What do you believe is most important? Becoming very well off financially, or developing a meaningful philosophy of life?
Come on, now. Be honest. You are reading a personal finance blog.
A similar question has been posed to college freshman via the American Freshman Survey, a survey that has queried 15 million students over the last 50 years. Students are asked to rate life goals with varying degrees of important. In 2016, those rating “becoming very well off financially” as important rose to a high of 82%, compared with 47% rating “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as important.¹
The priorities received equal ratings around 1978, and since then, money has quickly outpaced meaning. GenX and Millennials were similar in their ratings of importance for each of these goals. Since 2008, the percentage of college freshman rating becoming very well off as important is on the rise. Clearly the recession didn’t shift people back toward meaning over money, as some thought it would.
But it isn’t hard to imagine why. Those born after 1995, labeled iGen by lead generational researcher Jean M. Twenge in her book of the same name, came of age in a time of economic uncertainty. Surveys show their attitudes to be less idealistic and entitled when it comes to work, school, and income than Millennials were before them. Instead, they report attitudes that are more pragmatic: they believe they need to earn a high income just to make ends meet. Contrary to common perception, fewer young people today report a goal of becoming entrepreneurs compared with young people of past generations. To a group raised in the height of the safety craze as well as a recession, entrepreneurship may sound too risky.
What to make of all of this? Certainly money and meaning aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can become excluded on a practical level. Though I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, I suppose I started this blog trying with the goal of integrating the two, or at least holding both in the balance.
Placing less value on meaning can lead to some scary trends, such as less volunteering and charitable giving. Indeed, both these social practices are on the decline among Millennials and iGen. Yes, you read that right: despite all the hype about Millennials being more socially active, they only report favorable attitudes toward volunteering and charitable giving. Self-reporting in the American General Social Survey show less engagement than previous generations at the same age.
Concern with money over meaning is also contributing to what former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims calls “the college admissions arms race.” In her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, she laments the extreme competitiveness surrounding elite college admissions, which is viewed by many as the only path toward a financially stable life.
The problem both Lythcott-Haims and Twenge report, from their vantage point as academic faculty, is that college students are no longer there because they care. Past generations viewed college as a great privilege, an opportunity to learn and explore; now it’s simply a means to end.
Just some whiny college profs? Maybe. But what will it mean for our society if young people, usually the most passionate dreamers, are cynical or indifferent? What will it mean for charities, non-profits, and the people and causes they serve? What will it mean for professions high in meaning and relatively low in salary? I’m thinking teaching, social work, and the arts, to name a few.
Perhaps some will conclude there need not be a distinction between meaning and money. That frugality can be a way of life so all-encompassing it constitutes a controlling value. I’m no philosopher, but I think this goes too far.
Certainly we can value meaning while also making a decent living and handling money prudently. This may look differently for each person, but some principles stand out:
- Live on less than you make. Depending on your situation, this may mean you need to make more, or spend less. As a culture (species?) we tend to assume we need more, but a hard look at our spending may reveal otherwise.
- Prepare for a lifestyle in congruity with your chosen profession. When enrolled in the college of education, I had no dreams of ever living large. I figured my faith and my library card would get me through life.
- Do absolutely everything you can to keep your school debt in proportion with your earning potential. While in high school, use Post Secondary Education Option, AP or dual enrollment courses, and retake those standardized tests at least once for a shot at raising your score. Then apply for scholarships, re-apply each year, get a part-time job, and consider taking some courses at a community college to reduce tuition costs. And please choose a reasonably priced university.
- Start giving as soon as you graduate (or even before). Don’t wait till you’re making the big bucks to make regular charitable donations. Start early and small, and increase with each raise so it just feels like a natural part of your financial plan. Regular givers report this is the most fun they have with their money.
- Make time for people. Long hours or side hustles can be profitable for a season, but if you don’t have time for family and friends, you may be placing money over meaning in a way that compromises your mental health. If you need to, make relationships a calendar item. Schedule a family night, date nights with your spouse and children, and time with your friends, as well.
- If you’re working toward FIRE, what’s your goal? Doing more of what you love? Or more of what makes a difference in the world? Meaning is perhaps never more important than in such a potent position as early retirement.
Do you think it’s naive to value meaning over money? What are some ways you keep both in balance?
¹All research from the following:
Lythcott-Haims, J. (2015) How to Raise an Adult. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
Twenge, J.M. (2006) Generation Me. New York, NY: Atria Books.
Twenge, J.M. (2017) iGen. New York, NY: Atria Books.
Lifestyle inflation is a popular personal finance metaphor for the phenomenon of expenses endlessly rising to match (or surpass) income. It captures the predicament of the 37% of Americans living in one of the world’s richest countries who claim to be too broke to save. And it describes what those pretending to poor want to avoid. Bloated spending not only causes financial problems, it also makes people less useful. It ties up time and money so that it all has to be spent on lifestyle maintenance, leaving less room for meaningful pursuits like family, friends, and volunteering. Plus, when life is centered on convenience and acquisition, people miss out on the satisfaction of becoming handy, resourceful, and helpful.
