What are the moral implications of spending?

Most reader questions I share at Get Rich Slowly are meant to solve a problem — somebody has a financial dilemma they’re hoping you folks can help them fix. But Rita sent a different kind of question. She doesn’t want to solve a problem — she wants to stir debate. Rita writes:

I ask myself “How much is enough?” several times daily. My husband and I make good money — over $100,000 in combined income — own a home in an expensive city, have two large dogs, and are able to buy most of what we want. I don’t have a problem with normal spending, but I often feel bad when I purchase something really nice (such as a nice purse, a collectible book, etc).

  • On one hand, I can afford these things.
  • But on the other hand, I still feel that it’s somehow wrong that I continue to buy this stuff while many people in the world cannot afford clean water and food.

Just yesterday, I read an article on an entertainment site about Steven Spielberg’s $200 million personal yacht. I think that this a a crazy, immoral waste of money. He could make a HUGE difference by using that $200 million for charity.

I guess my point is: Am I really any better? No, I’m not buying a yacht anytime soon, but I do buy luxury items. And someday I’d like the satisfaction of being able to buy my husband a Range Rover. (He loves those damn cars.) My husband doesn’t feel guilt for having these things, but (if I’m being completely honest with myself) I do. Oddly enough, I majored in finance in college and am currently studying for the CFA exam, so the topic of “efficiency and equity” is really on my mind.

Four years ago, prompted by this thoughtful essay in the New York Times, I asked: What should a billionaire give, and what should you?

In this essay, philosopher Peter Singer discussed the magnitude of charitable donations from the two richest men in the world: Warren Buffett contributed $37 billion to charitable foundations, and Bill and Melinda Gates gave $30 billion. Singer wrote:

Philanthropy on this scale raises many ethical questions: Why are the people who are giving doing so? Does it do any good? Should we praise them for giving so much or criticize them for not giving still more? Is it troubling that such momentous decisions are made by a few extremely wealthy individuals? And how do our judgments about them reflect on our own way of living?

Singer’s article discusses the ethics of giving, and tries to establish some guidelines. (It’s a fascinating read but it’s long, so budget half an hour or so.)

After years of dithering, I’m finally moving forward with philanthropy in my own life. I’ve been researching (and finding!) causes to support. I’ve been exploring the possibility of volunteer tourism. And one of my goals for Awesome People is to donate all profits to charity. (I’ll share more about my forays into philanthropy in coming months.)

But Rita’s question is about more than just giving. It’s also about consumption. When we buy things, there are ramifications across a vast economic web. This is why some people are willing to pay a premium to buy local or to buy organic. It’s also why some people insist on buying American and others boycott specific items. (Some people refuse to buy diamonds; my high-school social studies teacher refused to buy bananas.)

On a basic level, every time we choose to buy a comfort or a luxury, we’re also making the choice not to use the money to help somebody else — whether in our own community or in the world at large. To what degree is this acceptable? To what degree is this reprehensible?

xkcd: Charity
xkcd tackles the morality of spending…

This goes beyond just the personal level, of course.

  • Today as I drove into downtown Portland, I passed the $37,000,000 Mercy Corps building. I winced when I saw it. Mercy Corps does great work, but how much more great work could it have done with the money it spent for its new headquarters?
  • Or what about the humble country church my family attended when I was in high school? About a decade ago, the congregation spent tens of thousands of dollars to pave the parking lot and to build a new kitchen, gymnasium, and office. Is this what Jesus would have done? Or would he have used the money to help the poor?

I used to think there were clear answers to questions like these. Now I’m not so sure. What is right and what is wrong?

What are the moral implications of spending, especially on Wants? (I doubt anyone would argue that we shouldn’t spend on our own Needs.) If I spend $1500 for a pair of season tickets to the Portland Timbers, is this immoral? What if I also contribute $15 to a charity to make amends? $150? $1500? And at what point am I just “buying” a mental pardon?

Some of you will argue loud and long that there aren’t any moral implications to spending. Others will argue just as loudly (and just as long) that every economic act carries a moral and ethical component, that our financial decisions have meaning. I can see both sides.

What do you think? What are the moral implications of spending? When is it okay to buy a $200 million yacht? Is such a decision ever justifiable? Always justifiable? If Steven Spielberg also donates $200 million to charity, does that ameliorate this obscene expense? And what about on a more mundane scale? Are there any absolutes? How do you decide?

Note: Although this question is likely to stir more passionate debate than usual, let’s abide by the standard rules. You’re free to disagree with each other (and with me), but please do so respectfully. Keep things civil. As long as everyone’s polite, I think this could be a fine discussion.
More about...Giving

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

There are 243 comments to "What are the moral implications of spending?".

  1. Kate says 06 May 2011 at 04:13

    Funny this question should come up now. I’ve just been wrangling with this question in my own life.

    We recently took a trip. We went to Asia for the weekend (from the East Coast of North America). There was an amazing seat sale, we had a long weekend with no plans, we have the money, we pay extra on to the mortgage, no debt, etc. etc.

    It was wonderful and something we (very likely) won’t be able to do one day when we have kids. But we very nearly didn’t do it because of these questions:

    And yet, I was wracked by guilt- at least before we went. How could we do this? Wasn’t this a giant waste of money? Couldn’t it go to something else? Shouldn’t it go to something else?

    What would people think of us? Would they think we were irresponsible? Sneer at us? That we had gotten “too big for our britches”? That we’re selfish? That we should have shared our wealth (either with them or otherwise) if we were doing so well? *What had we BECOME*?

    I’m not sure those questions were actually resolved. They’ve just faded to the back of my mind now that we’re home and settling back into your routine. But I would think twice about doing a trip like that again- not because we didn’t have a great time, but because of the moral weight of it and the feeling that I was doing something very wrong.

    • Liz says 06 May 2011 at 05:33

      I have always worked very hard to be “good.” I worked during high school, worked during college (including during a semester abroad), and pursued very tough curricula (IB/AP, double major with research projects plus an honors thesis). My sister has always traveled extensively – Hungary, Switzerland, Morocco… but I’d never been able to visit her. I never thought it was “right” to spend my money on such luxury.

      The summer after graduation, however, I knew I needed something to re-set after a rough “senior” year (I graduated in three years…). I was already planning a trip to Calgary to present my thesis at an academic conference. Still, this wouldn’t be so relaxing – it was work. When I realized that I had enough money to afford a fantastic deal on round-trip airfare to Paris, I jumped at the chance. And I don’t regret it one bit. I had two and a half days in Paris (plus another day if you count an overnight rest at De Gaulle…) with my sister, and it was one of the most fantastic adventures I’ve had.

      Don’t feel guilty for spending your money on yourself. If you didn’t take a break on occasion, you’d burn out!

  2. Marsha says 06 May 2011 at 04:23

    I have no problem with someone analyzing their own spending; I do this myself all the time. The difficulty begins when someone decides another person’s spending is immoral or “obscene.” I worry that our society is headed toward a war between the haves and the have-nots, and the day will come when a person is not allowed to spend his money as he wishes.

    • james l says 06 May 2011 at 21:54

      Exactly, we have the right to choose how to spend our own money. It immoral to tell others how to best spend theirs.

      How many people are employed serving peoples wants? Millions, if people stopped buying wants they then might end up needing charity themselves because no one needs their goods anymore.

      Think of how many people where employed creating a $200million dollar yacht. from the miners and loggers, to the steal mill a wood mill workers. to the welders and craftsmen, to the designer and foreman. That $200m didn’t just disappear, it went from hollywood(someones wants to see a movie) to a miner and his family. That miner could have been in South American or Africa.

      Sometimes spending is actually better than giving. Didn’t Jesus even preach something about give and man a fish and he eats for a day but teach him to fish and he eats for a life time. So if people didn’t build yachts with movie money a miner in South America might not have a job.

      • Erica says 07 May 2011 at 03:41

        What a good answer!

      • StL Reflections says 14 May 2011 at 20:23

        Two things-
        1) Give a man a fish is not a quote from Jesus. I’m not quite sure where it’s from, but most sources suggest its a Chinese Proverb. Jesus said ‘give all you have to the poor, and come and follow me.’
        2) I don’t think its ‘immoral’ to tell people how to spend their money. At its most obvious, its always wrong to buy child prostitutes, hitmen, or pay someone who is desperate to risk their lives on your behalf. I would even argue for some more controversial rules-charitable giving is ethical, and everyone, particularly rich people like Americans should practice it at some level. Spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need and hoping that someone else will bail you out is also wrong.

  3. LifeAndMyFinances says 06 May 2011 at 04:34

    Obviously, a $200,000,000 yacht is a bit excessive, but this is a pretty tough question. How much is too much?

    My wife and I are on course to be moderately wealthy in a few years, and I’ve often asked myself this very same question. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s the right question.

    The more appropriate question is, what brings true happiness? For many of us, we believe that stuff will make us happy. Frankly, this is just stupid. Stuff is fun for a while, but ultimately, it’s relationships that matter.

    Money should be used to help others in this world, not yourself. A $200 mil yacht is selfish, and so is a Coach purse. None of it is necessary, and none of it will bring true pleasure.

    • Danielle says 06 May 2011 at 08:32

      I agree with everything except your last paragraph, particularly this line: “A $200 mil yacht is selfish, and so is a Coach purse.”

      If you enjoy purchasing luxury items once in a while, and can afford them, why not? The pleasure I get from my really nice brand-name bag (great construction, fabulous-feeling material, sturdy and useful pockets) is worth it to me.

      I am an ethically-minded person who works for a non-profit organization. I also don’t LOVE shopping that much and would rather buy a few nice pieces of clothing or accessories than a bunch of lower-quality items that may not last as long, forcing me to replace them sooner. Even if the items cost more initially.

      I like good quality items; and some of them have brand names and are moderately expensive. This is my personal choice and preference.

      • Ru says 06 May 2011 at 13:22

        Also, what if the higher priced one is the more ethical product? A £20 handbag was most likely made by slave labour in a 3rd world country using their local resources that probably weren’t harvested in the best of ways. Isn’t it better to spend £100 on a handbag hand-made by a fashion student who lives in the same city as you and sourced their leather from a UK tannery?

        Personally, I think all consumption in wrong. Yes, all consumption. Humans are a fundamentally flawed species who over consume in every way and have wrecked the planet. We are a nasty species. But then, hey, I’m a “crazy hippy” so my opinion is invalid.

        As for the giving money to charity thing, read the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough. It highlights many of the problems with charities. A lot of charity does more harm than good (by wrecking the local economy, or setting up an infrastructure locals can’t maintain, or building something they don’t need etc)

        • El Nerdo says 06 May 2011 at 19:11

          I was following you merrily until you said you would do away with all consumption. Maybe the earth doesn’t consume (though it’s fed “freely” by the sun, making her a trust fund baby), animals however need to consume in order to exist. We then return our remains to the recycling plant so they can be used in the production of new units. May sound mechanistic to you, but I think it’s a beautiful way to live.

      • Amanda says 06 May 2011 at 19:43

        I’m not disagreeing with you, I like post #2, people have the right to spend their money on what they want. But I don’t like it when people use the “excuse”- “it’ll last longer” with something like a purse. I don’t think a $400 purse will last longer than a $100 one. I also don’t think that my $100 bag has lasted much longer than one I could have gotten for $40 in a department store. I also think some higher priced garments definitely WILL last longer.

        • Meg says 07 May 2011 at 08:25

          Some higher priced items do last longer (I’m convinced this is most true for leather goods – shoes, purses, et al., provided you’re careful to pick a color that will last a long time such as brown or black). I’ve had the same favorite dress shoes since high school, and I still wear them to work.

    • Sara says 06 May 2011 at 10:21

      This is pretty much exactly what I was going to say. The recent posts here on GRS about how money CAN buy happiness pointed out that it’s not in the way of buying an expensive purse. True happiness has to come from within, and even the excitement of an expensive yacht will wear off eventually, and may even bring about more problems in one’s life.

      I also feel that fundamentally we’re lying to ourselves if we think that our purchases of items don’t come at a cost to someone else, whether it be from underpaid labor or the environmental impact it has. The consumption of STUFF has caused huge problems across the world, even if we don’t see it because we’re lucky enough to just buy our Gap t-shirts and not see where they came from.

    • mv says 06 May 2011 at 10:26

      LifeAndMyFinances (comment #3):

      You’re last paragraph is very judgmental. I took a peak at your website and found:

      Since I am typically “the finance man”, I am often so focused on putting money aside to pay off our debts that I forget about our many blessings and our opportunities to give. Thankfully, my better half has a heart that’s the size of King Kong (no physical resemblance though), and makes me aware of al the worthy causes available.

      Interpretation – you are so completely focused on yourself (selfish) that your better half has to remind you to be charitable.

      This behavior is the opposite of your judgmental comment. Look to yourself first before you throw stones at others…

      • April411 says 06 May 2011 at 12:38

        Umm a coach purse is selfish? I can see how that would be the case if I was living paycheck to paycheck and decided to buy a purse instead of buying shoes for the kids or something. But, honestly a coach purse holds up better than one from target.(I speak from experience.) We were at the coach outlet in Vegas and my hubby told to to get one if I wanted. There was a nice one on sale for $200. I thought it was too much so I declined. I just noticed that my recently purchased $30 target purse has a big hole in it where the strap couldn’t handle the weight. damn…I should’ve taken him up on the offer.

      • Omatix says 06 May 2011 at 17:22

        I don’t think the poster was trying to pass a judgement on the “selfish” buying of a Coach purse. I interpret it such that certain luxuries may benefit nobody but ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we can’t indulge occasionally. A $200 million yacht may also be “selfish”, but it’s a quantitative difference, rather than a qualitative one. We all have to choose where to draw the line.

  4. Nicole says 06 May 2011 at 04:37

    I think this xkcd comic is really good:

    On a more serious note, it can be good to budget one’s charity. Choose a dollar amount or a percentage amount of income or some other target, just like any other portion of what you spend. Then plan your spending around that. Like the comic, you don’t want giving to be a chore and something that causes you deprivation… if that happens you might stop giving at all.

    By planning charitable giving first, just like you plan savings first, you should be able to spend guilt free, because your spending choices are being made at the expense of other spending choices, not at the expense of giving.

    • J.D. says 06 May 2011 at 05:27

      Thanks, Nicole. Adding that comic to the post.

    • savvy says 06 May 2011 at 07:38

      This is exactly what I do. I give away more than 10% of my gross income annually. I don’t feel guilty about my splurges because I know I’m generous to others as well. Over time (after we pay off the mortgage, etc.), I would like to up my percentage even more. I think it’s important to give but I don’t think you have to be a (financial) martyr either.

      • imelda says 06 May 2011 at 18:32

        Exactly; that’s the only way to do it, I think. Make charitable giving a part of your life, but not so large that it’s making you suffer.

        In the social justice field, burnout is a huge problem. People throw everything they have into their work, and after a few years they are so emotionally drained that they just can’t keep going.

        It’s the same thing with finances – the xkcd comic illustrates this, ironically. There comes a point when you’re asking too much of yourself, and when that happens, your response is going to be to do nothing. And THAT is what we must avoid at all costs. So give what you’re comfortable giving, give in a way that it’s going to be sustainable, and accept that you’ll never be able to live your life perfectly.

        (incidentally, this is why I get annoyed when people do things like JD rolling his eyes at the Mercy Corps building. First of all, the more financially secure an organization is, the longer it’ll be able to stay in business – and real estate is a great boost to financial security. But more importantly, people who work in nonprofits already deal with lower earnings and a constant sapping of their emotional energy. Must we also ask them to sacrifice comfortable working conditions, well-deserved bonuses, and other benefits that no one, not even shareholders, ever complains about in the private sector?)

        • saro says 07 May 2011 at 01:19

          Re Mercy Corps building, it could also be that the new building is more cost efficient over the long term (better insulated – lower utilities; more room – no need to rent big conference rooms for big meetings & etc).

          I used to work for another highly regarded non-profit and they refused to let us buy a vehicle b/c it would make their numbers look bad, even though it would have had a HUGE positive impact on reaching the needy community. And there was funding for it!

          I also get irritated when people are upset with non-profit salaries. They deserve to have a living wage too!

  5. Annemarie says 06 May 2011 at 04:38

    “…every economic act carries a moral and ethical component”

    Yes, and the debate itself goes back to the idea of self-discipline. People used to flagellate themselves to get control over mind and body, now we worry about ethical spending (and eating habits, and smoking and so on). I’m not saying it’s wrong, but that it taps into something basic.

    And of course the spending — moral, immoral, outright ridiculous — means jobs for the people who make the stuff. (my husband is one of them; I’m very grateful for the folks who bought hand-forged curtain hardware all through the recession.)

    For the other side of the argument, I recommend Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. He even has a plan you can implement if you want to scale back your wants, even your needs, in order to give more.

  6. Jan says 06 May 2011 at 04:45

    The assumption with consumption is that no one wins. When Steven buys that yacht he actually employs tons of people. People who: built the yacht (including the hull, radios, buoys, rails,ropes….), put the yacht together, food services, janitorial, sales, advertising, financiers, maintenance (we have a small boat and it lives for the shop!), yard hands, chummers, tackle producers, pilots (for the helicopter) goes on and on.
    The Pitt- Jolie spend more than a million just on child care every year. Those are great jobs for those who are in that line of work.

    Really- how do you make YOUR money (not you specifically JD- but all of us)? Are you not dependent on someone buying your “product”?

    The people are unemployed because our economy is consumer based. Several members of my family in real estate sales and construction.
    You know what their economy has looked like in the last few years. When the price of food goes down- then the unemployed are farmers.
    How can we help the poor- give them a job that they can do. What are those jobs? Well….that is another discussion.

    Jesus never said not to build a Church. Seems to me he attended the temple pretty often and his followers worshiped in Synagog throughout their time. Yes, they fed people, but often that food was intellectual discussion. Giving of actual food and jobs- not so much.
    He was a teacher. Think about it.

    I have lived in rich and poor countries and traveled to many more. Charity begins at home. Care for your family and then community- move globally the more money you have. Stay within your means so you do not hurt a huge group of people when you cannot pay your bills. Be conscious that the things that you buy HELP a long line of people.

    Never try to compare country economies- it doesn’t work.

