Thursday, November 29, 2012

Workin' on my Ph.3.

I blather on occasionally about giving money away.  You might suspect that this is important to me, and if so (surprise!) you'd be right!

That doesn't mean I'm good at it.  A 10% tithe?  That's been my noble goal, in the same way that not overeating at Thanksgiving is a noble goal, and riding my new bike a lot is a noble goal, but so far I've fallen far short on all three.  I'm a flabby giver.  But I don't want to make excuses like it's the turkey's fault I over-ate, or the bike's fault that I'm sitting on my duff.  And along the same lines, I'm not about to kid myself and think that a 10% charity goal is unreasonable, just because I haven't reasoned my way there yet.  You might say I'm still working on my Ph.3.:  my Phrugal Philosophy of Philanthropy.

Here's what the dissertation looks like so far.  Here are three secular reasons why I think charity is so important to my own frugal well-being.

1.  Giving well takes practice.
It's been harder than I would have thought to do good things with our money, so if I'm going to hand out large amounts of money someday, I'm glad I started practicing by handing out small amounts of money now.
  • We used to donate semi-regularly to a preacher my husband had heard, a man who travels to all sorts of impoverished countries.   I was dubious about this guy, but my husband was enthralled, hence the donations.  Finally, after I read one of this guy's brochures aloud to my husband (claiming to have instantly healed hundreds of people in a revival meeting merely by the laying-on of hands), we agreed together to direct our funds into some relief organizations that had more verifiable, if somewhat less dramatic, impact.  
  • As a more benign example, we used to donate canned goods and household goods to our local women's shelter.  Then one weekend we volunteered to help with repair and cleaning work there.  The director sent my family down to the basement to sort things out.  Imagine your own hall closet at its messiest, and then imagine a whole basement of stuff like that.  The shelter had gotten bags and bags of miscellany from warm-hearted people like us.  One bag might contain hats and a lamp; another canned food and pairs of shoes and soup spoons . . . it was an organizational nightmare.  We spent all day sorting, putting things on shelves, labeling things carefully.  There were huge amounts of canned food, but since it was all jumbled together, most of the women in the shelter couldn't find what they needed and went out and bought food themselves . . . after all, grocery stores stay organized, even when pantry shelves don't!  After this experience, we donate our used household goods to places that actually have the staff to sort it.  We don't donate canned food anywhere, but we do give money to the shelter and the local food bank so they can buy their own.
2.  Weighing my needs against other peoples' needs reminds me which of those are really "needs" and which are "wants".
  • If my own sheets were getting a bit worn but K-daughter didn't have a bed to sleep in, I wouldn't tell her to wait a few years for her own bed so I could have nice sheets and and pillows myself right now.  No, I'd make my own sheets last a bit longer, and I'd set aside some other money, and I'd make sure my daughter could sleep in her own bed at night.  Well, kids (and grown-ups) had their whole houses washed away by hurricane Sandy.  So should I replace my 6-year-old sheets or instead use my "sheet money" to help find beds for my neighbors?
  • If J-son were hungry (and he always is), then I wouldn't tell him to wait a month or so because I haven't been to a nice restaurant with my husband since September.  No, I'd feed J-son right now (and I always do).  In the city I live in, one-in-five children is 'food insecure'.  Nationally, that ratio is one in four.   So do I need to eat out at a restaurant this week?  Wouldn't I rather know that children in my city have access to food?
  • If N-son got strep-throat, I'd give up time and money to go to the doctor and pay for meds and get him well again.  I wouldn't make him wait until I'd gotten to see the latest Lincoln movie that I really need/want to see.  But children all around the world are dying of preventable diseases, some of which cost less to treat than my co-pay for strep.  Doesn't it make sense to give up movie money to help save a child's life?
I'm not saying that I live with no luxury or that I give up everything nice for myself -- far from that.  What I am saying is that I weigh my luxuries against other peoples' needs, and that, very often, this keeps me from buying myself stuff just for the sake of buying myself stuff.   And when I don't spend as much on myself, that just so happens to free up money I can use to help others.

And this little argument segues nicely into . . . 