But those of us who don’t inflate our lifestyle also face potential danger. Have you ever thought about what you are inflating instead? We need to invest in something we can put stock in, and I don’t mean the stock market. If all you inflate is your bank or retirement account, you’re missing out. Saving and investing are worthy, responsible steps that we preach. But we all know there’s more to life than money. Most people think this “more” is freedom: from the 9 to 5, having to worry about money, or keeping up with the Joneses. Freedom is depicted as early retirement, working for yourself, traveling-hacking, or otherwise finding happiness outside materialism.
These are all appealing replacements to lifestyle inflation. But will they pay the dividends of a joyful and productive life? It’s easy to place false hope in the financial freedom or frugal ecstasy so often promised. A growing body of research documents the correlation between increased wealth and decreased interpersonal skills, emotional health, and happiness:
- Lonely At The Top, by Thomas Joiner, documents the tragic pattern of men achieving success and wealth, only to find themselves without companionship.
- In the Boston Globe article “Why It Matters That Our Politicians Are Rich” Britt Peterson reports, “Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble.”
- Richard Ryan’s report in The Annual Review of Psychology (2001) found that a focus on financial and material goals correlated to a lower sense of well-being and found money is not a reliable predictor of happiness.
- Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege states the “newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families.” These privileged kids are more likely to suffer from depression and other emotional ill health.
Yikes! There is a real gravity toward these scary outcomes for the wealthy. Pursuing wealth for different reasons doesn’t make us immune. Let’s heed these warnings and not let the journey to so-called freedom make us slaves to side hustles and financial goals. We want to remain flexible while increasing our financial flexibility, and the key lies in what we’re inflating along the way.
To us pretending to be poor is about inflating our usefulness at the same time we invest for future needs. Our financial journey isn’t just about us, or even our family. If we get to “retire” early, that’s just icing on the cake, because we’re using our time and money to build a good life NOW. And the good life is not just about geeking out over spreadsheets, net worth, and shopping at ALDI. It’s not just about finding happiness in frugal hacks and free pleasures. The good life is about helping others.
The outcome of inflating your usefulness isn’t to leave yourself destitute, but to “do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:18, 19). So how can deflating your lifestyle inflate your usefulness?
- Work to live, don’t live to work. A good work ethic is important, but working constantly while ignoring family, friends, faith, and those in need is not a balanced or healthy life. If you’re hustling for the proverbial dangled carrot, maybe it’s time to free yourself from the rat race, not necessarily by retiring early, but by deflating your usefulness so you don’t need that carrot.
- Get useful by DIYing. Some people feel excited when they find the next new product that will make their life easier. Don’t get me wrong, I love my microwave and dishwasher. But others seek accomplishment in spending less, and this often results in becoming more useful. For example, I love Indian food, but I don’t love spending money at restaurants. So I’m learning to make Indian food. Neil enjoys riding his bike because it’s free exercise and saves on transportation costs. For both of us these money-saving measures are enjoyable in part because we feel accomplished after a challenge.
- Share the usefulness. Now that you have amassed helpful DIY skills, you can help other people. When someone need helps with a broken car or house, you can help. When someone loves Indian food, you can cook. You are saving other people money, perhaps teaching them useful skills, and feeling satisfied by widening your sphere of usefulness. Even if you don’t have amazing skills, simply by making time to help others you will find a world of needs to meet. Volunteering for an after school program, the high school group at church, to help a friend move, or to babysit are all ways we’ve found to be useful. Other ideas include volunteering at a nursing home or hospice center, Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers Big Sisters, English tutoring for refugees, mentoring teens in prison, or taking a short-term missions trip. (I’m going to India this summer!)
- It is better to give than to receive. Freeing up money to give to charitable or faith-based causes is hugely rewarding, and, need I mention, helpful! For example, donating to disaster relief in Nepal would expand your usefulness to a global scale. Yes, you have to do a little research to make sure an organization is trustworthy. But there are lots of reputable places and you can check them out on charitywatch.org or ministrywatch.org. Or visit a local food bank, after school program, or homeless shelter and check it out yourself.
- Be a good friend. The research on sad, rich Americans should be sobering. Thankfully the antidote is simple and free: have friends. Caring about other people and sharing life together can keep you grounded and balanced throughout your financial journey. You’ll avoid ending up lonely at the top, and you’re bound to be useful if you’re a good friend.
Titus 3:14 describes usefulness well: “Our people must learn to do good by meeting the urgent needs of others; then they will not be unproductive.”
What DIY success are you most proud of? What have you learned from sharing your time or money with others?
