Give your wealth away: An argument for a secular tithe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lydia
Lydia
10 years ago

Great article. I think giving is important whether you have a religious affiliation or not. It is a good reminder that life is not all about you, and that you should put others first.

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

I’m really not surprised. Most Republicans are from the south and I’ve found them extremely friendly and accommodating. It doesn’t surprise me that they are the most charitable too. As an aside, hopefully Obama decides not to go through with the Charity tax. I’m sure he can find better ways for reducing our deficit.

Charlie Park
Charlie Park
10 years ago

This is a great piece. One of the “truths” I’ve believed for a while, and that has only been reinforced over time, is that “you get good at what you practice.” It’s very easy to put giving off, saying “I’ll pay off my debts, and THEN I’ll give to charities / nonprofits.” But once you’ve paid off your debts, it’s easy to think “well, I’ve worked hard to pay off my debts, I should spend this money on myself.” A few months later, you think “Well, they’ve gotten along without my donations; why should I start now?” In truth, donating… Read more »

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
10 years ago

Excellent post, Sierra. I appreciate both your research on giving in the U.S., and your action plan for training your children in giving. One note: I’ve read that the great majority of giving in the U.S. is to churches. As a faithful churchgoer myself, I know that the bulk of church budgets go to overhead (salaries, building expenses, etc.) with a relatively small percentage of church budgets going to missions and outreach that help the poor. Conservatives go to church in much greater numbers than liberals. Dollar for dollar, conservative giving probably contributes much more to upholding the places they… Read more »

Kim
Kim
10 years ago

An easy way to make donations automatic is to talk to your payroll department. I work in Finance and there are several people at our company that have charitable donations taken directly off their pay before it’s even deposited. Finance also mails the cheque to the charity with everyone’s name and the donation amount (ie – Dear Charity, Please find enclosed a cheque for XX dollars. This is a donation from John ($X) and Sally ($X). Thanks, Payroll at This Company). It doesn’t have to be a lot either. Some of the cheques we cut are for $10 or $15.… Read more »

RAMILLER
RAMILLER
10 years ago

Alison, you made some statements about the giving of conservatives and liberals. Can you please provide the data to back up your statements?

Melinda Hancock
Melinda Hancock
10 years ago

I understand that living within your means is a key factor in avoiding a financial crisis. If you feel helping others is a priority then make it fit in your budget.

Taking a “loan” in order to give away part of it doesn’t seams right for me. What makes sense is the discipline to build a budget and work towards it. If you can do it you can begin giving away. I suggest starting with thinking about you, then about others.

Paul
Paul
10 years ago

This was something that I found to be a major difference when I moved from the UK to Texas. In the US, help for the needy seemed to be mainly distributed by various churches (paid for via tithes, etc); in the UK, there is a greater amount of government aid (paid for by taxes).

I guess that it depends on whether you expect help for the needy to require a religious component, or whether it is simply part of what makes a civilised nation…

Jennifer
Jennifer
10 years ago

I’m sorry, but I think how efficient the charities are matters A LOT. I don’t want to give to feel better about myself, I want to give to help someone.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

I can understand why some people would be reluctant to give to a charity, wondering how much money really gets used in helping people. We give to a local non-profit: Dove Lewis. It’s an emergency clinic for animals. I can see my dollars at work and that just motivates me to give more to help them continue their great work.

Jane
Jane
10 years ago

Wonderful article. This is very timely, because I just wrote a check that I didn’t necessarily want to write to my church to give this morning, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Giving hurts in many ways. My husband and I are debt free except for our mortgage, and we have a decent emergency fund. You would think at this point we would be more willing to give, but alas it doesn’t work that way. Now I want to get more and more in savings and retirement. It’s hard to step back and think of those… Read more »

Courtney
Courtney
10 years ago

@ Melinda “I suggest starting with thinking about you, then about others.”

I think the point that Sierra is trying to make is that if you start thinking about yourself first and then others, most people will never get to the part about thinking of others.

Great post.

