It’s Thanksgiving week in the U.S., and I’ll be happily reading all the gratitude posts that other bloggers share. I did a big one last year, if you’re curious. Also last year we shared how we’d convinced our families to do a no-spend Christmas — this is a great time, before Black Friday is upon us, to broach the subject with your families. For those families that tend to go all-out for the holidays, even spending just a little less than normal is a big win and great progress. Going giftless helped us remember that the holidays aren’t about stuff, they’re about love and being together. Cheers to that.
Gratitude: It’s All Good
I’m kind of a broken record on gratitude, mostly how there’s no downside to recognizing all the help we’ve received, and that doing so doesn’t diminish our own accomplishments. And that gratitude is good for our health.
Please take some time this week, especially if you’re gathered with friends and family, to express your gratitude to them. What they mean to you, how they’ve helped you in life, what you’d miss most if they were gone. Don’t assume anyone can read your mind. Share your sincere thanks out loud, and mean it when you say it.
They’ll feel good. You’ll feel good. It’s a win-win.
Gratitude Is Not Enough
Saying thank you is a wonderful thing, and reminding ourselves of the ways we’re fortunate is important. But it’s not enough all by itself.
Those of us on the path to financial freedom, even if we’re right at the beginning of that path, have an important duty. Allow me to misquote Peter Parker’s (Spiderman’s) uncle Ben:
With great wealth comes great responsibility.
Any of us who are even in a position to ponder the possibility of financial independence are already far luckier than most people walking this planet with us. We have more economic power than most, and with that power comes the responsibility to help, however we can.
Getting Rich Isn’t a Recipe for Generosity
If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably had a thought along the lines of, “It will be great one day when we can afford to give more to charity.” It seems like such a natural idea: build up our own wealth, achieve a certain level of comfort, and then give away what’s left over.
But in fact, the wealthiest Americans give far less of their income than do the very poorest Americans. According to The Atlantic:
One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income. In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. The relative generosity of lower-income Americans is accentuated by the fact that, unlike middle-class and wealthy donors, most of them cannot take advantage of the charitable tax deduction, because they do not itemize deductions on their income-tax returns.
I’ve always thought of the many philanthropic gifts I see noted on museums and hospitals and cultural institutions and assumed Of course all rich people donate lots of money! But the data show otherwise. The Atlantic article goes on to speculate that the very mindset that helps a person become wealthy is a me-first mindset, one that prioritizes self interests over other people.
And it’s easy to see how that habit could emerge: as we optimize our budgets to think about how we can save more, we either don’t make room for charitable giving, or we start to trim it to free up resources for investing or debt pay-down or whatever else we’re focusing on. If we don’t make a conscious effort to give now, at whatever level we’re able, it will be that much harder to get in the habit later, even if we have more money at our disposal.
And this matters, because the stakes are high.
Ask Not What…
Everyone knows that JFK quote, right?
Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
– John F. Kennedy
Though the quote is famous, the sentiment behind it doesn’t get much airtime anymore. Maybe we have grown more greedy or more selfish, though I doubt it’s that. I see too much goodness on a regular basis to believe that about people. I suspect it’s that we’re overburdened by increasingly demanding work, and when we do have brain space to look outwardly, we’re focused more now on the niche causes that are close to our hearts.
But we find ourselves in a difficult, perhaps pivotal, time in history. And not just in the U.S., where politics has divided us more than anyone can remember. Divisions are arising all over the globe, from the Brexit vote between the UK and EU, to the continued unrest in the Middle East.
It’s time to go back to thinking about the big picture. About how we can all help each other. How we can heal the wounds that divide us. How we can protect the people and institutions that need protecting.
Giving While Still In Debt
Debt is a commonly cited reason why people don’t give. But consider: Eight in 10 Americans have debt of one type or another. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts:
Overall, 80 percent of Americans hold some form of debt, whether mortgages, car loans, unpaid credit card balances, medical and legal bills, student loans, or a combination of those. The most frequently held form is mortgage debt (44 percent), followed by unpaid credit card balances (39 percent), car loans (37 percent), and student loans (21 percent).
Debt is ubiquitous. Those who are debt-free are in a small minority.
If only the debt-free donated to charity, philanthropic funding of important causes would plummet. There simply wouldn’t be enough of us chipping in to make a dent on the important issues facing individuals, our society and the planet. Things would get demonstrably worse.
Instead of saying we can’t give while we’re in debt — which also runs the risk of burnishing in that bad habit of not giving, which is hard to kick even when we do have the means to give — what if we find ways to scale our giving so it doesn’t impose hardship, but does still make a difference.
Instead of thinking of the latte factor as inhibiting your personal financial growth, what if we look at it as inhibiting your giving? For those who haven’t cut the cord, could that money spent on cable do more as a contribution to the greater good? Could the funds spent on lunches at work be repurposed to feed the actual hungry? If money is truly tight, could you put some of your free time to better use to help out in your community?
Giving Is Contagious
The Guardian conducted a recent study on the science of giving, finding — perhaps unsurprisingly — that giving is largely motivated more by emotions and influence than by logic, including this nugget:
The good news is that charitable giving is contagious – seeing others give makes an individual more likely to give and gentle encouragement from a prominent person in your life can make also make a big difference to your donation decisions – more than quadrupling them in our recent study.
Everyone can remember a recent example of this, when people all over the world started pouring buckets of ice water over their heads in the name of ALS, a disease they knew little about. All because someone they knew asked them to.
So today, we’re going to try to create a little contagion. And we hope you’ll pass it on.
I know it’s intimidating to think about which organizations are worthy of your hard-earned funds, even with resources like GuideStar and Charity Navigator out there rating charities on their effectiveness and stewardship of resources. If you don’t already have a list of organizations you could support more generously, I humbly offer the list of those that we support regularly, all of whom meet our criteria for effectiveness and worthiness.
And to strengthen the nudge, we’re making an extra donation to each one today. If you would consider chipping in a little to the charities of your choice, too, and then asking someone else to do the same, we’ll be on our way toward making a difference.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — legal protection for first amendment rights, as well as other social justice issues like mass incarceration and voter disenfranchisement
Feeding America — combats hunger by supporting food banks across the country
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) — combats climate change and other pressing environmental issues
Doctors Without Borders — provide medical aid during crises around the world
American Refugee Committee — provides support for refugees in crises around the world, including Syria
Earthjustice — legal protection around critical environmental issues
Our NPR member station — news from a trusted source who is not-for-profit, providing a critical check on the power of government
The Trevor Project — provides support to LGBT youth, including suicide prevention
MALDEF — civil rights protections for Latinos
Planned Parenthood — largest provider of routine exams and cancer screenings for women in poverty, many of whom have no other health care access
Whether you choose to support any of the same causes that we support is not the point — what matters is that you give however you can, whether it’s with your money or your time or both. Don’t wait until you’re the Monopoly man to start giving — use your powers for good now.
How Will You Use Your Power?
Let’s discuss in the comments, and then pass this on to others in our lives. How will you use your economic power for good today? What causes do you wish would get more attention and more fundraising dollars? How will you translate your gratitude into action? How can we all spread the word and spread the contagion?