Taking a “Boil the Frog” Approach to Personal Finance

Pop culture tends to portray money matters the same way it does superheroes, celebrity gossip, and street racing – larger-than-life, explosive, and heart-pounding at every turn. Real-life personal finance may not be quite as high-octane but can be every bit as rewarding with simple strategies like boiling the frog.

“Time is money” is more than a corporate slogan for bullying workers out of taking breaks. The impact of time on things like saving and investing is truly tremendous. You can lean into that impact even further by boiling the frog – gradually accelerating your efforts over time to the tune of baffling output.

What Does “Boil the Frog” Mean?

Boil the frog, or boiling the frog, is an expression illustrating the potential power of gradual changes over time. Not to be confused with another common motivational phrase, eating the frog, boiling the frog is coincidentally a separate metaphor centered around frog-based violence.

It originates from the idea that if you place a frog into a pot of cold water, it will sit there contently. Raise the water temperature by one degree, and the frog likely won’t notice. If you repeat this process enough, with the water getting progressively hotter, the frog will remain patiently in place, not noticing anything wrong until… well, you get it.

Fortunately for frogs, the literal interpretation of this analogy has been thoroughly debunked. However, as it translates to other parts of life, the concept still holds weight.

A small change right now may hardly make a difference. You might not even notice it. But many small changes, consistently added over time, can culminate in a tectonic shift from the starting point. This concept is no better illustrated than in the world of managing money.

Boiling the Frog in Personal Finance

Contrary to the standard Hollywood image, money is not always an action-packed area of life. Make no mistake – it can be a source of great joy and fulfillment but rarely plays out like a blockbuster action movie. Instead, it is all about the long-term accumulation of good choices, healthy habits, and gradually boiling the frog.

Time and again, research and expert advice show that one thing matters more than anything else for reliably building wealth. And it’s not intelligence, income level, inheritance, or even luck – it’s time.

When it comes to letting your money grow, there’s nothing better you can do than to start early. Those who develop even a modest savings habit early in life regularly end up better off than those who start later, even if the latter group saved much more aggressively.

Now imagine when you take that power of time and multiply it with regular, gradual increases as you go.

All it takes is small but persistent steps forward toward where you want to go:

  • Save a little more each month
  • Pay down a little extra debt
  • Find a bit of extra income
  • Add a skosh more to your retirement savings at a time

The cumulative effect of these simple steps is hard to overstate.

A Few Ways to Boil the Frog With Your Money

One of the great things about boiling the frog is it doesn’t matter where you start. All you need is to gradually accelerate over time, at a rate so slow you hardly even notice the difference.

Here are a few specific ways you can apply a boil-the-frog way of thinking to your financial situation. None of these will make you rich overnight, nor should they. But adding any of these methods to your financial toolbox will yield tremendous results over time without you feeling the hit to your spending power today.

Monthly Saving

Monthly savings goals are one of the simplest and most effective ways to boil the frog with your money. All it takes is to start with what you currently save and gradually increase the temperature at a rate you can manage.

For instance, if you currently save $100, pick a time to increase that amount to $110, and then six months or a year after that, $120, and so on. If you aren’t currently saving money regularly, see if you can start with a manageable number like $5 a month, then later, $10. 

Wherever you start, as long as you add modest increases at regular intervals, you’ll see a radical transformation over time.

As with most personal finance tasks, this tactic will work much better if you automate it. Most banks and payment apps will let you set an automatic monthly savings goal; some will even let you increase it regularly. This way, you can boil the frog without even paying attention!

Retirement Contributions

Much like with ordinary cash and investment savings, current retirement accounts are great at helping you boil the frog all the way to a retirement nest egg. Indeed, much of the purpose of 401(k)s and IRAs is to help people save for retirement passively throughout their working lives.

In most cases, participation in these plans is already automatic and passive, especially with employer-sponsored plans like 401(k)s.

Like savings accounts, many of these plans allow you to further boil the frog by gradually increasing your contribution. For instance, if you start out diverting 6% of your paycheck to a 401(k), you may be able to set it to increase that number to 6.5% or 7% after your first year, and so on.

The Debt Snowball

The debt snowball is a bit of an oddity here because it is a strategy often associated with rapid, aggressive pay-down of personal debts rather than a gradual method. Indeed, much of the effectiveness of the debt snowball comes from prioritizing short-term intensity over long-term consistency.

However, the spirit of aggressive debt pay-down strategies is still a great example of boiling the frog.

One of the core components of the debt snowball and similar strategies is to pay down debts one at a time while sticking to minimum payments on all others. After eliminating one loan or other debt from the list, you forward its payment onto the next target on your list. In so doing, you can increase your velocity each time, all without making a noticeable change to your budget.

So whether you race through paying off all your debt or methodically dismantle it over several years, employing one of these strategies will help you accelerate your progress without any added strain on your household budget.

Get Rich Slowly and Confidently

Money for ordinary humans is not usually as exciting as it looks in movies – at least not in the same way. And that’s probably a good thing. Rather than the thrill of betting it all on a make-or-break investment decision, the excitement of real personal finance is watching your life slowly transform into what you want it to be.

From financial freedom to material luxury and everything in between, your financial situation is a result of your choices, actions, and commitments. Starting as early as you can and slowly boiling the frog toward your biggest money goals will put you on a reliable trajectory to get there.

In the end, having a beautiful transformation like that to look back on, and knowing that you did it, is more valuable than anything a flashy Wall Street movie can offer.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

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