Underclaim, Overgain

Did you know that a few billion dollars in federal tax refunds go unclaimed every year? Billion, with a “b.” Money that belongs to people, and it just doesn’t get claimed.

In some cases, there might be mitigating circumstances – deaths of the primary claimant that haven’t been resolved, things like that. And it’s also possible that some folks just don’t have a great handle on their lives at the moment and so they miss it. But here’s my thought: for a lot of those people, it probably makes perfect sense.

Claiming a reward for something takes juice. Maybe not as much as earning the reward in the first place, but it’s not free. If you win a car in a sweepstakes – even if all the taxes are paid – you still have to physically go to wherever the car is and pick it up. Even if it gets delivered, you have to be home that day! Yes, these seem like minor inconveniences for a free car, but the point is that it’s certainly possible that you have a conflict with something else that’s more important. Maybe your child is going in for surgery that day, and you can’t leave them to go pick up a car. Life happens.

Okay, now onto the broader point. Because claiming your due carries a cost, it makes sense that you shouldn’t claim everything you’re due. Even at the barest minimum, claiming takes precious time. You’re technically “owed” a lot of things that it makes no sense to collect. If you spot your buddy for coffee one day, you could easily make the case that your friend “owes” you a dollar. But how much sense does it make to try to claim that? Would it even be worth your time, let alone the social strain, to call your friend and make them wire you a buck?

People with a fixed mindset and with a poor mentality often spend an inordinate – even absurd – amount of time trying to claim the things they’re owed, even when the cost of doing so far outweighs what they receive. You’ve met these people. The people who tally every little thing, the people who are far more obsessed with “fairness” than with success, the people who pay for a $17 pizza with a $20 bill and instead of saying “keep the change,” make the delivery driver count them out a buck thirty back because that’s the exact amount of a 10% tip. It’s not just money, either: “Sure, I’ll give you a ride to work since we work in the same building. But you’ve got to give me a ride next week,” even though they don’t need it and it doesn’t matter. Stuff like that.

You’re burning more resources making these claims than you’re getting from them. Sometimes, even the big things aren’t worth claiming. Yes, you should probably get upset if you don’t get your paycheck or the large item you ordered and paid for. But even then, if there’s enough of a dispute at some point you may have to just evaluate what it will cost to get your claim and possibly write it off. Yes, that will sting a little. But you can get what you want, you can get what you’re owed, or you can feel self-righteous – but only one.

Quick aside, and a great example: I recently watched the movie Moneyball for the first time (I know, I’m way late to this one). In the movie, the GM and Assistant GM of the Oakland A’s are using a statistical analysis to build a team, while the manager objects because he’s more traditional. Despite his objections, the process works and the A’s go on a winning streak. The news runs a story about the A’s winning “seven in a row,” but gives credit to the manager (the one who objected the whole way). The Assistant GM hears this story and is upset; he says to the GM “Did you hear that?!” The GM responds: “I heard ‘seven in a row.'”

Absolutely perfect. He isn’t concerned about getting credit, regardless of whether he’s “owed” it. He’s concerned about getting what he wants. Save your energy for the big claims, the ones that will pay off. That means letting some – maybe even a lot – of the small ones slide.

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