Lessons in Saving from an Ancient Greek Wrestling Champion and a Nobel Prize-Winning Economist

Milo of Croton was the most celebrated athlete of the ancient world – the Michael Jordan of his time. He won an astounding 6 straight wrestling competitions at the ancient Olympic Games, dominating the sport from 540 BC to 520 BC.

What allowed Milo to remain dominant for so long? Milo’s chief advantage over his competitors was said to be his legendary strength. Milo was simply stronger than all of his opponents. And how did Milo become so incredibly strong? Legend tells an interesting story about Milo’s unique but simple training routine.  

It seems that when Milo was an adolescent a neighbor of his had a newborn calf. Milo, already a strapping lad, saw the small calf, lifted it onto his shoulders, and walked around for a while. He then put the calf back down and went home.

The next day Milo returned and did the same thing. He continued this routine day after day. As the calf grew, so did Milo’s strength. His lifting each day prepared him to lift a little bit more the next day. At the end of four years Milo was lifting a full-grown bull onto his shoulders.

Milo was either a genius, or lucky, because the principles he pioneered have stood the test of time, and are still used today in strength training programs. These principles include the following:

  • Start Now: Milo started lifting as a teenager, which gave him a lifetime to use his strength. If it’s too late to start young, start now.
  • Start Small: Start with something you can handle. Don’t do too much at first. It’s ok to start with a newborn calf.
  • Be consistent: Have a plan and stick to it consistently. Milo showed up every day to lift the growing bovine.
  • Lift More Tomorrow: Lift what you can today, and then Lift More Tomorrow. This is known in strength training circles as progressive resistance or progressive overload.    

Following these simple principles allowed Milo to become a legendary wrestling champion. While you probably won’t win Olympic gold, following the principles of the Lift More Tomorrow plan will certainly help you become stronger and healthier.

Milo as a Financial Planner

After retiring from wrestling Milo could have been a successful financial planner because the same principles he pioneered to gain his legendary strength work equally well in becoming a world-class saver. To become a champion saver Milo would have instructed his clients to do the following:  

  • Start Now: The power of compounding interest is even stronger than I am, but it takes time to work its magic. The best time to start saving is when you are young. The second best time is now.  
  • Start Small: You don’t have to start by saving huge amounts, but you do have to start. Save whatever you can today. If you don’t think you have the resources to save anything, start by saving just 1% of your income. This will engage your saving muscles and prepare you to save more tomorrow.
  • Be Consistent: Have a plan for saving and stick to it consistently. Every time you get money, pay yourself first, before paying others.  
  • Save More Tomorrow: Progressively increase your savings rate over time. The saving you do today will strengthen your saving muscles, allowing you to save more tomorrow. Did I ever tell you the story about how I lifted a bull?  

The Save More Tomorrow Plan

Unfortunately, Milo never actually became a financial planner, and the Save More Tomorrow plan would have to wait another 2,500 years before it sprung from the fertile minds of a couple of behavioral economists, Richard Thaler, who just this week was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, and Shlomo Benartzi. In the late 1990s Thaler and Benartzi designed the plan and tested it in several companies. Here are the details.  

The Save More Tomorrow plan provided employees who were participating a meeting with a financial planner. The planner gave the employees the advice you would expect a financial planner to give: “Save more for retirement.” And most of the employees responded as you would also expect: “I would love to, but I just can’t right now.” The planners might as well have asked them to pick up a full-grown bull and carry it around for a while.

In traditional financial planning that would have been the end of the discussion. But these planners, as instructed by Thaler and Benartzi, gave the employees a third option that proved much more difficult to turn down. They said they understood that it was difficult for them to increase their savings now, but asked them to commit to increase their retirement savings in the future, as they made more money.

In practice this meant committing to save most of their raises for the next several years. They were asking them to save more in the future, but only as their income increased. 78% of the employees who said they couldn’t increase their savings rate now were willing to commit to increase their savings in the future as they made more.  

The results of this trial were very encouraging. 80% of those who committed to the Save More Tomorrow plan stuck with it for the four years included in the study, and during that time they increased their retirement savings rates from an average of 3.5% to an average of 13.6%.

In another interesting coincidence between Milo’s Lift More Tomorrow training plan and Thaler and Benartzi’s Save More Tomorrow savings plan, the initial experiments each lasted four years. At the end of the four years Milo was carrying around a full-grown bull and the employees were well on their way to comfortable retirements, both impressive accomplishments.

In the formal Save More Tomorrow plan, increases to retirement savings happen automatically as raises are received unless an employee subsequently opts out. While the plan has grown in popularity it is still unlikely that your company offers it. Therefore, you are probably going to have to implement the plan yourself, and then follow through on your commitment. You can do so by following these simple steps:

  • Put your plan in writing: For example, “I will increase my retirement savings rate by the amount of my future raises up to 3% per raise.” Sign the agreement.
  • Go public: Tell others about your commitment and put it where you and others will see it regularly.
  • Increase your savings rate immediately upon receiving a raise: The key is to not let yourself get used to the increased income.
  • Automate your increased savings: Use technology instead of willpower and you will only have to make the decision once.
  • Repeat until you reach your desired savings rate.

The Save More Tomorrow plan is a great way to increase your savings rate over time. It works because, as Milo of Croton learned long ago, the key to success is to do the best you can today, and then do just a little bit more tomorrow. This framework works in strength training, retirement savings, and just about any other area of life where you wish to improve – and that’s no bull.


Note: Congratulations are in order.  As I was writing this article it was announced that Richard Thaler had been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to behavioral economics. Milo of Croton did not share in the award due the Nobel Committee’s long-standing policy of not honoring people posthumously.

It appears that Milo of Croton’s TED Talk about his Lift More Tomorrow strength training plan is lost to history, although I hear it was, like Milo himself, legendary. However, here is a great TED Talk by Shlomo Benartzi about the Save More Tomorrow plan.  


  6 comments for “Lessons in Saving from an Ancient Greek Wrestling Champion and a Nobel Prize-Winning Economist

  1. October 12, 2017 at 6:44 am

    HaHa! As a former gym owner who also has an MBA in finance… I can really identify with these Fitness vs Finance principles. lol Well done.

    • Brent Esplin
      October 12, 2017 at 4:07 pm

      Interesting background. There are definitely some parallels between finance and fitness. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  2. October 12, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    Makes me want to lift something heavy. Or try to anyhow… This is a very well summarized parable on the power of habits (and compounding interest.) Thank you!

    • Brent Esplin
      October 12, 2017 at 4:06 pm

      Yes, but not too heavy. Get started today and lift more tomorrow. Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Jacq
    October 12, 2017 at 6:51 pm

    The 401k at work let’s you set a % increase at intervals, like once a year etc. I’ve been steadily increasing mine on my own as re-evaluate my spending.
    Great post!

    • Brent Esplin
      October 12, 2017 at 7:31 pm

      Sounds like you are on the right track. The more you can automate the increases, the better off you are. Keep it up.

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