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Why are these treehuggers wasting their time?

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I love this open letter to the UC Berkeley students who were protesting cutting down trees by living in them.


(1) Consider what you are fighting for.
“How many trees does UC intend to destroy for its construction project? (Answer: 38). Is the coast live oak an endangered or threatened species? (Answer: No). Will the removal of these individual trees have any significant impact on the health of the overall population of the species? (Answer: No). Consider how many collective man-hours your campaign has devoted to saving these trees. Has it occurred to you that your time may be better spent focusing on (for example) the huge swaths of the Amazon that are cut down by loggers and developers every day? Are you choosing to protect 38 trees because you really think it is a significant, meaningful cause? I hope not–because that would be ignorant. It seems much more likely that you choose this battle because it is relatively convenient and riskless. Honestly–why don’t you sac up and take on a *real* environmental offender?”

You’ll find a lot of people doing largely meaningless things and justifying it with these 4 terrible words: “It can’t hurt, right?”

But it can. We’re cognitive misers. We only have limited attention and limited willpower. And with limited time, are you focusing on stuff that will make no difference? Or are you saving your limited attention and cognition for areas that will really make a difference?

How often do we pick things that are easy (e.g., saving money on lattes) instead of big wins? How often do we focus on things that make us feel good for the short term vs. things that will actually help us over the long term (e.g., learning how to automate your personal finances or how to make more money)?

Now, there is value in symbols. But few of us think strategically about the symbolism of our actions, while most of us (me included) simply do what’s easy and available.

Truly rich people know that they have limited resources and focus it on the things that matter. Beginners try to do everything and make an impact in very few areas at all.

* * *

2 questions for you…

What’s one area of your finances that you previously focused on…and it ended up being a big waste of time (e.g., lattes)?

On the positive side, what’s one area where you’ve had HUGE gains with a limited amount of effort (e.g., automation)?

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  1. I was keeping track of every single penny that came in or came out of my life. If I found a nickel on the ground, I’d track it and save a penny to invest later. I felt this was incredibly valuable over a 2-3 year period when I got a true feel of what yearly car expenses (emergencies included) really costed. I begin sawing the benefit of mini-savings accounts for various deductibles and gas-hedges, etc. But after 2-3 years, you get the picture and so I stopped doing it and now I’m focused on a bigger picture goal of running a business. This is a case where you need to approach finance with a bit of a dynamic approach, some activities are essential in the beginning, but then you need to adapt as you learn skills and progress to new goals.

  2. I pick doing the little easy things to save money because I don’t have any of your so-called big wins to make. You make the mistake of thinking that everybody has credit card debt and car payments or else can save big bucks by turning down their radiator in the winter. Surprise: I don’t have credit card debt (yes, I paid for a €1200 camera and macro in cash) or car payments and my utilities are bundled into my very cheap rent. This doesn’t mean that I track my pennies or use coupons or anything like that (even though I’m Asian I’m not meticulous enough to use coupons). It just means I try to spend money only on things I really care about, or things that we really need. Seeing the latest movie? Not so much. Taking our renal-failure kitty to the vet 2-3 times a year? Oh yes.

  3. I should also add that I send 10% of my paycheck plus whatever’s left over to my savings account every month (automation scares me for some reason). So it’s not as if my savings comes only from me picking generic yogurt over name-brand stuff…

  4. This will be no surprise to IWTYTBR readers, but I stopped focusing on shrinking my expenses more and more. I got to a point where I stripped down a lot of things and then I realized this couldn’t scale.

    So instead of focusing on how to cut stuff from my budget, I started to focus on increasing my earnings. Let me tell you: it’s a LOT more rewarding.

  5. Borpalinder Singh Link to this comment

    I think because I’m brown, I don’t think I have any response to the first question. I can’t think of anything that ended up being a big waste of my time. I don’t drink lattes.

    As for the second question, most definitely, without a single doubt: making more money. Now while it is not easy to start off with, it paid dividends within a few months (I went the product route and I am a software developer.) I am a few K within replacing full-time income which means I now have two full-time incomes (where one income is ~ $220K).

    That being said, I only live on about $50K/year. I quite literally do not know what to do with the excess money.

    • Now that would be a great post topic…what to do when you’re making a whole lot more money than you’re spending.

      I’m in a similar situation, and putting a lot of the money back into my business, and investing the rest in various asset classes.


    • If you are making a whole lot more money than you are spending, it’s time to start giving some of it away. It doesn’t matter so much who you give it to, or which cause you support. It matters that you give without expecting anything in return.

  6. I was spending a ton of time tracking things in Quicken, entering receipts from Target or Wal-Mart and splitting them up down to the penny if there was multiple spending categories. Probably 30 min a night wasted on this. I finally spent $40 and upgraded to the new version of Quicken so I could download transactions and stop all the manual data entry. Now I update about 2x a month and it takes me about the same 30 min each.

