Best time to plant a tree - deal with your money

The time to prepare was the past, deal with things as they are today

There is a Chinese proverb that states, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago…”  I’ve always liked this part of the proverb.  To me, it says that sometimes, you really just need to shut up and deal with the circumstances at hand, and sometimes, regardless of what you want or how much you complain, you’re just shit outta luck.  However, this proverb can give us a lot to learn from.

First and foremost, we learn that you can’t change the past.  Your current state is based on the preconditions that existed early in your life.  These times have past, and cannot be changed.  Everything that you are, do, and have in life was set in motion by your choices, luck, and environment earlier.  In your current state, if you don’t have enough money, it’s because you didn’t earn enough or spent too much in the past.  If you don’t make much money, it’s because you didn’t go to school, or if you did you chose the wrong major or took on too much debt.  If you’re overweight and in poor health, you likely didn’t take care of yourself with preventative care and exercise in the past.  If you have more kids than you can afford, you probably didn’t plan enough before having sex, chose your mate poorly, or didn’t take precautions.    All these consequences of your current life come from the poor choices, luck, and environment of the past.  The message here is that you can blame others, yourself or fate for your current circumstances, but likely your choices had the most influence.  So stop complaining, as there’s nothing you can do now to change your current state of being.

What examining all this does is it gives us a clear message.  The past sets the conditions and probability of success in the future.  This is great news!  Why?  Because the present is the past of our future.  Thus if in the future you’d like to have more money, a better job, pay your bills on time, lose weight and be more health conscience, or anything else, you can start to set the conditions now to influence the probability of these events occurring in the future!  The future you is truly in the hands of current you.  Note that I did say probability.  Luck and the environment will influence you and others as we travel forward in time, but you can heavily influence the odds in your favor.  The longer you wait to start, the further in the future your desired results will be.

The future is based on the conditions of the present, effect the future

Think of the future as a roulette wheel.  The normal colors are red and black.  Each time you do something positive, learn something, treat others nicely or poorly, work hard or sit around being lazy, you color this roulette wheel of the future.  Let’s say all the positive things you do let you color in a number on the wheel as green, that’s good.  Negative things erase a green number.  You are still at the mercy of the wheel, but if you work hard, learn, plan and execute on your plan, you can get higher odds of life landing in a number that you want.

What this ultimately means for you, is that the future you is primarily in your hands right now.  If you want a comfy retirement in the future, you can choose the actions and decisions that will best position you for success.  That may mean cutting expenses, getting another or a different job, or any number of other things, but they are mostly under your influence.  You can only effect things from this moment forward, take advantage of this and shape the future that you want.

The Chinese proverb I mentioned at the beginning, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago…” continues, “…The second best time to plant a tree is today.”  Grab hold of your future and work toward getting what you want.  Start today.


Readers, what are your experiences with dealing with things as they are?  What are you starting to do today?

About Karl

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29 Responses to The best time to plant a tree

  1. Frugal Fries says:

    I love that proverb too and it has helped me get motivated many times over the years. The second part is key though, especially for me. I get overwhelmed when I think of every little responsibility or goal I am missing out on and sometimes that stress is enough to to deter my call to action.

  2. WorkSaveLive says:

    Sometimes reality hurts. I was reading through your first situations/examples and I could see some people getting offended because you stated the obvious: the truth is that you are where you stand because of what you did (or didn’t do) in the past. Sure, that has a lot to do with varying factors of our lives, but it’s still the truth.

    The 2nd part of the proverb is the best one and certainly gives more cause for hope. I’m glad it came back around to a more positive message. 🙂

    • Karl says:

      @WSL, that was the point, to give folks a little jolt of reality. Everyone is basically responsible for where they are in life, plus or minus. Sometimes fate throws a curveball which really can affect some people. However, most of the time it was our own choices that led us to where we are now.

  3. WHat a great proverb and a great post! Especially the roulette wheel part. Planting a tree now and doing great things now for your future self stacks the roulette wheel in your favor. GREAT thought! GREAT post!

    • Karl says:

      The best we can do is try and tilt the odds in our favor, I think it was Einstein who told us that everything is relative and probabilistic. Do what you can to make things turn out, but don’t be surprised if they don’t. The Emergency fund helps cushion the blow of those red stops coming up on the wheel.

