This is going to sound strange, but one of the greatest discoveries I’ve made as a grown up is that flossing your teeth is the key to life. Stay with me here. If you start flossing as a teenager and continue to floss every day (maybe even every other day), you’ve made a long-term investment in your oral hygiene, aka your mouth. You won’t have major tooth decay. You won’t have bleeding gums. And best of all, when you eat spanakopita or any other dish with spinach, that little green speck won’t get stuck between your teeth (which will also relieve casual acquaintances of the anxiety-provoking question, Should I tell her she has spinach between her teeth?)
So how does this relate to you? The point is, in life, it’s the little things that count. It’s the couple of times a week you shut out pressures to spend a focused, stress-free 15 minutes putting your child to bed that make a difference. It’s showing up for work a little early or consistently putting in extra effort on every assignment that will have long-term impact. It’s—here’s the personal finance part—signing up one day in your twenties for your company 401(k) plan, even if it’s a financial strain, because you know when you’re 40 you’ll have tens of thousands of dollars that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
It’s the thirty seconds a day you floss.
I wish I’d thought of that when I was 23. Here’s the embarrassing part (worse even than spinach between your teeth): When I was working at one of my first “real world” jobs, as a writer for Money magazine, I had the option of putting a small percentage of my paycheck into a 401(k) retirement savings plan. But I waited. I had just moved into my own apartment after living with my parents for a year so that I could pay off my $15,000 worth of college loans (at the time it was a lot; today it’s almost quaint.) I was making money for the first time in my life—but not all that much—and why would I need to worry about retirement at that point? What was the incentive to cut back on my spending today to save for a time decades away?
I’ll tell you. If I had started saving a tiny bit for my retirement right away instead of waiting two years, I’d have almost twice as much as I do in my retirement fund today. Back then, however, the notion that a tiny fraction of my paycheck could someday grow into a huge sum of money was unfathomable.
Thankfully, in year two, my soon-to-be-retired father sat me down and showed me how his portfolio had grown over time. And by the time I wrote my third cover story on why it’s important to save in a retirement plan, I started doing it myself (as my kids would say, duh). The best surprise was that I practically didn’t notice the money was gone. I realized that I didn’t have to choose between living for today and saving for the future. I could do both.
Making small positive changes can lead to a big reward, just as seemingly inconsequential bad habits can become a serious burden later on. Spend too much on that that car/handbag/vacation that you can’t afford now, and it can haunt you later.
One thing to remember about tiny day-to-day decisions is that over a lifetime your small choices can cost you (or save you) massive amounts of money. Simply buying a bottle of water every day means paying thousands of dollars a decade for something you could get for free. That’s not to say that you can’t budget in the extras—or forget to floss on vacation. But being mindful of how the small stuff can make a huge difference in the long run is something I’m passionate about.