One Day at a Time

Jiab Wasserman

JIM AND I RECENTLY moved from Granada, our first home in Spain, to Alicante, a city by the Mediterranean. The move gives us the opportunity to walk along the coast each day.

A few weeks ago, we hiked a rugged coastal trail that’s part of a nature preserve, with an ancient Roman dock still partially visible. Along the coastline, you can also see how layers of sand have built up over the centuries, compacting together to form the breathtaking sandstone hills we enjoy today.

It’s a reminder of how small acts can have a significant impact over time. I’ve always liked the expression, “In one day, you can’t do much, but over a long period of time you can accomplish a lot.” Small acts can yield a high—and even exponential—return, given enough time.

Such returns aren’t just financial. Here are three small acts that, if performed regularly, can help us reap large rewards in the long run.

1. Save and invest every month. Thanks to the gender wealth gap, this is especially important for women. I started saving as soon as I got my first regular job. In 1993, I worked in a public library, where I earned slightly more than minimum wage. The job allowed me to contribute pretax dollars to a 457 plan. When I left the library, my balance was a bit under $2,000. Since then, I transferred it to an IRA and, the last time I checked, the balance was almost $10,000.

In all my subsequent jobs in financial services, and as my income increased, I would max out my 401(k) and continue to save regardless of the economic situation, whether it be boom or bust. In fact, recessions and the accompanying stock market decline were the best time to invest, because the same dollar amount had more stock market buying power. Even though financial independence wasn’t my goal—it wasn’t a popular notion, like it is today—my diligent saving fast-tracked my finances, allowing me to retire in my early 50s.

Today, it takes little time or money to get started as an investor. You can set up a recurring transfer from your bank account to an investment account in perhaps 15 minutes. Don’t have much money for an initial investment? Financial firms like Charles Schwab and Fidelity Investments have mutual funds with no required investment minimum.

Once you have a regular savings program established, it isn’t going to eat up a lot of time—and, before too long, you should reach a tipping point, where your yearly investment return is more than your annual deposits, and your nest egg’s growth becomes exponential. Saving regularly will also give you a sense of control over your finances and your life, boosting happiness.

2. Exercise regularly. This has been proven to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes and various types of cancer. It can also improve your mood, give you more energy and improve the quality of your sleep. Some research indicates exercise even boosts concentration and learning. And, of course, it lowers medical costs.

If you’re starting an exercise habit from scratch, start simple. There’s no need to join the gym or spend a ton of money on a personal trainer. Something as simple as brisk walking for 30 minutes a day has been shown to deliver vast health improvements and trigger weight loss. As with saving and investing, the longer you can keep at it, the greater the return.

3. Eat well. This also has multiple benefits. A healthy diet can protect the human body against certain types of diseases, especially noncommunicable diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, some types of cancer and skeletal conditions. It has also been shown to improve mental health. As with exercise, a healthy diet gives you more energy and helps you sleep better.

I avoid processed food as much as possible and limit my alcohol to an occasional glass of wine. I also adjust my diet based on my activity level. On days I play tennis or take long hikes, I may spurge, while on a day when I don’t do much physical activity, I’ll eat less and only healthy foods. Because I was raised in Thailand, where the cuisine is one of the healthiest, with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, my taste buds developed early on to enjoy and prefer healthy foods.

Eating healthily has been more difficult for my husband Jim, who was raised on a typical American diet. But through great effort—accompanied by much bemoaning the loss of fried food—even his taste buds have changed over time. Indeed, eating healthily, like saving and exercising regularly, can seem like a struggle at first. But if you do these things on a consistent basis for long enough, not only will you reap huge rewards, but also they’ll become habits—and probably enjoyable habits—and you’ll come to do them with hardly a second thought.

Jiab Wasserman and her husband Jim, who also writes for HumbleDollar, currently live in Alicante, Spain. They blog about downshifting, personal finance and other aspects of retirement—as well as about their experience relocating to another country—at Head to Linktree to learn more about Jiab, and also check out her earlier articles.

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