I was recently interviewed for a podcast where one of the interviewers asked why I used such difficult words in my blog. I was taken aback by the question because I don’t think I use 50¢ words unless it is to increase clarity. 

In this third and last installment of Christmas themed personal finance posts I am going to be guilty of the most egregious crime: I will use another 50¢ word to convey a message of importance.

It started with the popular current activity of paying for the person behind you in the checkout line or fast food drive-through. It certainly is  fine gesture of goodwill. I rarely eat at fast food restaurants, but started to wonder what I would do if my meal were paid for. Would I pay for the person behind me if there was someone behind me in line to keep the cycle going?

The more I thought about it the more it disturbed me. Why should my meal be comped when I have ample financial resources? Shouldn’t the money be applied where needed the most, with people suffering financial hardship?

The same thing happens at the grocery store. A kind fellow (or woman) pays for the groceries of someone next to them. I like this more because it is at least easier to determine if the person in question could use the financial help. But that isn’t a guarantee, however. I dress down often and look like a homeless man more often than not. You can ask my employees. I’ve been known to wander in wearing worn jogging pants and a t-shirt. Judging a book by its cover is a 50/50 proposition at best.

The act of kindness I find most beneficial is when someone pays the utility bills for several people who are struggling financially, as noted by their delinquent bill. 

Regardless the Christmas spirit, there is always a nagging voice warning me such behavior could be counter-productive or going to the wrong soul.

 

A Christmas Carol

I can’t imagine there is anyone reading this post that is unfamiliar with the short Charles Dickens holiday novel, A Christmas Carol. Most have seen one of the myriad adaptions of the book. Some renditions are really good and some are left lacking and untrue to the original story.

We all remember the ghosts visiting Scrooge: the ghost of Christmas past, present and future. It is the ghost of Christmas present that interests us most. 

As you recall, the ghost of Christmas present took Scrooge to see his nephew’s house and the laughter-filled party. It was a humble celebration for sure, but celebration no less.  But that was not all the ghost of Christmas present had to reveal. 

Upon leaving the Cratchits’, Scrooge was taken from the city of London to the “deserted moor” of a miners camp; then to a solitary lighthouse under the crash of waves; and finally to the desk of a ship far out at sea. In each instance the celebration was humble. Kind words, the humming of a Christmas tune were the extent of the Christmas celebrations. It was humility the spirit wanted Scrooge to see; humility while celebrating the greatest hope ever offered.

And then Scrooge heard laughter, the laughter of his nephew as he is ripped back to the scene of Christmas present closer to home. 

 

Propitiation

Now for our 50¢ word. You might remember this word from church if you are a person of faith. Propitiation is generally used in religion to mean “the paying of another’s debts”. A more accurate representation of propitiation is to “appease”. 

Today’s 50¢ word is required because the meaning is so much deeper and richer and the explanation spreads far further than mere appeasement. This is part of your life in the secular world as well.

To propitiate is to seek favor. That is opposite of my pay-it-forward philosophy. Paying for the person’s meal behind me creates a debt for that person. What if the person behind you is poorer than you and barely has the funds to pay for his own meal and the person behind him has a more expensive meal? You did no favors to that one person.

A child who breaks a vase might wash the dishes for mom before being asked as a peace offering; a form of propitiation. 

An act of propitiation must be conciliatory. You are sorry for some action or words spoken. Propitiation is more than saying, “Sorry.” It is an act meant to convey your deep-felt sorrow for having committed the act or saying the words. A single word is rarely adequate to propitiate. 

Why do we feel compelled to propitiate? And why is it so important? Because it really deals with trust. You show an act of kindness so the person knows they can trust you and the negative act or words were unintended. It is unlikely you would feel compelled to propitiate to a stranger. A simple “Sorry” suffices if you cut a stranger off. But a friend, someone you trust and want to trust you requires more if you value the relationship.

This is not to take away from the value to giving to others. This is the season of giving. But is it giving if you saddle yourself with debt? How will the people close to you, and that trust you, feel if you cause personal money problems because you gave too much?