When I hear people write or talk about “extreme frugality,” I cringe for a couple of reasons. First, because we’re wealthy compared with over 99% of the world. Secondly, because you can only maintain “extreme” frugality for so long.
For example, we put up to half our income toward a financial goal for 5 years. We cooked all almost all our food at home, drove old cars, and did very little to update our home during this time. We did bare minimum shopping for clothing, and almost everything was purchased secondhand. Gifts for our children were modest and often used. The kids wore mostly hand-me-downs. Some might say we were “extremely” frugal in this time, though I never viewed it this way because we always had everything we needed, purchased what we really wanted, and maintained habits like giving, vacationing, and hosting.
Since meeting that goal and sending our first child off to school, spending has increased in comparison with the previous 5 years. We bought clothes and shoes to replace those that had worn out. We decorated our home (a little). I bought my kids clothing for the first time, since the hand-me-down chain slowed down around school age. We spent on preschool, then soccer. Quite a few items in our home had seen better days, so we replaced them.
There were “luxury” items, too. Neil got invited back to India. We went to see a professional musical. We bought our 6-year-old a birthday gift that was new rather than used for the first time–the amazing Lego Boost. Neil got me a laptop for Christmas.
I’m sure you get the picture. We limited our spending quite a bit for about five years, and then we let up because things were worn out, and we were just ready to loosen the belt a bit.
We all go through financial seasons. There is a time for saving, and a time for spending. Yes, we always need to do both. But there are seasons when one takes precedence over the other, and that’s normal.
Unfortunately, many frugality articles don’t make this seem normal, at least at a glance. When bloggers publish monthly expense reports that highlight extremely low spending, it makes it seem like they will be able to live off that amount forever. They won’t. And you won’t, either.
Maybe you’ll attend–or be in–lots of weddings or have the opportunity to travel. Maybe you or someone in your family will experience health problems. Maybe ants will eat your house. Maybe you’ll need to replace a vehicle sooner than you’d expected. Maybe you’ll need to move. Maybe you’ll have a baby. In other words, maybe life will happen and it will be expensive.
We all pass through different financial seasons in life, and a snapshot like a monthly expense report can’t convey that complexity. You may be in a different season than others, so take expense reports (or real-life spending comparisons) as information, or inspiration, but don’t take them too much to heart. You’re looking at a moment in someone else’s life, a little bit like those cheery Facebook photos that reflect only the happiest, most envy-worthy moments.
I believe in the power of frugality in making financial progress, hence our site name. But I also know that frugality has its limits, and “extreme frugality” is not only an oxymoron by the time it appears on a web page, it’s also not as sustainable as people sometimes sell it as. Live reasonably, work toward your goals, and be generous. Always keep money in perspective: “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5).
What financial seasons have you experienced? Was it hard to go from a saving season to a spending season?
Sometimes when you’re sad, you just don’t care. You don’t care about money. You don’t care about work. You don’t care about blogging.
I’m sad, and I’m finding it hard to care about those things. I’m not depressed. I still care about the important stuff: my family, my faith, my friends. But I am finding it awfully hard to care about anything related to personal finance. It just doesn’t even seem relevant, because no amount of money can fix what I’m sad about.
I haven’t suffered a tragedy. I can’t even imagine being the victim of the recent hurricanes or terrorist attacks, nor am I coping with the death of a loved one. But being sad does have me thinking about ways of coping when you’re sad, and how that affects people’s money.
And it’s making me feel completely unqualified to sit here and tell people what to do with their money. Or even how to think about their money. Because I’m thinking of all the sad people out there, and how completely inane and irrelevant financial advice must sound to them. So today, instead of asking you to change how you think about or handle money, I’m just going to ask you to try to understand other people.
Sometimes sad people spend. That comforting take-out, new outfit, or sleek tablet can take away the sting, at least for a little while. Us bloggers virtually lecture people on how that feeling won’t last, but sometimes when you’re sad enough, you’ll take what fleeting pleasure you can get.
Sometimes sad people treat others. It feels good to make someone else happy, so they’ll buy a round, or treat people to lunch. They’ll buy gifts, even extravagant ones. I have a philosophy of generosity that tends to focus on those in “greatest need” in my view. But maybe sometimes the giver is actually the one most in need. And they just need to give however they want to.
Sometimes sad people don’t think about the future, because it feels too sad. They don’t care how much their 401k will grow if they invest 15% of their income each month. They don’t care when they’ll retire, or get out of debt, or save for their goals. Thinking too far ahead is too overwhelming, too hopeless.
Sometimes people get way too sad and lose their motivation at work. It’s a catch-22, because going to work and contributing to society helps you feel better, but getting that train moving just seems insurmountable.
I’m sure others cope by throwing themselves ever more into their work, goals, or financial improvement. And that can be good or bad, or more likely, both at once.
How is feeling down affecting my finances? To be honest, it’s not. The coping mechanisms I mentioned above just don’t happen to appeal to me. And I’m in a privileged position where my financial state is impervious to my feelings. I don’t take that for granted.