  4. I love this post, Karl! Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  5. Modest Money says:

    And here I thought that line was literally talking about trees lol. Thinking about it more it really is a great proverb. Our future is within our own hands. If we want it to turn out a certain way we have to put in the effort now and make the right kind of decisions. Sure I should’ve planted my tree years ago, but there’s no point in stressing over that. Instead it’s time to break out that shovel and start building towards a better tomorrow.

    • Karl says:

      Sometimes it really is about a tree. There are some fantastic trees that I’d love to have in my yard, but they really and truly would need 20 years in order to be more than a 2 foot tall plant. Sometimes there are shortcuts (like buying a mature tree) but there are always trade-offs (like the price of a 20 year old tree, it would be in the thousands).

  6. Nick says:

    Without fail, whenever I do something “wicked smaht” I wish I had done it earlier. Makes me wonder why I delay things that I think are “wicket smaht” for way too long. #Idosillythings

    • Karl says:

      That’s the problem huh? I really try and learn as much as I can through others mistakes, but some of them you really don’t believe until it happens to you. 🙂

  7. “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago…” To me it means that there are certain things that you are doing currently in your life that you would have been better off doing years earlier. However, I think that thinking about it in these terms is what tends to hold most people back. Whether you did it right or wrong 20 years ago shouldn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve evolved, and that you’re using your past knowledge and experience to improve the quality of your life.

    • Karl says:

      Yup, look forward and do what you can to affect the future. And there are plenty of things I wish I had done 20 years ago. I’m sure that list grows ever longer with life for all of us.

  8. If we were only smart enough when we were young to know what we would need when we got to the age we are now! This post needs to be required reading for every high school student. There is so much information available to kids today on the internet that my generation never had a chance to read.

    • Karl says:

      What’s that quote, something along the lines of youth is wasted on the young? 🙂 The problem with the young is that they’re so smart they don’t need help. It’s not until you’re older you realize how dumb you actually are. 🙂

  9. YFS says:

    I love love love the 3rd paragraph of this article! It’s a real kick in the pants. To answer your question, today I’m starting on studying for my CFP and preparing to live on a budget as if we have a child. Need to get used to the lack of money :/

    • Karl says:

      That’s a great goal. How long is the CFP program? I know there is a test and then the work experience portion, but I don’t remember how long each part is. Best of luck!

  10. Michelle says:

    Loving this, Karl! I struggle with motivation at times, so remembering this lesson will be helpful. Your post made me laugh, though, as we lost 3 big, tall 25 year-old trees from our yard in a storm last year. I pouted for weeks about it when I found out we wouldn’t be able to fully replace these beautiful trees, but would instead have to wait until they filled out a bit….years later. We still haven’t replanted as we’re not in a financial place to buy things we don’t need. We will get around to it, hopefully next year.

  11. When people fail they tend to feel that they are useless. They feel that they would fail for there entire lives. A person who has not succeeded so far does not mean that he would not succeed in future. If he is poor today that is because of his past actions. If he is poor today and he is try hard to improve his circumstances gradually he would improve. And as enough time will pass he would be astonished with his rise 🙂

    truly said – what you are right now was because of what you did in the past. what you do right now would decide what you would be in future

  12. I must not be up to speed on my ancient Chinese proverbs, although I love how you applied it. “When’s the best time to invest in your 401(k)/buy Apple stock/buy a house?” 20 years ago!

  13. AverageJoe says:

    I always enjoy hearing the mantras of successful people. Yours reminds me of one of my favorite Tony Robbins lines: “The past doesn’t equal the future.” Too many people get wrapped up in what they were yesterday. If you want to change, do it.

  14. Shilpan says:

    Karl, this is fantastic article. It resonates well with my beliefs. Where I am today is culmination of actions that I took several years ago. I love this sentence, “Everything that you are, do, and have in life was set in motion by your choices, luck, and environment earlier.” — Superb!!

  15. Just for kicks, here’s another tree quote: “Young men cut down trees. Old men plant them” ~ Anonymous

    Good inspirational article, Karl. I’ve planted 11 trees at our house. I’m still planting today.

  16. […] Cult of Money talks about the art of start / being proactive with his article The best time to plant a tree.  The 3rd paragraph of this article is worth the price of admission, but I suggest you read the entire article. […]

  17. Geoff says:

    Or, as some would say, it’s all down to ‘consequences’. Most of the time we only have ourselves to blame, though of course circumstances in life can conspire against us.

  18. Karl,

    Great post. Fantastic way of reminding people to focus on today. I’m a firm believer in moving forward. Just don’t forget to learn from the past.

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