugally” frequently requires a heavy time investment (washing freezer bags, making laundry detergent, changing your own oil, tending your vegetable garden, washing diapers instead of just throwing them out, etc.).

    All this, in addition to running a successful blog, managing your own household’s finances, exercising, cooking meals, cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, grocery shopping, and everything else.

    My question is, how do you successfully manage all those demands on your time? Or, more succinctly, how does someone with so many obligations still find time to read 3 books per week? What’s falling off the table? Are you frequently stressed out?

  31. I love the idea of this and feel like in some areas of my life this is great….like with running. Not only is it wise physically to slowly add miles per week it’s also good mentally.

    However, I’m sort of an extremist and so in areas of finance and diet I am all or nothing. Instead of slowing going vegan. I just did it one day. Instead of slowing increasing how much my husband and I paid on credit card debt we just one day blew alot of our savings and killed the debt….

    I REALLY like the idea though.

  32. Marguerite says:

    I was just wondering what pedometer you use? I’ve been looking for one, but can’t seem to find one that is in any way accurate, so i don’t want to spend more unless I know it’s worth it.

  33. BradKP says:

    Incremental Change is definitely a great way to meet your financial goals or pay off debt gradually. The approach, however, should a broader one. You shouldn’t overlook other radical methods like cutting down your credit card drastically. For starters, however, this is definitely a great way.

  34. One thing I did to reduce the cost of my book purchases was join Paperbackswap. It’s saved me a ton on books and helped me get rid of some of the books I’m done with. I’ve also gotten family members to give me books they are done with to give to other members. Maybe you should check it out!

  35. GayleRN says:

    Well Kevin what you describe is what the average wife and mother does every day. You just seem amazed that anyone can do all that stuff. Now go thank your wife for making your life easier. And maybe consider what you can do for her.

    Every year I adjust my incremental savings goals, of which there are several. Around raise time is a good time to do this. Sit down and put that extra money and maybe a bit more into savings or debt payoff. As debts are paid off keep that snowball rolling. Last year paid off the mortgage and put the money into an account for home upgrades/repairs. Next the car is paid off and the money will go into a car fund for repairs and to pay cash for the next one. I love ING for having a mechanism for subaccounts to be used for different purposes. It works sooo well for me.

  36. reulte says:

    Kevin (#27) I can answer your question to some extent — since I do all those things (I’m a single mom) and still find time for some relaxing reading. Everything you mention has some time element whether you do it yourself or have someone else do it for pay. For example, I can change the oil in my car in the amount of time it takes me to drive to the mechanic and have him change it – less since I don’t have to drive anywhere. Another thing I rarely do is watch TV which allows me more reading time. I can read ‘fluff’ while my boy is doing something that doesn’t require a lot of oversight such as his homework or playing with other kids at the park. I can read a chapter early in the morning or late at night. I read while waiting – at the dentist’s or doctor’s.

    Living frugally does not always require a heavy time investment – particularly after you get into the habit of doing things a certain way such as cloth diapering rather than disposable or making detergent rather than driving to purchase.

  37. This is such a smart strategy, especially since its human nature to look at a large problem and feel overwhelmed. The key is babysteps. Great post as usual!

    “Because ridicule is the most effective form of education”

  38. Gretchen says:

    I’ve actually thought the same thing as Kevin on several occasions.

    Even though I basically get paid to read novels for several hours a week, I still don’t have time to read 3 books a week.

  39. Erin says:

    This is how I’ve been buildng my emergency fund!

    I started with a $50 transfer every payday into my high yield savings account. As I got used to it, I’ve bumped it up $5-10 every few weeks. I’m at $75 already in about three months time…and I haven’t even noticed it. :)

    I also just set up an automatic extra (small) payment to the principal on my mortgage which I’m planning to bump up in increments too.

    It works very well for me.

    @Kevin(27) – I’m cracking up! As a single mom, who works a full time job and lives frugally, I do all those things everyday…and find time for hobbies and reading. :) Granted it’s not typically 3 books a week for me, but the point I guess is I have time for my own enjoyment.

    I take my books everywhere so if I find myself with some down time I can read…to the doctor, waiting for my oil to be changed, on my lunch break, while my daughter is watching a movie next to me (for the forty-bazillionth time, LOL), before bed, etc.

    Plus, you just have to stay on top of stuff and know when to let some things slide. For example, my house is always picked up and tidy…but may not always be clean enough to eat off the floor if you know what I mean. ;)

    I will admit that I pay my bills and typically do my finances at work. :( It’s not that I can’t find time at home, I’m just more focused at work. But I’m lucky to have a flexible work environment like that.

  40. Tally says:

    I went from eating out 6 days a week to eating out 3 days a week (twice during the work week + once on the weekend) to eating out 2 days a week (once during the work week and once on the weekend) to eating out once a week (on the weekend) to eating out once every 2 weeks, to eating out once a month. It has been so incredibly gradual (this was over a period of half a year) that I don’t miss it that much. I miss it a bit, to be honest, but it’s not as traumatic as it could’ve been. I’m hoping to cut it down to once every few months, but not just yet.

  41. skeemer118 says:

    Geez, people sure do chew you out without much knowledge of what you’re actually doing. And yes, I’m pointing this comment directly at #13 & his silly quotation marks. :D

  42. DJack says:

    I don’t think we have enough information to evaluate the feasibility of a $1500/year recreation/hobby budget.