For me, I’m just too sad to write about money. All I can give you this week is a post about people. Because they’re what actually matter. Try to understand them. Try to care about them, and show them you care. If they’re sad, don’t tell them how to manage their money. Don’t tell them to stop spending or start saving or bust out a godforsaken investment calculator on them.
Sometimes when people are sad, an act of love goes so much further than advice. Buy them coffee or lunch or a gift, to give that little glimpse of enjoyment. Or let them buy you coffee or lunch or a gift, so they can feel that spark of joy that giving brings. Spend some time with them. Maybe it’ll light the fire to care about work again. Maybe, just maybe, that spark will light the fire to care about the future.
How do you handle personal finance differently when you’re sad? What have you found most helpful in those times?
When I started a personal finance blog, I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew I wanted to help people with personal finance. I liked to write and had a knack for frugality. I wanted to bring a spiritual, biblical perspective to personal finance topics.
I also knew that the personal finance blogosphere was pretty crowded, and that good bloggers comment on other people’s blogs.
What I didn’t realize was just how time-consuming and thought-consuming blogging could be. For a while it felt like I spent hours fussing over each post, proof-reading, trying to find the perfect words, image, and points to convey my message. And reading and commenting on others’ blogs was fun but overwhelming. I could spend all my free time on it and still barely scratch the surface of what was out there.
While I never set out to “build a successful blog,” more people started reading and commenting. As the daily views rose, so too did my concern with growth. Could this month exceed last months’ views? It was a peripheral but persistent thought. Plus lots of other bloggers write about blogging. How was their blog growing? What income was it earning? Should I pursue the freelance writing opportunities blogging can open the door to?
Career is also a natural topic for personal finance bloggers to cover. Here I was, someone who never put career first, and left paid work entirely after the birth of our second child. Even with PF bloggers communicating respect for SAHMs, I felt like a failure. Why hadn’t I taken my career more seriously (I knew the answer)? What was I going to do when my kids are in school? Would I have any decent career options left to me after years out of the work force?
Still years away from the point when we decided I’d go back to work, I found myself worrying about work. It took time and prayer to convince myself that my season at home was not the time to fret about work. I kept praying Galatians 6:14 “that my interest in the world would die, and the world’s interest in me would die.”
I’m not blaming other blogs for my worries. My brain naturally hangs onto what I read, mulls it over, and makes a case for or against adopting a philosophy or advice. This has led to some of my most popular posts, as well as personal angst. Because sometimes I inadvertently hang onto others’ messages even after I decide they’re not for me.
I knew something had to change. So I chose to stop reading posts about blogging. I chose to stop reading posts about side hustling. I chose to stop reading bloggers whom I simply couldn’t relate to, or who came off overly dogmatic. The hordes of childless twenty-somethings attempting lifestyle topics sounds a little passe to a sometimes-cynical mother. As I stopped steeping my mind in personal finance articles, I found myself increasingly at peace with my season in life. And my blog.
At the beginning of the year, I decided to read only my favorite blogs, and then only when I have time. I decided I could repost old posts if I didn’t have time to write. It often feels like this site is one week away from extinction. Will I have a topic? Will anyone care? Part of the struggle was I no longer knew who my audience was. Or rather, I had two different audiences simultaneously in mind: the people I knew IRL, and the people (mostly bloggers) who comment here.
So with the turn of the year I also decided to write primarily what would be helpful to people I know. Most PF bloggers don’t actually need more financial advice.
There are other dangers with personal finance blogs: taking major financial advice from non-professionals, getting obsessed with money or a certain lifestyle, looking at only one side of an issue, or getting caught up in the comparison game. For the most part, those just didn’t happen to be my struggle.
Do you want to know what happened when I stopped spending so much time thinking and writing about personal finance?
My readership stats went down. And I didn’t care.
I got fewer comments. And I didn’t mind.
I enjoyed the blogs I did read more. It no longer felt like an obligation, but a pastime.
I stopped worrying about work and focused more on my kids.
I read books instead of blogs posts. Lots more books than I had been reading. Books about parenting, marriage, ministry, and spiritual growth. Books with full, complete arguments instead of 500-word ones. And even fiction!
I grew more confident in our financial choices, including the fact that we keep our plans and goals flexible in order to follow God’s plans.
I’ll never have the most successful or profitable blog—and that’s fine with me. I didn’t set out for that, I got a little lost along the way, and I’m glad I found my way back to my purpose.
What topics would be most helpful to ya’ll readers? What do you tend to be more interested in—“how” posts or “why” posts?
As my birthday approaches, this thought started popping into my mind: “I should register that Starbucks gift card I got so I can get a free drink. Maybe I could sign up for Dunkin Donuts perks too, now that I have smartphone. I wonder what other free treats I could get?”
