The Snowpants Rule

[Every issue of Green Living contained a Publisher’s Page in which I tried to sound like a mature, adult-like person, not the eternal adolescent who brings you the Silverback Digest. Wearing my publisher hat, I always try to sound like a fellow who in another era would smoke a pipe. SB SM]

by Stephen Morris

Recently, my oldest son, now a thirty-something living in New York City, referenced “The Snowpants Rule.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“What’s that?” he looked at me incredulously, “You made it up!”

“Remind me then.”

“When we were little kids and we’d want to go out and play in the snow, you’d tell us we couldn’t go out unless we promised to stay out for at least as long as it took us to put on our snowpants in the first place. The Snowpants Rule.”

Ah-h-h, yes. My mind reeled me back across the decades to packaging up my son and his brother in hats, boots, mittens, and snowpants to be protected from the harsh, Vermont winter. Too often, after taking fifteen minutes to properly bundle them, they’d feel the first puff of wintery chill and would be banging on the door to get back in.

My son continued. “I’ve found The Snowpants Rule can be applied in any number of other situations, too. For instance there’s the Travel Variation of The Snowpants Rule. It’s not worth traveling anywhere unless you are planning to stay there at least the square of your travel time. So, don’t spend two hours going somewhere unless you are planning to stay there at least four hours (2 x2=4). If it takes twelve hours of travel time, you should spend 144 hours (12 x 12), or six days, there. It’s a very versatile rule.”

I’ve thought a lot about The Snowpants Rule since then. The concept is brilliant, not because I gave it a name, but because of its simplicity. Paraphrased, it is “think through your resource requirement before embarking on a project.” Duh, that’s a no-brainer, you say, but it’s amazing how many times we see it violated in real life. A few examples:

  • I was approached recently by someone wanting marketing assistance to increase volume on a product with a cost of $12 that they would sell at a retail of $16, giving retailers a 40% discount (netting $9.60). Since each transaction would be losing $2.40, increasing the volume wouldn’t help much.
  • A local restaurant failed because the owner finally realized that with the number of tables he had and the number of “turns” he could do each evening, he would never be able to cover his fixed costs. He did the math, but only after the fact.

This brings to mind other cliches, such as “plan your work and work your plan.” These are wise words that apply to many situations, but how often do we violate them? Another variation on the theme is what I think of as The Garden Rule. When planning a garden, complete your plan, then cut the garden size in half and cut it in half again. Seasoned gardeners have learned the hard way that what seems feasible when tilling in April may be a tangle of untended weeds come August.

Another variation of The Snowpants Rule can help you in managing your investments. Remember the Tech Bubble? Fortunes were lost when decisions were fueled by greed, then losses were exacerbate by tumbling prices caused panic selling. Now, before making an investment I try to ask myself “What profit will I be satisfied with and how much am I willing to lose?” If you are disciplined enough to follow your own advice, you might occasionally leave money on the table, but you will also avoid the classic mistake of throwing good money after bad. I call this the Greed and Fear Rule.

And what does this all have to do with Green Living? Everything, in my opinion. People who are “friends of the environment” are thought by some to be tree-hugging dilettantes who can afford to pay carriage-trade prices to drive their Priuses to the local co-op.

See! This kid understands the complex world around him.

My definition of a “friend of the environment” is a cheapskate who thoughtfully applies The Snowpants Rule to each and every decision, fully considering the resource requirements and payback. Should I grow kidney beans in the garden when I can buy them for $0.79 a pound at the supermarket of $1.69 for the organic ones at the co-op? From a dollar and cents perspective, this is a no-brainer, but what if you factor in the fact that my out-of-pocket costs are zero because I saved seed from last year’s crop? What if I monetized the benefits to my health from the fresh and exercise I get in the garden, or to my psyche from the rhythm of the shelling. Then there is the satisfaction from consuming something in March that came from your own soil and has been touched at least twice by your own hands. I can’t express these as numbers, but I promise I’m going to grow beans again!

Applying variations of The Snowpants Rule to other parts of your life will help you better understand a complex world.

Stephen Morris, Editor

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