What burpees taught me about saving

Posted by Cathy McCabe.
“Impossible.” That was my response when someone challenged me recently to do 100 burpees back-to-back.
If you haven’t tried this military test of strength and agility—first used on recruits during WW2—squat down, palms on the floor, then spring your feet backwards to assume a plank position and complete a push-up. Next, spring forward into the squat position again before jumping into the air, with your arms extended upwards. Repeating that 100 times might push even a marine to her physical and psychological limits.
The burpee challenge takes 100 days to complete—on Day 1 you do a single burpee, on the second day, two, and so on. Before you know it, you’re achieving more than you ever thought possible. Case in point: I’m already on Day 50. How did that happen? For starters, I planned ahead—using the calendar on my phone to set aside time each day to accomplish that day’s goal. By means of incremental improvement, I’m somehow making the “impossible” possible—and so too, can you.
Easier than burpees: Finding an extra $5 each week
It struck me—while doing my latest set—that there are other massive gains we miss out on in life because they seem too daunting. The first step is usually the hardest—whether it’s the first burpee performed, or first dollar saved. Perhaps that’s why a massive 88% of U.S. households contributed $0 to an IRA in 2016. 1
IRAs are one of the few tax-efficient, long-term savings vehicles out there. So why are so few of us taking advantage of it? It could be: a) we don’t prioritize IRA savings as a goal, or b) we set ourselves contribution targets that are too unrealistic.
Since the annual contribution limit is relatively low, even people living on a modest income are frequently told (by financial experts like me) that they can, and should, contribute the maximum amount possible—$6,000 (the 2019 IRS limit). In the real world, however, coming up with five or six thousand dollars is really hard. As a result, we soon abandon or forget about our IRA targets altogether.
How about setting a target higher than zero—yet low enough to be within your reach?
The burpee challenge is teaching me that starting small can eventually add up to big benefits—the important thing is to get started. And it’s not difficult to do. If you start saving slowly, taking baby steps of just $5 a week, you can easily save a few thousand dollars in your IRA in only a year.
Complete the 30-week IRA challenge and you will have accumulated $2050  by the end.
If you are currently one of the 88% contributing $0, wouldn’t a $2k contribution be an amazing win? IRAs give you a wide range of investment options, so your savings will have the potential to compound significantly over time. 
The IRA challenge: How much to save each week
Week 1
$5                 X                     
Week 11
Week 21
Week 2
Week 12
Week 22
Week 3
Week 13
Week 23
Week 4
Week 14
Week 24
Week 5
Week 15
Week 25
Week 6
Week 16
Week 26
Week 7
Week 17
Week 27
Week 8
Week 18
Week 28
Week 9
Week 19
Week 29
Week 10
Week 20
Week 30
How far can you go?
To get started, set up a weekly reminder on your calendar—let’s say every Sunday—reminding yourself to transfer that week’s dollar amount from your checking to your savings account. Because you want your money to start working for you as soon as possible, you could then set up a reminder to transfer your savings to your IRA every month or two. It may help to print out the above timetable so you can mark your progress with an X.
Once you’ve set up auto deposits, the war is half won. The next battle is coming up with that extra $5 every seven days. Boiling down to: Where can I free up another five dollars this week? What other small luxury can I do without? If you can keep it up until the end of the year, you will end up saving more than double that ($4,295).
Midway through my burpee challenge, I’m finding it arduous, but as the days progress, I’m more determined than ever. By Week 20 of the IRA challenge you’ll be committing to $100 per week. If a hundred bucks is too much, aim for $50-$75 and level out there. The main thing is to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and do something! Either way, you will find yourself making little sacrifices that aren’t really sacrifices at all: Fewer meals out, more bring-your-own-bottle dinner parties with friends. The beauty of this incremental approach: The tightening of your budget will be so gradual that you won’t even feel it—like a belt that gets one millimeter tighter every Sunday, you will slowly squeeze your budget to make room for those growing deposits.
Advice about “maxing out” your IRA contributions can be really useful—but it’s an ideal that most people find difficult to put into practice. The burpee challenge is showing me—on a visceral level—that it’s much easier to apply rules of saving when you start small and build up to your end goal incrementally.
1 Holden, Sarah, and Daniel Schrass. 2017. “The Role of IRAs in US Households’ Saving for Retirement, 2017.” ICI Research Perspective 23, no. 10 (December). Available at www.ici.org/pdf/per23-10.pdf.
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January 2, 2019