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

Sierra provides a lot of good practical advice for including charitable donations as part of the family budget. There’s always the push of the heart and values against the pull of ensuring one’s own financial security. We are currently unchurched, and make a conscious effort to contribute to and volunteer for organizations we care about throughout the year. We intentionally teach our children about the different kinds of need that exist, and talk about how to help. This year, we are fortunate to have what we need with enough left over to share, and we try to make the kids… Read more »

Wallace Sean
Wallace Sean
10 years ago

Melinda – look at Bob Schumann’s Blog post about a “habit” of saving 10% of your income. I believe you will find it relevant to your idea of avoiding a financial crisis. (http://www.peoplesfinancialadvisor.com/personalfinance/?p=112)

Neel Kumar
Neel Kumar
10 years ago

I think that giving to charitable causes is laudable. When such charity is done with hard-earned money, it is double laudable. However, I also feel that many people in USA do not look at the efficacy of their charitable giving. Many charities have huge overheads because they are not efficient in their operations. So, while we denigrate taxes (due to inefficiencies of the government), we continue to invest in poorly performing charities. And regarding the liberal/conservative comparison on giving – How do the numbers turn out when you add in the taxes that they give? I live in California and… Read more »

Bananen
Bananen
10 years ago

Perhaps it’s because I (sadly) live in a country where charity is pretty much non-existent and almost all aid is paid by taxes, but I have to agree with Melinda. Giving to charity instead of using the money to paying off debt is quite similar to taking out a loan and spend it on charity. It is very charitable but a bit too much. I give a bit to the few charities that I trust and would like to give more, but most of my money are going into paying back the student loan. If I also did tithing there… Read more »

Dangerman
Dangerman
10 years ago

Mint.com just had an infographic on this same topic:

“Charity: Who Cares”:
http://www.mint.com/blog/trends/charity-who-cares/

Chris
Chris
10 years ago

This is my first time commenting at GRS, and I can’t believe it’s to express disappointment in a post. I fully agree with the notion that charitable giving is important, whether, as previous commenters noted, it’s accomplished through taxation or tithing. However, your disclaimer says you don’t take a position on religious or political issues, and I can’t help but feel this post doesn’t meet that standard. By advocating or applauding tithing to churches, many of which do take political positions by financially and logistically supporting ballot measures (e.g. the Mormon church’s financial support of anti-Prop 8 organizations in California),… Read more »

Claudette
Claudette
10 years ago

I don’t give money while I am trying to pay off my debt, but I do give my time. It may not help pay overhead costs, but I definitely think that I help people directly. In my mind, giving doesn’t just have to be financial in order to make a difference.

JR Rice
JR Rice
10 years ago

Overall, liberals tend to give less to charity than conservatives. Religious people like the ones I grew up with give more than my secular humanist friends. The working poor are, as a class, the most generous group in America, reliably giving away 4.5% of their income. The middle class are the least generous, giving just 2.5% on average. In addition to making me and my friends look bad in the conservative press, statistics like that are, as George Will put it, “hostile witnesses” to the idea that “bleeding-heart liberals” actually care more about the poor and disadvantaged than our conservative… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

Great post. As a fundraiser I can say that there is definitely what we call a “culture of philanthropy”; in other words, it is much easier for me to get a donation from someone who gives to other causes than it is to get someone who doesn’t give at all to become philanthropic. Here’s Forbes recent listing of the most efficient large charities: http://www.forbes.com/lists/2009/14/charity-09_The-200-Largest-U.S.-Charities_FundRaiseEff.html. While a $10 gift is commendable, in the case of most charities that won’t cover the mailings you’ll receive. If you have small amounts to give, it’s better to choose one charity and give $100 than… Read more »

George
George
10 years ago

Giving is one of the topics that doesn’t seem to get much attention these days. It’s really great to remind us how important it is. They say that it is good to give away 10%.

It’s also wonderful to see how you are planning and using your rising income effectively. If we don’t plan, we tend to just spend it on stuff we want!

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

Yesterday, while editing chapter 11 in my book, I sat at a table in a nearby coffee shop. At the table next to me were three older men. They were talking about religion. One was a Catholic, one was a Lutheran, and one was a United Methodist. They didn’t agree much on doctrine. That didn’t matter. They had a fine discussion of faith. Midway through their discussion, the two young adults at the next table over joined in. They were atheists, though they’d both been raised in a church. The five of them had a lively, intelligent conversation without calling… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

Thank you, JD! I’m one of those that get turned off when the discussions get religious/political.

Charlie Park
Charlie Park
10 years ago

In the post, Sierra linked to the CSMonitor, but the article doesn’t seem to be working. For those interested in finding charities to donate to, Charity Navigator has some useful Top Ten lists. For example, their list of 10 Highly-Rated Charities with Low Paid CEOs shows that a number of nonprofit CEOs take a very modest income … including the CEO of the International Children’s Fund, who takes a salary of $28,000. There are more “Top 10” (and a few “Bottom 10”) lists that you can find here.