The parents I know (including myself) are always sharing how to get the kids free treats, free (new) small toys, free tickets to events…all the local free offerings. I like free stuff as much as the next person. Probably more. And I appreciate it when people tell me how to get free stuff.
I’ve done my share of sharing how to get freebies here. I openly embrace the following forms of free:
- All things library—normal circulation and also summer reading prizes. Summer = summer reading program to me.
- Hand-me-downs—they’re simply the best.
- Trash-picking—if it’s something you need or really want, and it’s not just clutter, why not?
- Credit card rewards—we are happy to collect some free hotel stays and occasionally flights through our normal spending and the business travel expenses we have to charge.
But regarding the birthday treats, I’m saying no. If I want to splurge on a special coffee that day, fine. Four dollars is not going to change my life. And I’ll pass on the kids’ birthday clubs, too. The $3 Toys R Us coupon is, we all know, just a seduction to spend much more than that. Though, quite preciously, my 3-year-old chose to use hers on a $5 water bottle. Gotta love a practical kid!
Add to the list “free” items offered by overpriced stores, “free” items that are more than 5 miles from my home, buy-one-get-one “free” items when the first is overpriced or just unnecessary, “free” store credit coupons when they create a cycle of needless spending, “free” shipping when you spend an astronomical sum that negates all the “good” prices you’ve found, and “free” giveaways that require you to sell your personal information and convince all your Facebook friends to do the same.
Why am I such a Scrooge? Who doesn’t want free stuff?
I want my time more than I want to sit in a drive-thru line or fill out online surveys because I feel obligated by “free.”
I want my brain power more than I want to remember to sign up, carry around, use before expiry, and unsubscribe from ceaseless marketing, all in the name of free.
I want my money more than I want to buy each kid a treat when anyone in the family has a free birthday treat.
I want peace more than I want to deal with telling them no, you can’t have a treat, when someone else gets one. Maybe this will get easier once everyone is out of preschool, but it’s just not worth it at this juncture.
I want freedom more than I want to be tied to driving around to get all this free stuff.
But even more importantly, I want to choose a contentment that doesn’t rely on a special freebies to keep me happy. I want to stay free from the cycle of treating myself, or my kids, on a regular basis. I want our daily lives to be rewarding enough that we enjoy what we already have instead of always needing something more.
And sometimes we make better choices about consumption when money has to change hands. Most of the free items on offer aren’t exactly the most healthy or high-quality items. Chances are you’ll be trying to lose that unnecessary weight from your body or your home before long.
The other glaring problem with “free” is that it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Let’s be crystal clear here: stores are not handing out free items because they’re expecting to lose money on it. So often, that freebie comes with a coupon for a percent of your next purchase. Or a catalog full of wonderful “sale” items. Not to mention the freebies are of course funded by other consumers–including you whenever yours isn’t free.
And if that special treat doesn’t leave you hankering for another one next week, you’re an unusual person. We all know it’s a marketing ploy to get you hooked, and maybe even feeling goodwill toward this benevolent company that graced you with a freebie. Next week’s treat feels justified—even feels like it’s half-price. After all, last time it was free. And if you just buy five more, the next one is free!
Next time you get a BOGO coupon for something you weren’t going to buy in the first place, tear it up. Break the cycle of addiction to free. Enjoy “free” selectively, when it doesn’t infringe on your time, thoughts, spending, and habits.
Have you ever found yourself caught up in the “freebie” cycle? Which freebies are worthwhile to you?
Some people don’t invest much because it feels complicated.
Some people don’t give much because it feels complicated. How much to give? Where to give? How do I know the money will help the people it’s intended for? And so much more.
My hope is to unlock the generous potential in people by dispelling a few misconceptions that become barriers to charitable giving. Here goes…
- Generosity is irresponsible.
Can people give money away to the point of failing to provide for their own family? Yes. Do people sometimes get scammed out of their money, thinking it’s going to a good cause? Yes. Of course this does not mean that all or most charitable giving is irresponsible.
It’s entirely possible to give responsibly and generously, even on a small income or while paying off debt. Don’t confuse “generosity” with “giving away gobs of money.” I find working with percentages helpful here. For example, perhaps while you’re a student you could choose to give away 5% of your income. Once you have full-time employment you could work your way up to 10%.
- Generosity is enabling.
Unfortunately, there are “charities” that are completely bogus and just out to steal your money. Usually with a bit of research you can sniff these out. What’s sometimes more confusing are the well-meaning groups who provide types of “help” that are not actually helpful. Hand-outs that protract the poverty cycle, assistance that’s culturally inappropriate, and gifts that don’t uphold people’s dignity all fall under this category. Two thoughts on sifting through these factors:
- Do you know what fees you’re paying on your investment accounts? Do you know what rate of return you’re averaging? Good! If we care enough to do a little homework with our investments, it only makes sense to see how our charitable investments can be expected to perform. Ask questions, get personal recommendations, read ratings web sites, and consider volunteering or observing the work if possible in order to get a good read on whether the group is helping or hurting.
