Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thoughtless giving

Thursday is my day to write about charitable giving.  Why do it?  Maybe you believe you ought to donate to charity because you were raised to be a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart, liberal do-gooder like me (see my tribute to my Miser Dad).  Maybe you want to give because you come from a spiritual tradition that encourages regular giving to others.

Any financial advice you read will contain some variation on the advice, "pay yourself first".  (I googled that phrase and got 587,000 hits.)  That's an incredibly important way of making sure you save for the future, putting aside money for emergency funds, for retirement, and for other large goals.  The advantage of making this process automatic is that quickly you don't even notice the money "missing" from your paycheck anymore; you learn to live on the rest of your salary.

Well, if you believe that it's morally/ethically/theologically important to donate to charity, a similar kind of thinking suggests you also ought to "pay others first" as well.  That is, there ought to be a a part of your financial strategy where you "just do it" -- you don't go to the mall first and then squirm over whether there's money left-over for charity later.

Here are several ways to consider starting (or adding to) the "pay others first" process.
  • One way is just to write the first check of each month to your favorite group.  (Ours goes to our church, for example).  
  • Another way is to pledge to long-term donations for a group that regularly charges your credit card.  We sponsor children through World Vision this way, for example.   (This assumes you don't carry a balance on your card!  You don't want to make regular donations of interest to your credit card company).
  • A third way is to donate to/through an organization at work -- United Way is a common example.  This last way has the psychological advantage that you never see the money that you give away, so it doesn't feel as much like you "lost" it.
You might not know--as I didn't during my first few years at my job--that you can direct money through United Way to not-for-profit human service agencies that are not on the United Way list.  Such an organization might be a religious organization such as Catholic Charities or the Jewish Community Center or even a church that has a daycare center or a food bank.  There are also other organizations not in the United Way brochure that you may name as recipients, such as Planned Parenthood.

"Tithing" and "first fruits" is a central part of many religions.  I've read lots of books by people who wrote, "Even when we hardly made any money at all, we always tithed faithfully".  Well, that's not me.  But long before I became a Christian, I was drawn to this idea of giving away 10% of my salary, if only I could figure out how.  Regularly giving small amounts, and slowly increasing those amounts, have been my baby steps toward this goal.

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