    My father used to say that if the intellectually gifted just lived in small caves- there would be no jobs or advancement anywhere. He employed about thirty people from all walks of life, lived in an expensive house(gardeners, pool men and such), spent lots of time working at St Vincent de Paul and was one of the truest Christians I have known.

    • siredge says 06 May 2011 at 05:33

      Well said. After reading the original post, I was thinking along the same lines and came to make sure this point of view was represented. It is not just okay, but virtuous to pay someone for their quality work or to receive payment for quality work. When you employ others through patronizing their employment, then you encourage them to grow. Charity has to be structured very carefully to achieve the same.

      Also, folks spending on those yachts and luxury items develop new technologies and processes that are too expensive for mass-production up front, but over time can seep down into consumer products for the rest of us. Many Americans really can’t imagine life without a car with much realism, but if it hadn’t been for wealthy people purchasing them when they were scarce, the technologies and infrastructure wouldn’t have been established for the rest of us to use.

      • Julia says 06 May 2011 at 20:25

        Agreed and well said by multiple people on the “consumption promotes a better standard of living” front. It may not jive with our altruistic sensibilities but from an economic development point of view, it’s usually better to provide people — and usually specifically women — with a means of earning a living than it is to give them handouts. (The hardest part, as mentioned by one commenter, is the country’s government must be stable…in some cases giving people the food and clothing and shelter they need to survive is the only way to go.) A very interesting and readable older book on this topic is the book “Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy.” The premise is that countries that have opened themselves up to textile development, starting with England, America, moving to China which is now more developed than many of its neighbors, and then moving down into the “cheaper labor” in lesser-developed countries — each country along the way has seen substantial economic growth at the expense of sometimes sub-par working conditions. I’m not in any way saying the answer is to open more sweatshops, but what I am saying is that we shouldn’t have to feel guilty about money that we are spending. Even buying a cheap t-shirt souvenir puts food on the table for more people than you would imagine.

    • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 06:26

      I question the appropriateness of focusing locally. It’s a convenient rule, but it will perpetuate inequalities. It also seems a little arbitrary: If some people 50 miles away need better textbooks but people 5000 miles away need food and water, we’re supposed to believe the people 50 miles away are more deserving of our attention?

    • Jenny1337 says 06 May 2011 at 06:34

      I definitely agree that consumption provides jobs to needy people, but I think that those that need it most don’t have the opportunity to have such jobs. Buying a boat or a luxury purse helps skilled craftspeople, but doesn’t help so much starving children in africa (who are too hungry, and diseased to learn a trade).

      I like to think that the best charities help people enough to get on their feet, and give them a push in the right direction (and if you did your job right, they can take it from there). The problem is when people get stuck in a cycle of poverty they can’t escape, not that there are people who have marketable skills (i.e. boat building) who just aren’t applying themselves.

      • Brenton says 06 May 2011 at 09:02

        Starving children in Africa are starving due to government instability. Stable governments breed stable economies, which over time will improve the fortunes of everyone in the country.

        No amount of charity will ever lift the children out of poverty if the country doesnt stabilize first. In fact, aid usually ends up in the hands of the corrupt strongmen who just perpetuate the instability.

        Also, free food, free clothes, etc… given out often help destroy local demand for food, clothes, etc…

        Charity and aid should be reserved for refugees fleeing a disaster, either manmade(like war) or natural(earthquake).

        • Chett says 06 May 2011 at 10:13

          What about charity to education organizations that help the people learn to think for themselves and form better governments for their future?

        • Suzanne says 06 May 2011 at 11:05

          As a fundraiser for an educational institution, I couldn’t agree more Chett.

        • Pamela says 06 May 2011 at 12:25

          Of course, a contributing factor to government corruption and instability is the destabilizing work of developed countries trying to get resources for their own production and consumptions. And now we’re back to making choices about what we buy, where it comes from, and who it hurts.

        • JoeTaxpayer says 06 May 2011 at 22:01

          Yes, Brenton, you are right. When we send food that doesn’t make it to those starving, the answer is not to send more food. We first need to have relationships with those governing these poor and start by having their support. Desalination plants are made small, portable, and solar powered. Teach proper farming, then bring in education.
          I am as much against child labor as anyone, but if that child is working to pay for food for the family, stopping their work may cause them to starve. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but whatever we are doing now isn’t having enough impact.

    • barnetto says 06 May 2011 at 06:44

      You can say, the $200 million yacht put people to work and did good because it allowed them to feed and take care of their own families needs and wants.

      But say $200 million goes to purchase mosquito netting, vaccines, etc. The people who manufacture mosquito netting, vaccines, and other items can then feed and take care of their families.

      Basically wherever we make our economic demands, the people and the jobs will shift.

      Its a conscious absolving rationalization to say that purchasing a $200 million dollar yacht helps other people. What are the opportunity costs of that $200 million yacht? The opportunity costs are for the pharmaceutical companies and their employees who manufacture and research drugs, for the mosquito net manufacturers, and for the people who die because a mosquito bit them and they had neither the drugs nor the physical device necessary to prevent malaria.

      I indulge myself in unnecessary goods and services, like most of us, and I’m sure there are good arguments to be made for an individual purchasing luxury goods/services, but the mere fact that those purchases help people is not that argument.

      • B. says 06 May 2011 at 13:59

        So if it’s immoral to pay $200M for a yacht, is it also immoral to build a portion of the yacht and accept payment for it? I think that the answer has to be yes. But since I can’t imagine that it’s immoral to be paid for work (yacht builder), then I don’t see how it can be immoral to pay someone for their work (Spielberg).

        Or think of it this way. How did Steven Spielberg make his millions? He made entertaining (and well-marketed) movies. Would the money that we spent on tickets to Schindler’s List have been better used to buy mosquito netting?

        I suspect that the objection to Spielberg’s yacht isn’t that the money would be better used to buy baby formula for malnourished infants. Rather, it’s a visceral aversion to ostentatious spending. If one really were serious about always using their resources for the greater good, then one would never buy anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. No iPhones. No laptop computers with which to view GRS…

        • Sara says 06 May 2011 at 18:04

          Well said, B.

      • james l says 06 May 2011 at 22:06

        Wouldn’t it be better for people how needs netting to have a job so that they could afford to buy their own netting. What if that job was mining minerals that went into building $200m yachts?

    • Katy says 06 May 2011 at 06:57

      So perhaps the moral here is to spend money on industries and companies that you feel are self-sustaining and ethically run. We heavily investigate the charities we donate to. Why don’t we do the same with other purchases?

      -By purchasing an electric car, for example, you are supporting that industry and enabling a company to develop a cheaper product down the line. Emerging technologies have major start-up costs and often rely on affluent “early adopters.”

      -Supporting ethically raised meat products (whatever your own personal standards may be) means paying a few extra dollars so your meal didn’t suffer before it got to you.

      -If you MUST buy that yacht, buy it from the company that is known for treating its employees the way you would like to be treated.

      So really, when you make a purchase, try to maximize your “trickle down” effect. When you make a purchase you are creating/sustaining jobs. But are those people working in a sweatshop or a supportive environment?

    • John says 06 May 2011 at 08:46

      Was thinking the exact same thing – i this debate you have to consider job creation and the types of jobs as a positive offshoot of spending. I might add that high end (and probably customized) items like yachts employ highly skilled (probably domestic) craftsman and manufacturers, while something like a purse or shoes are outsourced to lower-skilled labor. Not a judgement here, but it’s something to consider when making purchases – what kind of jobs are you supporting. Same reason I try to seek out locally grown produce – more expensive but I want to support that type of business.

    • Dar says 06 May 2011 at 10:24

      As other commenters have noted in their replies, “Well said.” I have no problem with people going out and spending money on themselves because it keeps the wheels in this economy moving and keeps people employed. The more the money changes hands the better, and when it gets taxed at each exchange along the way, then society gets a net double win–employment in the free enterprise and tax money for our infrastructure.

      I do and will continue to donate to charity because some causes are worthy and aren’t otherwise supported by consumer spending. But I have no qualms about spending money on myself since my money is keeping people employed–the only qualms I have is making sure I stay within my budget!

    • Steven says 07 May 2011 at 11:06

      It seems what people are trying to do is justify spending on a huge consumer purchase with a cost/benefit type of analysis. I am not going to comment on whether or not the purchase of a $200 million yacht is moral (I haven’t even decided for myself), but just want to comment on some alternatives.

      Someone else suggested mosquito nets and vaccines, and the example I had in my mind is cancer research. Spending/donating money to any of these causes creates jobs, but not all the same jobs, and not with the same economic impact. As far as job creation, in principle the economic impact of all of these choices (and others) can be measured and compared. With cancer research, you are employing scientists, technicians, equipment manufacturers, etc… Its not like the money is just going to sit there, it will be spent, just in different areas than the money going towards a yacht.

      But like other people have said, thats not the whole story. I think the arguments about future technological developments in the yacht case are fairly weak (though I may be wrong). But with the mosquito nets/vaccines and with donating to cancer research, there are benefits which are a little harder to quantify in terms of dollars and cents. If you had $200 million to spend, only doing a cost benefit analysis, you would still somehow have to include some type of measurements for saving human lives into the decision.

    • Marcus Byrd says 17 May 2011 at 06:18

      You said it right! There is no problem with us buying and not feeling a sense of guilt about it. It becomes obsurd quickly when we begin doing the “If you really cared then you would…”. Don’t ever buy a Big Mac, if you really cared you would buy a sandwich from the dollar menu and donate the saved $3 to charity. Really? I don’t care about others if I buy something for myself?
      It is oppurtunity cost. Whenever we spend our money, then we lose the oppurtunity to use that money for other things. If you can afford a $200 million yacht then buy it! Invite me to enjoy it with you! There is nothing wrong with this. Is there other things that the money could go to? Certainly, but unless you are a monk who is the epitomy of the minimalist lifestyle, then you can’t judge. I don’t remember seeing the “teach a man to fish” proverb in the bible, but Jesus did say that he who is without sin can cast the first stone. So if there is anyone out there who hasn’t blown money on themselves then blast away at Steven. I know that I can’t say anything, I enjoy a Big Mac from time to time.

  7. Andrea says 06 May 2011 at 04:45

    Well, I am somewhat similar to the writer. We have no debt(no mortgage and nothing else)and are retired with pensions and 401Ks plus more than enough to keep us more than decently. We have traveled, we have fixed up the house but we give to charities as well as using our retirements to volunteer at a number of places on a regular basis. What is morally wrong or right? I think there are people who could give more and do not-esp among the really rich. However, I don’t really know what they do or don’t do with their money.

    What I do know are people who are retired like me and rarely or never give of their time/money- that I find is morally wrong-because I know these people. I have a strong belief that one who has been blessed(yes, even if it was through one’s own hard work) to have a comfortable life should give back to their community and the world. If one of these friend bought a Coach bag- I wouldn’t have a problem but spending her days on the computer/TV/reading/shopping w/o giving back is wrong to me.

  8. mdb says 06 May 2011 at 04:48

    If every one gave all their “excessive” income to charity, their would be a lot less “excessive” income to give. People respond to incentives, for most people that is money. Through their hard work the world is a better place. Charity is good but should not be expected. Bill Gates helped more people earning his billions than he has helped through his charity. Think of how many discoveries, enhancements, etc. have been created thanks to cheap computing.

    • Niel Malan says 06 May 2011 at 10:57

      Of course, when Bill Gates was making his money he was helping people who had already been helped, i.e. people who had computers (which are not cheap by Third World standards) and electricity to drive those computers. Now he’s helping people who has not been helped before.

  9. Nancy L. says 06 May 2011 at 04:54

    The other day on “Survivor”, a tribe had conflict bc one member wanted the “crispy rice” at the bottom of the pan and they were saving it for another. Even when you get down to the barest existence there are still natural inequities–not everyone could have the crispy rice.

    It’s physically and emotionally impossible to exist in this world without taking resources that another could use. Until you are the worst off in the world, there will always be someone who needs your resources “more” simply due to their relative lack. I see the point in helping others to the greatest extent you feel comfortable with, but I see nothing wrong with enjoying luxuries that you can afford.

  10. lostAnnfound says 06 May 2011 at 04:54

    The question is difficult for me to answer because in some ways I cannot fathom spending 200 million on anything. It’s such a huge amount of money for the average Joe or Jane to contemplate.

    But who I am to say what someone should or should not give to any charity, or how they spend money on their wants/luxuries? If it’s your money that you earned, then it is your decision to make. I would only hope that those that have so much would be willing to help those that have very little, or nothing.

    • LC says 06 May 2011 at 07:09

      I agree with you. It’s not my place to judge how others do or do not spend their money, and I don’t appreciate those who judge how I spend mine.

      • Katy says 06 May 2011 at 07:15

        I don’t think anyone here is telling you how to spend your money. Rita, on the other hand, has generously requested that we judge her for the sake of a thought experiment.

        So she’s totally fair game. 😉

        • LC says 06 May 2011 at 08:26

          Right, I just struggle with that concept. I am incredibly critical of my own spending and am conscious of those decisions. I find it appropriate to reflect on the whys of my choices and frequently assess my budget, including spending and charitable giving. When others invite the outside opinions of others, I have a hard time walking a line between judgement and the sharing of my personal experience/vantage point. What’s right for me or what makes sense to me, may or may not add value to your own situation or be relevant to your decision making process.

        • Katy says 06 May 2011 at 09:34

          True, and we all come from somewhat different backgrounds.

          I don’t give anything worth mentioning to charity right now, but I do feel a strong compulsion to give back to society. When I think about the circumstances that produced my current, happy, motivated self, I am floored at my luck.

          So why don’t I donate more to charity? Why don’t I volunteer much of my time?

          To use a video game term, I’m busy “leveling up.” I’m fighting lots of easy enemies before I go on to fight the “boss”. I’m paying off my student loans as quickly as possible, teaching myself a million things, and trying to transform myself into the sort of person who is not only willing, but able to help others without burdening the system while doing so.

          In the meantime, every luxury purchase feels like going deeper into debt – moral debt. It’s going to take a lot of work/donations/good deeds before I start to feel like I’m in the black again.

          To the next person, this worldview might look like I’m trapped by guilt and imposing my (eeeeevil) moral will on the world. Who am I to judge what is good or not? In fact, what if my good intentions are actively harming the system which brought me (and others) so much happiness?

          Moral debates are always accompanied by a big fat “it depends.” But they’re still useful, because they allow us to examine our beliefs and remind ourselves of our goals in life.

          What’s important to me is that I’m consistent within my own moral framework. If *I* purchase a Coach bag (forgive the cliche), it is an immoral action for *ME* to commit. I don’t feel the same way about the next guy. But I am curious about his justifications, or whether or not he’s thought it through.

  11. James says 06 May 2011 at 04:54

    There is nothing wrong with spending money on Timbers season tickets.

    Now if you were spending $1500 on Chivas USA or NY Red Bulls tickets……….

    • saro says 07 May 2011 at 01:22

      James, I’d like to take this moment and thank you for your soccer smack talk.

      – a DC United fan

  12. Mike Hunt says 06 May 2011 at 05:02

    I agree with Jan. Spending is creating wealth for someone else so there should be no guilt associated with it.

    In fact, one could argue that spending and ‘charity’ aren’t too different, just different means to achieve the same goal.

    By that line of thinking saving would equate to hoarding and should be used for your future self and / or family. Saving without spending could be selfish. For example imagine having tons of gold buried in your yard that only you know about but you are too miserly to spend and then you die. The gold stays buried, nobody spends it and none of this wealth is ever distributed. Ok, maybe some kid finds it years later and is super happy but if that doesn’t happen I would argue this is WAAY more selfish than the dude who bought the $200M yacht.


    • barnetto says 06 May 2011 at 06:57
      I disagree on two points. Spending and charity are not different means to achieve the same goal because they’re aimed at different segments of the population (generally).

      To me, charity comes in two forms. 1) give a man a fish, 2) teach a man to fish.

      Whereas spending is 3) buying the fish from the man that already knows how to fish.

      I think there has to be a balance between the three, but I haven’t got a formula for finding that balance. You need to give the man fish while he’s learning to fish, and then you need to buy his extra fish from him so he can hire more people and expand his business.

      The other point of disagreement I had was that saving is selfish. Sure, if you put your money under a mattress or bury it in gold in your yard. But (ideally) your money is being used by the bank to extend a loan to our intrepid fisherman so he can buy a bigger boat now and increase his profits and pay back the bank with interest. And then the bank can re-invest those profits or reward you, the customer, with higher interest rates in your savings account.

      Or your savings can bypass the bank and you loan it directly to a company (buy shares) or the government (buy bonds). The company will use the money to fund/expand its operations and the government will use it to build roads/buy bombs/etc. The point is, the money you are saving is actually in use (aside from the required amount of capital a bank is required to maintain).

      • Mike Hunt says 06 May 2011 at 08:15

        Good points- I like your 3 classifications.

        Saving if put in the mattress (true definition of saving.. not investing) doesn’t help the economy until it is used for investing. Do you agree with that?

        • Julia says 06 May 2011 at 20:38

          How about this? Hiding money in mattresses and burying it in the yard most certainly does not help the economy. Until you dig it up and spend it.

          “Saving” it in the bank, so the bank can lend it out to others, does help the economy.

          “Investing” it in the stock market, so that companies have more capital to invest, also helps.

      • James says 06 May 2011 at 08:19

        If the fisherman buys a bigger boat, is he being selfish? Shouldn’t he just give the money to a fishermen who doesn’t have a boat? And if a fisherman without a boat get the money, should he give it to another one who doesn’t have a net or a pole? It can keep going this way forever. At what point would it be okay for the fishermen to have a fleet of boats? Or should we just have a bunch of people with a line and a hook each making just enough to get by?

        • John says 16 May 2011 at 19:25

          Except that those other fishermen may be better off by working for the man with a fleet of boats rather than undertaking the risk of owning their own boat. Some people prefer security to potential economic gain.

      • J.D. says 06 May 2011 at 08:30

        I really like your three points too, Barnetto. Great comment!

      • Pamela says 06 May 2011 at 12:30

        Lots of great points here. But investment doesn’t always benefit everyone equally. That’s why the U.S. passed the Community Reinvestment Act–banks were accepting deposits in poor neighborhoods but were taking the money out of the community and not lending it locally.

        I think it’s important to wrestle with the personal implications of our actions, but it’s not going to mean much if we don’t have equitable laws that are fair to everyone.

