The Squirrel Story: How Rich Plans To Increase His Giving (And Not Be An A-Hole)

Penny has a low income and gives 10% to charity. She NEEDS to give. Her cousin Rich has a high income and gives less than 5% to charity. So Penny asked Rich to explain why he doesn’t give more. He claims he’s not a materialistic hedonist, but is he a selfish asshole?

Here is Rich’s response, in the form of a parable.

It’s called The Squirrel Story.

Once upon a time, there were 5 squirrels. They were Gray, Red, Blue, Green, and Gold.

Gray Squirrel lived in an old, diseased tree that did not produce any acorns. He had a hard life. To feed his family, he depended on acorns from other squirrels, as well as acorns stored in Central Oak. This had been going on for generations, but there was not much he could do until his tree was healed. He dreamed of moving to a new tree, but it was not so easy. He was thankful for the acorns he received. He was a good squirrel.

Red Squirrel lived in a healthy, cozy tree, even though it was low on acorns. She had a simple life. She grew 10 acorns each year and did not waste any. She gave 1 acorn every year to Gray Squirrel, and it made her heart glad. However, she too needed acorns from Central Oak to feed her family. What’s more, she owed Central Oak many acorns, and it would take her years to pay them back. Probably she would not have many acorns left for her little squirrels as they searched for their own trees, but she knew they would be fine. She was happy in her cozy tree and thankful for what she had. She hoped her tree would keep producing just enough for her to live on. She was a good squirrel.

Blue Squirrel lived in a strong tree, with exciting branches to explore. His tree shared a common root with Red Squirrel’s tree, but produced many more acorns — 100 every year — because Blue Squirrel had learned how to grow them quickly. He gave 2 acorns each year to Gray Squirrel, and it made his heart glad. He gave 20 acorns each year to Central Oak, which did not make his heart glad, but greatly helped the forest. He did not borrow acorns from Central Oak, nor did he owe. With the rest, Blue Squirrel stored some for the winter, saved some for when he was old, and gave some to his little squirrels. In his squirrel mind, he hoped this would help Gray Squirrel, Central Oak (and, thus, Red Squirrel), and his own family’s trees for generations. Besides, he enjoyed growing acorns. He was a good squirrel.

Green Squirrel also had a strong tree that produced 100 acorns every year. She enjoyed storing and giving and saving, too. But, she was tired of growing acorns, so she developed an innovative plan. She stored as many acorns as she possibly could, sometimes 25 or 30 every year! As soon as she had enough acorns to survive the rest of her squirrel life, she planned to stop growing them so quickly (it was tiring work, after all). Green Squirrel wanted to enjoy the forest, and hopefully her tree would remain strong enough to sustain her. She had seen a few other squirrels do this — in particular, an odd squirrel with a mustache — and she thought it was worth a try. She was a good squirrel.

Gold Squirrel had a freakish, oversized tree that produced 1,000 acorns every year. But, he was not happy. All day and night he thought about growing acorns. He resented Central Oak, he thought other squirrels were lazy, and he did strange things with his acorns because he had so many (like painting them gold). He did not give to Gray Squirrel, and sometimes he tricked other squirrels out of their acorns. Or he took them. He was not a good squirrel. He was a selfish asshole.

One day, Red Squirrel noticed Blue Squirrel’s tree (they kept in touch, because they shared a common root). She saw all the acorns, and wondered if he wanted to be like Gold Squirrel, the asshole. So she asked Blue Squirrel, “Are you a selfish asshole?”

Appreciating her honesty, Blue Squirrel said, “Nope. You know me! At least … I don’t think I am.”

“Well then, what are you going to do with all those acorns?” said Red Squirrel.

Blue Squirrel replied, “I’m going to store some for winter, save some for when I’m old and can’t tend my tree, and give some to my little squirrels. I want them to learn to grow acorns too.”

Scrunching her nose, Red Squirrel asked, “But what about Gray Squirrel? He needs help. His tree is diseased. I give 1 acorn for every 10, and right now you give 2 for every 50. This is not right. I am giving more when you consider how many acorns we have. Are you sure you’re not a selfish asshole?”

Blue Squirrel thought about this. He thought about all his storing and saving and giving. And he thought about Gray Squirrel. “You are right,” he said, “I should give more to Gray Squirrel. He really needs it. I’m good at planning, so I will create a plan to do this.”

“I will give another acorn to Gray Squirrel immediately, because I have plenty to give. Thank you for helping me to see this. It makes my heart glad. But I will also keep storing acorns so I won’t need to borrow any from Central Oak when winter comes. I will keep saving acorns so I won’t need to grow so many when I’m old and tired and can’t tend my tree. And I will keep giving acorns to my little squirrels to help them grow their own strong trees that will never become diseased. Then they, too, can avoid borrowing from Central Oak.”