    I also realized since we put our daily expenses on a credit card, I could basically watch that balance as the month went on instead of focusing on the underlying detail. Now, if we’re over $1,500/month on the card I drill down to see what happened – but usually it’s just a one time expense that puts us over.

  7. There are a few problems with your logic, especially when you start comparing personal finance to political actions. One, people may be taking big actions as well as small, so it’s silly to say that if you’re doing one you’re necessarily not doing the other. Second, maybe people DO want something relatively riskless — and that’s ok. It can be their training ground, it can develop into something bigger, and it is better than doing nothing (the most common excuse for political apathy is the belief that you won’t be able to have any big impact anyway.) If we all wait for the BIG opportunities, then no one would campaign for local ballot propositions, no one would vote, no one would start their first business… you get the idea. Sometimes little actions inspire bigger actions, and/or all together make some impact. Finally, your idea that everyone has big wins available to them is just out of touch with reality, though maybe it makes sense for your readership.

    • I agree with Nolo. While Ramit’s point about humans having limited resources, like time, is interesting, I don’t think one can view political action in the same way as finances.

      I think political action has a much more…spiritual, or emotional, component. Getting people to care is a big part of it. Having people take action on the small things they can actually make a difference on is an important way to inspire people to (1) care, and to (2) act at all. Such local actions can make causes concrete/real to people, and can inspire people to care about larger issues.

      (Well – maybe that could apply to finances as well, to an extent. I myself know that it has taken me a lot to start paying attention to/worrying about my finances, versus not really caring at all.)

      Perhaps, if humans were machines, the most important point would be that their time would be better spent advocating for the far-off rainforest than for a few dozen trees on a campus. But people aren’t machines. You can’t ignore the highly educative side of local activism.

      Regarding whether they’re taking local action because it’s easier… I agree that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking certain actions because they are “easier.” At the risk of being repetitive, it’s not like the choice is only between action A and action B, because a third action is doing nothing.

    • I also agree with Nolo and AJ, I think comparing personal finances and political action are very different. There are so many benefits to keeping a small strip of trees in a urban area. For instance, it offers shade, a quiet sanctuary and a small habitats for birds (unless you only want pigeons). If you think about the amount of carbon we’re putting into the air, cutting down 38 more trees only adds issue of global warming. So in my opinion, it’s not a waste of time, it’s allowing people to have some sort of input into how their environment is altered. Even if you don’t agree with the method.

    • You might just want to give that post another read…

      There’s a quote in his book that one of his favorite things is mocking people – unless you want to end up in a post of his about dumb comments.

  8. I can’t say I specifically agree with you. I think we need to watch out for the “little things” and the “big things” both. We do watch for savings on large purchases such as vacations, but I have so many more opportunities to waste a dollar here or there which will add up.

    The small stuff also sets precedent. In your “tree hugging” example, it would also set a precedent. Sure it might “only” be 38 trees in this particular project, but what about the next one? And the next one?

    Similarly, it might be a $4 latte at Starbucks versus a 25 cent coffee from home. Its just a one-time thing. But if I get accustomed to it being the norm, it adds up hugely.

    All this to say – the little things are significant.

  9. You only think that they are wasting their time because you are only looking at their stated aim, to save the trees, and overlooking the unstated, that it is a really cool excuse to hang out with other people with similar views and possible find a chance to mate. Try going to the Amazon and doing that with the Yanomami!

  10. I tracked my expenses for a couple months, and it wasn’t quite a waste of time- I got a really good sense of where money does go- I didn’t feel the need to continue once I got a nice couple-month average on most of my expenses. Now I only go back over them if there’s some sort of glaring inconsistency, or if it’s been a while and things have changed (working from home = lower take-out totals; higher grocery bill), I’ll try and figure out the new averages.

    The hugest personal gain for me has been automation (ha! i am such an apple polisher). I don’t have a weekly salary, so i divvy up my checks percentage-wise as they come in. Currently my %s are: 33% to tax fund (freelancers don’t have their taxes withheld, learned this the hard way), 10% to a fund to pay off my credit card debt, and 10% to savings (occasionally an extra 10% to my wedding fund specifically, getting hitched next year and have to step it up in that area). So far it’s prevented me from burning through those precious, precious freelance checks, not worrying at all about taxes, having some actual money to pay CC bills instead of just tears, and have a little set aside.
    I’m actually almost all the way to saving up for my fiancee’s wedding ring, which I am really super duper proud of 🙂 I’m not used to buying things with cash in hand, just extended credit lines- so I’m very glad to have actually saved up enough money for this big expenditure.