I am very fortunate. John and I are both employed and the paycheques that arrive in our bank accounts each month add up to more than we need to cover the bills. After many years as cash-strapped students, it’s a wonderful place to be and I am painfully aware how few young people can say the same in this tough economy. While it took hard work and sacrifices, we are aware that we also had the wind at our backs. We’ve had advantages, whether we knew it or not, and we’ve had luck.
Now I want to give to those who haven’t had as much. John and I agree that charitable giving is important to us. We want to donate to organizations that are reputable and provide concrete help to those that need it. Food. Clean water. A warm bed. A vaccination. Whatever simple need that will make life more livable, both locally and globally.
We agree on all this, so why is it that we only donated 0.2% of our income last year to charity? The facts should be simple: we have more than we need to meet our basic human needs right now and there are people around us who don’t. As decent human beings, we know we ought to help.
But then other voices kick in. Ones that say “what about saving for the kids you plan to have?” and “you really should put money aside to go visit your mom” and “there is no such thing as extra money when the bank owns most of your home.”
These voices are strong and they are smart. In fact, these voices have gotten us to the point where we can even contemplate giving in the first place. They often keep us home when we are tempted by dinner out or a weekend away, so they certainly make themselves heard when we are contemplating giving our money to something with far less instant gratification. The quiet satisfaction you get from donating to charity requires a more sophisticated palate to be appreciated. It becomes all too easy to put off. As we do.
I come from a family – in fact, a culture – where charitable giving never entered the conversation at the kitchen table. In Finland and other socialist-leaning economies, the social contract doesn’t leave generosity up to individual choice – a highly progressive tax code ensures that those who have more give to those who have less whether they like it or not. In exchange, the government does a relatively good job of ensuring that no one in the country goes hungry or cold and the highly taxed can sleep soundly at night.
Now, in a country with a smaller social safety net, I simply don’t know how to negotiate the personal choice to give.
And it’s no surprise – there is very little guidance on how to negotiate this choice. In the secular, middle-class world, charity is such a personal and quiet choice it becomes very nearly invisible. In the finance books and blogs I’ve read, charitable giving is conspicuously absent from spending breakdowns, except maybe as a tax break for the wealthy or a teaching tool for young kids. For everyone else, the message is always focused on all the other places our money should go. Are young families simply not in a position to be giving money away? Or are they just not talking about it?
We should talk about it, because charitable giving is not easy, especially in isolation. If I’m completely honest, I’ll admit it’s hard to give up luxuries we enjoy, like dinners out, only to then give away the money to someone else. There, I said it. I might as well dye my hair rainbow and move to the Capitol. (Oh who am I kidding – we’re all already there.) Giving will always be a deeply personal choice and one that you have to prioritize for yourself, but I know more open discussion would help quiet those voices in my head and make the sacrifices easier.
John and I will always be somewhat cautious because it’s our nature, but we know we can do better than 0.2%. Yes we need to save for a rainy day, but there are people standing in the middle of storms right now. What we need is to find our own comfortable balance between the moral imperative to give and the practical imperative to save – while still preserving the life imperative to have fun once in a while.
What are your thoughts on charitable giving? And if you donate/plan to donate in the future, how do you balance all these competing priorities for your money? And I am specifically speaking about donating money – I think I’d like to talk about donating time in another post.