Saturday, July 30, 2016

When people ask me for money, I . . .

I spend a lot of my financial thinking time thinking about getting a good portion of my family's money out of our hands and into the hands of others who can use it.  I've written in a bunch of different places about donating money, belongings, and time (sometimes, even body parts) to charitable organizations.

It's not surprising, therefore, that we get a lot of requests from charitable organizations.  Actually, what does surprise me is how seldom I get requests for money from people I know.  I've been serving breakfast at a nearby homeless shelter one morning a week for about a year now.  Not one person has hinted at money -- I've loaned one person a book; I loaned one volunteer a cloth bag (to bring home spare bagels); and another guy (who got out and moved away) calls me once a week just to chat about life.  But not one money request.
Funny side story:  A friend of mine from work, whose son goes to the same Quaker Local School that my sons went to, asked my husband if I was going to go to the school's benefit auction.  "C'mon, she's gotta go," my work-friend urged him.  "These Quakers are frugal; they're her kind of people!".   My husband laughed his head off:  "These Quakers drive their kids to school in SUVs, and their kids all have the latest iPhones! They're not Miser Mom's people!"  And no, I didn't go to the auction to buy artwork (etc) I don't need, but mostly because I hate buying stuff.  So, apparently, auctions are the wrong way to ask me to help with a charity!
Occasionally I get funding pleas from distant family members or former students of mine who are taking on an activity for charity.  My ex-aunt-in-law, who is a wonderful person, did a cross-country ski thing to raise money for cancer research; an alum of mine grew his mustache in Movember for a similar cause.  In general, if I think the cause is one that I don't find objectionable, I'll go ahead and donate $25-$50 to the charity they're promoting.  I like hearing from my distant aunts and from my former students, and if this is what it takes . . . well, I know the College I work at asks them for money, so I don't mind setting a good example while simultaneously bribing them to write to me.

But of course sometimes I get hard-luck stories from people I know, and a couple of times a year we'll get requests from kids from church who are trying to raise money to go on missions trips. I've been reading blog posts lately regarding some new (to me) phenomenon called "GoFundMe", and good timing, because earlier this summer I just got my first GFM request.

Hard-luck stories: it took me a while to come up with a good response to them.  For example, I knew a woman who I'll call "Beverly".  She'd been in and out depression (even going to a hospital for a while).  She stayed at our home for a week or so after one hospital visit, not because she was homeless but just because she didn't want to be alone.  She got so far behind in her various payments that she was afraid to open her mail or answer her phone, because it was always creditors or other bad news.  But she (mostly) had the money to pay for her debts (mostly, not entirely).

When Beverly moved back into her apartment, rather than give her money to pay her bills, I went two or three times to just sit with her while she sorted mail.  I'd open the envelopes and put things into piles.   She paid bills online, if she could, or create an IOU pile if she couldn't.  I was just the calm, non-anxious presence, and she really needed that.

That was years ago.  I most recently saw Beverly at the homeless shelter where I serve breakfast.  She'd lost her apartment and was now living at the shelter.  She eventually had to leave the shelter, too -- I don't know where she is now.  I don't know how much my sitting with her all those years ago helped (if it helped at all), but I know that money wouldn't have made a difference.

So.  I got my first GoFundMe request, this one from a former student, a student whom I will call "Pat".  Pat and Pat's twin sibling (raised by a single parent) have a pile o' student debt.  Pat is interested, long-term, into going into grad school, but in the meanwhile, wants to go work overseas at an "underfunded school" in a region of the world that is very much related to Pat's intended grad work.  There's very little money to go around in the family; does anyone want to help?

I've never asked my former professors (and other internet-connected people) for money; but I have gotten travel grants that helped me early on in my career.  And I had parents who put me through college without any debt.  So I don't at all sneer at Pat for asking for money or think that I'm better because I wouldn't do the same myself.  On the other hand, since I'm not going to open my wallet, how can I support this young scholar?

For what it's worth, here's what I wrote, deciding to share advising and philosophy as opposed to sharing cash:
What a wonderful adventure lies ahead of you!  You have a good heart, and I think you're right that this could be terrific for you, both in terms of your professional but also in terms of expanding your own views.

So, the bad news is that my husband and I have a policy of not giving money to people going on trips.  (For example, we sponsor children in other countries, but we don't pay for people who go on missions trips to those countries).  

On the other hand, I'd love to help you achieve all these goals.  It turns out, I'm particularly good at figuring out how to do big things on a little bit of money.  When my husband and I got married, I "inherited" his huge financial obligations.  Somehow in spite of all this, we got things under control and managed to get to the point where we could pay off our home early, adopt a bunch of kids, get multiple kids through college with little-to-no debt, and set my husband up for early retirement.

SO . . . if you'd like some advice on how to frugalize your life, advice that might make the upcoming trip less expensive but that might also help you financially through the rest of your life, I'd be happy to offer that.  Ooh, and books.

Are you likely to be in [our town] any time between now and [the day of your trip]?  If so, I'd love to have you come over for lunch or dinner. 

If Pat hadn't written back, I would have been okay with leaving the conversation there.  But Pat did write back, with this message:
Hi Professor!!
Thank you for your kind words. They are very encouraging, as you always are.
All that you are offering sounds great! I would love advice and books and a meal. I'll let you know when I'll be in town, because I definitely will be.
And that's how Pat and I got together earlier this week. We would have had quiche, except that Miser Dog ate it first, while we were touring the garden (dang that sneaky Miser Dog!)  So we had homemade bread with store-bought peanut butter, plus homemade salsa and peaches from our tree.  I got to hear updates on Pat's very interesting life, and I got to load this former student of mine down with a few more books (the Tightwad Gazette and Your Money or Your Life).

What people ask for, it's not always what they actually need.  I'm so glad, though, that people ask.  Because the request gives me a chance to connect and reconnect with people, to share a bit of my own life and my own interests, but also to hear more about theirs.

But Miser Dog, man, he's got some 'splaining to do about that quiche.


  1. Your generosity is one of the things I like most about you. Great response to "Pat".

  2. Your response was awesome and it's possibly the best NO that I have ever heard. You are my generosity hero now. Thank you.

    1. Aw, shucks, thank you. I've always wanted to be a super hero!