Thoughts on the Parable of the Mustard Seed

Recently, I attended the baptism of a beautiful baby girl. During the reading of the scripture, a passage from the book of Matthew was read – chapter 13, verses 31 and 32 – and it really stuck with me. Here it is, from the NIV translation:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

“Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

That phrase has really hit home for me over the past several days. It’s not just an analogy about the kingdom of heaven – though based on your theology, it can certainly work very well for that – but a very powerful analogy for how to live your life.

To put it simply, a rich life involves spending a lot of time each day planting proverbial mustard seeds. Not all of those mustard seeds will grow into giant trees, of course. Some will not grow at all and others will grow just a little. Over time, however, you’ll find yourself in a rich garden of life, with towering trees and countless plants of all varieties and sizes.

Of course, I’m not talking about real mustard seeds. I’m simply talking about doing things today that will see a possible payoff down the road. If you fill your life with doing these kinds of things, then your life will pay off again and again in more ways than you can imagine.

The beauty of this is that many of the “mustard seeds” that you plant are very small ones. They involve just a little bit of effort or expense on your part. Yet sometimes they can grow into huge trees, or planting a bunch of them together can result in a bountiful crop down the road.

Most of the positive things that have occurred in my life over the past several years have occurred because I planted “mustard seeds” earlier in my life. Little efforts put into writing an article or having a conversation with a friend build into things like a steady writing gig or a strong friendship that comes through for you in your moment of need. I’ve seen it over and over and over again in my life.

This is a strategy that works for anyone. Devote a few minutes or a few dollars to something today. It might turn into nothing at all. It might turn into something good that you don’t even see. It might grow up into a mild success, or even a big one. No matter what, you’ve only invested a little of yourself.

Now, do that again and again and again and again. Sure, you’re going to have a lot of “nothing at all” results, but you’re also going to have some things that turn into hidden successes. Other things are going to turn into moderate success. One or two will turn into big successes.

The interesting part is that these successes don’t happen immediately. You often won’t see rewards for months or years – and then suddenly they’ll just spring up. A friend you helped two years ago will come through for you unexpectedly. That extra debt payment you made three years ago allows you to completely skip the last two payments on your car loan right now. That weekend spent air sealing your home and installing energy efficient lighting years ago has freed up the money you needed to start saving for retirement, and now that retirement savings is blooming.

Yes, sometimes mustard seeds don’t pay off. A person you believed was your friend turned their back on you in your moment of need. The skill you slowly honed over time didn’t help you get a new job. Even then, you still got some value in it in unseen ways. You can use that skill in other areas of life and now you’re better at the art of learning. You now know how to evaluate people a little better than before.

Let me give you an abundance of mustard seeds you can plant in your own life.

Put a little money into savings each day
Challenge yourself to put aside a dollar or two each day. Perhaps you can set up an automatic savings plan to transfer $10 a week from your checking into savings. It’s less than the cost of a cup of coffee – you scarcely have to think about it – but over the course of five years it turns into enough money to buy a used car outright. It’s an effective way to build an emergency fund or save up for a goal.

Put effort into building a relationship with someone in the community
Spend a few minutes having a conversation with someone you’ve seen around town in the past. Get to know that person a little bit and actually listen to what that person is saying. Give that person a little helping hand if that person needs it – carry an elderly person’s groceries up the stairs or give someone the name of a good plumber. More often than not, those people will remember you in a very good way.

Do a small set of exercises
You don’t have to kill yourself at the gym. Just get up and do a few exercises – some jumping jacks or a jog around the block. Get your breathing up and your heart rate up for a little bit. You’ll feel better and you’ll find that if you plant enough of these little seeds, your day to day life becomes easier, too. You’ll consistently feel better and more energetic, and you’ll get less out of breath when exerting yourself.

Set up retirement contributions
Does your workplace offer a 401(k) plan with employer contributions? Sign up and contribute just enough to get all of the match. Otherwise, sign up with a reputable investment firm to start a Roth IRA (I recommend Vanguard). Do it once and the contributions will go into those retirement plans automatically, and each contribution is like a mustard seed on its own. It will build and build and build until you have plenty of money for whatever it is that you want to do in the later years of your life.

Learn about a new topic
Every time you learn about something new, you have the ability to integrate that new thing into the things you already know, subtly altering and deepening your view of the world. Not only that, the more often you actually learn something new, the easier it becomes to learn. You can bite off learning in big chunks – such as taking a full online class – or in little ones – such as spending five minutes on Duolingo learning a language. Don’t know where to start? Check out the abundance of courses at Coursera or OpenCourseWare.

Install some LED light bulbs, replacing incandescents and CFLs
LED light bulbs have improved drastically in the last few years, not in terms of amazing energy efficiency and reliability – they’ve always had that – but in terms of light quality. Recent LEDs are basically indistinguishable from older incandescents, they use about 10% to 15% of the energy of incandescents, they light up instantly, and they have a lifespan of about 20 times the lifespan of old incandescents.

In other words, they’ll save you money on your energy bill and on the endless cycle of light bulb replacement over time. The catch? They’re more expensive up front. Plant that seed and buy a few LEDs for your home. Cycle them in when your normal bulb fails. Your energy bill will drop a bit, you’ll not have to replace a bulb for a very long time, and you won’t have to invest time in buying or replacing bulbs either. It pays off over and over and over again.

Figure out ways to simplify or automate things you do regularly
If you can spend an hour coming up with and implementing a better system for doing something you do every day, shaving a minute off of that time, then that is an hour well spent. In two months, you’ve got that time back and now you’re saving a minute each and every day. Look through your life for things like this, such as coming up with a better station for your morning hygiene routine, a better organization of your workspace, or a more logical setup within your pantry.

