You can change the world
Four practical tips for spending less and donating more
People sometimes tell me I spend too much time talking about dead kids.
On one hand, I completely stand by this choice — you and I are perfectly capable of saving children from dying of malaria and other symptoms of global poverty, and we often don’t. Not because we’re pro-malaria or pro-death, but just because it usually isn’t particularly on our minds!
On the other hand, I’m worried that this sends the message that caring about global poverty means you have to be miserable all the time, or that sacrificial giving is some sort of difficult thing that only the chosen few are capable of. This is a huge shame, because it’s actually been quite an exciting and life-giving journey that I wish more people were a part of!
I’m trying to be more intentional about emphasizing that you can live simply, give generously, and be happy, and I’ve come up with eight practical tips I wish I’d known when I started. These aren’t about committing to a full vow of poverty, or building superhuman levels of willpower to give up literally everything you have. They’ll teach you how to get started in being a bit more generous — to care for people you’ll never meet in a way that I could do, and (if your financial situation is similar to mine) so can you!
Eight is a lot, so this post will only go in-depth on the first four, and hopefully a future post will expand on the last four. This post doesn’t get to the “where should I donate?” question, so if you don’t have a place in mind please consider GiveWell’s maximum impact fund! If you’re interested in learning more, this is a subject I’m passionate about and I’m always happy to find a time to talk!
Eight Tips for Becoming More Generous
Give yourself the grace to change slowly
Simplicity isn’t asceticism
Make your sacrifices at the budgeting stage
Have a rainy day fund
Pick your battles
Celebrate your victories
Make friends who share your values
Choose where you donate carefully
Content Warning — I’m writing this as somebody who makes enough money to pay all my bills and has no dependents, and my advice is based on that experience. If you’re struggling to stay financially afloat, I don’t think ``trying to donate more money’’ should be at the top of your list, and this post might be unhelpful or even hurtful for you.
Give yourself the grace to change slowly
The hardest part of learning anything is the first couple of months. When you learn how to play piano, you find yourself appreciating beautiful music more and more — and you become ever more aware of how your clunky fingers aren’t making the sounds you’d like. When you start playing volleyball you dream of doing cool spikes but find that the ball keeps flying off your arms in random directions. There’s a very frustrating period where what you’re capable of doesn’t live up to what you dream of, and you can’t do anything about it except working through it.
For me at least, generosity was the same. I read stories of desert monks selling their bibles (their last possessions) to feed the poor and devote themselves fully to prayer and I became very frustrated at how little I was able to resist overspending and overconsuming. (Looking at you, Cambridge Grill.) If all these people could live so humbly and generously, why couldn’t I? Was I just fundamentally too selfish?
Well, yes, but also no! I was being human! I was having trouble living frugally because I was just getting started and needed more practice. But because I didn’t recognize this, I wasn’t able to celebrate even my small victories because all I could see was how far from perfect I was!
Would it be great if you could instantly give up all your attachments to worldly possessions? Of course. But you’re a person, and for most of us that just isn’t realistic. Start with something attainable — a benchmark of 10% of your income is a standard default, which you can adjust up or down based on your personal situation. As time goes on, you can slowly decrease your spending and increase your donating as your situation allows.
Growth takes time. Let yourself take small steps in the right direction. I’m still not where I’d like to be giving-wise, but learning to accept that and let myself grow at my own pace has made me a more effective giver and a happier person.
Simplicity isn’t asceticism
One mistake I made very early on was to conflate “spending less money” with “making myself unhappy”, as if learning to donate more meant committing myself to some sort of permanent fast.
When you’re fasting, the goal is to (temporarily) sacrifice specific things you like so you can focus your attention on God. But if you’re trying to make a simple life sustainable, giving up things that bring you joy takes away one of your most effective tools! The key isn’t to get really good at being miserable, it’s to find things you generally enjoy that don’t require spending too much money!
Here are some silly examples from my life that hopefully illustrate the general idea:
I am really into pizza, and for a while Domino’s was eating up an absurd fraction of my budget. Luckily, I’ve recently learned that I really enjoy the $3.50 full-size frozen pizzas I find at Target, which means that it’s technically possible for me to have a pizza party every night and stay under budget! (I don’t recommend this.)
I’m trying to get better at inviting people to do things I like that don’t cost extra money — instead of just going out to eat or stopping by a bar, I want to prioritize people over to play a board game! Or watch a movie on a streaming service! Or play a sport I already have the equipment for! Or (I promise this is more fun than it sounds, in Christian circles at least) read a book of the bible out loud as dramatically as possible! Or (in less Christian but equally weird circles) read a play out loud as dramatically as possible!
My bedroom is decorated with a variety of cards and drawings people have given me (and three posters I bought on sale). I love the way it looks and I love getting to see encouraging notes from people I love, and it was essentially free!