        • james l says 06 May 2011 at 22:02

          that worked well, it was the cause of sub prime loans. If the bank was paying interest to the depositors, then these communities where actually saving and gain wealth through others mortgage payments. Instead the government encouraged these poorer people to take loans out that they could never afford to payback.

  13. Andrew says 06 May 2011 at 05:06

    As long as one makes his or her money honestly and fairly, then no one else should get to decide what he or she does with it. Spending money does not make one “bad” or immoral. In fact, if people stopped spending money, including on luxury items, the world economies would crumble. Personal consumption is estimated to be around 65%-70% of the US GDP. Take away even a small portion of that and, pretty soon, there would be a lot more people needing the assistance that many of you on this site seem to think the needy are entitled to. In a perfect world, yes, everyone would have enough food and water and an extra $500 to spend on a Coach purse, but that is never going to happen, and those with comfortable lives should not be judged for spending money they have rightfully earned.

    • barnetto says 06 May 2011 at 07:05

      What is honestly and fairly?

      Did Prince William come by his money honestly and fairly?

      How about a person born in an upper income US family whose parents sent him/her to the best private schools, had private tutors, went to the parent’s ivy league alma mater and then got a job at Dad’s law firm?

      The person born in the US to an average family, with public education?

      The kid born in Afghanistan who becomes a poppy plant farmer?

      The kid born in Africa whose parents died of aids and is now living in an orphanage?

      • LC says 06 May 2011 at 07:24

        Does it matter? We are all given a set of circumstances and opportunities in which to operate. It’s up to us to determine what we do with them, whether we take advantage of them or not.

        I’ve seen many of these so-called privilege kids who had the money, schooling, etc, who took advantage of these opportunities and worked extremely hard to be successful. Should they be denigrated because they were born into a better situation than another? If so, every person in America and many parts of Europe have been born into significantly more privilege than those in say Africa. I’ve also seen those with little do the same. And of course, there is always the otherside: the “rich kid” who did nothing and the “poor kid” who did nothing.

        • Andrew says 06 May 2011 at 08:32

          Exactly. Your life is what you make of it. Are some people born into more favorable situations than others? Of course. That will always be the case. If we “started over” and made everyone equal, it would not last, and we would get back to the same class system within a couple of generations. It’s human nature. If helping people is what you want to do with your money, then by all means do it. But the only moral obligation we have is to ourselves.

          “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
          -Ayn Rand

        • Patti says 06 May 2011 at 12:35

          I could not disagree more with Andrew Comment 87.

          While individual differences exist, these differences alone do not explain the inequalities and disparities in the world. People live and experience the world not just as individuals, but also in families, in communities, in nations, where larger systems (capitialism, democracy) affect the choices they have every day and where their histories affect the present.

          I disagree with the notion that “But the only moral obligation we have is to ourselves.”

          Instead I believe that we are responsible to each other and for each other. Morality is involved in all the decisions we make, including where and how we earn, spend and save our money, and at its root that the moral question is about how our choices affect others. To think only of ourselves, all the time, is a problem.

          We are on the earth for more reasons than to pursue our own happiness. Fighting injustice often causes people to be unhappy (Note all the discussion about finding a cause that makes your blood boil) but they should still do it.

        • Julia says 06 May 2011 at 20:58

          Interesting, Patti, I disagree with both you and Andrew 😉 Absolutely I disagree that the only moral obligation we have is to ourselves. I think the only SOCIAL obligation we have is to ourselves…only we can decide for ourselves if we want to get off of welfare, or make a promotion at work, or save the extra money from that promotion instead of going into debt, and so on. However MORALLY we have an obligation to everyone we come in contact with not to, say, steal from them.

          I also disagree that morality is involved in all the decisions we make. Unfortunately we do a lot of selfish things, we’re just made that way, but sometimes those selfish acts also benefit others. It’s nice to say that I might consider every single aspect of every product I buy and every company I invest my money in, but when it comes right down to it I eat hot dogs and buy index funds. You can’t say I know morally every single act that occurred in the production of those two items. But just because I like hot dogs and eat them without thinking too hard about where they came from…doesn’t mean that I’m not helping a pig farmer out with some extra cash at the end of the month. It is a problem to think of only ourselves all the time, though. I agree with you there. The trick, as barnetto said earlier, is finding the balance.

    • Pamela says 06 May 2011 at 12:34

      Don’t forget that the GDP is not set in stone. I remember when we switched from measuring GNP to GDP when I was in high school. One of the significant changes was that we started counting as economic benefits things like clean up of pollution–as if the clean up was a benefit that wiped out the damage created.

      We don’t have to use GDP as our measure of success. And then, all these arguments about personal spending would be moot.

  14. CB says 06 May 2011 at 05:07

    What a thought provoking and far-reaching question!
    I think, as someone above said, the question of “how much” is the wrong question. It’s more about attitude: “how much are you willing to give away?” (As a disclaimer I’m not preaching from a soapbox looking down. I’m in the crowd looking up at this person I don’t recognize telling me to change my attitude about giving.)
    You brought up the point about the church and Jesus. Based on what I’ve read in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament since we’re talking about Jesus, Jesus didn’t seem to care about how much money a person had or didn’t have. He cared about what their attitude towards the resources they had was. Two quick examples: The rich, young man that came to Jesus and asked about getting into heaven. The guy had lived a relatively decent life. Jesus said sell all you have and follow me. The guy left sad because he had a lot and couldn’t give it up. The other example is the widow that gave two pennies to the collection plate. Jesus pointed this out to his disciples saying she gave more than any other person. In both cases I believe that he’s focusing on the attitude of the giver not the amount they give or the potential they could give.
    So is it wrong to have nice things? No, not necessarily. Is it right to give away everything so that you live no better than the poorest person in the world? No, not necessarily. It comes back to what is your attitude when you give.
    Think about this: Is the $200 million yacht excessive because it’s a $200 million yacht or is it excessive because you don’t have and can’t fathom having $200 million at your disposal?

    As an aside, what if you didn’t get a tax deduction for giving? Would you still give? Would you care if people didn’t know it was you that gave?

    • LC says 06 May 2011 at 07:19

      “Think about this: Is the $200 million yacht excessive because it’s a $200 million yacht or is it excessive because you don’t have and can’t fathom having $200 million at your disposal?”

      Well said. My thoughts exactly. I’ve seen the Coach bag example on here a couple times in the comments… not sure why, of all the “luxury” brands one could name, this rather moderate one by comparison is brought up, but is a $400 bag obscene because you can’t afford it? Is it because you wouldn’t spend your $400 that way? I could say that the $1500 ticket purchase is silly because it’s of no interest or value to me. However, some might question the $ I spend on shoes. The same goes for giving. If I give significant (relative to me) time and money to a cancer charity, someone else would look upon that and say I should be giving to treat AIDS in Africa instead. Each of us have different wants and needs, beliefs and charity causes on our hearts. We should avoid “labeling” each other without an intimate knowledge of each person’s situation and without a healthy respect that it takes all kinds to make this world work.

      “As an aside, what if you didn’t get a tax deduction for giving? Would you still give? Would you care if people didn’t know it was you that gave?”

      I love this question.

      • Patti says 06 May 2011 at 12:41


        I think the question of the Coach bag is a really good one. My friend used to use the question, if you were really wealthy, how much would you pay for a white t-shirt? as a way of getting at the same issue.

    • Mom of five says 06 May 2011 at 07:20

      Once you hit the AMT, the amount that is deductible for charitable giving is minimal. People like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates can reap more tax benefits by forming charitable foundations, but for the vast majority of folks with an AGI>$250k who are not super wealthy, tax deductions for charitable contributions are pretty meaningless.

    • Catherine says 06 May 2011 at 09:07

      My wise friend Judy from church says that to be truly meaningful, charitable giving has to hurt — the $1500 you give to charity means you won’t be able to buy those sports tickets. That is what the rich young man could not do and the poor woman could — he could not deny himself for the sake of others. Much as I applaud Gates and Buffett for their charitable giving, I doubt it makes much difference in the quality of their daily lives, though of course the same cannot be said of their heirs.

      Another point, giving money is the easy part, at least for most of us. For me, the real payoff is giving my time to volunteer. Looking back, I regard this as the greatest gift I have ever given myself.

      • Mike B. says 06 May 2011 at 10:12

        A good thought, but even the “hurt” is transient. When I got my first job, we set a percentage to give away. As my income has increased, so has this percentage.

        Does it hurt? Not really — because I’ve never had that money.

  15. Kate says 06 May 2011 at 05:10

    I believe money gained by a person through legal enterprise is theirs to do with as they see fit. Consumption is not entirely negative.

    It’s a slippery slope when you start judging others actions with some “holier than thou” attitude. (“I find it morally wrong – because I know these people” seen above in #7) Really? You know everything about them and their finances?

    Wants and Needs are so relative in America compared to third world countries. Who says you actually need as much food as you eat? Someone else gets by on less, so your excess above that level is selfish and could go to some starving child. Your 500 sq ft apartment might not seem excessive to you, but there are whole families living in single room buildings.

    Unless you are handing your money over to someone with a specific purpose attached to it (and they fail to use the money towards that purpose), I find it wrong to go about judging other people’s spending just because they took an extra vacation this year without trying to solve the world’s problems first.

    Remove the log from your own eye first and maybe you won’t feel the need to judge others. Maybe you can simply teach by example and offer others a chance to join you.

    For those struggling with their own spending and feeling guilty, I would suggest really exploring the “whys” behind your guilt with a professional if needed. It’s not wrong to question the purpose behind the spending, but if doing so makes it impossible to enjoy what you’ve worked hard to earn (then that’s sad) and there are other larger issues at play.

    • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 05:26

      kate, to clarify, it sounds like you’re advocating for moral relativism here: don’t judge others, period*. is that right?

      *except you do say “it is wrong to judge others…”–i guess this means everything’s potentially okay, except judgment…

      • Nicole says 06 May 2011 at 05:36
        • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 05:44

          ha ha. thank you.

      • Kate says 06 May 2011 at 07:31

        I’m not advocating no judgement period. People judge, period. I’m advocating not thinking yourself better for “sacrificing” a vacation to give to charity than another person who chose the vacation instead.

        Make a personal decision that YOU can live with regarding YOUR money and let me manage my own. This stemmed mostly from 7s response about judging others as morally wrong because she didn’t think they gave enough/any time/money. The implication is that the other people should live their life by her standards and are somehow less because they don’t.

        If I’m not hungry, I’m not going to purchase food and stuff my face in front of a starving child, but I also don’t think that every penny beyond my basic needs is undeserved by me and should be given to someone else.

        “Excess” is so relative. “Justifiable” to whom? Why should I need to justify spending MY hard earned money to anyone? I will say I only apply this to individuals – I do think charities and companies have to justify their spending to stockholders and contributors.

  16. anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 05:13

    I can’t overstate how much I’ve wrestled with this question in my life (i.e., in therapy, in my career choices, and where I live). I’m extremely familiar with Singer’s works.

    Every decision to do something is a decision not to do something else. There are *always* tradeoffs. The decision not to acknowledge these tradeoffs is closely linked to the idea of existential bad faith: by pretending we don’t have choices, we deny our freedom. Life can be much more convenient this way!

    People’s answers to this question will differ because they have (1) different models of how the world works (e.g., the dynamics of the ‘economic web’ you mention, how GDP scales with subjective well-being, whether there’s a God around to sort things out for us), (2) strong incentives not to feel very guilty, (3) different values to maximize (e.g., their own personal freedom versus the reduction of extreme suffering), and (4) a lack of desire to think too hard about these problems, perhaps driven by a lack of compassion.

    “Some of you will argue loud and long that there aren’t any moral implications to spending.”

    I can’t fathom this perspective. Posts like this and the few comments I’ve read (I’ll have to stop) make me feel so alone.

    Our species faces a new level of challenge in cooperating with each other; so far, we’ve been selected to be able to cooperate at much smaller scales (i.e., groups of households and small countries), and we have some very difficult decisions ahead that will require high-level coordination. I worry about people who focus narrowly on themselves and their friends, who judge their consumption in highly normative ways (e.g., “If my friends are all doing it, why can’t I? If this is part of my country’s ‘dream,’ what’s wrong with it?”).

    We’re a really interesting species, but there’s no need to believe we (Americans, humans, whatever) are immune to the simple rules that govern the populations of everything else on the planet. Populations drive themselves extinct all the time through fratricide and excessive consumption.

    I can’t see how spending isn’t a moral issue. The next step is to get the laws in place (e.g., carbon taxes, labor protection in developing countries) so that we don’t have to agonize over every purchase; the price can signal all that’s relevant.

    • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 05:55

      Following up for the last time:

      Regarding the question of what we should focus our ‘altruistic spending’ on (e.g., national parks, access to contraception, clean water, political reform, etc.), J.D., you might be interested in examining more closely the activities of GiveWell. They’re trying to apply theory from a very large academic field that attempts to convert interventions into quality-adjusted life years (QALYs). Maximizing the number of QALYs added by an intervention is the goal of many charities. Of course, it’s easier to do this for simple linear relationships–when we’re trying to prevent fisheries’ collapses, eradicate entire diseases, or precipitate political change, the analysis becomes much harder.

      Obviously, for some people, their altruistic priorities will be dictated by things that are close (community organizations) or their religion.

  17. tas says 06 May 2011 at 05:14

    Doesn’t some of the issue with consumption depend on how people are employed? To take Jan’s example of that yacht, if people are paid fair, living wages, then sure the yacht is something that productively participates in society. But if the workers on that yacht are paid only minimum wage and have no benefits, is that still the case? (I’m assuming they work full time; or if part time, it’s not to cut costs but bc the boat is only used part time.)

    Perhaps one way to balance these issues is to spend our money consciously on items through which society is truly enriched; instead of chasing the cheapest price (or trying to look chic from Wal-Mart when you make $100K — a new trend among fashionistas), look carefully at the supply line and insure that people are paid fair wages. This, for instance, is why I have no problems buying food for the food pantry at Whole Foods. Sure I cld buy a whole lot more at a cheaper grocery store, but then I’m perpetuating a system of lower wages, which causes more people to rely on the food pantry. (The majority of the people who use our food pantry are employed 40+ hours a week, but simply don’t make enough money to feed their families or have huge medical expenses, etc.)

  18. shash says 06 May 2011 at 05:25

    What?!? No cat picture? But, I thought we were on a roll these last few days. (sigh)

  19. Meghan says 06 May 2011 at 05:25

    Interesting debate and one that I don’t have an answer to, but I’ll add my two cents.

    I try not to think about “giving back” in the narrow sense of giving money to charity. When you spend $1500 for season tickets for the Portland Timbers, you are supporting athletes who are passionate about what they do, often have short careers, and who probably do not make a lot of money. Same goes for when you buy tickets for the symphony or the theatre. You are supporting local artists who devote many hours to their field and generally have an income that is at or just above the poverty line. One could argue that sports, the arts, literature, etc. contributes to a more vibrant and richer society.

    You could also argue that buying art or collectibles is frivolous, especially when that money could be donated to the poor. But then many collectors end up donating their collections to museums, where the objects can then be appreciated by the public and used for educational purposes.

  20. dude says 06 May 2011 at 05:28

    I think Marsha makes a very good point — it’s one thing to self-examine and another to pass judgments on others. We all make choices about what makes us happy and the answer to that question is different for all of us.

    I know I need to restrain myself from judging those who value luxury items like fancy purses, when my ‘cheap chic’ knockoff serves me just fine — and doesn’t prompt guilt when I get ballpoint ink stains on it. But after taking several international flights last year, I’ve got a carbon footprint about the size of Maine, so who am I to judge?

    As for church spending on improvements, you have to remember that the organization’s goal is not just to help the poor but also to maintain and support a community — and if the congregation decides a new kitchen and gym will accomplish that goal, then it’s a good investment. But I’m hoping your church also devotes a good chunk of its budget and fundraising to social justice programs.

    In the same vein, the Catholic Church could sell off the masterpieces in its collections or stop maintaining the Sistine Chapel to save the poor, but cultural patrimony is one of its responsibilities as well.

  21. Tyler Karaszewski says 06 May 2011 at 05:40

    What are my moral obligations? To make the world a better place? It’s better even if it’s just for me.

    To make the world a more equal place? Equal for who? For everyone, or just for me and a people in a specific group (i.e., people with muscular dystrophy, or people in a particularly downtrodden country)?

    Something else?

    If I have none of these obligations, then I am not being immoral by neglecting them.

    What’s the real question? Certainly a $200,000,000 yacht feeds fewer people than a $200,000,000 farm, but who says I’m supposed to feed other people?

    What are “better” forms of charity? Feeding the poor? What about donating to a political cause? Or supporting national parks? Are any of these better or worse and at what point do I hit “good enough” to not be considered “immoral” by pouring my money (and therefore, some percentage of my life’s work) into them?

    Is it immoral for the moderately poor not to give to the extremely poor?

    At what point did providing the best possible life for your own family become morally questionable? When that life includes a yacht?

    I’m not sure morality is a continuum, but rather any action is either “moral”, which includes morally irrelevant things, like making your bed, or “immoral” in which it harms someone else in an immoral way. Exactly what falls into the second category is up for debate, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include, “doing well for myself”.

    This doesn’t mean that actions aren’t better or worse than one another on a sliding scale by some *other* metric, but I think morality is binary.

    • Betsy says 06 May 2011 at 05:56

      Re: the moderately poor giving to the even more poor — see under “Mite, widow’s”.

    • Dan says 06 May 2011 at 06:44

      I used to make my living pumping jet fuel for corporate (aka rich people’s) jets. Along the same lines as the yacht, there are many working stiffs who just get by supporting the industry. Political/media attacks on the industry used to drive me nuts because the side affects of making it un-pc to have your own jet impact a lot of people.

    • mlb says 07 May 2011 at 12:57

      Tyler, it seems to me you are introducing all of these questions which suggest that morality runs along more of a continuum, and then you conclude that it black & white / binary. I’m not sure how you came to this conclusion. To me it seems you are saying you have no legal obligation to help less fortunate people, and as a result you have no moral obligation to do so.

      I do think morality is highly personal, so some people don’t feel morally obligated to help anybody less fortunate. However, I don’t think that’s most people here.