Make some meals in advance and freeze them
Make a favorite meal this evening – except instead of preparing one meal, prepare four of them and use only one for your family dinner. For the other three, prepare them to the point that they only need a bit of time in the oven to be finished, then freeze them. It will only add a little bit of additional time and cleanup to today’s meal preparation, but then you have three complete meals in the freezer for those days when you don’t have time to prepare something at home. Just pull that meal out and put it in the refrigerator the night before and then it’s just a short bake away from providing your family with a complete meal on a busy night. Not only that, you save money because you can use bulk ingredients for this.

Engage with people at professional gatherings or on social media
Engage with people one on one, exchange useful information and ideas with them, collect their contact information, and follow up with them. Every time you do this, you subtly strengthen your own reputation and add one more contact to your professional circle, which can really come in handy if the chips are ever down for you professionally. Even better, you’ll sometimes find that surprising offers come your way for freelance work and other great opportunities.

Air seal your home
An afternoon spending a bit of time and money sealing up the air leaks in your home so that hot air doesn’t escape in the winter and cool air doesn’t escape in the summer will reduce both your winter and summer energy bills for the rest of the time you live there. The Department of Energy offers a great guide for home air sealing and the vast majority of it involves simple tasks that anyone can do. Every little task you take on can trim your energy bills a little bit more.

Send a handwritten thank you note when someone does something to help you personally or professionally
Go beyond simply sending an email or a Facebook message. Send a handwritten note. It takes five minutes and a postage stamp and it has a very strong positive impact on the recipient, one that can often blossom into a much stronger relationship over time. You don’t need anything fancy, either. A simple card with a blank interior will do, as long as it contains a heartfelt appreciation in your own handwriting.

Maintain your stuff
Home and auto maintenance tasks can seem dull, but they extend the life of your stuff and reduce the chances of it breaking down. Performing the “mustard seed” of maintenance now means that you don’t have to pay for or deal with expensive repairs later and you can wait longer to replace the item. Obviously, both of these things save you money, but they both save you time as well, and they also reduce the chances of a panicked moment when something unexpectedly fails. If you don’t know where to start with maintenance, here’s a great checklist of maintenance tasks for your home and automobiles.

Give a child your attention, knowledge, and care.
Even a bit of time showing a child that you truly care for their well being can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of that child’s life. If you have any children in your life – whether it’s your own children or the children of friends or siblings or cousins – give that child some love. Teach that child something new. Play with that child and make him or her feel accepted. Whether that child remembers or not, your effort will have made a difference, and if it causes that child to make even one or two better choices in life, the ripple effect will go far beyond your imagination.

Eat a healthy meal
The simple act of eating a healthier meal will make you feel a little better in the short term and contribute a little bit to longer-term health. Not only that, it provides an opportunity to show yourself that healthy foods can be quite delicious, which can open up a whole new pattern in your life. Try a black bean vegetarian chili or a ratatouille made of delicious summer vegetables, for a pair of examples. Every time you eat a healthy meal, it’s another mustard seed.

Intentionally practice a skill
By this, I don’t simply mean using the skill in some fashion, but instead deliberately practicing some aspect of the skill to sharpen it. If you’re trying to improve your writing, spend 30 minutes crafting the perfect way to write a tweet (teaching you how to be economical with your words). If you’re trying to improve at a sport, practice a very specific drill, like shooting free throws slowly while thinking about the mechanics of what you’re doing. Deliberate practice might be dull, but it can help you sharpen a skill that you can use over and over again.

Nurture your marriage
Spend a little bit of time doing something truly compassionate for your marriage partner. Do a chore for her that she’s been dreading. Rub his back for a while without him even asking for it. Ask her about her day and listen attentively. Tell him that he’s worked hard and encourage him to spend a few hours on his hobby. Embrace her warmly and give her a kiss. A few moments spent shoring up a marriage can make all the difference in the world when it comes to the long term health of your relationship.

Help a community charity
Spending a little bit of time helping out a charity in your community can have ripple effects beyond what you can imagine. A bit of time spent manning a food pantry can help ensure that people in your community have food to eat. Cleaning out your closet and dropping a few items at the clothing pantry can put clothes on people’s backs. Those people then have more energy and more pride and will make the community around you a better place.

Make a small extra debt payment
When you’re submitting a payment on a debt, add a little bit more to that payment. That extra little payment reduces the principal of your debt, which reduces the interest that will show up on your next payment and on all subsequent payments. Your normal payments in the future will then pay more principal than before and, in the end, you’ll pay off that debt sooner. All that was needed was a simple extra payment on a debt.

Stock your cupboards with healthier foods
If you fill up your cupboards with healthier foods during your next several shopping trips, you’ll gradually begin to make healthier food choices by default. It becomes much easier to prepare healthier meals – and just a little harder to prepare unhealthy ones. This will raise the quality of many of your meals, making you feel a bit more energetic and improving your overall health a little bit, and those things will pay dividends throughout your life.

Plant a garden
Sometimes the obvious analogy is a really good one, too. By planting a few inexpensive seeds into a plot of dirt and giving it a little bit of care here and there, you can find yourself with an abundance of fresh produce a few months later. Plant smartly, and you’ll find yourself with a variety of foods with which to make plenty of amazing meals at your convenience with very little cost.

You have countless opportunities in your life to plant mustard seeds. Many of those seeds will sprout over time, bringing great things into your life. However, none of them can sprout if you don’t take the effort to plant those seeds in the first place. The choice is up to you, today. Are you going to plant the seeds for your future?

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.