Kat
Kat
10 years ago

I very much appreciate this post. There have been some comments recently about giving & it’s a fascinating topic both financially and at a human level (aside from the religion question, which can be a distraction). Like some of the other posters, I don’t give as much as I would like, but I do give and regularly, to charities that I have chosen for how their values fit with what I value. Living in Canada, I think that we are extremely fortunate compared to the majority of the world, and I think acknowledging this and sharing what I have received… Read more »

MM
MM
10 years ago

Expressing concern about what a charity is going to do with your money is a terrible excuse for not giving. That depends. If you’re giving your money for the sake of feeling better about yourself, then it’s true, and there’s no difference between giving your money to the Mormon church (while gifts to the church counted as charitable donations, the money I gave to the other side of the Prop 8 debate was counted as political, and thus non-charitable) or to PETA or to missionary work overseas or to the American Cancer Society or even to that guy with the… Read more »

Lily (capital L)
Lily (capital L)
10 years ago

If you’re suspicious about big organizations, donate to the local ones. Do you know anybody who works for a local charity? I give my 8/1000 (in Italy, a part of taxes that has to be donated) to the local organization for mentally handicapped children, since I know people who are involved. I also go to some of their shows, it’s fun and I can give an offer directly to them each time. 🙂

Mark Wolfinger
Mark Wolfinger
10 years ago

“Very few charities are outright frauds, and even the inefficient ones will put more of your dollars toward a good cause than your bank will.”

This is an ignorant statement, at best.

Giving to inefficient charities is just giving to make yourself feel good. It does little to help anyone.

If frugal in your habits, that must carry over to charity. A non-frugal, inefficiently run charity is a very bad thing to support. It’s throwing your money in the garbage.

Melinda Hancock
Melinda Hancock
10 years ago

Thanks Sean, I like very much the post you gave me. I also run a Free Financial Assessment there. Pretty cool

http://www.peoplesfinancialadvisor.com/

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

I can’t believe this post has 29 comments already at 8am on a Sunday morning… 🙂

I’m not sure what’s going on with the charity watchdog link. I updated it to point to the Google cache of the article. Not a perfect solution, but it’ll have to do…

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

I’m curious as to why the Christian version of planned giving (i.e. tithing) is always portrayed as the ideal. Islam does it a little differently: giving 1/40th of your net worth (not your income, but including assets like jewelry, etc.) to charity each year (essentials like basic transportation and living costs aren’t included). So as you accumulate more wealth through your life, you’re giving more as a result. When you’re just starting out, this 2.5% seems like it’s easier to fit into the budget. However, if you’re earning $100,000 a year and you’ve got $1,000,000 in assets, you’d be donating… Read more »

Jason B
Jason B
10 years ago

I feel the title of this article indicates that we’ll be enlightened to the reasons why secular liberals should give, but I don’t feel it does that. I feel it says that those are the people that don’t give, and that they can by following this guideline. It doesn’t tell me why they should. I suppose the argument is that some people are more fortunate than others, but natural law is that everyone deserves the same level of fortune, so we should redistribute our fortunes for equality. Does that sound about right? It also sounds like socialism to some degree.… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

Ooh. Interesting, Jason B. It’s been a long time since I thought of Ishmael, but it does have certain personal finance implications, doesn’t it? At the very least, we could have a fantastic discussion of Leavers and Takers. I might put this on the list for a discussion topic during 2010…

Peggy
Peggy
10 years ago

My parents used to say that if we would all step up and give our 10% to local charities (not even churches, if you prefer) that the government could get out of the business of welfare and reduce the burden on our paychecks. I’m not sure the government will ever roll back ANY tax, but I’m a big believer in charity beginning at home (my local economy, not my personal economy) and not in Washington DC.

Ms. Clear
Ms. Clear
10 years ago

Honestly, I probably give a few hundred dollars a year to charity. It isn’t much. I’d like to give more. But that’s just not feasible right now. If I’m going to save money for emergencies, build some small amount of wealth, have insurance and a place to live….it’s what I can afford. Personally, I do believe in a society with a much more comprehensive safety net. I’d rather pay taxes so that all people’s basic needs were met than allow charities, which can cherry pick, to distribute help. Because I DO NOT live in a society that thinks my family… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
10 years ago

Very disappointed in GRS today.
-Long Time Reader

MM
MM
10 years ago

I believe natural law, evolution and natural selection all fit nicely together. The survival of the fittest. We like to say that we believe we should help other humans and also take care of our planet, but the more we take care of humans, the more humans there are on this planet, and the more we wreak havoc on our planet. What if the right thing to do is to care more for the planet and less for our fellow humans? You’re assuming a zero-sum that doesn’t exist. Caring for our fellow humans includes all levels of caring. One of… Read more »

Stephanie RJ
Stephanie RJ
10 years ago

I’m always surprised at discussions on the ‘efficiency’ of charities, because I think that standard measures of efficiency miss the point a little. Large, direct service, ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’-style charities consistently top those lists. The work (eg. distributing food at a food bank) requires little training, so they can rely heavily on volunteer support or ‘third party’ organizations, and also seek resources from foundations to cover their administrative expenses. There’s a lot of accounting finangling involved to ensure they’re keeping that coveted ‘100% of public contributions go to our cause’ statistic. On the other hand, charities… Read more »

Lou
Lou
10 years ago

I personally believe that liberals contribute more to real, worthwhile charities than conservatives do. The statistics are skewed by “religious institutions” qualifying as a “charity.” I’d rather my money went to feeding the poor, rather than banning gay marriage; or healing the sick rather than recruiting cult members.

