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Conscious Giving

It seems almost obligatory this time of year to write a column about giving. Pressure to give, give, give is everywhere. Ads urge us to buy everything from sweaters to screwdrivers to SUVs on the grounds that they will be perfect gifts to delight our loved ones. Charities send out solicitation letters. “Angel tree” displays in malls and bell-ringers in front of stores hope we’ll share some of our shopping dollars with those less fortunate. All of it can be overwhelming.

We all have our own unconscious beliefs, or money scripts, when it comes to giving. In addition, we’re surrounded by beliefs our society and religions have about giving. Both the personal and the societal beliefs can range across a broad spectrum:

“It’s better to give than to receive.”

“At this time of year, good people help the needy.”

“You have so much that you have an obligation to share.”

“Giving takes away people’s initiative to take care of themselves.”

“If poor people weren’t so lazy, they’d provide for their own kids at Christmas.”

“There are plenty of agencies to take care of those who need help.”

Like all money scripts, all of these contain partial truths. Giving, whether to family members or to charity, is not a simple black and white issue. Some of the questions it raises might include: How do you know whether you are helping people or enabling them to avoid helping themselves? How do you give to children without encouraging them to be greedy or feel entitled to the latest and greatest of everything? How do you balance helping others and taking care of yourself?

One often overlooked factor is whether the giving is done more to help the recipient or to help the donor feel better. For example, I remember being in a church group one evening when people were discussing giving. Two of the women there, years earlier when they were struggling single moms with young children, had experienced people from a charity coming to their doors with gift boxes of presents and food for Christmas dinner. Both of them had been humiliated and mortified rather than pleased and grateful. The well-intentioned gifts had felt like a judgment that they weren’t capable of taking care of their own families. No one had asked first whether they wanted or needed any help.

Giving can sometimes be an attempt to hold onto people, to make up to them for one’s past failings, or to be loved by them. One common example of this is divorced parents who overspend on gifts for their children. Public giving may be a way to look good or to gain acceptance or recognition in the community.

One way to respond to the complicated issue of giving is to avoid it. You can close your wallet completely, out of fear that you’ll be taken advantage of, fear that you’ll offend, or simple frustration. Another response is to try to give to every charity that asks and to spend yourself into debt buying lavish gifts for everyone you care about.

Neither of these makes a lot of sense. Like many other of life’s decisions, the question of how to give, how much to give, and to whom is a personal, individual matter. There isn’t a formula for doing it right.

The only suggestion I have is that you give as consciously as possible. Consider the beliefs behind your giving. Discuss giving and receiving with your spouse and your kids. Stop and think before you decide to give or not to give. Then you’re more likely to give wisely and with thoughtful compassion.

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