- Don’t get paralyzed. Finding the “right” organization to give to can easily hold up the practice of generosity. I know it did for us. To get the ball rolling, consider giving to a group that is providing disaster relief, such as the Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse. It’s hard to argue against helping out during a natural disaster.
3. Generosity comes from excess.
Perhaps this is the most pervasive and perilous myth about generosity: I’ll give when I have more. When I get my big-girl job. When I get that next promotion. When I’m comfortable. In the same way that we chase more money for ourselves, we also tend to think we’ll become more generous when we have more. Meanwhile, studies show the poor are more charitable than the wealthy.
When I was in high school and college, I had very little income and gave away a minuscule amount of money. That pittance didn’t change anyone’s life—except mine. This early practice of giving set the course for a lifelong assumption of generosity which has informed all our financial decisions, from which college to attend, to what degree to pursue, to the home we purchased. We’ve made our share of mistakes, but at the end of the day, we’ve always been in a position to give because we made a habit of it before we had much.
Fifteen years later, I’m certainly not giving away a fortune. But the quiet, consistent giving year after year has added up to enough to make a difference in several lives. For us non-millionaires, consistency is the way to go when it comes to philanthropy.
If you want a big impact on a limited budget, consider funding a micro-credit loan (scroll down to find) to help a person in poverty get training and funding to start a small business. They even receive financial training to help them earn a profit and repay. And here’s the cool part—once they pay back their loan, that money goes toward funding another micro-loan. Talk about a ripple effect!
4. Generosity is interchangeable with volunteering.
“Time is money, so giving away time and money are interchangeable.” Sorry, but that’s just bad logic. If your boss offered to pay you in home repairs, that barter might work out for a pay period, should you happen to need repairs. (Who doesn’t?) But by next pay period, you’re going to need money to pay the bills and buy groceries. Same goes for organizations that accept volunteers and financial gifts—and the people or causes they serve. No one can get by on helping hands alone. That’s simply not how life works.
I commonly see people switch the topic from giving money to giving time, as if they’re somehow synonymous. They’re not. We should do both and talk about both, but let’s not excuse ourselves from generosity by volunteering.
- Generosity feels good.
We all know generosity isn’t about the giver, yet I write posts like “Get Rich with Generosity” and cite studies showing how people who give away 10% of their income are happier. It’s interesting research, but if we’re giving in order to receive we could be sorely disappointed. Sometimes giving doesn’t feel good. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything. And sometimes it’s better than the best shopping high.
The problem enters when we decide how, where, and when to give based solely on our emotions. I want to keep a compassionate heart that responds to needs in the moment. But if my generosity is limited to random acts of kindness, I’m bound to have less impact on others than if I make a thoughtful choice to partner with a charity for the long haul.
If you’ve read this far, you probably care about being a generous person. There’s no one right way to be generous, and there’s so much more to generosity than what we’ve touched on here. But the greatest danger isn’t that people won’t give anything at all, but that they’ll come short of how generous they could be. This is always my concern for myself in this area. I’ll leave you with a verse that has motivated me not to neglect this important area:
“You do well in everything else. You do well in faith and in speaking. You do well in knowledge and in complete commitment. And you do well in the love we have helped to start in you. So make sure that you also do well in the grace of giving to others.” (2 Corinthians 8:7, emphasis mine.)
What other misconceptions about generosity have you heard? What did you have to wrestle through in order to start giving away money?
Perhaps you’ve heard that Warren Buffet calculates the cost of purchases in terms of what that money could yield in the stock market over many years. It’s a different way of thinking that can turn that daily lunch out into a $150,000 proposition. Last we looked at the art of the alternative—the idea that we can often find similar, less expensive options that allow us to have our financial cake and eat it, too.
But this week, let’s count the cost of a different type of spending: giving away money. Most people agree it’s good to be generous. People have widely different approaches to how, where, and what amount to give. But one thing we all ought to do is count the cost of our generosity.
For example, if you give away 10% of your income, how does that deflate your lifestyle? What kind of car could you be driving? What kind of upgrade could you have in your home, what you eat, or your vacation plans?
What might your investments look like after 30 years of an extra 10% monthly contribution? How might your net worth change if channeled that “extra” money into debt payoff? How different might your kids’ college funds looks?
This exercise isn’t meant to be self-congratulatory. Instead, it’s a great way to give wholeheartedly, with eyes and “pocketbooks” wide open. It’s valuable to fully understand what the trade-off is and deem it completely worthwhile to give instead of keeping it all for yourself. Without counting the cost, it’s easy to give rotely, perhaps because it’s the “right” thing to do–which is good, but might fall short of giving cheerfully and enthusiastically.