Avistew
Avistew
10 years ago

Sometimes I get uncomfortable with one aspect of charity, that some people (not all) have. That aspect is the idea that by giving to the poor, you are superior to them. That you’re giving to them, and you will keep giving to them because, hopefully, they will stay poor, and indebted to you. Now, that kind of thinking is old. It dates back to social classes, when servants stayed servants no matter what and nobles stayed nobles, and superior. It’s not as common nowadays, but still, I can sometimes feel it, and I just hate it. As someone who has… Read more »

Avistew
Avistew
10 years ago

Jason B said: “I believe natural law, evolution and natural selection all fit nicely together. The survival of the fittest. We like to say that we believe we should help other humans and also take care of our planet, but the more we take care of humans, the more humans there are on this planet, and the more we wreak havoc on our planet. What if the right thing to do is to care more for the planet and less for our fellow humans?” What prevents you from donating to a charity that, for instance, makes birth control available in… Read more »

Charlie Park
Charlie Park
10 years ago

@StephanieRJ – Since I was the one that introduced the $28,000 figure, I’m guessing that part of your comment’s directed at my comment. I didn’t mean to imply that one should give to the Internation Children’s Fund (or any other nonprofit) for the sole reason that the CEO only makes $28,000. I don’t believe Charity Navigator would say that, either. I believe there are a number of factors that influence giving. And, honestly, for me, executive pay isn’t high on my list of things to pay attention to. Further, I didn’t mean to imply that nonprofit executives (or non-executive workers)… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

*sigh*

If your comment isn’t appearing, that’s because it’s in moderation. If it’s in moderation, ask yourself why that might be the case.

If you want to make your point in a different way — one that’s not intentionally provocative — please do so. Look at the other commenters for an example of what’s acceptable. Again, let’s keep the conversation smart. There are other places on the internet to call names and point fingers.

You’re in my living room here. Don’t be a jerk.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

This isn’t “An Argument For a Secular Tithe” at all. It’s a recitation of some statistics, and a list of ways the author wants to relieve her guilt (but doesn’t). An argument in favor of a tithe would present reasoning as to *why* I should do such a thing. This article doesn’t. Personally, I don’t feel guilty about the way I live my life, and as such feel no obligation to fix it by throwing money at the problem.

Bucksome
Bucksome
10 years ago

J.D., you’re doing a good job of keeping the discussion thoughtful.

I’m overlooking the political tone (which didn’t work in my viewpoint) to see the very good point of the story which is to give — no excuses.

I didn’t give regularly until I created a budget with that line item. if I don’t give it all during the month it goes in a designated savings bucket which I give during the year.

bon
bon
10 years ago

“Expressing concern about what a charity is going to do with your money is a terrible excuse for not giving” This statement is both wrong and irresponsible. It is my opinion (opinion only, based on my first hand observations as a Peace Corps Volunteer) that with respect to international aid (because that is what I am familiar with) — this “aid” is executed in a way that HURTS more than it helps. ABSOLUTELY do your homework before giving — and checking what percent of admin fees a charity has is not enough One more small thing: I observed some Mission… Read more »

Gordon Glenn
Gordon Glenn
10 years ago

Interesting article and a good reminder, in this “season of giving.” My wife and I have gotten away from physical and monetary gifts for Christmas and Winter Solstice, for the most part. Instead, we give a few hundred dollars to a couple of selected charities, in the names of our relatives…

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

I am a great proponent of giving locally — until I live in a Utopia, there will be plenty of needs nearby and when I help others in my community, I am also helping myself to live in a happier, healthier, environment. But, of course, sometimes there will be situations (recently there were several deaths that occurred in my social circle, the parent of a friend, and the like) when a charity that I don’t usually contribute to is noted as the recipient. I always write a note with my check to the organization, explaining that I am giving a… Read more »

Rick
Rick
10 years ago

I have tithed on my gross income for over 35 years and it has never done me any harm and probably has done many people a lot of good. I don’t like to see pressure put on people to give, especially at work where one cannot easily refuse.

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