I read an article a few months back about a gym that put its patrons through awkward but physically rewarding workouts that they were encouraged to complete as part of their membership (Read more about CrossFit here. As someone who infrequently attempts to get in shape, I was intrigued. How interesting it would be to be issued a challenge that was a little beyond your reach in the interest of making you stronger, faster, better. This lead me to download the Couch to 5k app to my iPhone, a simple app that takes you from not running to running a 5k over the course of nine weeks. Little by little, my legs grew stronger, my running got more focused and less tiresome, and I felt invigorated.
After a few weeks of this, I thought to myself, why can’t we do something like this for finances? Because if there’s anything I need help with more than my cardio training and my basic health, it’s my finances. My dad was always a healthy guy and a smart saver – I was more obsessed with video games and the Internet. Sadly, his good habits for staying healthy/wealthy didn’t rub off on me, but I think it’s easier saying that we (and I use “we” to sum up people my age/people my shape) don’t have what it takes than it is trying to gain what it takes.
The hard truth that started all this:
The first step in getting better is deciding to get better. The second step is actually getting better.
So, first step: find a group of people who want to get better.
Getting the Band Back Together
I took the idea to the message boards of the Crash Network, a group of young credit union profess…you know what? If you don’t know who the Crashers are and what they’re about by now, shame on you.
Anyway, I went and asked if any Crashers would be willing to join me in the quest to save a little dough. As luck would have it, I had sixteen willing participants sign up to take the “savings challenge” with me. Each person set a goal, told us why they wanted to save that money, and was assigned to a smaller group of four.
The reasons meant a lot to me. Plenty of people wanted to save for vacations, some wanted to buy that long-desired-but-put-off personal reward; one person said the money was their way of cutting their last ties with their bank and moving everything to their credit union. But a lot of people (myself included) just wanted a little side-cash for rainy days.
We had our teams, we had a goal. Then, the hard part started – actually saving.
Save Us from Ourselves
Every day for sixty days (with a few breaks in between), I sat at my computer here in Virginia and sent everyone his or her challenge for the day. Because I didn’t want it to simply be a dollar amount every day, I had to get creative. Here are some of my favorites:
- Put in a dollar for every time you look at your cell phone between the hours of 10:00AM EST and 4:00PM EST
- What’s the “toy” you’re eager to get? iPad? Droid phone? Kindle? Macbook Air? Save ONE-ONE-HUNDREDTH of the price of that item. Thus, if the gadget you want is $500, save $5.
- Pick an amount of money to save. Divide that by two (the first level). Divide THAT number by three (the second level). Divide THAT number by ten (Limbo). Add those numbers together, then save the sum that you come up with.
- Each time you use the bathroom between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM put $1 for “number one” and $2 for “number two”.
Crazy, right? But memorable. And a little fun! And a little revelatory. The one where people had to put in a dollar for each time they checked their phone? Nearly bankrupted some of our contestants.
Coming up with the challenges was hard, but rewarding. Everyone had a little chestnut to look forward to each morning and a little money to move each evening. We kept track of the amount of money we saved via a survey I created with my company’s survey tool. If you saved money that day (which most people did), you put in the amount of money you saved, your name and your team name. If you failed to save money, you still had to account for it. But at no point did the survey or any emails chastise people for being unable to save or for having to spend some of their savings.
Why is that important? Because if I learned anything from my Couch to 5K experience, it was that being hard on myself for skipping a day was what derailed me from picking it right back up. If you drop the ball, pick it up and throw it again. If you go off your diet for a day, don’t just quit your whole diet – go back on it the next day. If you didn’t save money one day, save money the next day. It’s not hard, and thinking you’ve failed is the first step in never trying to get it right ever again.
So there we were, saving together, failing together, and sometimes, spending together. And boy, did I spend.
My $11 Bonanza
I saved and saved and saved during the savings challenge. I was very good about taking my own medicine and saving with the group. I tried so hard to take the small, digestible, un-missable amounts of money out of my checking and put them into my savings. And what was my final savings amount?
What happened? Life happened. I had to spend some of my money on new brakes and filters and an oil change for my car. I had some unexpected bills. I had to buy a present for a birthday I’d forgotten. The $374.03 I’d saved was whittled down to a measly $11. I felt so bad about it. But then, I saw that other people in my group were having similar problems. One person’s computer blew up, eating their whole $238 savings. One person ran into some medical expenses and lost $300. One person went on their “dream vacay” before the end of the challenge, so their $539 went “bon voyage”. Does that make us “bad savers”? Heck no, it doesn’t – it makes us humans with real lives that sometimes require us to spend to keep things on the rails. We’re really GOOD at saving, we’re just really bad with luck.
But for all the money that got spent (and some might say wasted on a stupid dumb car that probably didn’t need all those filters anyway), a LOT of money got saved.
The sixteen of us managed to save $7,582.61 over the course of sixty days. Pretty great, right? But very much short of our original group goal – we wanted to save about $14,000 collectively. Again, does that make us bad at saving? I don’t think so. I think we did very well, given that we were doing all our saving and our participation manually and voluntarily. Could we have made the goal? I think we could have in a perfect world. But I’ve never been to a perfect world.
I’m proud of the efforts and the small sacrifices that all our group members made in the interest of being better savers. I’m glad my buddy Brent Dixon – a guy who frequently acts on his first instinct – dared me to take the banner and lead this thing. I’m glad it’s been given so much interest and attention and I’m hopeful we can grow a thing like this as we move forward.
Most of all, I’m glad that I talked myself into doing what I now know was a good thing for a good group of people close to my age who needed a little help.
Abstracting the Challenge and Challenging the Abstract
What would happen if we all stopped worrying about the obstacles and just started running with a good idea? What if we stopped conducting pre-mortems on every single initiative and started something helpful? Some of the best businesses, organizations and, yes, credit unions I admire started with little more than a person that stopped asking “what if” and started saying “let’s do it”. Technology helps this desire to create by knocking down walls that would stop us from communicating. But no iPhone app, no crazy savings challenge, no email, no survey, no website will do ALL the work for you.
At some point, you have to lace up your shoes and run. At some point, you have to make the money move from your checking account to your savings and you have to stop spending. Talk and design and consideration? They mean a lot. But they don’t mean half as much as action.
So, thanks to my savings challenge buddies. Congrats to Sasha who saved $1,800 and by extension became the top saver. Congrats to everyone who decided to save money they had on their vacation instead of money they didn’t have. Congrats to the folks who got their cars, computers, and various diseases fixed without breaking the bank. And thanks so much to my boss, who thought this was a good enough idea to put a little of our own technology (and some of my time) behind it.
And just so you know, I’m not spending my last $11 that I saved. I’m going to hang on to it and start saving a little more every week. Hey, gotta start somewhere.
Jimmy Marks is the Creative Media Director with DigitalMailer. He's a guy that creates websites, web pages, email campaigns, graphics, video, audio, copywriting—anything. You name it, he's into it.