The Secret to Accumulating Wealth: Aggregate Marginal Gains

In Atomic Habits, James Clear shares the story of how a British cycling coach was able to help his riders rise to the top of their field by making tiny 1% improvements in many different areas over the course of years.

From Atomic Habits:

The fate of British Cycling changed one day in 2003. The organization, which was the governing body for professional cycling in Great Britain, had recently hired Dave Brailsford as its new performance director.

At the time, professional cyclists in Great Britain had endured nearly one hundred years of mediocrity. Since 1980, British riders had won just a single gold medal at the Olympic Games, and they had fared even worse in cycling’s biggest race, the Tour de France. In 110 years, no British cyclist had ever won the event.

In fact, the performance of British riders had been so underwhelming that one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the team because they were afraid that it would hurt sales if other professionals saw the Brits using their gear.

Brailsford had been hired to put British Cycling on a new trajectory. What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do.

Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

Brailsford and his coaches began by making small adjustments you might expect from a professional cycling team.

They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable and rubbed alcohol on the tires for a better grip.

They asked riders to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding and used biofeedback sensors to monitor how each athlete responded to a particular workout.

The team tested various fabrics in a wind tunnel and had their outdoor riders switch to indoor racing suits, which prove to be lighter and more aerodynamic.

But they didn’t stop there.

Brailsford and his team continued to find 1 percent improvements in overlooked and unexpected areas. They tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery. They hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold.

They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider. They even painted the inside of the team truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes.

As these hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than anyone could have imagined.

Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won an astounding 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, when the Olympic Games came to London, the Brits raised the bar as they set nine Olympic records and seven world records.

That same year, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. The next year, his teammate Chris Froome won the race, and he would go on to win again in 2015, 2016, and 2017, giving the British team  five Tour de France victories in six years.

During the ten-year span from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and sixty-six Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured five Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

This story illustrates how tiny improvements can lead to remarkable results. While each tiny gain by itself is hardly noticeable, the aggregation of these gains produces a huge, noticeable gain.

This same approach can be applied to personal finance.

Through reducing spending in several categories and developing multiple income streams, you can use the aggregation of marginal gains to significantly increase how much you’re able to save and invest each month.

How I Have Used the Power of Tiny Gains to Improve My Finances

Housing

A couple months ago I moved apartments. When considering where to live, I narrowed my search down to two places. One had a monthly rent of $888 and the other $1,100. They were nearly identical in their amenities, but the cheaper apartment was just a bit smaller.

I chose the cheaper one. Now, two months later I’m completely content with my choice and my apartment even feels spacious to me because I don’t own much. By making this cheaper choice, I saved $212 per month. 

Car

I drive a 2015 Honda Civic. The monthly payment is $287. With my current job as a data scientist, I could afford to spend closer to $400 per month on a car if I wanted, but I choose not to. This simple choice saves me $113 per month.

Car Insurance

This past month I switched from my old car insurance provider where I paid $113 per month to Geico, where I only pay $48 per month. This saves me $75 per month and the phone call to make the switch only took 10 minutes.

Phone

A couple years ago, I switched phone providers from Verizon to Ting. This dropped my monthly phone bill from $60 to $20. This saves me $40 per month.

Investments

Each month I invest some of my earnings into stock market index funds. I also occasionally invest in REITs (real estate investment trusts). Both of these asset classes pay me dividends each month. Last month alone I earned $360 in dividends from these investments.

Blogging

Two years ago I started a personal finance blog called fourpillarfreedom.com. Through mostly ads and affiliate links, I earned $1,630 from blogging alone last month.

Tutoring

I tutor college students in introductory statistics courses. I typically earn around $150 through tutoring each month. I have earned well over $1,000 in a single month from tutoring, though.

I also made a statistics educational site called statology.org that I hope to monetize in the future.

The Aggregation of Tiny Gains

Through making conscious lifestyle choices with housing, my car, car insurance, and phone provider, I’m able to save a total of $440 per month.

Through investments and side hustles, I’m able to earn close to an additional $2,000 per month.

In total, I’m able to save and invest an extra $2,440 per month, or $29,280 per year, through the aggregation of these tiny gains.

Saving or earning an extra $100 per month might seem like a drop in the bucket, but when you find multiple areas to squeeze out an extra hundred bucks, it begins to add up.

If you want to improve your finances, look for multiple areas where you can make tiny gains. It’s unlikely that you’ll accumulate wealth through hitting the lotto or picking the next unicorn stock. You’re far more likely to become wealthy through making lifestyle decisions that reduce your spending and through developing multiple income streams that increase your earnings.

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