If you’re gaining all you can reasonably and honestly, and you’re spending wisely and saving all you can, it’s time to consider giving.
But giving all you can? What exactly did John Wesley mean by this third point in his money sermon more than 200 years ago? How can it fit into a modern-day view of money management?
A first-year medical student, just married and with little money, walked toward home in downtown Boston one afternoon. A young boy, obviously poor himself, approached him, “Sir, would you like to buy some flowers? They’re only five dollars.” He pulled a handful from his bag. The student looked in his wallet and found a ten dollar bill, “Here,” he said, “Just keep the change.” When he returned to his apartment, he handed his wife the flowers and told her about the boy, “I felt so sorry for him.” His wife’s eyes filled with tears, “Oh, no, Honey. That was our last ten dollars until the end of the week. We needed that for a few groceries!”
Is this what it means to give all you can? Give away what you’ve got, even down to your last dollar? Not necessarily. A spirit of generosity, such as shown by the student, remains a positive influence on society, and giving spontaneously can be appropriate, but it’s often better for everyone involved when you consider your giving just as carefully as you do your gaining or your saving.
The Psychology Behind the Giving
Many people give out of religious duty or social obligation. The offering plate comes around at church, and you lay your weekly offering carefully on top of everyone else’s. You get the annual phone call from someone with the local women’s shelter and you agree to donate again this year. You’re expected to give money in certain situations, and so you do.
- Sometimes people give because it makes them feel good. Have you ever gotten that “warm, fuzzy feeling” after stuffing a wad of cash into the Salvation Army Christmas bucket? That’s because giving to a charity activates “a region of your brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust,” according to a 2006 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health.
- Some people might give because they realize that generosity offers other benefits, too. It has been shown to increase life span, reduce stress, strengthen your immune system, and help you clarify your “sense of purpose” in life, explains Lisa Firestone, PhD., writing for the Psychology Today website. And, obviously, if you’re generous to others, they’re far more likely to be generous to you. Perhaps it’s a slightly selfish way of looking at it, but it’s true.
- Many times, we simply give as a result of basic human compassion. Deep down, most of us feel that it’s right to help others in need, and, of course, money isn’t the only way to show your generosity. Let’s say you pass the same homeless woman each day on the way to class, and yet you really can’t afford to spare any cash. What if you give her an extra blanket next time or some of the extra food from your pantry? In many situations, you’ll find it more appropriate to give something other than money, especially if your budget won’t really allow it. When you want to help, consider also your time, skills, assistance, and other possessions. You have to decide the best way to show generosity in each circumstance. After all, Firestone tells us, the benefit lies in the act of identifying with people and being sensitive to their needs, not in just what you give them.
But, when you can afford it, giving extra money can constitute an important part of fulfilling your role as a responsible member of society and of satisfying your need to help others. Giving away something you’ve earned, however, isn’t always easy….
What Kind of Giver Are You?
Let’s consider six possible attitudes toward giving. Decide which description best fits you.
The Tightwad. When you’re reluctant to give at all, you’ve become tightfisted, possibly selfish. You’ve certainly got money to give, but you just want to hang on to all of it.
Don’t confuse the tightwad with a frugal person. If you’re frugal, you know how to make the most out of your money. “My wife was the most frugal person I’d ever met,” recalls a retired gentleman, “She was also the most generous. She accounted for every penny that we spent, but she never turned down anyone in need.”
The Giver Who Begrudges. Perhaps you give what you think you should, but you don’t really want to. You might feel socially compelled to give (after all, you can’t look bad in front of your friends). Or you may feel a religious duty (perhaps you think God won’t bless you if you don’t give). You may set aside a particular portion of money periodically and think, I’ve given my dues now. You may even give generous amounts, but all the while you’re wishing you could keep it for something else.
The Guilty Giver. Do you ever lavish money or expensive gifts on people to make up for your unacceptable behavior? For example, if you’re a father who regrets not spending enough time with his children throughout the year, you might buy elaborate Christmas gifts in order to assuage your guilt.