  22. Adam says 06 May 2011 at 05:41

    As a current seminary student in the ELCA church, this is a question my wife and I have struggled with. On one level I am a full time student and am paying off debt. On another end we love to travel. How we currently deal with this dilema is that we have decided to donate to those organizations that help deal with something that angers us – the sex slave trade in the U.S. It boils our blood that this goes on.

    I would suggest that readers find something that boils their blood: animal abuse, homeless children, etc. Then set up a regular giving within your budget (and try to push it).

    We donate, and yet are planning a trip to Europe next year. The only thing I hope for is that God will forgive me for my actions.

    • Betsy says 06 May 2011 at 05:57

      To Adam the seminary student — I love the “find something that makes your blood boil” notion. What a great way to immunize your will and your budget against the non-stop selfish consumerist messages we are all confronted with.

      I guess it’s called righteous anger and that’s a way to channel it.

      • Danielle says 06 May 2011 at 09:21

        “Find something that makes your blood boil,” and then research the heck out of it before donating your time/money.

        Just be aware that charities and non-profits use similar PR and advertising tactics to companies to tap into our emotions.

        I encourage anyone whose “blood is boiling” about a perceived social ill to really research the issue from multiple sides and heavily vet any organization you’re considering donating to.

        It may make you feel better to give, but doing so in a thoughtful, considered way will have the best impact.

  23. anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 05:41

    [I’m following up on the comment I made earlier (#16).]

    A lot of people seem to be interpreting the “pro-charity” stance as an attack on free markets. One can interpret charity, for example, as buying the slightly more expensive version of something to alleviate harm uncorrected in current markets–the organic fruit, the free-trade coffee, carbon offset credits, the recycled/reclaimed furniture. Other items (e.g., education, certain kinds of health care) need a more direct subsidy. Arguing that charitable donations dissolve markets is an overstatement, a straw man.

  24. Lucy says 06 May 2011 at 05:49

    To some I suppose that I would appear to be selfish with my money. I tithe all income to causes I support but I do not go above that 10% mark ever.

    I prefer to save my money for myself so that I will be able to own a home outright and provide good education for my children all the way through college. Am I somehow less of a good person because I prefer to invest in my own community and family? Personally, I don’t think so.

    We don’t need people who can give 20 billion to AIDS in Africa necessarily. What we do need desperately is just good people in everyday life who support their own communities and are involved in them whether that be through money or time.

    I live frugally because stuff doesn’t really make me all that fulfilled. I would much prefer to travel and see the world rather than buy expensive shoes and purses. But that’s just me.

  25. Savoholic says 06 May 2011 at 05:50

    I’ve always thought this was an odd observation. Though I choose a fairly austere lifestyle, I don’t begrudge those who can afford luxuries. People act as though the money spent on these items is put on a big bonfire and destroyed. It takes chain of labor and materials to create yachts and buildings. What are all of the people down the line spending that money on? I think the key is to make mindful decisions about your money. Is the product skillfully made from quality materials? Does the producing company or individual align with your values? Will you truly enjoy, utilize, and be able to properly maintain the item?

    How dreary the world would be without some the man-created wonders around us that require an accumulation of wealth to produce and procure. And how dull the person who can’t appreciate those wonders and the effort it requires to create them. But shame on those who spend recklessly and thoughtlessly.

  26. Betsy says 06 May 2011 at 05:50

    I am so glad you brought up this topic on GRS. It’s great to see how many other people are, like me, wrestling with it and trying to do right.

    We don’t hear about this much in our consumer-based economy and society, outside of church and maybe giving circles. There aren’t many ads urging us to be charitable (at least, not in comparison to the prime-time stuff urging us to spend to make ourselves happy in some way).

    After half a lifetime of plenty of self-denial and extreme thrift, I’ve found in mid-life that I’m substantially happier and more pleasant to be around if I do satisfy some of my longings for interesting trips (often small trips), pretty things in my house, and some nice clothes.

    I find that a few indulgences are often enough to boost my mood and make me feel more of a sense of abundance, rather than the constant irritation of scarcity.

    That tends to make me a more giving person overall and definitely more pleasant to be around. I guess the trick is to scale it right, and also to include an intentional and significant giving component, as part of one’s expenses.

    And also, to be involved personally in SOME way with people who are less fortunate — it kind of inoculates you against overspending and excess, and it puts you in mind of wants vs. needs.

    I am a mentor to a child in a poor neighborhood and whose parents are absent, and seeing how little she and her family have keeps my feet on the ground.

    So that’s an obvious way to keep it real and help understand “how much is enough”.

    Also, I think living in a mixed-income neighborhood helps.

    If you sequester yourself in a neighborhood of houses that are all in your own price range, you get a very distorted view of society, money, and a lot of other things.

    It isn’t good for everyone in a neighborhood to be poor and it isn’t good for everyone in a neighborhood to be rich. That isolation has bad effects on both groups.

  27. J.D. says 06 May 2011 at 05:58

    Thanks for the great discussion so far, everyone. I appreciate the thoughtful comments.

    As every morning, I’m about to head to the gym for a couple of hours. Because the spamfilter is overzealous lately, that means some comments are going to get trapped in limbo until I return. After my workout, I’ll fish everything out and make sure the real comments are being published. Please be patient if your comment doesn’t appear right away.

  28. Elizabeth says 06 May 2011 at 06:02

    I’ve always found it interesting that various religions practice giving not just as a way to support others, but as spiritual cleansing.

    I’m not Muslim, but I find the practice of Zakat interesting — each year, people have to give 1/40 of their accumulated wealth. It’s quite different from tithing because it’s not based on income, but on assets and savings as well. (Basic expenses like a modest home and car I think don’t count — but I’m not 100% sure).

    The point is that there is nothing immoral about having wealth (gained through honest means, of course), but there is still the emphasis on giving part of the wealth to help those less fortunate in your community.

    Like others here, I struggle with questions of spending and finding ways to give back. I’m not judging whether one religion or set of beliefs is better than another, I just think this Zakat is an interesting model.

    • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 06:05

      It’s so arbitrary, though. How can you trust someone else to tell you that 1/10 or 1/40 is “enough”? Clearly, 1/10 to someone making $20,000 is a big deal; for someone making $200,000, it’s a joke. Contributions should be progressive.

  29. Kevin @ Thousandaire.com says 06 May 2011 at 06:11

    Personal finance is personal. If you can live with yourself based on the donations you’ve made, then you’re in the clear. The only right or wrong answer will come from you and/or your God.

  30. MutantSuperModel says 06 May 2011 at 06:34

    Eek I really dislike these kinds of questions because they’re sort of… pointless. Morality on this level is so individual. There is no specific right or wrong answer to her question because you can’t please everyone. The right answer is to do that which lets you sleep at night. We have to figure that out on our own.
    I hate passing judgment on people because of items they purchase. That seems extremely superficial, shallow, and rash. You’re making a judgment of a person based on one singular thing without taking the rest into account. That’s unfair. Sure he bought a $200M yacht. But you’ve no idea how much money he’s been philanthropic with and seriously, it’s not our business anyways. Not to mention, I’m sure his yacht purchase did have benefits for more than one person if you go down the entire line from concept to purchase.
    I actually think Tyler nailed it on the head. This is personal, private, and possibly needs to be reviewed frequently. Also you need to examine what the reasons for guilt are and how to achieve satisfaction somwhere in the giving vs. acquiring spectrum. And again, charity is not just about money. Often, your time, skills, and experience are valued as much if not more than a cash donation.

    • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 06:37

      I don’t see how it’s so personal or private. These kinds of decisions are at the foundation of our governments, laws, and tax policies.

      • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 09:00

        Taxes are a systematic means of redistributing wealth, which is different from charity. How one chooses to give their own, after-tax income is, in fact, a very subjective and personal point. What happened to the mantra “do what’s right for you”?

        • mlb says 07 May 2011 at 13:11

          They are not the same thing, but they are similar. Paying taxes is legally enforced and charitable giving is voluntary… but in a sense they are both redistributions of wealth from the more to the less fortunate (at least to the extent that the government spends tax revenue on the poor).

    • mlb says 07 May 2011 at 13:14

      I definitely disagree that this kind of question is pointless. Yes morality is different for everyone but it’s not like you decide on one morality and then it stays the same forever… our morality can be influenced by the opinions and ideas of others.

  31. Dan says 06 May 2011 at 06:34

    Years ago, for my college English placement essay, I was asked to read a prompt by some economist that suggested that by buying a new TV, you were responsible for the death of children in Africa, because that $1000 could buy them food and medicine.

    He went on to give the hypothetical scenario that “Bob” had a Bugatti (an extremely valuable car) and it is basically his retirement fund. It’s worth over a million dollars. He goes out for a walk and parks it on some old, unused rail road tracks. While on a walk, he sees that a child is stuck on the main track, a train is coming, and that he can flip the switch to save the child but destroy his car. You would find a man who lets the child die to be morally reprehensible, and he says this is what you do when you choose luxuries over charity.

    My rather scathing response was that bob is a complete and utter idiot for PARKING HIS CAR ON TRAIN TRACKS. I explained that while perhaps an average family can survive on 20,000 and donate the rest to charity (as the author espoused), it’s a pretty dumb idea in practice. Suppose that the next year one of your children breaks his leg? Or your wife gets cancer?

    Wealth isn’t always about luxuries. Many times, people accumulate wealth in order to be secure under any circumstances. If they are careful with their finances, they are then able to donate to charity while still being secure in knowing that they have money put away for any eventuality.

    As an aside, I was told I had to take only one quarter of advanced composition and was able to skip a year of other classes!

  32. Dan says 06 May 2011 at 06:36

    Not fair to judge someone like Steven Speilberg who has donated millions upon millions to charitable foundations around the world. Is a $200 million dollar yacht excessive? Of course it is, but this man has not made his wealth by betting mortgages will fail or jacking up oil prices. He has made entertainment for people around the world for years, and he is one of the best at it.

    He is not a fortune heir, he is self-made and he should be able to do as he pleases with his money. He has created more jobs and given more money away than any of us ever will, combined.

  33. louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife says 06 May 2011 at 06:44

    As a number of people have said, buying stuff does allow other people to make a living and I think that’s great — but care is obviously needed to make sure that the item is genuinely providing people with a good living, and not a survival level living for the manufacturers and a $200million yacht for someone else. (Or the money is disappearing from the local economy through a tax loophole.)

    I don’t give away anything as much as I could but I try to make the most ethical choice with everything I do buy.

  34. J.R.C. says 06 May 2011 at 06:49

    I heard a great talk (fair warning it is a sermon from a pastor of a non-denomenational church, but it’s really good regardless of your views on god/religion/christianity) about how to deal with giving to others and wealth disparity, etc.


    The gist of it is that you, a non-billionare, might not be able to solve world hunger… but you can feed one person. So the rule of thumb becomes do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. As you get more, increase from one person helped to two people helped… when you get a billion dollars, figure out how to set up institutions to help many. You have a responsibility to be a good steward of what you have been given. Don’t get bogged down by not being able to right every wrong in the world, but do focus your efforts on the wrongs that you can right at your fingertips.

    I certainly hope this doesn’t cause any flamewars since it’s a ‘religious’ message, my only intent is to share a point of view on how we as (presumably) non billionares can help others.

    Good discussion so far y’all! This is the sort of thing I love thinking about.

  35. Dean says 06 May 2011 at 06:49

    I appreciate the perspective found in Mark 12:41-44.

    It’s easy to look around and form opinions about what’s excessive and how people should handle their money, but ultimately what we should be more concerned about is what we can control – ourselves.

    One commentary I read on the passage in Mark suggests it’s not so much about how much was given, but how much was held back. To me this comes down to our own attitude, generosity and the motivation behind giving.

    There will always be inequities in the world, and even if I can’t match dollars with Buffet or Gates, if I do the best I can with what I have and it’s done genuinely, then it’s enough.

    I think that’s all any of us can do.

  36. Dan says 06 May 2011 at 06:52

    Thanks for the post JD.

    I’m going to start this by saying I don’t place much value in donating to charity, at least at this point in my life.

    I grew up lower-middle class (my mom gets mad if I say “poor” because we had all the basics. But we had none of the luxuries.) Since I was a kid, I was bound and determined to provide a better economic life for myself. I came out of grad school with a good chunk of debt that will take me awhile to pay off. Even buying a small house or decent townhome around here is a challenge. Saving $40k for a 20% down payment is a challenge, and it’s still not easy to find a decent house for that $200k.

    So, until my finances are at the point where I’ve bought the house and can retire comfortably, I’m not inclined to donate to charity. My values lie in taking care of my wife and I first. Poor people aren’t exactly making my student loan payments, are they?

    BTW, I go back and forth on this, but when I read about people who go to the food pantry and have 40+ hour/week jobs, I have to wonder why they bore children they can’t afford to support. I don’t feel compelled to pay for their mistakes.

    • Meghan says 06 May 2011 at 19:42

      “BTW, I go back and forth on this, but when I read about people who go to the food pantry and have 40+ hour/week jobs, I have to wonder why they bore children they can’t afford to support. I don’t feel compelled to pay for their mistakes.”

      Ouch, harsh. Did you ever stop to think that perhaps some of those people had kids when times were better and they could afford them, but job loss, illness, medical bills or some other type of emergency led to their current situation? Very narrow view of people who are poor or struggling financially as having brought this onto themselves. Of course if you can assign blame to the people who are living in poverty, it makes it easier to not do anything about this larger social issue. I sure hope that you never fall on hard times again.

      • Amanda says 06 May 2011 at 20:06

        It’s a good question though. When my friend complains about anything related to her finances or the difficulty of raising her child I have to fight the urge to tell her she made a bad choice to have a child when they’re in debt in the first place. But that’s a whole different topic.

    • Kim says 11 May 2011 at 21:36

      “BTW, I go back and forth on this, but when I read about people who go to the food pantry and have 40+ hour/week jobs, I have to wonder why they bore children they can’t afford to support. I don’t feel compelled to pay for their mistakes.”

      Dan, I agree with a previous commenter that you are taking an overly narrow view of these hypothetical people. Should our society be constructed in a way that people cannot feed their children while working 40+ hours a week?

      I grew up middle-class in Canada, which has much cheaper university tuition fees than much of the USA. I was able to afford attendance to a top Canadian school and then landed a free ride to a graduate program at a private school in the USA, where the majority of my (American) colleagues come from much more affluent backgrounds than I do. I strongly believe that this difference is because I was born in a more equitable country where social mobility (at least in the form of higher education) is more attainable.

      I give to charity often. But my student loans are paid off; they weren’t very large in the first place, due to the society structure I grew up in. I feel really lucky.

      Granted all I have is anecdotal evidence, but from what I see living in Canada versus the USA, individual action only goes so far in determining people’s fortunes.

      Edited to clarify, it’s not that I think Canada is the best country out there, that the USA is the worst, or anything like that, but they do have some differences in income distribution and societal structure which are very striking to me considering how similar culturally they are overall.

  37. Adam P says 06 May 2011 at 06:52
    Interesting discussion. There will be no right answer of course. I give to Care Canada, because it helps poor people the world over in a non-secular way (I don’t think drinking water should come with a side of Bibles) and the local Humane Soceity (because I can’t stand to see cats and dogs suffer). I certainly don’t give as much as I should by my own judgement, and that is all that matters.

    In my ideal world, we’d all start with a level playing field. We are all born innocent, and not by our own choice, therefore we should all (ideally) be given the necessities of life and access to everything we need to succeed and become independent healthy mature human beings. No matter where you were born in the world, no matter what parents you have. In my opinion, giving to charities should focus on this first.

    Taken to the extreme, all the money I spend beyond what is needed to sustain myself should be given to charities that would promote my ideal world.

    On the other hand, my “meaning of life” is to maximize happiness. While I derive happiness in charitable giving and helping others, I also derive happiness from visiting my family and friends and the social bonds I form with them (which costs money since my parents live in another Country). I need to strike a balance, and donating 10% of my income to charities that promote my ideal seems to work. Your mileage may vary!

    • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 07:03

      Phew, glad there’s another Rawlsian here!

      • Adam P says 06 May 2011 at 07:21

        I had to look it up but I guess that’s what I am. Shucks! I’m not original thinker 🙂

  38. kitty says 06 May 2011 at 06:55

    The better question is, how can we remove guilt from the money question?

  39. Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate says 06 May 2011 at 06:57

    If you think about it, charitable giving is about helping someone else to live a healthy, fulfilling and happy life. If you deprive yourself to the point where your own happiness is hindered then you have actually done a disservice.

    The key is to figure out how you can care for yourself and your family while still helping others.

    Katy Wolk-Stanley
    “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

    • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 07:10

      I totally agree. It’s *very* hard to know where the line is, though. I’m going to have a smaller family than I otherwise would and am in a slightly different career than I otherwise would be because I want to help others better. I’m happy with these decisions, but if I’m not careful, I can slide into constant self-denial and asceticism. I do wish it were easier to get on in this society without consuming so much, though. Weddings can make me wince…

  40. Connie says 06 May 2011 at 07:00

    I have been a GRS reader for awhile but have never commented. This is a great topic, one that rarely gets discussed on the perosnal finance websites.

    I just want to add a thought. There seems to be an underlying assumption that money given to a charity just goes down a black hole and does not feed back into the larger economy. However, giving to a charity not only helps the intended beneficiaries but through their spending, the money is fed back into the economy and supports jobs, etc. For instance, assistance given to the poor helps them pay their rent, buy food, buy gas, and so on. So the landlord, grocery store owners and employees, and gas station owner are indirect recipients of that assistance. Donations also support the charity’s employees and those of any linked businesses and organizations, i.e. the charity’s landlord, the printing company that prints their brochures, and so on. Arguably, the $200,000,000 spent on a yacht and the economic impact inherent in that purchase can have a greater impact if donated to a charity because of the potential of a greater number of recipients and the increased number of businesses and organizations who benefit from their consumption.

  41. Chris B. Behrens says 06 May 2011 at 07:02

    $200 million is expensive, even for a yacht. Here’s the thing – I’ll bet it’s a hell of a yacht. I’ll bet that a lot of woodworkers spent a lot of time creating beautiful cabinets, a lot of stoneworkers spent a lot of time creating countertops and floors, and a lot of engineers spending a lot of time to create an incredibly boat.