    For example, what is “recreation” and “hobby”? And does the goal of $1,500/year include just Trent’s recreation and hobbies, or is it recreation for the whole family? If it’s for the whole family, I think the asserted goal of $1,500/year is wholly unrealistic for a family of 5. But it might just be that my definition of “recreation” and “hobby” expenses is broader than everyone else’s. I would include just about anything in this category that is non-necessary and for the primary purpose of pleasure, whether it’s a book, baseball tickets, a video game, or used kids toys.

    On the other hand, maybe there is also recreation being pigeonholed somewhere else, like expensive wine in the grocery fund, or some sort of “special” recreation or hobby fund. In that case, the recreation/hobby budget isn’t really $1,500 year, is it? It’s all about how you allocate it.

  43. What is silly about my quotation marks?

    From what I read in the article, Trent spends $250 a month on books. How is that being frugal? Hence, the quotation marks. After he clarified that it wasn’t only spending on books, I responded that his spending seemed much more reasonable.

    I’m sure my comment wasn’t chewing out anyone, rather, I was making an observation and stating my opinion. I think my statement is fair. I DO wonder how much of what Trent writes is actually a regular part of his life and how much of it is just fruality tips that might work for someone else. It seems rather doubtful that Trent would apply every single method that he writes about into his daily life. He has said before, “Do what works for you, and forget about what doesn’t”. So, what doesn’t work for Trent?

    I also think there is a huge loophole in the frugal community as a whole, not only Trent, that people are frugal in some areas so they can blow a ton of money in others. Does that make a person frugal, or does it just mean they prioritize their money based off of their values. I am very frugal in a lot of my life but I spend a lot of money on travel. I have a goal of flying 50,000 miles in 2010. I have already been to 6 countries this year and leave for Iceland in a week and Hawaii a month after that. Am I frugal because I don’t buy a ton of clothes or CDs? I suppose it is a judgement call, and a fair question.

    And yes, I’m pointing this comment directly at #34 & his silly interpretation of my comment.

  44. DiscoApu says:

    Erin, reulte and Gale why are you jumping down kevin’s throat? Kevin was asking about time management and being invested heavily in a hobby/pastime, not about being a single mom/wife. What 12 books did you read in April?

  45. Brittany says:

    @ Steven– Prioritizing your money based off of your values (finding ways to cut spending and be efficient in your use of resources so you can spend your money as you like it instead of being burdened by debt or barely scraping by) is at the core of frugality. Or by definition: “the practice of acquiring goods and services in a restrained manner, and resourcefully using already owned economic goods and services, to achieve a longer term goal.”

    It’s not a loophole… it’s the definition. It’s the difference between being frugal and being cheap.

  46. skeemer118 says:

    @ #35

    Thanks for a fair reply. I possibly misjudged your comment as I get really miffed when people seem to only read this blog to rip it apart with critical comments. I’m sometimes thinking, “Why do you read it if you hate it so much or think Trent’s an idiot?”

    You’re right about having frugal loopholes. I will admit that there are things I will spend money on that others wouldn’t consider frugal & yet I will save in other areas. Personally, I believe that people should do what works for them. I do understand though that by writing this blog that Trent makes himself accountable in a sense to his blog readers. As for my household, we are primarily a paperless kitchen. Because I got tired of paying for paper towels that were gone in about 8 days. But, I do have a big stack of paper plates that I use to take food to work. I could use reusable containers but for several reasons I’d rather use the disposable. That’s a loophole that I live with according to what’s important in my life. People will always spend money where they feel it’s important or beneficial to them & what they can live without, they will. IE: Your traveling. I, like you, place a high value on experience instead of a certain expensive brand of bath gel or whatever.

    “And yes, I’m pointing this comment directly at #34 & his silly interpretation of my comment.” And this comment, genuinely made me laugh. :) Love it!

  47. Brittany: I’m not sure where you found that specific definition of frugality, but here is what I came up with:

    1.economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful: a frugal manager.
    2.entailing little expense; requiring few resources; meager; scanty: a frugal meal.

    There is no mention of saving money in some areas of life so it can be spent elsewhere. I’d be interested in the source of your definition, just because I have never seen it defined that way except in blogs about frugality. This kind of reminds me of the discussion the other day about how people define rich…it means different things to different people.

    skeemer: I’m glad we could work things out ;) I come to this blog because I like the ideas Trent offers for consideration. Not everything works for me but some of it does and that is what matters. With almost 80,000 readers, Trent is going to be held accountable by some of them. I think that is the nature of the beast. I might question some of the things Trent writes about but I try to be constructive about what I’m saying (and a bit snarky to spark conversation). Glad I was able to make you laugh!

  48. reulte says:

    DiscoApu — I wasn’t jumping down Kevin’s throat, simply trying to explain that I fit my joy of reading into my schedule however I can! I read rapidly – approximately 200 pages an hour. I read less now that I did before my son was born, but I still read an average of 13-15 books a month for myself (not including nighttime storytime). I was trying to point out to Kevin that it isn’t always saving time to be unfrugal (i.e. have someone else do the oil change or use disposable diapers) because you have to spend the time somewhere in the chain (i.e. driving time, time at work to pay for the item).

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