I used to think of lentils as a “boring food I force myself to eat when I’m trying to save money”, until I started combining them with some garlic, spices, and onions, and a tiny bit of BBQ sauce. Still very cheap, but now I actually enjoy eating them! Investing in low-cost recipes that you actually like is a huge game-changer. (If you have cheap recipes I would love to hear about them, because I have dramatically under-invested in this part of my life.)
Steakhouses are really expensive, but I really like steak! If you cook a typical store-bought steak yourself (with a side of home-made fries), it turns out to be a similar price to going to a regular restaurant. (It’s not quite as good as going to a steakhouse, but the price gap is big enough to make up for it imo) And there’s no rule against lighting candles and dressing fancy and making a night out of it!
The point is: if you find yourself sacrificing everything you like, you’ll find it very difficult to stick to a frugal lifestyle. But if you instead invest in finding cheap things you genuinely enjoy, you can donate more and be happy!
Make your sacrifices at the budgeting stage
Extrapolating from Givewell’s most recent numbers, a donation of $100 to one their top charities saves about a year of somebody’s life. This is terrifyingly low, and should convict each of us really, really deeply about our spending priorities. At the same time, if you start to think about it any time you spend money, you will find yourself with debilitating guilt and anxiety that don’t actually make you any more generous.
How do you take the problem of dead kids as seriously as it deserves to be taken without wracking yourself with guilt every time you eat a burrito?
I’ve found a lot of success in separating my decision-making into two stages. When I’m figuring out my monthly budget, I think hard about the implications of my choices. What is a sustainable amount I can live on, knowing my own needs and limits? Is there a way to squeeze out a few more dollars for something more important? Do I really need as much as I’m telling myself I do? Who is benefiting and suffering from my choices?
And at the end of each month I check out how things went, and decide whether to change anything for next time. (In theory, at least. Typically I stick with the same budget for a few months because I forget to do this step or get busy.)
But between those steps, except for large purchases, I don’t let myself think too hard about the implications of my spending: I just follow the rules of my budget.
I can’t tell you how useful this has been. I can give sacrificially and challenge myself to be better, at the budgeting stage. But when it comes to actually making day-to-day decisions, I know how much I’m allowed to spend and I get to spend it however I like, setting any guilty thoughts aside until the next budgeting day.
If I have given myself (say) $70 to spend on groceries, I can spend that $70 however I like. Maybe our apartment needs some new supplies. Maybe I’m craving cereal. Maybe I want to make a big pot of food I can eat for a whole week. Maybe I want to make a gourmet dinner one night and eat lentils the other six. As long as the total fits in my budget, I’m allowed to split it up in whatever way makes me happiest.
For a more specific example, I recently spent considerably more than I normally would on a nice dinner. It was delicious, and I don’t think I could have enjoyed the dinner if I was consistently worrying that I was eating gnocchi out of the mouths of dying children.
But I didn’t have to feel guilty, because I was able to fit in my budget by making tradeoffs from other things I would have bought — tradeoffs that “having a set budget" changed from “can I justify doing this to dying children?” (terrifying and anxiety-inducing) to “am I willing to cut my grocery budget temporarily to balance this out?” (an exciting opportunity to explore new chickpea recipes.)
Giving sacrificially will eventually mean you have to make decisions about what’s important to you, because you won’t (and shouldn’t) have enough spending money to buy literally everything you want. But following a careful budget has helped me separate “how much can I give up for others?” and “what allocation of the ‘me’ part of my budget is the best for me?” into two distinct questions, which has been incredible for my peace of mind.
Have a Rainy Day Fund
This isn’t, strictly speaking, just about donating. But I always worry when I talk about this that somebody will take it too far and donate literally every spare penny they have. In a society where debt can be devastating (and destroy your ability to help people in the future), this is not a prudent decision.
Unexpected expenses can and do come up. I’ve hit my $1,500 out-of-pocket maximum for healthcare spending two of the past four years (and I’m on track for a third), and health spending wasn’t even in my budget my first year because I hadn’t really thought about it! Laptops break unexpectedly, phone batteries die, valuables get stolen — these things can and do happen, and they can be really really bad if you don’t have the money to cover them.
Obviously the extent to which you can save depends on your income, and I’m not really qualified to tell you the “right” size of such a fund. But if a surprise $1,000 dollar expense would literally bankrupt you, then it’s probably worth trying to build up a safety net before you start giving more and more away.
If the idea of this makes you feel guilty, here’s another way to think about it: the hardest part of donating money is spending less than you make. You can think of the time you’re building up your rainy day fund as a way of training yourself to live within your means — now to help yourself financially, but in the future to bless other people! You’re investing in yourself (and your future ability to donate) not only by defending yourself against life-ruining shocks, but also by training yourself with the skills you’ll need when you’re in a financial position to give more away!
I hope these tips were at least a little bit helpful! If you want to talk more I am always happy to!