    All of these people were probably low middle to high middle class artisans. One of the consequences of attacking high-end luxury production is that you’re essentially protesting the creation of art. And I think that’s the real moral test – in causing this item to be created, did you cause a work of art, to whatever extent it is, to be created, or did you merely piss it away on gadgets?

    The charities I support tend to be charities which allow people to do things they otherwise could not, as opposed to a cash grant for miserable circumstances – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that kind of charity really does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Of course, you have to stop the bleeding before you can stitch up the wound.

  42. Barb says 06 May 2011 at 07:03

    It’s difficult for me to suggest how others spend their money. I believe that I have a moral boligation to help level the playing field (both abroad and in this country) and will also do so. I do remember your previous comment JD, about throwing money at problems. I would usggest that there are more than a few problems in the world where money is part of the need and that simply cannot be avoided.

    As for your church and Mercy example, my questions is this. How much more, if any, did those expenditures allow them to serve the poor. Did the Mercy building give more room, more storage, a place for more goods to help the poor? My church has recently done a huge capital campaign enlargement. However, we also feed the homelss weekly in our new kitchen, host a variety or local organizations (including a low income after school program, aa groups and many others) with that extra space, and do other things including allowing folks to sleep when it is cold that could not have been done without that expansion. Just as it sometimes takes money to raise money, it sometimes costs more money in the short run to help and function in the long run.

    • Amanda says 06 May 2011 at 20:10

      The building is really the same as a coach bag on a larger scale IMHO. A new, large, quality building that provides necessities for the organization doesn’t seem immoral. To me it’s that the $37 mil could seem ostentatious, overboard and immoral.

  43. Kris says 06 May 2011 at 07:10

    Very thought provoking discussion!

    To me, this is a very individual issue – each person has to do what is right for them. Do I are that Spielberg bought a $200 million yacht? Nope – his money to do what he wants.

    When my husband and I work on our family budgets, we include a line item for donations, which we then give to the organizations we choose to support. It is an expense like any other, including housing, savings, etc. If we want to give more during the year outside our regular amounts, then it comes out of our discretionary (wants) spending.

    I find that morality tends to be subjective – I choose not to judge others for their spending, I’d prefer they not judge me for mine!

  44. kate h says 06 May 2011 at 07:11

    As I rose out of debt I struggled with this question (like many of us). I spent time thinking about aligning my spending with my values (overall). I decided that giving to others was a value of mine and like any other budget line I put a number on it – 10% of my take home pay. Then I worked through where the money was going to go. Overall I decided that one of my biggest values is education. Education is what separates me from many people who are struggling financially. I give some money every month to my grandmother who is in an assisted living home (this lets her go out to lunch, get her hair done, etc), and I put money in two 529 plans for one of my high school best friend’s children. She cannot afford to set money aside for their education because she is still paying off undergrad education bills. She couldn’t afford to go to grad school to qualify for better paying jobs in her field. This seemed like something I could do that would ultimately have a big impact on specific people’s lives, and was very much in line with what I value.

    Ultimately I think the real question behind all of this (for me) is what is the purpose of prosperity? Why are we productive, and what are we to do with the proceeds? The answer (for me) has been to care for and improve the lives of me, my family, those I love, and my community. How far out the “community” extends is up to each of us. If all I have accomplished in my “charitable” giving is help produce two more well educated people in the world, I will feel that it was prosperity well spent.

  45. Anna says 06 May 2011 at 07:21

    What I wonder is what change did Buffet’s $37 mil and Gates’s $30 mil make? That’s not chump change! If $67 mil couldn’t solve a few problems somewhere then how will my couple hundred make a difference? If charities do not create a sustainable living environment for people and only provide for their daily needs then any amount of money they recieve will never be enough. That’s why Heifer International is one of my favorite charities. I allows the recipient a way to provide for themselves and to also pay it forward. I think it would be nice that when articles mention about people’s donations, to also note the accomplishments of charities. Otherwise it sounds like the money went into a black hole and yet the same problems still exist.

    That could be a reason why Rita feels guilty. Maybe if she knew that whatever donations she was making was actually making a positive change in the world she would feel happier about her purchases. Ultimately, I think that you can do what you want with your money, you earned it so you should spend it how you want.

    • El says 06 May 2011 at 08:27

      When you start trying to determine the relative utility of your charitable choices, you’ve gone down the rabbit hole. I will never know whether the best use of my $100 is giving it to the United Way, to the local animal shelter or to hand it to the guy who just asked me for two bucks. Maybe he’ll buy food for his family or maybe he’ll spend it on drugs. Maybe the animal shelter will spend it on veterinery care, ot maybe it’ll go to inflated administrative costs.

      Since I can’t know for sure, my tactic is to do my due diligence and not worry about it further. My own use of money is sure to be questionable to some and praiseworthy to others, but you could drive yourself crazy trying to figure out if you could or should be giving more and more. It can descend into navel-gazing.

      • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 08:37

        It’s not a rabbit hole. Check out GiveWell. (I don’t work with/for them, for what it’s worth.)

  46. Rachel Jean says 06 May 2011 at 07:22

    I really liked this question. I work at a nonprofit, and one day I was reading an article about a popular musician’s annual salary. I did the math, and it would’ve funded our organization for the next 50 years! It was unbelievable! I couldn’t imagine what someone could possibly do with that kind of money, but this particular person wasn’t known as a philanthropist.

    I think people with modest wealth have an intense opportunity to impact change. You can do it by choosing where you buy (do your shoes come from a sweatshop/does the store pay liveable wages to its workers?), what you buy (is this an environmentally responsible product?), etc. I’ve said that if I ever reached a point where I didn’t need to work to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, I would be a full time volunteer.

    Ultimately, it’s about finding balance. At what point is there too much stuff? (I realize for everyone, this is different.) Live the life you were meant to lead, but try to lift up others along the way.

    Great discussion!

  47. Nathan Robertson says 06 May 2011 at 07:24

    Free trade creates wealth. Buy all of what you will, you are helping someone, somewhere, buy trading your goods for their labor.

  48. Geek says 06 May 2011 at 07:24

    For me this argument has about as much meaning as “if you have a baby instead of adopting, you are depriving a child of a loving home”. It’s your money, and you can do what you want with it. One should not do “good” to feel superior.


    The charity with the big building, Mercy Corps, has costs well under control. In order to recruit excellent charity executives and employees, it helps to have a nice building. And please, no one suggest that employees of a charity since they’re so virtuous, should work in a shack. It’s hard enough to get people to work for nonprofits. They’re doing more good by having an HQ over time, I’m sure.

    • Ru says 06 May 2011 at 14:41

      Ah, but if you have a baby, you ARE contributing to overpopulation.

      Is it really much better than buying a puppy from a puppy mill instead of getting one from the shelter?

      • Geek says 13 May 2011 at 07:10

        That’s what I’m saying – it’s a pointless argument. They’re all essentially the same argument. Anything you do for you, you aren’t doing for someone else.

  49. William says 06 May 2011 at 07:45

    Looks like I’m a bit late to a remarkable discussion.

    To some extent, it seems to be depend on what wealth is. Is it obtained by generating wealth and goods for others? Is it done by cheating at the game?

    Theoretically, every transaction benefits both parties. That’s standard 20th century economics. When that fails — and it often does — one party has taken advantage of the other.

    Worse than that, there’s some evidence that our internal desire for equity is no worse than a 30/70 split — ie, if you benefit double what I do, then I am likely to walk away.

    It seems that if you only obtain wealth by benefiting both parties, then you won’t have a guilty conscious and are less likely to feel a compulsion to give it away.

    It is, of course, more complicated than that.

    If, however, your wealth is generating due to illegitimate transactions, then the guilt may begin.

    Personally, I think most of us benefit from contracts that benefit us and not others. That’s part of why we want to give money away — we know we’ve obtained it through cheating means.

    So say I, anyway. Maybe some science, but a lot of conjecture.

  50. Kevin says 06 May 2011 at 08:02

    So many of the comments here seem to be dwelling on how one donates their money. The topic is how one spends their money. In my opinion, capitalism (as it so often does) holds the answer here. I totally agree with everything Tyler said, but to add to his argument, I’d point out that if shipbuilders are underpaying their employees, then the employees would quit and go find a better job. Consequently, the shipbuilders would have to offer more money to their workers in order to recruit a workforce to meet the demand. The price of the product would go up, and demand would dictate whether or not the Speilbergs of the world are willing to pay the “fair” price.

    If yacht-buyers think the yacht is overpriced, they won’t buy it, and the invisible hand of the market will push shipbuilder wages back down to where they belong. There’s no need to debate or regulate all of this – capitalism is a wonderful model that is basically economic democracy in action.

    This, of course, applies to the broader question being asked by the letter writer. If a substantial number of people really care about organic this and fair-trade that, and living-wage widget factories in China, then the people producing those products will be able to do so while still generating a fair profit. If not enough people care, then they won’t.

    I’m not picking sides, but I will point out that Wal-Mart is an extremely large, extremely profitable company, and it has built its entire model on producing the cheapest possible product, without regard to environmental concerns, wage fairness, or any other touchy-feely factors. They focused entirely on getting the price as low as possible, and the market has rewarded them richly for it.

    • kate h says 06 May 2011 at 09:21

      I would argue that the distinction between donate and spend is incorrect. Giving to a charity is a form of consumption, just as buying a movie ticket is. The moral dilemma, if there is one, is whether it is better to spend more of (or all of) your disposable income on charity than it is on entertainment, luxury goods or on any other non-life sustaining purchase.

      For me, it boils down to how much of my prosperity/income do I think I should be spending on other people/the community/ causes. Once the amount is chosen then I decide where it goes and the rest of my income is spent along other value lines such as x % for taking care of myself in old age, x % for education savings for my son, x% for housing, x % for groceries and entertainment, etc. All of these percents are bounded by my total income. Over time the balance of where my money goes will change. Ten years ago I wasn’t giving money to a “charity” at all. 10 years from now I may be giving more than 10% to various people/causes.

    • Rosa says 06 May 2011 at 09:38

      Don’t know about shipbuilding, but in a lot of industries if the workers feel they are underpaid, they get chained to their sewing machines, or locked into the factory, or targeted by paramilitary militias. Or the employer goes out and hires or buys some children to do the work. Even here in the US a number of industries rely on prisoners, illegal immigrants (who can be reported to authorities who will imprison or deport them if they speak up or try to leave) or in a recently-uncovered case near here, mentally disabled people who were housed in squalor and didn’t know they could leave.

      Absent good labor laws and strong enforcement, you can’t trust that the invisible hand is guiding the labor market.

  51. Justin @ MoneyIsTheRoot says 06 May 2011 at 08:07

    I find myself in the same predicament. I bought a 250k house, I own an Audi A4, and I spend at relatively moderate levels…but I could have used so much of my money on charity. I am still charitable, but not nearly as much as I could be if I didn’t saddle myself with all of these bills. I will still buy a relatively expensive engagement ring, and the amount I’ll spend on a wedding could easily feed starving children. I do feel guilt, and I probably always will… this is a good thing, it helps push and drive people to give more… we will never give up everything we want, or donate everything we should, after all we are only human. However, that little bit of guilt is what keeps us honest!

  52. Jay says 06 May 2011 at 08:25
    For there are a couple of assumptions I try to deflate when I get caught up in the seeming endless hamster wheel of guilt I can generate about what I am doing with my money.

    1. Buying something is not inherently a mechanism that deprives another person of something (“On a basic level, every time we choose to buy a comfort or a luxury, we’re also making the choice not to use the money to help somebody else – whether in our own community or in the world at large.”) Apolisglobal.com, for example, is a for profit country that practices advocacy through industry and works with several NGOs in places like Uganda and Laos to create products purchased by Americans that will pay people a living wage. Corporate capitalism that devalues human effort in unspeakable ways is not the only model out there. I commit to buying from company’s like Apolis as much as possible.

    2. Instead of asking myself how much is too much, I ask myself how little is too little. What does too little look in my life? That question seems to silence that the voices that contend that I must have more to be happy, beautiful, whatever.

    3. In this interconnected world, I remind myself that there are no perfect choices, and that all of us, everywhere, at any given time, are probably making choices that harm someone, somewhere. If I expand the meaning of someone to mean all creatures, then it is inevitable that all of us humans cause harm, everyday. This thinking is a great antidote to a natural tendency of my part to act holier than thou.

    Thanks for a great topic.


  53. J.D. says 06 May 2011 at 08:39

    I went through and marked a handful of “great comments”, but doing so seems pretty arbitrary. This discussion is thought-provoking, and every comment is great in some way. Thanks.

  54. jackowick says 06 May 2011 at 08:57

    I can’t judge the Mercy Corp building without seeing it i.e. touring it and comparing old costs of multiple buildings or outdated building maintenance, but one critical part of this is that it’s an ASSET now. In normal market conditions (let’s please not go off on tangents about the current real estate market being reset or gloom and doom predictions) this will allow the company down the road to obtain cash or be leveraged towards a new building.

    As far as “guilt” goes, I have many friends who plug one or two very high profile acts of giving and that’s… all. Making $75K and paying $30 for a cancer 5K run isn’t being charitable.

    Which slides into the next point of charity; each to their means. I could tithe 25% of my income but that could put me into a position where some life events suddenly make me unable to give at all (i.e. imagine a huge car repair and a baby along with a job relocation). As we know ourselves, a predictable revenue stream is a huge aid in financial planning. I pre-plan to donate between $20-50 for certain charities every year rather than flip $100 to one, $10 to another, $500 to another.

    THEN, I have no guilt when a new charity asks me for money since I can tell them honestly “I’ve exhausted my charity budget for the month”.

    Hear that? Charity budget.

    If you’re a top earner like Spielberg/Buffet etc, you can make a huge impact with a large cash infusion, so I have no issues with how they do what they do. As far as I’m concerned with charity, the only number that doesn’t count is ZERO.

    • Elizabeth says 06 May 2011 at 09:24

      I love the idea of a charity budget and it’s one I use myself. It’s helped me pin point the causes I care about and alleviates the guilt when I have to say no (or rather, “No thank you, I donate through other means.”) I have a separate account for donations to which I automatically transfer money every month. Making it a part of my budget has helped me align my personal values with my financial goals.

  55. Nathan says 06 May 2011 at 09:04

    The $200 million spent on that yacht paid the wages of all the workers that helped to build it. They in turn had the money necessary to pay for their needs and possibly some of their wants too. It also paid for the materials throughout the entire production chain, along with all the wages to produce them. I am about as sure as one can be that at least some of the materials in that yacht were produced by people in third world countries, people who have jobs producing those materials instead of becoming dependent on the charitable whims of those with greater wealth. I believe that the act of purchasing a $200 million dollar yacht is a more moral act than donating that same money to a charity that destroys the local economy of the people that receive the money and introduces a cycle of dependence. If you wish to help those in developing nations lead a better life, buy goods from their country to help their economy thrive.

  56. Louise says 06 May 2011 at 09:08

    I think it’s important to realize that money has power and how you choose to use it determines what will be supported in the world. If you buy luxury goods or experiences, you’re supporting the people who make them possible and if you give to charity you’re supporting that particular cause. Either way, there’s a benefit to you – you got to enjoy something or you got to feel good that you’re helping a good cause (and possibly getting a tax deduction too). So the question is, what do you want to support in the world?

    We all have an impact on society by virtue of being alive. Why not make a positive impact through your financial choices? Of course it’s often not clear cut if a particular purchase or donation has a net positive impact. It can be argued that donating food for the poor encourages dependency or that buying gas guzzling cars is good since it supports people whose livelihood depend on fossil fuel extraction and delivery. There are so many factors to consider but I suppose these complexities help make life interesting.

    I don’t think it matters if we have a moral obligation or not to help others – that debate will never be resolved. Simply by having respect and compassion for others and for yourself will guide you to a spending/giving/saving allocation that is appropriate for your situation.

  57. Brenton says 06 May 2011 at 09:13

    Im not sure how to say this, but basically the idea that *not* spending money to buy something and instead *give* the money to someone else is a terrible idea.

    If you buy something, chances are it was made in a factory overseas, where a man or woman is working hard to provide a better life for his/her children.

    I’ve been reading this book called In Defense of Globalization, and it explains in convincing detail how factory work in 3rd world countries lifts up the population over a generation and creates or enlarges the middle class. When you buy that coach purse, you are helping people, its just not the immediate satisfaction you would get from handing a bum $20.

    When you just hand out money to someone in some other country, you arent creating any jobs. None. In fact, you might actually be preventing job creation by destroying local demand for food and other neccessities.

    Alot of the “buy local” and other stuff you hear is just hippie nonsense. It sounds good, but as someone else pointed out, it tends to perpetuate inequities(just like charity).

    Im not saying do not donate to charities, just be sure what you are donating to. Cancer research, for example, is a good place to donate money. It creates jobs for researchers, its a good cause, and there arent many negatives. Giving money to some NGO that will hand out money that warlords in Somalia will use to buy Land Rovers, well thats not really helping humanity.

  58. Josh Wilson says 06 May 2011 at 09:41

    So, when arguing ethical situations, you have to figure out from where your ethics come. If I believe in evolution, the phrase “survival of the fittest” comes to mind. Why should the rich, who have worked long and hard for the money that they have, give it away to the poor. There is very little room for ethics in this frame of reference. Personally, I feel that the Bible is my source for the answers to ethical quandries. Again, there is no clear answers to this question, however, there are guidelines. Do not use your money to suppress the poor. Give to the church you attend. And if someone asks for your shirt, give them your coat as well. I think its a heart issue. Do you have a concern for those less fortunate and actively seek out ways to help them? The answer lies in the motive.

    • LC says 06 May 2011 at 11:01

      “Why should the rich, who have worked long and hard for the money that they have, give it away to the poor.”

      Clarify “rich” and “worked long and hard.” Specifically, is there not some element of luck or blessing by virtue of the environment into which you are born that has a dramatic impact on your economic success? Even the poorest, whether hard working or not, person in the US, for instance, is often many times more wealthy than individuals in unprivileged nations by that virtue alone. A virtue which they had absolutely no control over.

  59. Justin says 06 May 2011 at 09:49

    There has to be both- period. Some money definitely has to go to the unfortunate, to people who have no means to help themselves.

    On the other hand, if we don’t spend money investing in new technology, we’re giving up on the potential to find great new things to help people in the future.