3.  I only have eyes in the front of my head, and I go where my eyes lead me.
  • My husband often complains he's a slow bicyclist because he sees those first 18 racers finish ahead of him.  But I, watching the race from off to the side, see the 60 people behind him who just wish they could be good enough to finish in the top 20.  He doesn't have eyes in the back of his head, so even though he knows those slow-pokes are there behind him, he mostly forgets they exist.
  • For most of my day, I'm surrounded by people who make as much money as I do.  There's a certain lifestyle that naturally "goes with" this much money.  It's easy to get sucked into thinking this lifestyle is "normal", and then to spend up to it.  (Some of my husband's former colleagues used to complain about having to travel to Europe back in coach instead of business class -- what hardship!).  But thoughtful giving of time and money to people who earn less money reminds me of the luxury that my life really is.  (Traveling to Europe by plane is pretty darn special, even back there in coach).  Looking at the needs of others resets my financial "normal needle" to a lower (and I'd say, healthier) level. 
  • In the same way that my husband sees only the cyclists ahead of him, if I keep my eyes mostly on materially successful people, I'm tend to feel like a material failure, no matter how many people I know are worse off than me.  Some of my friends and colleagues, I visit their beautiful, well-appointed homes, and then I come back to my home, and everything I own seems dingy and messy.  It's hard, really, not to be a little depressed.  But then I spend time with another friend who is avoiding collection agencies, or I volunteer overnight in a homeless shelter, and my own home seems like a cross between a safe haven and a magnificent palace.  Generosity to others does the opposite of making me feel deprived: it makes me more content with my own life.
And this last sentence is perhaps the biggest reason for generosity of all.  It's as counter-intuitive as believing that getting up at 6 a.m and running several miles is going to make me feel like I have more energy.  And it's true that, the first couple of times I went running, I felt miserable, just like when I first started giving away money, the donation felt like a blow to the budget.  But long-term, the effects of both exercise and generosity are just the opposite of that first initial sacrifice.  In fact, this is a big enough reason that I think I'll say it again, and end the post here.
Generosity to others doesn't deprive me of things I really want;
instead, it makes me more content with my own life.


  1. I really appreciate this post and your philosophy. We are not religious, so we don't tithe, but 10% feels like a worthy goal. In the last year we have tried to be much more intentional in our giving - we identified 5 charities that support causes we care about and we have set up monthly donations to them. We are still in the stage where this feels like a hit to our budget,, but I hope we can continue to bump up annually til we are at the 10% level (we are at less than 5% now).

    1. Thanks for the encouragement. I started trying to give money away even before I became a Christian, and was surprised that in fact I was more active with charity than my christian soon-to-be-husband. In fact, I do believe that the good that giving does to the giver is just as much a here-and-now thing as a There-and-Then thing, if you know what I mean.

      Even *wanting* to give, as you're showing, is a great way of stretching ourselves. --MM

  2. Frugal Ecologist sent me here via a comment on our blog today where I posted a recent conversation with a blog reader about charitable giving philosophies.

    Even though I have a completely different philosophy on giving, I really appreciated reading your perspective.

    Don't take this as a criticism, but I tend to worry about those who have a large focus only on the needs of others before themselves. I'm sure there's a happy medium, which hopefully you've accomplished, but I have seen this weigh heavily on others.

    For instance, one friend in retirement is super-involved in animal rescue agencies, and will donate TONS of money if it means a single dog will not be put down. There was a time when we were genuinely concerned that she was spending hundreds to thousands of dollars a day on this cause - and she has since had to taper it back significantly so as to not impact her financial security. But she has a very difficult time separating herself from the needs of those animals and she can get so down just thinking about all of their needs. I'm just not sure that's good for one's mental health.

    Again, thanks for the read - and to Frugal Ecologist for sending me here. =)

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I read your nice post on GRS the other day and enjoyed it.

      It is true that generosity can go to extremes, granted. But for most people, worrying that giving to charity is so addictive that you'll wind up like that one person who put herself in financial difficulties because of generosity -- well, that's like deciding not to try to lose weight because you know someone who's anorexic. For many of us, the problem is that we focus too much on our own immediate wants, and that's where our financial danger lies. For most of us, a hundred-or-so dollars a month is what we spend at the mall. Or on gasoline. On fast food lunches. On things we don't even remember buying.

      Most of us could live (if we had to) on only 90% of our income, and most of us know many people around us who already live comfortably on that much or less. As you point out on your own blog, there are very, very valid reasons not to give to charity (getting out of debt is a huge one for many people), but I'm not worried that spending 90-95% of my take home pay on myself and my family puts me in danger of focusing too much on the needs of others instead of myself. --MM