What’s with “It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint”?
Everyone uses the phrase: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” as inspiration for anything that’s hard. I’ve also heard it used for the path to financial independence a number of times. Look! Here’s the first listed google image of the phrase:
There’s a beach path and everything! So inspirational!
Truth be told, I’ve always hated this phrase. I hate running, so I might be biased, but I think the phrase is dumb. Let’s look at a bit of history here:
The origins of the marathon are found in 490 B.C. with the Battle of Marathon. Free men were fighting for an end to oppression and slavery and to further democracy. When the battle was over, it is said that the messenger, Pheidippides, ran from the battlefield in Marathon all the way to Athens* to tell them the battle had ended. He got there, proclaimed: “We were victorious!” And then he died.
That’s right. He DIED.
Not only does this story make me never want to run a marathon or support those of you that do (“You Guys! You’re risking your LIVES!”),** it also completely ruins the analogy for me. I do not plan to fight my way to financial independence just to die of exhaustion!
Why Isn’t Financial Independence a Marathon?
“The path to financial independence is a marathon, not a sprint” indicates that one day, you just start running. One day, Mr. T and I said: “Let’s do this retire early thing” and we started running. If you tried this on a marathon, you might actually die. You can’t just get up one day and decide to run a marathon without any training at all! So is the path to Financial Independence really like the training for a marathon? That doesn’t make a great inspirational quote, but let’s explore it anyway: I agree that you cannot just decide one day to change everything in your finances. It has to happen in stages or you won’t last. But you’re also not training for anything. Every step you take toward financial independence isn’t just another training run, it is the actual course! That one increased 401k contribution actually gets you closer to Athens!
The path toward financial independence is also not a marathon because you don’t have to run the whole way! We’re on a slow and steady course to greatness. But that means we make a stride down the path and then we wait. A marathon is about pacing. If you run too fast for the first mile, you’ll die before the end. Finances are the opposite. If you run as fast as you can for the first mile, you can take a rest and still move forward!
It’s About Front Loading!
Here are two examples:
- Let’s look at a $100,000 30-year mortgage (at 3.5%). If you were to marathon it, let’s say you add $100 extra to each of your payments for 20 years. You are able to cut off 8 years of your mortgage and save $18,640 on your total interest over the life of the loan! Now let’s say you front-load that same $24,000 into two years. So, instead of paying $100 extra/month, you add an extra $1000/month the first two years of the mortgage and then stop paying extra completely! Even though you’re only paying extra for two years and you’re putting that same $24,000 toward the mortgage, it cuts off ten years of payments and you save $30,030 in interest. You gain 2 years and $11,390 in saved interest over marathoning it!
- Now let’s look at investments. If I’m marathoning (and starting with zero), I’m trying to pace myself, so I’m maxing out my Roth IRA every year ($5500), but I’m only contributing $6000 to my 401k with increases when I get raises. After five years, I have about $70,000 and by year ten, I’m looking at about $200,000! What happens if I front load these investments? I’m again starting with zero, but I’m going to max out my Roth IRA and 401k for the first 5 years. At the five year mark, I have $136,000. If I stop all contributions except for $200/month to one of the accounts ($2400/year), I still hit that $200,000 around the ten year mark.
Why Financial Independence Isn’t a Sprint:
So if it’s not a marathon, it must be a sprint, right? We’ve just proven that doing something really big at the beginning is really helpful. The problem is that time is a big factor as well. $500,000 can turn into $1,000,000 in 12-15 years if invested in the market (low fee index funds, obviously!) without any contributions at all! If you sprint at the beginning and front load your debt payoffs and your investments, then you can actually just sit back and wait. If you set up automatic payments to max out your retirement accounts each year, you’re also no longer racing. You’re just sitting back and waiting. Either way, you have to wait. If you can sprint your way to $1,000,000 in 5 years and you’re happy with that number for financial independence, then you’ve successfully sprinted it! For the rest of us, we work on sprinting when we can and waiting around the rest of the time. Time is on our side here.
So really, the path to financial independence is more like a sprint followed by a rest on a moving sidewalk because once you’ve set your finances in motion and done the initial sprinting, you’ll keep moving forward even if you’re no longer racing.
Forget that inspirational quote about your finances being like a marathon. I’ve made you a new one to print out and put up for motivation:
*Which, ironically, is only 40km away. Why 26.2 miles? No reason, really.
**Any event which causes men to bleed from their nipples should be banned!
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