Red Squirrel was okay with this, but not completely satisfied. “I’m glad you are giving a little more to Gray Squirrel, but your plan still seems asshole-y. All this talk about storing and saving and giving acorns is too complicated. When does it end? Why will you need so many acorns?”

Blue Squirrel pondered this. And then he realized something important. It’s not about the acorns. It’s about the trees.

“Red Squirrel, by focusing on the trees both now and in the future, there will be more acorns for everyone. If my plan works, my family’s trees will produce many, many acorns. Over time, we can continue to increase our giving to Gray Squirrel in a sustainable way. Because my tree is strong, I can use my acorns for all these plans at the same time without running out and without being an asshole.”

And then Blue Squirrel looked closely at Red Squirrel’s tree, because they shared a common root.

“Red Squirrel, we share a common root and our trees started growing in the same ground. Your root was just as healthy as mine, and you are a very smart squirrel. So why is your tree not producing more acorns? From the same root, I am now giving 3 acorns to Gray Squirrel while you are giving 1. And I am also giving to Central Oak, while you are taking from Central Oak. So you see, I am giving more to the forest by tending my tree. Have you mistreated your roots? What if your tree becomes diseased, like Gray Squirrel’s?”

Red Squirrel contemplated this. She did not like being questioned by this asshole. “No no no, we do not worry about such things. Our roots are fine and our tree is healthy. We do not need it to produce more acorns. Yes, I share a common root with you, but my tree has grown differently, and I’ve tended it differently. We are different squirrels! That’s why our trees are different. I am Red and you are Blue.”

Blue Squirrel then realized something else important. It’s not about the acorns, and it’s not just about the trees, it’s about the trees AND the squirrels.

“Red Squirrel, I can see that you are tending your tree in your own way. You have the gift of being content with your acorns (some squirrels are not) and the gift of giving to Gray Squirrel as your tree allows. Those gifts are good for the forest.”

I have different gifts. I have the gift of tending my tree to grow many acorns, which I can give to Gray Squirrel, to Central Oak, and to my little squirrels. I also have the gift of planning for winter and old age. These gifts are good for the forest. We are each playing an important role in the forest according to our trees and our squirrel gifts.”

Red Squirrel knew Blue Squirrel, and she knew his heart was in the right place. She decided he was not an asshole like Gold Squirrel. Maybe if she kept talking with him, he would stay true to his heart and increase his giving to Gray Squirrel as his tree made more and more acorns. He he was certainly good at growing acorns.

Blue Squirrel knew Red Squirrel, and he knew her heart was in the right place. She was unselfish — maybe too unselfish! He decided she was not mistreating her roots. Maybe if he kept talking with her, he could help her strengthen her tree and save more acorns for winter. She was certainly good at not wasting acorns.

Blue Squirrel also wondered about how best to help Gray Squirrel, because even more than acorns, what Gray Squirrel needed was a new, healthy tree. And certainly he could learn to use his own squirrel gifts to tend a tree. Then he could survive on his own, and teach his own little squirrels to tend trees as well. Because it’s not really about the acorns. It’s about the trees and the squirrels.


Blue Squirrel and Red Squirrel were happy for this conversation. They realized they could learn from each other. They even decided to start a squirrel blog! Soon they were also talking with Green Squirrel and Gray Squirrel to see what they could learn from them, and more and more squirrels of all colors from all types of trees joined them to talk about acorns and trees. It was good for the forest.

Except for Gold Squirrel. He did not join in because he was too busy counting acorns. What a greedy acorn-hoarding piece of $h*t!


The morals of the story:

  • Don’t miss the forest for the trees; don’t miss the trees for the acorns.
  • Give a squirrel an acorn and you’ll feed him for a day; teach a squirrel to tend a tree and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.
  • Personal finance is personal; every squirrel is different. Most squirrels, if their hearts are in the right place, are not assholes.
  • Rich is a little bit nuts.

25 Replies to “The Squirrel Story: How Rich Plans To Increase His Giving (And Not Be An A-Hole)”

  1. I love the parable Rich, even if it is a bit nuts. As I commented on Penny’s message giving to me is not a rational discussion, its a mix of morality and happiness. Even the gold squirrel is within his rights to act the way he does. I just wouldn’t want to be his friend.

  2. The Gold Squirrel’s rights extend to the tip of my tree, as they say. I actually don’t know anyone like that, although extremely wealthy people are sometimes painted that way. The wealthy people I know are quite gracious (small sample).

    Also, it’s easy to start from where people are now (high income or low income; high net worth or low net worth) without considering where they came from. I find this fascinating as I discuss these issues with my cousin, because we literally started in the same place. Of course we’re not the same people, er, squirrels, but we’re not all that different either.

    Thanks for the comment! –R

  3. I’ll need to add this post to my permanent collection of references. Much easier to send people to read this bit, than have hours of circular discussions. Love the way you packaged up the story, and more importantly the honest way you two can have an exchange about these subjects.

