25 Ways to Give (Without Breaking the Bank)

In the past nine months I've found $12.89 in singles and specie. The cash has shown up in a number of places, but most of it is from coins I picked up.

As usual, I'll squirrel away the found funds until Thanksgiving, at which time I'll write a check to a food bank. I've been doing this for a couple of decades, including a span of several years during which I had neither a vessel into which to urinate nor a casement through which to dispose of it.

This was a painless way to help others at a time when I worried nonstop about my own ability to stay afloat. Giving to others got me out of my own head, reminding me that plenty of people lived with considerably fewer resources (financial, emotional, practical) than I had.

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How I stopped excessive gifting

Most of us struggle with some psychological aspect of money that can impede our savings. Whether it be the lure of clothing stores, nights out with friends, or stocking a top-shelf liquor cabinet, there tends to be one thing or another that creeps from our wants category into our needs. I've never been a compulsive shopper and always preferred voluntary simplicity, both in the kitchen and in my closet. This means that for most of my young adult life, I had good control of my finances.

Then I Started Dating…

Dating quickly made gift giving my Achilles heel. As with other debt-inducing habits, it seemed harmless at first. Here are some things I started doing, not realizing how much money I was shelling out:

  • I never liked to show up at my girlfriend's apartment empty handed so I always had her favorite Snapple or a magazine for her in hand. (Six bucks, just to say hello.)
  • I always wanted to pick up the check, even when we were out with a friend or two. (Could be upwards of $100, just to show I cared.)
  • I brought expensive bottles of wine to dinner parties, not to show off, but just to enjoy with everyone, even if I was just as happy with $7 bottle myself. ($25 to try to find community.)
  • I was sent to the store to get simple baking supplies, but instead of getting the normal vanilla extract, I would get the fancy packaged one for twice the price. Take that philosophy down the entire list of supplies and I'd racked up a pretty hefty bill. ($50 extra just so we could feel high society together.)

It was never about seeming rich to my friends or girlfriend. I took pride in my penny pinching in every other aspect of my life. I honestly thought it was about generosity and showing affection, nothing more. Continue reading...

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Expectations and Your Money

I started Set expectations low-ish
Little did I know that I wasn't just being environmentally conscious and frugal: I was smartly setting expectations low for my gifts. A professor at Yale University's Center for Customer Insights conducted a study in which he discovered that pretty packaging raises the receiver's expectations — and decreases the receiver's pleasure with the contents of the package. In an interview on American Public Media's Marketplace program, Nathan Novemsky summarized:

"...one of the interesting findings was that if you wrap a gift, you raised people's expectations and the liking of the same gift goes down. If you wrap a gift that, you know, is really just meant to be a little something, it might behoove you not to wrap it — or if you are going to wrap it, to not wrap it so nicely."

The principal at work here, that I'm calling expectation bias, is not just appropriate for Christmas gifts, but for just about anything that involves an initial impression of an experience. Professor Novemsky used the example of a nice, complimentary glass of champagne that a fancy restaurant brings you before the meal. "If you're setting expectations high and you're not delivering on them," he says, "you're going to be worse off than if you hadn't tried to set expectations at all."

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That’s a Wrap: Some Alternatives to Traditional Gift-Wrapping

Looking for a greener Christmas? Re-think your gift wrap. According to Stanford University:

  • If every U.S. family wrapped three gifts in repurposed materials, the gift wrap saved would cover 45,000 football fields.
  • If every family reused two feet of holiday ribbon per year, the ribbon saved could tie a bow around Earth.

Feeling like a planet-despoiling bastard yet? Don't beat yourself up too badly. I use some holiday paper myself. But I obtain/use it in very specific ways:

  • Buying during post-holiday clearance sales — they're practically giving the stuff away
  • Re-using wrap when possible
  • Using non-traditional wrap
  • Getting paper and gift bags in non-traditional ways

You can frame the “to wrap or not to wrap” question in three ways: frugal or eco-friendly, or both.

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Why I still pick up pennies

The most-read piece I ever wrote for MSN Money's Smart Spending blog was an essay called See a penny? Pick it up! It got more than 1,657,000 hits before MSN changed blog platforms. After that, the penny essay and most of the other things I'd written went to live on a farm, where they can run and play with all the other articles.

And me? Still gleaning dropped coins. I pick up road pennies with copper coatings ravaged by traffic. I fish nickels out of puddles. I've spied dimes glinting across parking lots. I rescue quarters from bus-stop gutters.

Occasionally I find paper money, usually one-dollar bills. This year was unusual because I found a $10 and a $20 bill along with 23 quarters, 52 dimes, 15 nickels and 288 pennies.

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Ask the readers: How much do you spend on gifts?

As Kris and I near the end our trip to Peru, we've begun to make preparations for our return home. That means shopping.

I spent some time today buying books, for instance. Keeping in mind my recently-drafted guidelines of what to buy, I picked up a couple dozen Spanish translations of classic novels and popular children's books. Los LibrosThese books are all tiny (about the size of a religious tract) and cost only S/1.50 each, which is about fifty cents. I now have practice material for months to come!

The shopping Kris did today was more practical. She went in search of socks. Not for herself, but for other people. Christmas is coming, and buying gifts in a place like Peru is a fun change of pace. Plus, it's cost effective. By shopping for Christmas gifts here, she's able to stretch her budget. (Obviously, it wouldn't be cost effective to fly all the way to Peru to do Christmas shopping; but it's frugal to do so while we're already here!)

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How my generosity got me $8,000 in debt

This is a guest post from Logan Sachon. Her piece originally appeared at Bundle.com.

I am in debt: $8,000 on two credit cards, to be precise.

The debt occurred over several years, and includes a few periods when I was living off the cards because I was in between jobs. Perhaps $1,000 of the debt was spent on plane tickets to visit my parents on the East Coast, my job on the East Coast, or my friends on the East Coast. But mostly there are just lots of small purchases — a pattern of living beyond my means. All pointed fingers end up right back at me. If I had to pinpoint one personality trait that led to the debt, there was a time when I would have been tempted to say idiocy, but now I'd say generosity: with others, but mostly with myself. Continue reading...

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10 ways to build a gift closet that’s both deep and cheap

The holidays are about six months away. Why wait until the last minute to shop? Answer: You shouldn't. And you won't have to if you have a decently stocked gift closet. Some people I know keep their eyes open starting on Dec. 26 and are finished by mid-summer.

It's more than just the December holidays, though. A small selection of “evergreen” gifts (non-perishable, non-trendy) means you're prepared for any birthday, anniversary or new baby that comes along.

Building your gift closet doesn't have to cost much. I always trot out the example of the puzzle depicting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the perfect gift for a jigsaw-loving relative. Still shrink-wrapped when I found it on half-price day at a thrift shop, it set me back a whopping 35 cents.

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Learning to Give

For years, Get Rich Slowly readers have given me grief over my charitable giving. Or, more precisely, my lack of it. I was raised in a home that gave neither money nor time to help others. As I struck out on my own, I never picked up the habit of giving. At first, this was because I had myself to worry about. I was deep in debt. How could I afford to help others when I couldn't even help myself? But after I paid off my debt in 2007, I still didn't contribute.

My reluctance to donate to charity has stemmed from several sources:

    • First, as I mentioned, I never learned the habit.


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Ask the readers: 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.

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