We’ve counted the cost of our generosity. We know what our giving means in terms of net worth growth or what kind of car we could drive. And our conclusion isn’t to give ourselves a pat on the back, but to affirm what a good investment we are making through giving. It’s a way of resolutely calculating that the potential lifestyle or net worth inflation is garbage compared with sharing what God has given us.
I encourage you to count the cost of your generosity. Perhaps you’ll even find yourself wanting to give more as you face the alternative destinations for your money and realize they pale in comparison. I share this because it hasn’t made us feel deprived, greedy, or self-righteous, but only more determined, excited, and blessed.
The Cost of Keeping
While you’re already calculating, why not consider the cost of keeping it all for yourself? Sure, you’d save more, invest more, or live larger. But what would you miss out on?
You won’t get to inflate the lifestyle of those who actually need it.
You won’t get to increase your real worth.
You’d miss out on the well-documented psychological benefits that come from giving, particularly those who give at least 10% of their income.
You’ll never see the surprising ripple effect a gift can set in motion.
You won’t get to partner with organizations and causes you care about.
You’ll miss out on an important and much-needed way to be an agent of change in the world.
You won’t get to experience the joy of entrusting your resources back to their Source.
You’ll likely leave the most important factor in your finances—your heart—untouched.
You won’t learn the financial discipline that consistent generosity can teach.
You leave your heart vulnerable to greed.
You could reinforce entitlement in yourself and your children.
Counting the cost of giving vs. keeping is a powerful way to make informed decisions about your money. Maybe the exercise will even motivate more generosity. We won’t know the full impact of our gifts in this life, but we can be confident that when we give wisely, both the giver and receiver will benefit:
“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)
What do you think of counting the cost of generosity? What other benefits might we miss out on if we don’t practice generousity?
My 3-year-old regularly has a melt-down if I give him the wrong color of plastic plate. “Pink is not my favorite, I need a blue one!” he’ll cry. It doesn’t matter that no blue plates are clean. He thinks he’s entitled exclusively to his favorites, all the time. He wants only his favorite foods, clothes, and TV shows. Of course we are trying to teach him “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit,” i.e., not everything has to be your favorite. Life is not about your preferences.
Unfortunately, even as adults we fall prey to the “favorite” fallacy, or thinking that life is largely about discovering and securing our preferences. I’ve talked to countless people who explain that they can’t save money because they don’t prefer to bag their own groceries, or don’t want to work with bone-in chicken, or don’t like driving an older car that might require inconvenient repairs. They prefer to wear clothes that are in style. They don’t prefer eating beans over steak. They don’t like buying used furniture. They don’t enjoy shopping at thrift stores. Actually I’ve never met anyone who said they don’t like thrift stores, because thrift stores are awesome.
I have plenty of preferences myself, and I’m sure I don’t even realize how much I cater to them. But when it comes to saving money, I try to set aside my favorites and be content with less expensive options. Why? Because I prefer financial flexibility to debt. I prefer investing money to spending it on new clothes and iThings. I prefer to give away money instead of spending it all on things I don’t need. I prefer being able to take [expensive] opportunities that come along, like traveling on mission trips when we’re invited. I love staying home with my young children, even though that means having less income.
It’s okay to have preferences, and it’s okay to spend money on some of those preferences. But when you have a reason why you can’t save money in ten different ways because you don’t like this or that, maybe it’s time to think about the big picture. Do you prefer to shop at the Big Store more than you want to get out of debt? Do you prefer to drive a new car more than you prefer to save for the future? Do you want to eat at restaurants more than you want to give to church or charity? Maybe the opportunity cost of your preferences is something as big as retiring 5-10 years sooner, pursuing your dream career, or being really generous. People tend to think these “little” expenses don’t make a difference on their overall financial situation. But money cut from “little” costs, if invested, will grow exponentially, and that’s a power we underestimate while our money is enslaved to our preferences.
I’m sure the iStuff culture and foodie trends aren’t helping the preference obsession. My son thinks he should be able to request each individual song he wants rather than listening to the radio or an entire album. When you’re two it’s kind of cute that you want everything to be your favorite. But by age three the preference-obsession is decidedly not cute anymore, as any parent will testify. So if you’re reading this blog you have officially timed out of being allowed to live according to the favorite mentality. To be honest, I have preference problems, too, which become embarrassingly evident when SuperWalmart doesn’t have the exact version of an item I want. In times like those, I remind myself that the last thing I need is to procure a gourmet food taste or fancy product habit. Surely something less specific will suffice.
To set aside our favorites, we are fighting our underlying assumptions and attitudes we’ve absorbed from marketing messages and the 3-year-old inside us all. It’s tough for my son to just take the pink plate, and it’s tough for me to cook homemade food every night instead of getting take-out or frozen meals. But if cooking at home can contribute to saving, giving, and gaining flexibility, then it’s worth it.