    Plus, anyone who doesn’t have any kind of leisure time isn’t happy or joyful.

    That said, I definitely think the US as a whole could be more generous and cut back a bit on leisure. Yes we give a lot of money, but we also spend BILLIONS every year on shoes, suits, cars, movies, and other things that we could do without.

    • B. says 06 May 2011 at 14:14

      I don’t know about you, but I could use *more* leisure time, not less. I can’t remember the last time I took a real vacation. And I suspect that a lot of others in the U.S. feel the same way.

  60. Bareheadedwoman says 06 May 2011 at 09:53

    The only moral issue I have with how much an individual spends, is how much are they spending to support an entity (person, idea, corporation, politician) that actually seeks to harm another segment of the population, up to and including those that use their money to escape the legal and social ramifications (taxes, tariffs etc) applied to the very people (consumers, voters) who were utilized to make that money.

    I specifically have a problem with someone who indulges in ethically questionable (if legal) business practices to get rich, then turns around wanting platitudes and media coverage for having just “given” so much back (governments included)….maybe we wouldn’t have needed it if you hadn’t taken so much away from us in the first place.

  61. M says 06 May 2011 at 09:55

    I don’t think that spending money on ones self should cause guilt if it is done within reason. Life is meant to be enjoyed. If you really find fulfillment with a Coach purse and it does not break your budget, then why is it wrong? My great joy is framing art prints that I love. It’s not cheap and I carefully plan my purchase and go when I have the money in the bank and a 50% off coupon. My husband I live withour means and when we have the opportunity to travel again I will do so without guilt because I will plan for it and budget accordingly.
    At the same time, I do give to reguarly to charity and feel it important that people do so. Freely giving of yourself, in money, in goods, in time or services gives a feeling that is hard to describe. Service in any form is a great gift to those give and those who receive. I think it provides a sense of larger community, I don’t know any of the individuals that receive aid from the local/national/global charities I support but I have that touchstone to them that I would not have otherwise.
    So to sum up, there is no need to feel guilty for being blessed with a good life, just be responsible and help others.

  62. MacroCheese says 06 May 2011 at 10:04

    Great topic.


    There’s no right answer, just debate!

  63. Kirsten says 06 May 2011 at 10:09

    There is a new Harris Teeter in my city. The old one was fine, but they wanted to build a new one, so they did. It is amazing. But I found my self walking into this new building think, “marble floors in the market? seriously?” and “an elevator… why did they need the second floor?” With vaulted ceilings and beautiful lighting, it is a fantastic place to shop… but I find myself saddened by the unnecessary expense and opulance of our city. There are homeless and hungry people here. My answer is sort of, if you are not taking care of your own, why even think about tese unnecessary luxuries. I too have moral conflict, except that we haven’t made the best choices in our lives and are still bailing ourselves out of debt.

  64. Charlotte says 06 May 2011 at 10:09

    I struggle with this a lot.

    My parents paid for my college 100% (and more) and as a result, I have a good job. My brother is now in college and have to get loans because my parents can’t help him much. He lives with them so that helps.

    I feel guilty not helping with his tuition. On one hand, I don’t have enough to give him. On the other, if I simplified my life, I will be able to give him something.

    These days, I give him allowance money from time to time. I wish I could give more.

    • El Nerdo says 06 May 2011 at 12:26

      oops, sorry, wrong place to post

    • Amanda says 06 May 2011 at 20:16

      I have the stuggle with my sister. My parents gave me a lot of graduation presents. By the time it got down to my sister graduating they were poorer. I at that point was choosing to live a poorer live to spend my time volunteering. I never gave her a grad present. I’m not sure they did. Still feel bad about it.

  65. Misty says 06 May 2011 at 10:18
    I don’t think anyone has addressed this better than Chris Guillebeau did in his article “The Land of Too Much” The point of the article was actually about how luxuries quickly become taken for granted when they become commodities, but he addressed the issue of spending guilt. I’ve included the link with this comment for those who want to read the whole article, but here’s the relevant quote:

    “It’s OK to appreciate good stuff. Notice that I haven’t said anything about feeling guilty for eating pancakes when I had just come from a poor country. That’s because I didn’t feel guilty at all; I felt grateful.

    This is a subject for another essay, but the short version is that if I didn’t eat the pancakes that day, nothing would have changed for anyone in Liberia. The problem is not that those of us in rich countries are able to eat as much as we want for breakfast; the problem is that breakfast isn’t always available for other people around the world.

    Good stuff like unlimited pancakes should be appreciated. Don’t take pancakes for granted, but don’t feel ashamed about enjoying them in relative moderation.”

    • Misty says 06 May 2011 at 10:33

      Also, for the record, I wanted to point out that I don’t buy this whole theory that spending money is good because it keeps the economy going. I don’t think it’s bad to buy luxuries, but I do think it’s dangerous the moment we start fooling ourselves into thinking that the money we spend on luxuries will somehow magically trickle down to the people among us who are most in need. Do I feel guilty about having enough food to eat? No, not really. But I do feel guilty when I catch myself complaining about not having the money to buy the kind of food I want.

      I think it’s important to be mindful of the consequences of your spending choices. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy luxuries. But if you lose perspective, you’re in danger of becoming like the people who claim that a six-figure salary is practically “at the poverty line”.

      • LC says 06 May 2011 at 11:09

        I agree, Misty. Thanks for posting that link. I read that when Chris first posted it, but had forgotten about it until now. I love the quote you pulled out and the underlying message.

      • Danielle says 06 May 2011 at 11:31

        Excellent points, Misty.

        1) More than the actual workers, corporation heads are more likely to pocket our cash.

        2) I <3 pancakes!

        • Misty says 06 May 2011 at 11:47

          Haha. That too. It’s like how we constantly talk about school funding, while most of the school funds end up in the administrators’ pockets. Makes me think more Americans should have been made to work those “What’s wrong with this picture?” puzzles as children. 😉

      • BD says 06 May 2011 at 21:15

        As a poor person, I have to say that you’re wrong. When I lived in Florida, I couldn’t find work in my career. So I went to work at Home Depot, part time. I thought maybe I could work my way up to full-time, and be able to afford to make a decent living. But it never happened, because that was when the economy tanked, and the richer people weren’t buying things for their home as much. So not only was I never promoted to full time, but many of my co-workers were laid off (I escaped the axe by being part time, and diligent), and my own part-time hours were cut even more.

        In the end, I couldn’t make ends meet, and couldn’t find other menial work, because their companies were slow as well, due to people not buying; and I had to move back in with my parents, all because the rich people stopped buying.

        People who are already well-off can’t wrap their brains around the trickle-down economy theory. But those of us who are poor (as in, living well under the poverty line for years) know darn well it’s more than theory…it’s a fact, because we SEE it happening in our lives.

      • Marla says 06 May 2011 at 21:37

        I don’t understand how you think the economy is going to keep running if people don’t spend money. What would happen if everybody tomorrow decided not to spend any money? Everyone in the US would lose their jobs. You couldn’t get food because you aren’t letting yourself spend money. Basically everything in the country would come to a grinding hault. We would have no economy because the economy = money.

  66. partgypsy says 06 May 2011 at 10:39

    (Maybe this will be taken as too political, but here goes). I’ve been thinking of this question but from two other angles, the US budget and world “resources”.
    In the first, if we stripped our US budget of all “non-essentials” to balance the budget (while keeping tax cuts for the rich), does that mean no more PBS, public museums and libraries, EPA, NASA, and National Park systems and Forests. We have balanced the budget but except for 1% of the population who are not affected by the stripping of public systems there is little worth “living for”.

    And on the global level, that our obligation for charitable giving, so to speak, is not just for fellow human beings. At one point can one be allowed to say, the value of life is more than trying to have the maximum number of human beings survive on this planet? To take it to the logical extreme all that kind of “giving” would accomplish is all of living on a equal plane of relatively miserable existence. Again, is that what life is worth living for?

    Spending is put as a zero sum equation, that you can either spend money on yourself (and your family), or money on other people (strangers).
    Preserving biodiversity is NOT zero sum-keeping ecosystems intact helps our air, our water, our soil, the existence of countless other species we share this planet with, AND our future existence.
    The money I am happiest to donate (or actually NOT spend) is for people to try to find ways of preserving ecosystems against this incredible pressure of so many people on the planet. Easily enough, for us first-worlders NOT spending money is one of the simpler ways of helping the planet.
    Normally I’ve tuned out conspicuous consumption. How much is too much? When our planet looks like the opening sequence of Wall-e where there are piles of rotting million dollar yachts but no clean oceans to ride them on or oceanlife to view.

    • Misty says 06 May 2011 at 10:47

      This is a common misconception. We could eliminate ALL discretionary spending, and the budget would still not be balanced. These things are such a small part of the budget, I don’t understand why we keep focusing on them. It’s like a person who lives in a million dollar mansion clipping coupons to try and reduce spending. Ultimately, it’s a red herring designed to sound good to a certain segment of the population who won’t bother to look any further than the surface argument. The irony is that the people who buy into these ideas are often the same people who are most benefited by the social programs they want to cut. 😛

      • Brenton says 06 May 2011 at 11:08

        I couldnt agree more. Most of our tax money never even makes it to the alleged welfare bum. Its usually spent on multi billion dollar military equipment or interest payments on the ridiculous debt we have.

        • Julia says 06 May 2011 at 22:24

          Even the multi billion dollar military industry employs hundreds of thousands of people, keeping them off welfare/insured/clothed/donating to NPR/what-have-you. At least that is value added…interest payments on the debt, not as much.

      • partgypsy says 06 May 2011 at 13:35

        I was really thinking of not including this first thought because it would detract from my main point, which is that spending, or rather the use of limited finite resources which is often the result of spending money; cannot help be a moral question, because it involves the planet which we do not own.

        Regarding the first point, I actually don’t think that stripping what I termed the “nonessentials” would actually balance the budget. I’m in agreement with you there.

  67. Eric says 06 May 2011 at 10:50

    Now that I think about, giving to charity is morally wrong. (Yes, you read that right.)

    By giving to charity you make that person (or not-for-profit) economically dependent on you; it’s a form of slavery. You do nothing to improve the person’s contribution to society; you just reinforce their social status as a dependent. That’s morally wrong.

    If you want to contribute to a cause, provide a person a job, or insist a charitable organization learn to provide value to you so they earn the money.

    Didn’t Jesus say to teach a man to fish instead of giving him a fish?

    • Brenton says 06 May 2011 at 11:12

      Depends entirely on the charity. If there is a huge natural disaster or war, then the people have no chance of fishing for a living. If a man’s boat, fishing pole, and home just got turned into driftwood, not much sense in telling him he needs to learn how to fish.

      On the other hand, if no disaster has hit, and you ship in fish from a different part of the world, the local fisherman may go out of business because he cannot compete with the free fish being handed out.

    • Misty says 06 May 2011 at 11:36

      I disagree. Well-timed charity can help a person get on their feet when they could never do it on their own. I know, because I’ve been the recipient of such charitable acts, and it certainly has not made me dependent upon the person who helped me! If anything, I’m /more/ independent than I was before, and more determined than ever not to squander this opportunity and end up right back where I was. Without this help, I would have gone bankrupt, and possibly be living in a homeless shelter or on the street right now. Because of a small helping hand, however, I’m now living in an affordable apartment, making a decent living and slowly paying down my debts. (I’m actually paying back the charity, while I’m at it, because I know this person did without some luxuries in order to help me get back on my feet.)

      I /do/ agree that the way we handle charity in this country is not the best system. In an ideal world, a person with the resources to spare would help out their fellow man, without need of an intermediate organization to handle the money (and take a portion from the recipient in the form of overhead!). Unfortunately, our society is too paranoid for that. It’s a shame, really.

    • Des says 06 May 2011 at 11:52

      I agree with this to a point, but I also agree with what Brenton says. One example, we subsidize corn production here in the US. Consequently, it is cheaper for Mexico to import our (subsidized) corn than to grow their own. On the surface, this sounds like a good idea – send cheap food to people with less means. But in reality, it has put thousands of Mexican farmers out of work, and made them economically dependent on political policies over which they have no control.

      I give to the local animal shelter, because domesticated animals were created (by us) to be economically dependent. I also give to my church because I value the spiritual services they provide (it is less like giving, more like buying services in this case). I give to United Way because they provide emergency, temporary housing to families in crisis. But, I strongly question the wisdom of giving to charities than simply provide food to the world’s poor rather than using those resources to help those economies stand on their own.

      Also, because of this conversation DH and I have decided to hire a housekeeper. I have always wanted to, and we can afford it, but since it is a luxury I have never felt right taking that plunge. I’ve changed my mind. Now, I think I have somewhat of a moral obligation to use my good fortune to help create jobs, and we’re starting with a housekeeper. When my mortgage is paid off, I think I’d like a part-time cook 🙂 We’ll see… I can see where people could think we are using charity as an excuse, but I disagree. Helping others provide for themselves fits our value system better than giving handouts.

    • Leah says 06 May 2011 at 12:35

      What about charities that, say, train people in job skills so they can go out and get a job? Or charities that DO provide jobs and have some sort of benefit? For the first one, there was a neat charity I saw in Wilmington, NC, that taught local schoolkids how to do woodworking. The kids sold their items in a store and also learned about running the store. For the second, my local nature center is a charity. By donating there, I help fund naturalists who now have a job. Part of their job is teaching people about nature, and another part is working to rid the nature center of invasive species in order to maintain the local environment.

      Eric, there are plenty of charities out there that aren’t just giving handouts to people. Seek them out, and do good through those charities. Don’t paint every charity with a broad brush.

    • Pamela says 06 May 2011 at 12:42

      Uh, no. Jesus didn’t say teach a man to fish.

    • Marla says 06 May 2011 at 21:48

      I agree wholeheartedly. I live in Chicago. There are beggars on every street corner. I see people (usually visitors) giving them change all the time. What if these people never received any money from strangers? Well, then they’d have to do something to make money and buy food. They would have to reach out to organizations devoted to giving these people a hand up. By people giving these people on the streets money, they are effectively keeping them trapped on the street, instead of forcing them to make positive changes in their lives, themselves.

      I think there’s a difference in charitable giving:

      Hand out: giving someone money without asking anything in return of the person you’re giving money to, allowing them to continue making the same mistakes in their life. Examples: giving money to a beggar on the street, giving money to a cause that you don’t know anything about.

      Hand up: giving to a charitable organization which will help people who want to improve their lives, or actually helping one of these people yourself. Examples: giving money to a church that has a program to help the homeless get back on their feet, watching a single mother’s child while she goes to work.

    • Eric says 06 May 2011 at 22:36

      Now that I’ve had time to think about it a bit, I’ve clarified my position in my mind. It comes down to this: It is, in my opinion, morally wrong to deliberately interfere, deny, impede or direct the personal (and spiritual, if you wish) growth of another human being. If donating to charity does so, then that donation is morally wrong.

      Donate to an animal shelter? It’s OK, we’re dealing with animals.

      Donate to a church? Only if they do NOT direct the spiritual development of the people they help to their particular belief system. In general, they do promote their beliefs, so I don’t donate to them. Missionaries? Absolutely not.

      Loan money to my friend who needs a hand paying bills this month? Sure, because she knows she needs to pay the money back.

      Throw money at the homeless? No, because I’m not helping them and instead make them economically dependent on others.

      Welfare? No.
      Job education? Yes.
      Spending money on stuff that people work to make? Not a problem.

      • Des says 10 May 2011 at 08:01

        I don’t think you can say that churches interfere with people’s spiritual development. In the US, we have freedom of religion and if you don’t agree with what a particular church is preaching, you are in no way compelled to believe them. I have no problem with them preaching, as long as I don’t have to agree.

        That may not be true in certain other countries where religion is determined by the government.

  68. Lincoln says 06 May 2011 at 10:59

    It is prudent to think about where you are putting your money, and what effect it will have on the world.

    In some ways, it’s like voting. An important general parallel is, of course, that you don’t get to decide how other people vote. That is their decision.

    I do not ordinarily feel guilty about my financial decisions, because I give them a lot of thought before I make them.

    When people pester me to give more, or to support their particular cause, or to make my spending more similar to their own, that is their problem. They cannot strong-arm my vote, my voice, or my decision-making.

  69. lijakaca says 06 May 2011 at 11:08

    People are free to choose how to spend their money. More troubling to me is the unequal tax burdens put on the rich and ultra-rich versus the poor and middle-class, which leads to the rich and ultra-rich having way way WAY more than their share of buying power(graphs). If income tax was equitable, I would have no issues with how anyone spends their money. When the poor and middle-class have to choose between getting a medical checkup and having a nice dinner once every 6 months, while the rich have enough to easily buy $200 million yachts because all the dollars they made after $250,000 are untaxed, then there’s a problem. Can Steven Spielberg buy that yacht? Of course he can, no one is suggesting making excessive consumption illegal. But I will think he’s a selfish dick – I doubt he will care. The difference between the rich and middle-class in the US is growing so large that I simply cheer on anyone in the latter that can afford to buy something nice and good quality for themselves.

    • B. says 06 May 2011 at 14:19

      Everything over $250k is untaxed? Your understanding of the graduated income tax differs from mine…

    • Bella says 06 May 2011 at 14:59

      Everything above 250 is NOT ‘untaxed’. It’s not subject to social security – and since ss benefits are capped I really see nothing wrong with this. In addition – maybe you weren’t around for JDs article on death and taxes but something like 50% of Americans DO NOT pay income taxes – guess what – it’s the lower half that doesn’t pay. And it’s the lower half that are more likely to use the social services that those taxes pay for. And yes there are some social service that we ALL use – like police and firefighters. Yes, there are uberrich who find ways of hiding money from the government – but they’re not paying NO TAXES (like the 50% falling below the income marker) they’re just paying LESS taxes. Taxes are a forced redistribution of wealth in order for society to better function.
      I think the important thing for Rita – is to be honestly asking the question of oneself – how much is enough.

      • Amanda says 06 May 2011 at 20:19

        It’s “those people” who fight to get disability benefits even if they marginally qualify… All you have to do is find the right doctor(s) to write you a convincing enough letter, right?

  70. Eric says 06 May 2011 at 11:16

    For better or for worse, individuals have their own thresholds defined of what they should give vs. spend on themselves. As someone who gives on a monthly basis and also spends money on the occasional luxury item, I reconcile this by consciously identifying items as “luxurY”–something that provides comfort/ease that is not necessary.