    1. Thanks Max! Back when I studied Theology and Religion (not exactly your typical high income degrees), I used to get lost in circular discussions all the time. A lot of learning to think and thinking about thinking. I rarely got anywhere, ha ha…

  4. I love the way that you weaved in this story. I have to admit I wasn’t sure where you were going at first. Very clever way and I definitely provided a fresh way of thinking about things. Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. MustardSeed — thanks for reading! I wasn’t even sure where I was going with it when I started. But I didn’t think I could really get where I wanted to go with a straight explanation of numbers and financial priorities, as important as those are. If that makes sense.

      Adding you to the blogs on Stuff We Like. I really need a Blogroll page, so many good ones out there. Best –R

  5. In my defense, it was the article that I linked to that suggested rich people might be a-holes. I wasn’t trying to shame you or make you feel bad about not giving more. I was simply curious as to the reasoning behind it. I don’t really care about how much you do or do not choose to donate.

    1. Pen – thanks for chiming in! You have nothing to defend and shame had nothing to do with it. I enjoy the conversation. I’m surprised if you really don’t care at all, there were quite a few all caps YOU’s (directed at me), which usually denotes some kind of emotion. Or was your caps lock key stuck?

      1. Fair enough, Rich. But I want you to know that it’s not caring in the best possible way. In a non-judgmental, not-wanting-to-shame sort of way, if you will. I never intended to judge you. Sure, I was giving my opinion on what I think humankind NEEDS to do, but do I really care one way or another? Not so much. My big thing was with the WHY of it all. (And I think that if you go back and look at my post, you will see that whenever I used caps, they were addressed to YOU within the WHY-context questions.) I wanted to know WHY you didn’t give more, I was curious about it, I wanted to understand, so I asked, and you did a good job of explaining it to me.

          1. I didn’t mention this much, but I have a slightly different angle on giving than some. I understand when people give and say they are doing it for themselves, for something inside the giver. But that doesn’t resonate with me too much. Having traveled to some pretty desolate places, I try to put myself in the shoes of the recipient (Gray Squirrel, in this case). If I were in those shoes (or that tree), what are my needs and how would I feel about receiving the gift?

            Even if I’ll never meet the recipient or find out what happens to them, that thought process spurs me to give. It’s also why I personally give more internationally, because I’ve seen places where there is literally nothing holding people up other than donations. No right or wrong here, just sharing the process.

  6. I really enjoyed the story you crafted up in response to your cousins post. In my mind, giving is giving, it is all fungible. And regardless of the % of your income, there is no argument that someone making $10M a year giving $250K (2.5%) is going to have more impact than someone making $40K/year giving $4K (10%).

    I also like the idea of setting up a sustainable process to give.

    Do you wonder if the giving your cousin does is neutralized by the support she gets? She gives 10% of her income, but is the support she is giving of equal of greater value? Meaning the net economic value of that charity is potentially zero or even negative. Or put another way, it is like getting a gift from Peter to re-gift to Paul.

    Where in contract the theoretical high income dude giving $250K or 2.5% of his income is actually created a net positive in economic value with his charitable giving.

    I think the other piece of the story that might be missing is the analogy for taxes to the government. In my mind, central oak is the bank, but what about Uncle Squirrel?

    Earning more, typically translates into more taxes, which then funds the social programs that people like your cousin benefit from.

    Look, I have nothing against government support, as I grew up on welfare as a kid. I benefited from this when I went to college and had most of it paid for by the government (because I chose a state school). And the small $13,000 in student loans I did take out were federally subsidized.

    But like you said “lets not miss the forest for the trees.”

    Giving is giving, regardless of the source. But not all giving has positive economic value, regardless of the good place it may come from.

    I personally think that those that can’t support themselves have not business giving. But that is my story and not necessarily someone else.

    As always, great dynamic between you and your cousin Penny on this blog.

    1. Dom — great thoughts, and every thought you had has passed through my mind at one time or another. I especially appreciate the fact that you grew up on welfare and your response has been, basically, hell no I’m never going back there!

      One reason I wouldn’t give while receiving government support would be to break the cycle of dependency, sort of put on my oxygen mask before putting on the mask of others. Another reason would be that quite simply I’m getting the money for that purpose — it’s the ideal goal of the “giver” that I become financially self-sufficient, not that I just continue to get by. Penny has her own Red Squirrel perspective …

      Penny’s loans are federal and it was only for simplicity that I combined the roles of bank and government into Central Oak. Uncle Squirrel rules Central Oak probably, or some would say Janet Squirellen, or Donald Sqrump. Hardy har.
      Rich @ recently posted…Monthly Happiness Report: Rich Increases His Brain Waves By 0.0125 In March 2017My Profile

  7. I like what you guys are usually up too. This sort of clever work and
    exposure! Keep up the excellent works guys I’ve
    added you guys to my personal blogroll.

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