After graduating from college in 2004, I landed my first full-time job as a technology consultant, with an annual salary of $54,000.
At the time, my investment strategy was non-existent. Browsing through my new-hire documentation and seeing the words 401(k) and employer-sponsored retirement plan left me thinking, "Huh?"
I almost immediately dismissed the idea of signing up for a 401(k) after reading about it, because retirement, as it was defined in the guide (age 65), was a whole other lifetime away for me.
But then, on the second day of orientation, just as I was getting ready to tune out during the overview of my employer-sponsored retirement plans and their 401(k), I heard the words "free money" and I instantly perked up.
Those two simple words were a complete game-changer for me.
I learned my employer was offering a free contribution match of 100% up to 6% of my own contributions. I might not have known or even cared about the 401(k) at the time, but I knew a good deal when I saw one, so I signed up and made sure I contributed just enough to get the full match.
It took a few months to be fully enrolled, but as soon as I saw how quickly the money was accumulating, I got interested in contributing more than was required to get the match.
I was also curious about how investing worked, so I started reading books and learned what mutual funds, expense ratios, diversification and asset allocation were. I even opened my own non-retirement brokerage account and created watchlists for individual stocks that I liked.
Of course, while I was doing all of this, I made mistakes.
I bought stocks because they were "hot." I panicked when the market fell and sold too quickly, losing money as a result. I happily cashed out of stocks that had made returns, only to be deflated when I saw the taxes I had to pay (which I had no idea about) at the end of the year.
My mistakes were costly, but they taught me how investing worked and established my comfort level with risk.
During my time at that first job, my money was invested in the limited mutual fund offerings they had. I built my contributions up to where I was not only getting the full match, but also maxing out my allowable contributions.
Once I left, four years later, I had well over $70,000 in that 401(k) from my contributions, my employer's match, and the gains I had earned from my investments in the stock market. I couldn't believe it! I then rolled my retirement money over into a traditional IRA and invested my money in my choice of index funds.
As soon I was eligible to invest in my new employer's plan, I did that as well. This time, not only was I getting my employer's full match, but I decided to fully max out my contributions right away.
In five short years, the retirement plan I had with my new employer grew to over $100,000.
Since I began contributing to the plan almost right away, I didn't give myself a chance to get used to seeing that money included as part of my paycheck, so I didn't miss it. Instead, I was focused on my investments in my non-retirement accounts, my savings, real estate, and my side hustles.
This would have been a very different story if I had listened to that little voice in my younger self's head that said, "Nah, let's pass on that 401(k)."
The small action of signing up for a 401(k) became the catalyst for the investments I made in my employers' plans, my interest in learning about how investing worked, my actions of setting up my non-retirement accounts and growing my portfolio.
It's easy to overthink yourself into a standstill and fear the unknown. But, when you set the intent to succeed and start taking action, no matter how small at first, it's just a matter of time before you start to reap the rewards.
Bola Sokunbi is a certified financial planner and author of "Clever Girl Finance: Learn How Investing Works, Grow Your Money." Follow her on Twitter @CleverGirlCGF. To hear from top experts in personal finance and get critical advice on spending and saving to stay financially afloat, join the CNBC Path Forward: Your Money Summit on November 17, featuring Suze Orman, Patriots linebacker Brandon Copeland, The Budgetnista founder Tiffany Aliche and more.
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