    I focus, however, more on how much comfort/ease the item or experience I am purchasing will bring me. I think excess occurs when I am buying things that are unnecessary and don’t really bring me that much joy/comfort. However, if I buy something that really enhances my disposition, I find nothing reprehensible about it.

    By achieving a higher level of happiness, I am able to continue to work hard and contribute to charities/do charitable work over the long term. If what you are purchasing allows you to extend your ability to work and contribute to charitable things, I think you shouldn’t view it as immoral.

    This is a bit 2-dimensional, but the only way I reconcile and don’t agonize over my purchases. If you buy something that only stresses you out more or requires more maintenance and creates imbalance, it’s not only excessive, but also harmful…

  71. Bruce says 06 May 2011 at 11:48

    From my experience traveling I know that most people just want to get through life with some dignity and be able to provide for their families. They are not looking for handouts they just want to have the same opportunities to live and work as everyone else. As such my moral compass says that I should support anything that helps level the “opportunity” playing field. This includes, and this is important, supporting the right for people to live and work anywhere in the world the want and eliminating immigration policy

  72. Rose says 06 May 2011 at 11:51

    I think it is really about your heart. Making sure that your heart is right is huge in personal finances.

    I did not have a personal conviction about debt until I learned from Dave Ramseys’ Financial Peace University that it is enslavement. I also loved getting and using “rewards points” on credit cards until I learned how they are funded – from defaults and fees, most likely from folks that had suffered setbacks, financially. I was done with credit cards then, forever.

    My husband and I went through a real “lean” time for nearly a year. Our income has tripled in the past year, but we had gotten used to a frugal lifestyle during that time. When we can splurge on a mocha or a weekend away, we are grateful. So much gratitude.

    We are also consistent in our giving, so that our hearts are right. It helps us stay compassionate. When we could not afford to give financially, we gave of our time. It is easy to get numb and careless in this area.

    I have held starving babies in Africa, and lived in places where there is significant suffering. It forever changes you, and has an impact on your spending habits. But, it is a personal choice, and no one should judge others’ spending – just deal with their own.

    It does sadden me to hear of Christian ministries building multi-million dollar buildings. Jesus flipped the tables of merchants in the temple squares because he was angry that His “Father’s house was turned into a market”. My last church I attended met in a movie theater when it was not in use. Mortgage money was given to missions.

    This is a huge topic. Lots of important dialogue here. Honestly when it comes down to it, I believe we are all accountable for our actions – what we do, and do not do. That is why we need to search our hearts to determine if our spending fits in with our convictions.

    • BD says 06 May 2011 at 21:20

      Actually, Jesus never said that about His Father’s house. He said “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”

      The reason isn’t because merchants were selling, it’s because they were CHEATING the people with high prices, and unreasonable money-changing fees. In other words, they were the temple into a place of unethical business.

      Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46

  73. Des says 06 May 2011 at 12:00

    From OP “I think that this a a crazy, immoral waste of money. He could make a HUGE difference by using that $200 million for charity.

    I guess my point is: Am I really any better?”

    No, you’re not. In principal, buying an overpriced purse is no different than an overpriced boat. If you are going to judge him for his luxury spending, you ought to judge yourself just as harshly. (Of course, you always have the option to stop judging him. That’s what I would choose, but to each their own.)

    You have to earn your moral high ground. Either feel guilty and do something about it, or stop feeling guilty and stop judging other people’s spending choices. But, for God’s sake, don’t stand in judgement of the boat price while defending your own luxury purchases. “But 200m is so much money” doesn’t cut it. Your income is in the top 1% of the world. You are in the same boat as he is, so to speak.

  74. Katy says 06 May 2011 at 12:12

    Been watching this thread all day and it’s been a great distraction. But I just had a thought…

    There seems to be a consensus here that we shouldn’t morally judge others for their spending habits. And if we do, we should keep it to ourselves.

    But wouldn’t any kind of ethical free market system rely on social pressures? I mean, it’s not like we’re born with fully-formed ideas of “right” and “wrong.” We pick these up from the society we’re raised in.

    • anonymous says 06 May 2011 at 13:09

      I don’t think that’s actually the consensus, but the people who disagree are (wisely) phrasing their opposition in slightly different language.

      A decision to refuse to judge other people for their spending usually comes from some combination of (1) uncertainty about other people’s actual financial situations, including sacrifices and tradeoffs they have made; (2) moral relativism or a belief that someone else (e.g., God) will do the judging later; and (3) a desire not to confront or provoke hostility by saying anything that might upset others.

      I think (1) is very sensible and important, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make hypothetical judgments that would hold in principle (e.g., using one of Peter Singer’s examples, “It would be wrong not to save a drowning child from a pond just because we didn’t want to mess up our shoes…. but maybe that guy just spent $250 on luxury shoes (instead of spending $80 and donating the rest to vaccination efforts) because it’s his reward for doing 200 hours of volunteer work this year.”)

      We should be humble and uncertain about specific acts involving other people, but not ourselves, but we should *not* use our uncertainty about others to pretend there aren’t real moral choices here that need to be made.

      I think you’re totally right that most of us take for granted certain minimum standards of ‘decency’–they are fortunately captured in many of our laws, including those related to income redistribution and social welfare. From all the ‘It’s my money, so I can do whatever I want with it’ talk in these comments, you’d think no one here actually gave a damn about others born or forced into less fortunate circumstances.

  75. Leah says 06 May 2011 at 12:30

    I found $50 on the ground the other day (and did try to find the owner but was unsuccessful). I’m pretty broke and have not be doing much fun spending for me recently. And I still have to admit, my first thought was “I should donate this to charity.”

    But to where? And I already do donate a fair percentage of my income (4-6%, and I make poverty level wages). And I’ve really been wanting a few small things for myself and some other items to spruce up my yard. And mother’s day is on Sunday.

    In the end, I pitched in $25 for a massage for my mom (with the siblings, and we found it on groupon), and I used the other $25 to buy yard things and those two little things for myself. And I’m feeling good.

    I agree with the basic trend I’m seeing here — budget for charity just like you would with anything else. Definitely use a chunk of your money for good. But don’t feel like you have to sacrifice and give up all luxuries to help others.

  76. El Nerdo says 06 May 2011 at 12:30

    I don’t see how Spielberg’s purchase of a yacht is “immoral”, unless he’s using it to traffic in minors or smuggle cocaine.

    $200 million pays for a lot of taxes, commissions, crew, maintenance work, fees… giving a lot of people work.

    What’s immoral is giving Mr. Spielberg tax cuts during wartime so that we can gut Medicare. Yes, it’s not likely to happen given the current political winds, but the idea was truly obscene.

  77. Wearsunscreen says 06 May 2011 at 12:51

    Who is John Galt?

    • Pamela says 06 May 2011 at 12:59

      He’s the creation of a third rate writer and faux philosopher? 🙂

      • El Nerdo says 06 May 2011 at 13:08


      • partgypsy says 06 May 2011 at 13:30

        LOL ditto

  78. Pamela says 06 May 2011 at 12:58

    Lots of interesting comments. Can I really add something to the debate? I’ll try.

    It’s good that Rita and others here are struggling with these issues of personal responsibility. They’re important and worth considering.

    But remember that the idea of “Personal Responsibility” is a western construct that is particularly popular in the U.S. right now. A Japanese person or Korean would probably puzzle at our obsession with this phrase.

    I think our obsession with small, personal actions prevents us from noticing the horrible inequities that are built into the systems we support. While we’re busy worrying about giving 5% or 10% of our income to charity, Coca Cola is taking water from Indian farmers to make their soda and replacing it with toxic “compost” to put on their fields.

    African dictators are putting guns in the hands of children so they can gain more power in a countries where their industrial diamonds are in high demand.

    And energy companies are blasting the tops off of mountains in the Southeast U.S. and poisoning people’s wells because they don’t want to pay for all those coal miners to dig it out the slow way.

    Yes, making ethical choices about how we spend our money is worth doing. But we could have a much greater impact on the world (and would probably make a few more friends) if we didn’t allow corporations to collude with our government to make it easy for them to increase earnings while devastating the lives of people who stand in their way.

    When bankers got billions of dollars in bailout money people got mad. But not mad enough to support real change.

    Finally, I did see a few mentions of Adam Smith here. Most people who reference him have never read Wealth of Nations (or the Theory of Moral Sentiments). So I’ll tell you that Adam Smith felt that we would be protected by runaway greed by people feeling a sense of obligation to each other. You can’t rip someone off if you have to live next door to them. Where does that leave us in the age of globalization, however?

  79. Peter says 06 May 2011 at 13:16

    Feeling bad because you’re not doing “enough” is a losing game. No matter how much to give or do, you can ALWAYS do more. (Unless of course you are giving everything, but that’s counter productive because then you will be the one needing help.)

    Do/give whatever you’re confortable with.

    The movie “Please Give” deals with this very issue. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0878835/)

  80. Miss Brooklyn says 06 May 2011 at 13:18

    I feel guilty just having adequate medical benefits when so many are under/uninsured. I’m probably not the best person to ask about this.

    • Marla says 06 May 2011 at 21:30

      Why do you feel guilty for doing the responsible thing and protecting yourself from a medical emergency?

  81. Misty says 06 May 2011 at 13:41

    I started to respond to a bunch of comments, but I realized that most of what I had to say was repetitive, and I ended up just writing a blog entry on it. My article response is linked in this comment, if anyone is interested in my take on the subject. 🙂

  82. JC says 06 May 2011 at 13:59

    Wow. I can’t believe people feel this much guilt for buying what they worked for.

    If these comments reflect our society as a whole, there should be no problems raising taxes to support universal health care and other needs based programs.
    But, I highly doubt these opinions would transcend that far.

  83. KM says 06 May 2011 at 14:02

    How to deal with inequality in the world is an important question, but I believe that it doesn’t make sense to “just” focus the discussion on monetary inequality.

    Life is inherently unfair. Some people are born into peaceful countries and well-adjusted and happy families, some people are born into war-torn countries. Some people are born intelligent and healthy, others lack those benefits. Most of the big inequalities are not the fault of the person–it’s just the way their life is.

    Economic inequality is just one of the many inequalities among different people–but it’s different than the other inequalities because we somehow believe we can “equalize” it (and thereby make life “fair” for more people) by transferring cash from one person to another.

    But economic inequality cannot be solved by just giving cash. As others have pointed out, the economical disadvantaged in this country and in others really need to “learn to fish” (or they need the “water” to fish in–ie jobs). Giving cash, even giving millions of dollars won’t do much except alleviate certain urgent needs, and often while at the same time creating problems (for example, decimating local industries).

    You can’t do much for the economically disadvantaged in the long term by just giving cash. They need infrastructure, a national political system, health care, education, and etc.

    Look at all the examples of people in the US who won the lottery–and later went broke. Other examples are sports stars, movie stars, who make millions–and then still somehow end up broke. Money didn’t solve their problem of economic inequality—they lacked something else.

    I guess what I’m saying is that focusing entirely on making money, giving money, how much money to spend and give and on what–a person ends up putting too much value on money, imagining that it will “save a child’s life” or change the world. Money can’t do that, no matter how much you give.

    In contrast to how much you give, it’s the other things you do with your life, the contributions you make, that have more potential to change a child’s life and change the world.

    For example, Bill Gates is one of the richest people in the world, but he found he can’t cure malaria with just his money. What’s going to do that are the scientists that he hires to do research on malaria–yes it costs money, but mostly what it requires is people’s brains and energy and creativity and commitment to finding an answer. Without the scientists, no amount of money would cure malaria. So if you want to help the third world, and you have a gift for it, go ahead and invest in yourself, so you can educate yourself and then devote your life to being a scientific researcher.

  84. Ross @ Go Be Rich says 06 May 2011 at 14:06

    All I needed to do was read that headline and skim the article and I knew exactly what my response was going to be (don’t worry, I did read the entire article)

    I see absolutely nothing immoral about making a huge amount of money and doing whatever you want with it.

    Imagine if you were a billionaire, and you had actually earned your money through your own hard work. That cash was solely the fruits of your labor. What right does anyone have to say that all of the sudden, just because you have a large amount of money, that you spending it is immoral?

    What makes the guy who spends his money on a videogame for his own pleasure any different from the guy who buys a yacht for his own pleasure? Is it simply because the majority of us can’t buy a yacht that those that do become moral targets?

    Don’t get me wrong, donating to charity and giving to those less fortunate are great, amazing things that I hope to one day be able to do a TON of, but if rich people choose not to, that doesn’t make them immoral.

    It just means they’re doing what they want with THEIR money, just like every single one of us here does… we just pay attention because it happens to be a large amount of money.

    Now, it’s a completly different story if these people are ripping others off and using the money to buy $200,000 yachts, or if they take out loan after loan after loan to finance this lifestyle… in fact, I really feel that it was a bit immoral for banks to be making so many sub-prime mortgages (although nobody forced buyers to accept them either).

    • Marla says 06 May 2011 at 21:28

      Thanks Ross, I agree with you… it’s your money, you’ve earned it. You should get to decide how you spend it.

      • Ross says 09 May 2011 at 04:00

        Thanks for agreeing Marla. I’m simply amazed sometimes at how many people here my opinion on this subject and act almost disgusted with me, like I’m the most selfish person in the world.

  85. eemusings says 06 May 2011 at 14:21

    How very timely – I’d just blogged about balancing the desire to get ahead in capitalist society, while giving something back to the world (http://eemusings.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/doing-good-while-putting-yourself-first/). This firstworld guilt strikes me every so often. Sure, I could give more. We could all give more. I have no answers, but for now I think donating a very small but regular amount to different charities each month – I like to spread it around as I have no particular affinity to any cause – is what I can afford and what I’m comfortable with.

  86. Rosa says 06 May 2011 at 16:41

    I hope I didn’t miss another poster saying this – but I really ENJOY making donations and microloans. It makes me really happy, first, to have the money to donate, and second to be able to do something good with it.

    Giving money to Target doesn’t make me happy. Every once in a while the stuff I buy there makes me happy, but most of it would have been equally awesome borrowed (books, movies) or handed down (clothes, socks). Or it’s just a basic necessity of living – a broom, detergent, whatever.

    Giving money to the local community center for senior meals makes me happy. Seeing my mom’s name in a book at the public library makes me even happier. Lending through Kiva is maybe the most fun form of online shopping – look, I funded a bike shop in Nicuragua! A small brewery in Nigeria! Giving to organizations that are preserving the experience of wilderness for the future, or planting trees so mudslides don’t wipe out the livelihood of Haitian farmers, legitimately makes me happy. It’s not some sort of hideous guilt-driven gelt payoff, it’s something I really like to do.

    PS all those organizations hire people, too, so it’s not like the only way to affect “the economy” is to buy stuff.

  87. Avistew says 06 May 2011 at 16:58

    I think it’s very subjective, just like what each person is frugal on or splurges on.

    To me, the real difference is when the price difference isn’t matched by anything. If there are two similar shirts and one is, say 50$ and one is a thousand dollars, I wouldn’t get buying the more expensive one just for the brand.

    When spending more means it lasts much longer, I get it. When it just means it has a different tag, I don’t.

    That’s pretty much the extent of my opinion on that. If I get extremely rich, I don’t want to “upgrade” things that work fine for me.

    On the other hand, I have experience with not treating yourself enough. It’s a bad idea. Whether you save for yourself or to donate, you need to realise that some measure of Wants IS a Need. There isn’t one answer to where the line is, and I find it hard enough to find it for myself, I’m not about to tell others where theirs is.

  88. Kimberly Vandyke says 06 May 2011 at 17:39

    I truly believe that the road to wealth and happiness is balance. Giving to charity, donating time to a worthy cause, you know in your heart when it is right. Is there a list of rules to follow reguarding how much of your money is donated to worthy causes? Not that I know of. I personally know people that can hardly put food on the table, however they donate every penny they can to their charitable cause. I know wealthy people who are not as generous. Who is worthy of judging people on how much they give?

  89. Lisa says 06 May 2011 at 18:17

    What good is feeling guilty about not giving enough money to a charity? Or judging what others own and the price tags that follow? If you feel good about giving a charity $2,000 a year and still have enough left over to live the way you want, then that’s great. Be glad that you are able to buy nice things. But never feel guilty about it. If that’s the case, donate more money/time to a charity of your choice.

    I knew of an older man (priest) that felt so guilty for owning clothing that he gave EVERYTHING away except for a handful of items. The man was being honored at a ceremony and didn’t have anything nice to wear. A family that knew him decided to take him to our store to get dress slacks and a dress shirt. Imagine being saddled with such intense guilt that you feel you don’t deserve to own much of anything, other than food and shelter. If this is what he wants for himself, then his wish is granted.

    I agree with alot of readers who say that buying/giving based on how they feel it relates to charity or the environment is purely subjective. I agree with Peter who stated that if you give so much that you are the one needing help (as the man above does), then that is going too far.

  90. Chat L says 06 May 2011 at 18:22

    Hello all, Very thought-provoking article and discussion! In fairness to Mr. Spielberg and his perceived exuberant spending, I Googled his 2010 net worth at $3 billion. So, as a percentage of his net worth, he spent 6.7% of his net worth on his $200 million yacht. For someone with a more down-to-earth net worth of $200,000, that same 6.7% spent on, say, a new car would be $13,400. Not so impressive yet just as exuberant when considered as a percentage of total but I guess it all depends on your place in the world. I say, good for you, Steven, keep on spending!

  91. cynthia says 06 May 2011 at 18:34

    I think that this is the best post I have read on a personal finance site. I don’t have any answers, but agree that that is really the issue with consumption. I am very heartened that so many people have such thoughtful comments about this. I hope that there are more articles examining this.

  92. Amanda says 06 May 2011 at 20:25

    A question I have, which I haven’t seen in the posts, is this. Should moral/immoral spending be determined based on a percentage of income? For example, one website says Spielberg makes $330,000,000 in one year (not advocating the accuracy of this #) is it less immoral for him to purchase the $200m boat compared to someone making $40k to spend $25,000 on luxuries–trips, brand new car…? (People do this on credit cards all the time, right?!)