The take-away? You don’t have to give up all your preferences, but decide what’s really worth it. I still don’t like ranch dressing and feel compelled to say this anytime that disgusting substance is mentioned. No one is saying you have to start listening to country music or that I have to start eating ranch. Just stop using your preferences as an excuse for not saving money. We tend to think getting what we want will make us happy. Newsflash: it doesn’t! If I let my son have the blue plate, then he’ll start whining that the peanut butter sandwich on the blue plate isn’t his favorite. It’s an endless cycle if we give in, and the same applies to your finances. More convenience, comfort, and consumer goods won’t make you happier.
Instead of feeling deprived when you stop catering to a preference, focus on your favorite financial outcome that your small sacrifice will help you achieve. Is your goal to get out of debt? To give or save more? To travel or volunteer? Letting go of preferences will help you become more flexible in every way—from daily situations to your finances. Remember the big picture of what you prefer your life to be about and let this control your spending, rather than letting your spending control your life options. That’s what financial flexibility is all about.
What money saving strategy have you avoided because of your preferences? What is your favorite financial goal?
Do you ever find yourself trying to follow advice you don’t really believe in? Here are 10 popular personal finance-related “commandments” and why you don’t necessarily need to follow them.
- Be frugal. I enjoy the many benefits classic frugality brings. It allows us to be more flexible, generous, and prepared for the future. However, frugality has its limits. Frugality in itself is not truly a value, a purpose, or even a goal. There are many situations in which frugality as a controlling value would lead you astray. It’s just a tool to give yourself options. Please don’t make all your choices, including non-financial ones, based on frugality alone.
- Earn more. There are so many messages out there about how and why you should be increasing your income. I believe in increasing your income and growing your career in an ongoing fashion, to a point. But killing yourself to make more when you have a solid career, or basing all your major life decisions on income alone is also misguided.
- Go minimalist. Just because empty space is in, doesn’t mean you have to revolve your life around having less stuff. I appreciate the practical benefits of not being up to your eyeballs in useless junk. Totally get it. But when you are trying to make your house look like the cover of a Crate & Barrel ad, or causing marital division over how many shoes your spouse is allowed, it might be time to reign in the “minimalism.”
- Be normal a.k.a. Keep up with the Joneses. Cliché as it may be, it’s tempting to feel like the weirdo when you’re the only one in the neighborhood without an addition, kids who are in all the “enrichment” activities possible, or with mix-matched furniture. If we’re honest, we all conform to culture to some degree, and that’s not always a bad thing. But other people’s lifestyle choices shouldn’t be the main factor in yours. Whether that’s being fancy or frugal.
- Side hustle. Did you know you can make more money if you keep working after you get home from your day job? Would you like to read 1000 listicles about this fascinating and innovative concept? Just because side hustling is all the rage, just because so-and-so is making so much money this way, doesn’t mean you should be, too. It all depends on your goals and situation. If you have available time and actually need more cash, hustle away. If you’re short on time and not on money, I don’t see why you would. Unless you love money.
- Buy a home/Rent forever. Just because home ownership is the traditional path, doesn’t mean you have to. If you don’t want to deal with it, don’t. And just because it’s in vogue to question home ownership, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it. Owning a home can allow for options that renting doesn’t, and that’s hard to quantify.
- Retire early. Why not declare an end date and race toward the finish line? Because we never want not doing something to define us, and early retirement at its simplest is just that. Instead of just inflating our lifestyle or our bank accounts, we also want to inflate our usefulness to others. And even inflate the lifestyles of those in need. If you’ve got better things to do with your time than work, start doing some of that now and see where it takes you. Stay flexible, and be responsible with your money, but also with your heart.
- Be more productive. Did you know that if you sleep one hour less per night AND give up caffeine and sugar AND exercise and read more, you could be BETTER!!!? Better at what, I’m not sure. Perhaps better at yawning? Or crying? In all seriousness, the productivity stuff appeals to me a lot and of course wasting less time on Facebook is a good idea. But when my value as a human is defined solely by what I do—what I produce—I might as well be a machine.
- Slow down/simplify. In response to all the DO MORE! productivity hype comes a very welcome call to slow down and simplify life. And as much as this reminder is needed, it also falls short. Because life isn’t simple, or slow. Life with kids gets hectic. Having friends is messy. Living with purpose means you have big stuff on your plate, and that isn’t something we should avoid in an effort to make life easier.
- Curate your life. Life is meant to be lived, not curated. For example, my closet is not an art gallery, nor does it exist for the sole purpose of self-expression. Clothes are for not being nakey. My home is for living in, not admiring (though I believe in frugal aesthetics). The pressure of trying to get my possessions or my schedule “right” is too much for me. I’ll gladly be sloppy, tacky, and busy if I don’t have to think about my life as a museum.
Which of these tools match your values, and which don’t? Have you noticed any other “commandments” that don’t fit your life?