This is a guest post from Sierra Black, a long-time GRS reader and the author of ChildWild, a blog where she writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale. Previously at Get Rich Slowly, Black told us about sweating the big stuff and the pitfalls of buying in bulk.

My mother’s family is Catholic. They’re working class people from Buffalo: nurses, drugstore clerks, steel mill workers. Even though they never had a lot of dollars, they always gave 10% of what they had to the church. Like taxes, that 10% was just something they paid out before spending a dime on themselves.

As an adult I became the first college graduate in my family and adopted the position most of my educated, liberal peers seemed to hold toward charity: give a little, when you can, and feel guilty about not doing it most of the year.

For most of my 20s, I was living beyond my means. With every dollar being spent before it was earned, giving even a few dollars felt like a huge pinch in my messy budget. I was haphazard and frankly not very generous with my giving.

Overall, liberals tend to give less to charity than conservatives. Religious people like the ones I grew up with give more than my secular humanist friends. The working poor are, as a class, the most generous group in America, reliably giving away 4.5% of their income. The middle class are the least generous, giving just 2.5% on average.

In addition to making me and my friends look bad in the conservative press, statistics like that are, as George Will put it, “hostile witnesses” to the idea that “bleeding-heart liberals” actually care more about the poor and disadvantaged than our conservative counterparts.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, the single biggest predictor of a person’s charitable giving is religion. People who go to church every week give more money, more consistently.

I think it’s time to make secular tithing a middle-class trend. Those of us who don’t go to church every Sunday may not have the easy, deeply ingrained tradition of giving my great-grandmother had when she put her little envelope in the offering plate each week. That’s no excuse for not giving our share. It’s not right for the affluent and secure to let responsibility for maintaining the social safety net rest on the backs of those most likely to need it.

Last year, when I got serious about straightening out my spending habits, I wanted to make charitable giving, like saving, a key part of my financial future.

I adopted something akin to the “balanced money formula”. Instead of allocating 30% to wants, though, I drew up my formula like this: 50% for needs, 10% for charity, 20% for savings and 20% for wants.

My money is not balanced. I’m working hard to repay a pile of credit card debt and continuing to fine tune a frugal lifestyle. My needs and debts suck up most of our income. Because all the “extra” money goes into savings and debt repayment, I’m still living as if we were on the edge financially. Giving hurts. I do it anyway. Every week.

I’m not tithing yet, but I am moving towards it. Here’s how:

  • As our income increases, I spend the new money in a “balanced” way. A year ago, my husband and I were living on one salary — his. As I’ve added income to our household with my freelance work, I’ve allocated 10% of those dollars toward charitable giving, 20% to savings, 20% wants and 50% to needs.
  • As our debts decrease, I’m beginning to split our debt snowball. Snowballing debts is great. I’ve seen some people argue for splitting the money that’s freed up when a debt is paid off between paying down the next debt and adding to an emergency fund. I’m doing this with giving too. This month, I pay off a credit card that had a $35/month payment. I’ll put $3.50 into my charity fund, $7 into savings and the rest toward the next debt I’m attacking. I do this with frugal changes too: split the saved money between charity, savings and debt reduction.
  • I make the giving automatic. Remembering to do stuff is not my strong suit. To stay consistent with my giving, I’ve signed up for recurring automatic withdrawals from my bank account. There are organizations, like Just Give, that will help you coordinate automated or one time gifts to many different organizations.
  • I’m teaching my kids to give. My kids use jars to split their allowance into categories for giving, saving and spending. They’re too young to tell yet what lasting impact that might have, but I’m hoping it will get them into the habit of giving some of their money away every time they get paid. A habit it took me 30 years to grow into.
  • Giving small counts big. Charities can use their membership rolls and total numbers of donors to solicit large grants from individuals and foundations, and to earn matching grants. Because of this, the difference between giving $10 to a charity and giving them nothing is a lot bigger than the difference between $10 and $20. I make a lot of small donations to different organizations I like, to spread out my impact.

There are many good organizations doing vital work in the world that depend on charitable gifts to run their operations. These range from the Red Cross to the World Food Program to local groups.

The end of the year is often a time charities need dollars most. To encourage holiday season giving, many have created fun holiday gift programs. My favorite is Heifer International’s famous gift catalog, which lets you “give” a cow or a beehive or another livestock animal to a family in the developing world. In reality, of course, what you give them is the money to run their organization, which then distributes livestock to needy families at a local level. It’s fun to read their catalog though, and Heifer has one of the lowest overhead ratios of all the large charities.

In closing, a note: Expressing concern about what a charity is going to do with your money is a terrible excuse for not giving. Very few charities are outright frauds, and even the inefficient ones will put more of your dollars toward a good cause than your bank will. If you want to be sure you’re getting the most bang for your charitable buck, though, you can investigate organizations at a charity watchdog site before giving.

Note: Get Rich Slowly does not take a stand on religious or political issues. Respectful discussion of these topics is fine; please keep the comments up to their usual high-quality standards.

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