  93. Amanda says 06 May 2011 at 20:29

    I have a dilemma I’ve been thinking about recently. If anyone is still reading I’d appreciate your thoughts. I know your opinion doesn’t matter in the long run, it’s between me and God. I’m just interested.

    Volunteering for a specific charity is so important to me that I make many personal sacrifices in order to do it. I work seasonally, part-time and DH works pt. We have our basic needs met plus money for eating out a few times a month and taking a week long trip or two weekend trips every year. I used to donate to charity. Now I just can’t do it without sacrificing my wants. I justify it by saying I don’t have many wants and because I give my time (and car mileage don’t get to itemize on taxes) to charity. What do you think?

    • Femke says 07 May 2011 at 00:06

      I feel you’re almost giving too much. It’s just my opinion. I feel I, my self, am a tad selfish sometimes, but you shouldn’t give to others if it makes you less happy. If you are volunteering with a grimace on your face, then those receiving the charity will notice, and feel guilty, and it won’t do much good to the whole system, which was created to make people happy.

      • Amanda says 07 May 2011 at 12:14

        VoLunteering makes me happy and enriches my life. I feel bad I can’t give cash too. But does the volunteering make up for it?!

  94. Marla says 06 May 2011 at 21:25

    The part about other people’s judgement of how much the Gates foundation gives kind of bothered me. I think that other people’s money is their money, and they can spend it how they please. They worked hard and earned it… what right does anyone have to criticize how they spend it? What if someone came to your door and demanded you give 10% of your net worth to their charity? That would be called robbery.

    This article seems to be missing a key component. If you spend money on something (not charity), you are keeping other people employed. That is not a small thing in today’s economy.

    I think it’s important to give yourself small treats every now and then. It is part of a healthy life to acknowledge you’ve done a good job with whatever and let yourself buy something.

    I prefer to give my time rather than my money. I find causes that speak to me. There is this organization which collects career clothes for welfare mothers wanting to re-enter the workforce… this is something that I have volunteered with and can really get behind.

  95. Femke says 07 May 2011 at 00:02

    Let’s keep it simple?

    As long as the yacht makes you, the people around you, and the people working on it happy, and your money goes to deserving people, who don’t have as much as you (if I buy a Coach purse, I am technically still “giving” money to other people anyways) then chill out! It’s us worrying about the moral implications of EVERY SINGLE THING that makes the world a more miserable place. If everyone’s happy, and working to make the world happy, give the morality issue a rest!

  96. Heather says 07 May 2011 at 01:01

    In your Mercy Corps and church examples, you fail to consider the opportunity costs of spending that money. So Mercy Corps has new headquarters now. How much money and time are they saving by, for example, putting two departments in the same building? How much extra can they bring in due to new options available to them as a company because of the additional available space, money that can then be put to good use?

    What can the church do with the new kitchen, gymnasium and parking lot? Can they now host homeless families for a monthly or weekly “soup kitchen”? What about offering low/no-cost gymnasium space for local youth groups who may not have had space for sports programs before?

    And is it really so wrong to make life better for yourself? Are we all expected to make sure that everyone has a bite of bread before handing out the second bite? That everyone has a roof and running water before we worry about a bed for ourselves? I’m all for charity and betterment of the lives of our global neighbors. But I have a responsibility to myself and my family to take care of us first, including making sure we have a little comfort before I worry about everyone else’s needs.

  97. prufock says 07 May 2011 at 11:54

    I think this question is being made overly-complicated. Easy answer:
    Everyone should give as much as they wish to give.

    Done. That includes people working minimum wage and billionaires.

    Rita’s quandary is nonsense and very simple to solve. If you feel guilty at not giving more, give more. Questions like this always come down to the “critical threshold” issue. If her guilt was reaching that critical threshold, she would give more. However, as it is, she wants those nice things MORE than she wants to increase her giving.

  98. Rob Real says 07 May 2011 at 14:59

    I traded in my Lexus SUV for a Honda civic and was partly motivated by this morality question (admittedly the price of gas had something to do with it too).

    I think this is a very personal choice. Spending on Wants in moderation is fine as most of us haven’t taken vows of poverty. Excess spending on Wants typically causes hardship or some degree of gluttony or vanity. This crosses the line into immorality.

    As the article implied, some charitable organizations do not use your donations wisely. True giving, implies giving a portion of yourself. How can you use your gifts to better the cause you support? Cash alone doesn’t make that personal connection.

  99. Mr. J says 07 May 2011 at 19:00

    I feel that spending money always comes with a cost other than the just the price tag on the item you are purchasing. Paying more for organic or fair trade items is a prime example of this. I am always willing to pay more for organic non-GMO items as every purchase is a vote for that product and that companies way for conducting business. If you purchase products from companies that you find to have unethical practices then you are allowing those practices to continue. Always make every purchase a thought out one. I never make a purchase without knowing how the company conducts its business. I don’t buy products that conflict with my moral and ethical values.
    A 200 million dollar yacht is never an excusable purchase. There are so many more useful non self serving purposes to use that money for. That money could be used to help teach people to grow their own food and help them learn how to make their own solar panels or wind mills that would help them power their village. I am not saying that everyone needs a hand out but teaching people skills that they can then use to better their village or town is always a good use of ones money. There are many ways to make a difference in this world. Spending your money to improve the world is the best use of excess money that exists. If everyone gave a little more then we could make this world a better place for everyone.

    • BD says 07 May 2011 at 19:55

      The catch-22 to this attitude though, is that you’re neglecting entire groups of people now. Sure, if Spielberg didn’t buy the yacht, and gave the money to help villagers in Africa, the villagers are well off. But now, the artisans who are employed making the yacht are laid off, and their families go hungry.

      I’m an artist. This recession has hit *me* very hard, because people are more frugal and don’t want to spend money on frivolous personal items such as pretty artwork. So now I’ve been living at well below poverty level for the past few years, and have ended up almost homeless, due to the rich not spending. Even getting a menial job at Home Depot didn’t work out, because the rich weren’t spending on their homes, so even Home Depot could not afford to keep me employed for more than 20 hours each week at near-minimum wage. That’s not enough to feed and house yourself.

      When people have the attitude of “I can never enjoy anything expensive for myself” and only invest their dollars in faraway places like Africa, people like me suffer here in America, and end up becoming a burden on others, because we can no longer support ourselves with our own craft.

      Do you see the problem?
      There has to be balance. The rich must spend on items like a 200 million dollar yacht, as well as give away money to other countries as well. Just doing one, and not the other, will upset the delicate balance of the economy here in America, much like taking a key animal or plant out of the ecosystem will disrupt the delicate balance of the ecosystem.

  100. Windy City Woman says 07 May 2011 at 21:19

    It isn’t all or nothing. There is no reason that you can’t buy things you don’t need AND give to charity. And you could combine the two: buy things from socially responsible companies; look up Green America, if you aren’t familiar with them. They create “Green Pages,” a sort of Yellow Pages of socially responsible companies. Also, keep in mind that a large % of the U.S economy is consumer spending. (I assume you are from the U.S.; this would probably be true of other rich western countries also.) If everyone quit spending on non-necessities, the economy would tank. Fear of spending is probably keeping the economy in the doldrums now. Also, why not donate your time? Or buy that new pair of shoes, but be sure to give your old shoes to charity? Another good way of spending excess money is to hire an unemployed neighbor or friend to do stuff for you: home repairs, babysitting, dog walking, etc. I am helping an underemployed friend right now this way. He is getting my home all repaired. I just hope his situation improves before I run out of work for him.

  101. gem says 08 May 2011 at 11:30

    You should read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. It really makes a person reconsider what is “immoral” spending. Seriously a great read and highly applicable to this debate. I would love to summarize it for you, but it’s honestly too much and I wouldn’t give it proper justice. (And I’m aware this sounds like a cheesey ad, but if you’re seriously interested in this topic, you should be reading books by economists, not just theorizing based on general moral questions.)

  102. Misty says 08 May 2011 at 16:08

    I found this article VERY interesting! I have not read others comments and I may or may not. I think the Lord remembers are frame and that we are dust. I think He doesn’t expect us to be lofty in our commitments of giving, yet, if we have more excess than we need why would we spend such excess on something that isn’t a need. I think it is good for each of us to “ponder our path and let all our ways be established”. What type of an example are we setting? We can’t take any of the stuff with us, so wouldn’t we be blessed of much greater amount to give it away and bless someone else? Help someone else who can’t be helped? I think so! I don’t think that means don’t enjoy your money, but I think it can be enjoyed on a level without being out of balance. I think you made a good point about what would Jesus do? We are to strive to live our lives like he would…though we will fall short, it is the goal. Makes me want to analyze my life a bit more and reflect on what my goals are. Thanks for such a great thought provoking post!!! Excellent to get us to think. Most people don’t think. They just act. They spend because of guilt. Wants. Not because they want to share their expensive boat with all the poor people who will never ride on one. May we each stop and consider these questions and take responsibility as we should.

  103. Lindsay S says 09 May 2011 at 07:34

    I think we’ve lost touch with personal conviction. It is completely appropriate to follow one’s own convictions and give as much as one desires/can give. It is completely inappropriate to attempt to make someone else follow *your* convictions (yes, even your children). Too many people get so caught up in their “rightness” of their own convictions that they fail to see that their convictions are personal.
    On another note: I’ve worked for many non-profits and I understand why people outside of the non-profit world don’t see the need for a new church or a multimillion dollar headquarters, but I can tell you from personal experience that a comfortable workplace is the least paramount to doing the good work that these organizations do. Too often we expect people who have dedicated their life to service to live and work as paupers. I think this expectation is meant to make us feel good about the work these other people are doing…but living and working under extremely poor conditions, for appearances sake, is stupid and ultimately wasteful!

  104. Tanya says 09 May 2011 at 08:22

    Yes, there are moral implications to spending – but I think ultimately you have to follow your own beliefs and not worry about what Bill Gates or Steven Spielberg are doing. You have been entrusted with the income you make, and you are responsible for usnig it wisely. Find a cause or charity you are passionate about, and support it. Nobody can save the world, but all of us can do something to make it better.

    And as for buying expensive goods – after years of buying items (shoes, purses, sunglasses etc.) that were supposed to be fairly good quality but fell apart quickly, I spent some money on some expensive shoes and a good quality purse. Both have held up very well – meaning I’m wasting less money and throwing fewer things into landfills. So yes, buying quality does matter.

  105. Charlotte says 09 May 2011 at 23:11

    JD –

    I like the new comment format! It is more interactive and there is continuity. I like the color getting darker too. However, the darkest green is too bright for me…hurts my eyes. Maybe the gradation can be slowed down…


  106. MutantSuperModel says 10 May 2011 at 08:56

    Hey JD, I know you’re probably over and done with this topic, but I wrote a response to it today that I think you might at the very least find interesting as I took a strict numbers-only approach. http://mutantsupermodel.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/why-spielbergs-200m-yacht-purchase-is-not-a-crazy-immoral-waste-of-money/

  107. Greg says 10 May 2011 at 09:19

    I applaud him for spending $200M on a yacht. He should spend his money on whatever he pleases. And if doesn’t want to donate a dime of it, that’s his business.

    He has no moral obligation to anyone.

    If anyone tried to guilt trip me on how I spent my hard-earned money, I’d have some very choice words.

  108. Jaime B says 10 May 2011 at 13:44

    Speaking of Gates and Buffet … I was wrestling with this when they both began their crusade to get the super-rich to donate much of their money. While I’m glad for the sake of the people that will be helped by their donations, I question why they accumulated so much money in the first place. Would it have been better to donate more all along, instead of waiting until they have “enough” to feel comfortable donating half? These men did not just luck into their wealth, they pursued it diligently and ruthlessly. I don’t think there is any way to know if they could have done more good by making less money (ie, could they have paid more to their least paid employees? given more benefits? paid for all benefits so their employees didn’t have to pay premiums?) or now, by giving so much of it away. Bottomline, I’m suspicious and I guess, disappointed that it took them tens of billions of dollars to feel comfortable giving money to charity.

    Even so, I find it more immoral due to dishonesty to ONLY give to charity for the tax deduction than to indulge in the conspicuous consumption of buying a 200M yacht. Seriously. I’m sure charities love their donations, no matter their donors’ motives. And I agree to an extent, but at least that 200M yacht is an honest expression of Spielberg’s desires. I don’t find anything inherently immoral in consumer consumption or indulging in our wants. It is my luck to have been born into a more developed country and I do not feel guilty for buying things or doing things that are not available to others in this country or others. If our places were reversed, they would do the same.

    It comes down to knowing who you are and what you want out of life. If you’re not driven to be an ascetic, if you’re not driven to give away all of your and your family’s wordly possessions and dedicate your life to helping the poor, then why beat yourself up about your daily frou-frou coffee drink? or your Coach purse or your classic car or your comic books? Few people are so totally selfish that they don’t ever help the people around them either through direct action or charitable donation, so take the time to figure out where you want to be and commit to it. People on the outside can judge all they want, but the important thing is to know yourself and be comfortable with the decisions YOU make.

    • Peter says 10 May 2011 at 13:53

      We may never know why they waited as opposed to giving some along the way. But there is a definite benefit to working with larger sums of money. You can fund long-term research, set up foundations, open a soup kitchen and many other things with large sums of money. Donating smaller amounts wouldn’t have allowed them to do these things unless the organization was saving the money until it had a larger amount.

      It works the same way on the spending side. If I gave you $5 a week, you’d probably just fritter it away, but if I gave you $250 all at once, you’d probably spend it on something you really wanted or needed.

      Maybe Gates and Buffet were waiting until they could do something they thought was more meaningful.

      Also, these 2 men are extremely wealthy so they probably didn’t have this concern, but some people may want to wait until they have accumulated enough wealth to be confident they and their family are well taken care of, before donating the rest. Not many people would want to give away so much that it made their own family worse off.

      • Jaime B says 14 May 2011 at 12:58

        Thanks Peter, I hadn’t thought of that angle. It’s true that large sums of money can often be more effective in the long-term. That’s not to say that smaller sums aren’t effective, but in a different way usually. I think I just struggle with the idea I’ve absorbed growing up that so much money accumulated is bad in some way. If I were that rich, I wouldn’t want someone telling me what is right to do with MY money (excepting illegal actions of course) and yet, I still instinctively judge others. I try not to, but it’s also the idea of how much good such sums could do for others that also drives the judgemental question of why haven’t they done more. And yet, even on my incredibly smaller salary I could do more and don’t always. It’s hypocritical, though I don’t feel too guilty about it. lol Morality and money, it can be complicated for sure.

  109. molly says 14 May 2011 at 04:53

    An aspect of spending money on luxury is the notion that it contributes to quality of life. I find it — on a simple scale — to be true that a, say, 150 dollar dress is nicer than a 15 dollar dress — and that it adds to my quality of life. Would never buy a 1500 dollar dress specifically because of this issue. It just wouldn’t feel right to me.
    But I think there is also a bigger issue. That is time — how do we spend our time? I have begun to feel guilty — in what essentially could be retirement years — for pursuing a second career that is something I love to do — when the world needs more volunteers. Am I making a difference? That is the question that torments me. It does extend to spending money as well as time. The problems we are dealing with seem so huge: how to allocate ALL of ones resources starts to nag at one, if one is thinking. (Also worry — there is no end to this — that if suddenly no one bought in the material world, the economy would collapse big time; imagine the jobs created when Spielberg ordered that boat!)

  110. NJBill says 14 May 2011 at 05:54

    Your premise deals only with money. I find this to be a rather crass viewpoint of charity. Many people I know donate hundreds of hours of their valuable time and experience to charity as volunteers. Instead of depending on someone else to spend their money wisely, they are donating directly to those organizations and people in need. It is far too easy to write a check and far too often Americans believe dollars are the answer to every problem. I prefer personal involvement.

  111. John says 16 May 2011 at 19:12

    You have to remember that when Spielberg spends $200 million on a yacht, that money doesn’t disappear. It goes to the yacht company, which uses it to pay its employees, who use it to pay their mortgages and grocery bills and so on, which use it to pay their own employees, and so on. Spielberg is injecting $200 million into the economy.

    That’s why when Democrats tried to impose a yacht tax a while back to punish the rich, it ended up hurting the middle class. It didn’t hurt the rich–they just didn’t buy a yacht. Boo hoo. But since it greatly decreased the demand for yachts, that meant that the companies that made them had to lay off a lot of middle class workers in order to stay afloat. It’s similar to how corporate taxes, which are meant to punish big bad corporations, just end up being passed along in the form of higher prices and hurting consumers.

    There’s a big difference between what something is targeted at and who it actually affects.

  112. StatingDObvs says 01 June 2011 at 06:56

    All this hand wringing seems like over thinking. Warren Buffet gives $37B = good. Our personal consumption habits, in the big picture = a drop in the ocean. If one is concerned about helping others, vote with your feet and volunteer at a local charity organization.

  113. Ken says 05 May 2012 at 15:59

    I choose not to worry about the things I can’t control. I can’t control how much Larry Ellison spends on his yachts but I can try to make good choices with my money. My view is that I work like a dog and deserve to have a few nice things as a reward, within reason. My vices of choice are a nice home theater and an occasional nice vacation. I offset these luxuries by “tithing” once a month to one of my favorite charities, lately donorschoose.org and Kiva. I figure that’s about the best I can reasonably do, and I’m content with that.

  114. Sam says 27 November 2018 at 15:33

    This is such an interesting topic and one I think about a LOT! I feel it’s actually our moral imperative to spend, as the money keeps the economy flowing. If everyone saved 50% of their income, the economy would crash and jobs would be lost everywhere! So don’t feel guilty, but do choose wisely where you spend. I have no issues with people buying luxury products. Mostly their works would be artisans who have years of experience. Better that than supporting cheap offshore labor, where the work conditions are akin to slavery. I like to save around 10-20% of my income and I am on a low wage, because I choose to be an artist. I find it so insulting when people in hig incomes boast about saving most of their income as who benefits from that? Only them! I like to buy local as much as possible and support local business. If we thought of money as being equal to love, maybe we would be less stingy releasing it out of our wallets…

  115. Leah says 31 October 2019 at 17:29

    I think it’s about figuring out the balance between doing what makes you truly happy but also being considerate of others. As long as you show that you’re trying to help, whether it be donating a fraction of your income or volunteering, there isn’t really a problem. I think the issue comes from people who appear inconsiderate or ignorant to others around them.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*