When I worked at a coffee shop, guests would sometimes leave tips in the tip jar. It wouldn’t be much– just their leftover change that they didn’t want to deal with, or the quarter in their pocket because they liked my smile. At the end of the day, the little pieces of change would add up. Quarters were the best, because they made dollars so easily. And the few people who left dollars (or in one customer’s case, a two-dollar bill every week) may never have known how much of a difference they made in a college kid’s budget who paid her own rent and tuition. They say that expenses add up, but so do tip quarters.
It wasn’t just one quarter. It was quarters over time.
The commonly used metaphor involves drips from a stalactite, slowly building up mineral deposits on the roof of a cave, eons over eons over eons. I saw a real cave once, a living cave, where this process was still going on over time. But when I saw it, it looked like nothing was happening. It was just a damp spot on a rock. It’s a tough metaphor to use because this kind of scale has no meaning to us.
I get a paycheck every month. Some finance guru once wrote that over our lifetimes, even the lowest paying job will pass millions through your hands over your lifetime. I haven’t done the math, but I suppose it’s true. But at the end of the month, when all the bills are paid, what seems left over seems so small, like nothing. And the amount that I move to savings seem like quarters in the tip jar.
I get frustrated because things aren’t always happening right now. This is true with everything in life– relationships, promotions, ambitions. For each, I see a picture of where I want to be, but I’m not right now. For some of these pictures, like paying off my mortgage, there’s a clearly-marked path that just takes time to travel. Other pictures have no defined path, and those still take time. Maybe not stalactite time, but it can feel like it because progress can be indiscernible. It might just come down to pennies in a cup when I’m wishing for quarters.
It isn’t just about accrual, about waiting until a critical mass builds up and then I can pounce. Yes, some goals are like that, such as my windows that I want to buy. But sometimes it’s because things develop slowly over time, such as job skills, or networking. It’s not about one conversation, but an endless drip over time. And even though I can’t see the results now, I can keep that drip going with the understanding that some things only happen over time.
There is so much that I want to do with my house that I just can’t right now, either because of a lack of energy or funds or time. But when I look back over what I’ve done in this past year, I have made progress towards what I want it to be. And I don’t have to run out to the store and go into debt to get everything finished in some kind of rush way, either. I can let it happen naturally, over time, in a way that my physical and monetary resources allow. It’s just another drop in the bucket, another drip on the rock, another brick in the wall.
Tomorrow I can get home and scrape the paint off of a windowsill tile, a free project I’ve been meaning to do since I got the house. It doesn’t have to be much, just one tile. And it will add just that much more value to my house. It will only take a few minutes, probably spent also listening to music and unwinding from work. And after one day, there won’t be any difference. It’ll probably be hidden behind a curtain anyway. But over time, all the window sills in the house will be done.
I can move just a few dollars into savings, and my bank account balance won’t look any bigger tomorrow.
I can decide to forgo buying milk or steak for dinner just this once.
I can choose to water the plants I splurged on last month so that I can continue enjoying them just one more day.
But things are happening: they’re moving under the surface, over time. It’s not about accrual; it’s about patience. It’s little steps in the right direction, not because someone says it’s the proper direction, but because it’s the direction that I want to go. Sometimes progress is an illusion caused by things happening rapidly, but there are times when real progress can only occur over time.
Step. Save. Drip. Work.
It’s pennies in a cup.
It just takes time.