The Fearful Giver. Maybe you try to give generously because you know it’s the right thing to do. Unlike the one who gives begrudgingly, you want to give, and yet you are fearful that you’re giving too much—not leaving enough for your needs or for your family’s needs. Your heart is in the right place, but you torture yourself with the burden of wondering if you or your dependents might need the money later.
The Overly Generous Giver. Do you ever give money to excess, even when you know you can’t afford it? You might have some psychological need to draw attention to yourself, but more likely, you’re just the type of person who loves giving to family, friends, or other deserving folks. In the heat of the moment, you don’t stop to think.
Maybe you like to surprise good waiters and waitresses with generous tips, more than the accepted 15-20%, but can you really afford to put an exorbitant amount on your credit card every time? It’s nice if you have enough money to be spontaneous with your giving, but most of us need to stop and think about it first.
Yes, give to those in need or to those who deserve it, but don’t jeopardize your own financial situation in order to do so. Can you maintain a positive feeling about spontaneously giving away the sum of money you were supposed to spend on groceries? While generosity can lift our spirits, reckless giving will bring you down when it plunges you further into debt.
Even when you can afford it, giving too much can hurt relationships. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that people often dislike others who are overly giving because the extreme generosity, participants felt, made them look inadequate. Others might not necessarily dislike you when your giving is over the top, but you might make them feel otherwise uncomfortable or guilty.
The Responsible Giver. If you are responsible, you will give generously, yet wisely. Of course—no surprise—this is the type of giver you should aim to be.
In Wesley’s view, the responsible giver distributes his money in an ever-widening circle as he is able. Don’t think about doling out your money until you take care of your own needs, and those dependent upon you, first. Then you can consider the needs of those outside your family, in the community, and perhaps beyond.
That’s right. You need to make sure you have enough money to take care of yourself, because if you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. Do you think that sounds selfish? It isn’t. If you’ve ever traveled by plane, you’ve heard the flight attendant’s emergency instructions. What does he or she always instruct you to do if the oxygen masks drop down? Put your own on first, so that you can breathe, and then assist anyone else who might need help. If you pass out while trying to help the person next to you, and he passes out too, you both lose.
As you take care of your own financial needs, you’re naturally taking care of family members as well. Taking care of family, for most people, also means occasionally going beyond the basic needs of life. When you love and appreciate family members, you want to give generously on birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, and other special occasions, but once again your gifts can and should stay within your means.
Once you’ve got control of your needs and your family’s needs, including any savings that you find necessary, you can then begin to think about giving financial help to friends, people in the community, and beyond.
But how do you judge the needs of others? How do you know that your friend isn’t taking advantage of your generous nature? How can you make sure that homeless person won’t use your money for liquor instead of food?
A wealthy Kentucky businessman, owner of several fast food restaurants, was known for giving generously to charitable organizations, as well as to individuals. Someone once asked him if he kept track of the donations, to ensure that they were used properly, “It’s my responsibility to give. That’s all. If I’m giving to you, I’m not responsible for how you decide to use it. Only you can answer for that. I’ll only have to answer for my generosity—or for my lack of it.”
So, if you’re a responsible giver, you don’t have to judge or question the need. You’ll simply give as you can and as you see fit.
There’s no formula for generosity. You can budget your giving, to make sure you can afford it, or maybe you’ll just see what makes sense after meeting your needs and saving for the month. Consider others’ financial needs as they arise. Decide how you can best meet those needs with the resources you have.
The Student's Story
Remember the medical student? He certainly had a generous spirit by giving all he could to the boy on the street, and he gave without judging or questioning the boy’s honesty, but he should have been a little more aware of his own financial situation in the first place. He probably should have held on to his last ten dollars to make sure that he and his wife had decent food for the coming week. At the very most, perhaps he could have given the boy a dollar or two.
So what happened to the student? He became one of the foremost surgeons in his field, and learned to manage his substantial income. After paying off student debts, he gave his time, skill, and money to start a hospital overseas, and still travels all over the world to teach others about a particular surgical procedure he developed. He helps out his children financially when they need a little boost. He makes regular, generous contributions to the small church he attends in Boston, and he still buys flowers occasionally from people selling them on the street.
Written by Beth Prassel-Sieg
- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
Gain All You Can!
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
Save All You Can
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