Reader Mail: How to be a Generous Person

How can I be good with money and be a good person/friend? I’m really, really good at saving and managing my money. I have a big savings account (which I think is an accomplishment since I keep moving impulsively, and only working freelance and buying plane tickets). I am proud of this and it gives me a warm feeling of security to look at my bank balance.

But it also makes me a jerk! I want to be the kind of generous friend who treats everyone to drinks and buys amazing birthday presents. I want to be carefree and forgetful when friends borrow sums under, like, $50. I especially want to be enthusiastic about any fun outing, without instantly worrying whether the club has a cover/the museum has a student price (allowing me to use my extremely outdated student ID)/the restaurant has $5 sides that I can order without looking like an obvious cheapskate. I love my friends and I know they deserve fun and generosity. I can fake all these things. But it’s all a facade! I remember every penny I’m owed, and every “unnecessary” expenditure gives me massive anxiety. 

Lest I sound like a selfish jerk (as well as a normal jerk), I can’t treat myself either! I have a lifetime of painful shoes, janky bras, haircuts from my mom (actually these are awesome), and handmade notebooks to prove it. But I’m not as concerned about that because it just affects me. I need help with the parts that affect the people around me. I know, logically, that good experiences are worth a lot more than having a pile of money I’m too crazy to touch, but it still doesn’t feel true, emotionally. I don’t want to end up like Mr. Burns in that episode where Homer asks him if his money says “I love you” at the end of the day, and Mr. Burns sadly says, “…no!” Help! — Z.

I am going to begin by telling you two stories about two very generous people.

The first is about an Austrian millionaire named Karl Rabeder who grew up in a poor family where he learned that the only way to afford things was to work hard, and achieve more wealth. He worked his way through college, and became the founder of an art company that made him a millionaire. At first, having a lot of money meant freedom: It meant being able to pay off his debts and take gliding lessons, which eventually led him to setting the world gliding distance record in Chapelco, Argentina. 

Like you, Z., he also bought plane tickets. He traveled all over Africa and South America, and vacationed in Hawaii. During a vacation in Hawaii, Rabeder decided he would spend as much money as he wanted, and realized he actually wasn’t getting any pleasure from each dollar that he spent. He felt like an actor going through the motions—the staff was paid to act friendly, and the guests at the resort played the part of being important simply because they had a lot of money. It all felt very superficial. It made him feel miserable to think about how there could be a direct connection to his wealth and the poverty he saw while traveling, so he flew home, sold everything he owned, and gave away nearly every cent he ever earned to charity. He moved into a cabin, and now lives on $1,350 a month. He’s never been happier.

This second story is about a friend I’ll call Dave who lived in my dorm during my freshman year of college. I remember something some parents did during midterms and finals was send their kid a “midterms survival” care package. Dave’s mother sent him a lot of care packages through the year, and also sent him packages to share with the other kids in the dorm. She would go on vacation to exotic places, and send him nice trinkets from little shops off the beaten path. She would visit during the holidays, and take a group of us out to dinner, and when we decided to drive up north to go camping during spring break, she insisted that we drop by her house so she could feed us and supply us with provisions for our week in the woods. Dave would groan a lot and tell his mother she didn’t need to do any of these things, but she would laugh it off and say how happy it was to see us all taken care of.

Unlike Dave’s mom, my mother couldn’t afford to send me care packages, or treat my friends to dinner, or supply us with provisions for our spring break adventure. For the longest time, I felt jealous of Dave for having a parent who could provide all these things and be so generous. Dave’s mom was well-loved by all of us. I dreamed that I could be as generous as her one day with my own children.

But then Dave told me something that changed my whole perspective on things: “My mother can’t actually afford to do any of these things. She has been maxing out her credit cards, and borrowing money from the bank because she wants to do nice things for people. I keep telling her she needs to stop doing these things because it’s spiraling out of control, and I’m afraid she’ll lose her house one day.”

Two people who yearned to be kind and generous. Two very different circumstances.

I bring up these two stories because generosity can mean different things to different people. Some people ruin their lives being generous, while others find life. You need to find out how being generous will give you life, and once you figure that out, you won’t be counting each dollar you spend when treating a friend to a drink or shopping for birthday presents.

I think part of your anxiety about spending money on “unnecessary expenditures” stems from your impulsive moving and earning money as a freelancer. Anyone who has ever worked as a full-time freelancer knows how stressful it is. Work you were counting on falls through. You have to remember to pay quarterly taxes. Money flows freely in some moments, and barely trickles in at other times. Having money saved up is absolutely necessary in those times when the money is just trickling in. You’re safeguarding yourself for the rough times, so it can be hard to let yourself be a little carefree with your money.

Here’s something to think about. You are good with your money, and have a big savings account. That money gives you a sense of security that being a freelancer doesn’t. But, what comes next? What does that money mean to you? We save money because we have goals: We want a house, we want to quit our jobs and start our own businesses, we want to buy plane tickets and see the Eygptian pyramids, or the Great Wall of China—we want to do the things that will make us happy.

Would being generous with your money make you happy? Would treating a friend to a nice dinner on his or her birthday because you can afford to do that make your heart grow three sizes? Would pledging a little bit of money to a good cause make you feel less of a “jerk” and more of a “good person”? Does doing a kind thing you can afford for another person mean more than having lots of money in a bank account? Will you feel any joy from doing a nice thing for yourself? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you have found something that will give you life. Run with it.

I should point out that being a good friend doesn’t mean having to treat your friends to nice things. You can be a tightwad and still be a good friend. Being a good friend means being there for someone when he or she is going through a dark time. It means being genuinely happy for them when they’re successful, or find happiness. It means knowing when to give advice, and when to keep it to yourself.

I spent more of my career as a freelancer than as someone who had a stable full-time job. I saved because it was necessary. I saved because it made me feel like I was putting my life in order, and because this is what we do as grownups—we save, we become stable.

But because I saved and became stable, I’m now able to send home money to my parents every month. I can afford to fly across the country for weddings with gifts under my arm, pledge money to This American Life, quit my job to start a website, and buy a round of drinks to celebrate. I have also been able to be generous with myself. I spent $250 on a pair boots because I wanted them. I moved out of an apartment full of roommates, and got my own quiet studio next to a park. Has it wrecked my finances in any way? It has not. If you’re good at managing money, you know when you can spend, and when you can’t. Saving money, supporting my parents, giving, spending money on my friends, and being generous with myself—this has all given me life.

What will give you life?


Photo: Flickr/asenat29



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