I strongly feel the pull of charity. Life has been very good to me. However, I measure carefully the gifts I give. I do not want to enable bad behavior or make matters worse. Working through money problems is hard, but gives you the skills to survive the rest of your life without much outside help. There is something to be said about that. 

 

Christmas Present

While Scrooge learned to share with all after the visit from the Christmas ghosts, he focused his giving where it did most good. Scrooge understood propitiation. The fat turkey was sent to the Cratchits’ household; extra coal for heat was allowed at the office. 

The pages of my copy of A Christmas Carol are yellow with some pages torn. The book has been with me a very long time. I think I bought it when I was in junior high as part of a book drive at school. I thought it was a book of Christmas songs, if memory serves. I was unenlightened in my youth. Time has remedied the issue.

Periodically I pull the text from my shelves for a reminder on how to live life right. I look back in my life to gather a full assessment of where I have been. Everyone has things they would rather have forgotten. But in the dark brutal honestly is the only way. 

After reviewing your past, take an inventory of the present. Life, you will find, is probably a lot better than you allow yourself to enjoy.There are so many things to be grateful for: family, health (you are alive and reading this, right?), neighbors (they are better than you think), community and so forth.

Once you review your past and take an inventory of the present, you can create the future most desirable to you. Money problems can be addressed, love rekindled with your spouse or significant other, serving in your community where it benefits most. Remember, you cannot control what “they” do, but you have complete control over what “you” do and think.

 

Pay-It-Forward

If you want to pay for the meal of the person behind you, go for it!  It was not my intention to dissuade you from such behavior. There is something heart-warming about the activity. Even this weary-eyed blogger has paid for the groceries of an older lady at the grocery store when he saw the need.

The greatest gift of all.

Be sure to focus your gifts where they will produce the intended outcome. 

A final story: Years ago I was coming home from work in a snow storm. Tax season was getting long and I was tired. The car in front of me lost control, a snow drift throwing the car. He ended up in the ditch.

I stopped to make sure the young man was unharmed. People didn’t have cell phones in those days the way we do today, so I offered to drive him home. He accepted. 

As I dropped him off at his home he asked me what I wanted for the ride, indicating money. I waved my hand “no”.

He was a young gentleman and it was obvious he was not financially flush. I didn’t help him with the intention of earning a fee. The good feeling knowing he got home safe was enough.

I left the young man with these words: “The next time you see someone in need, you help them. That is all I ask.

 

That was a very long time ago. Sometimes I wonder if the young man ever carried out my directive. 

Please don’t think I am against giving. Gifts to friends, family or co-workers is a fine activity. Keep it reasonable so nobody suffers financially as a result.

Helping strangers is the ultimate charity. Homeless and abuse shelters are wonderful ways to give where it makes a large difference to those who really need help.

Some gifts are debts. You may hear of propitiation at church this Christmas season. You may wish to appease a family member or friend you treated poorly to regain trust. 

No matter your reasons, always be ready to pay-it-forward. Just never do more harm by the giving.

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS, kind readers. May the spirit of the season be with you and your family all year round. 

 

 

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For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required. —Luke 12:48

My charitable giving is not predicated upon religion or religious belief; I haven’t contributed to a church in more than a decade. However, I am not afraid to take words from the Bible, or any other religious tract, and integrate them into my life and worldview. I am not the kind of guy who needs the biggest bank account to feel validated so when fortune smiles my way I selectively contribute to causes I feel make a difference in the quality of human life around the world.

Selecting a charitable entity to contribute to is a process for me. I donate to only a few causes with donation tending to be $1,000 or more per donation. My giving is also lumpy. I go for extended periods without any charitable work and then give large amounts at one time. Taxes are not a part of my consideration process, but I do take the deductions allowed. Some of my charitable giving is not deductible on Schedule A. Some charitable work is considered a promotional expense for my business which allows me to kill two birds with one stone: helping a charity and getting a deduction before it ever gets to my personal tax return.

Luck of the Draw

From the first human to live to today I have outlived the vast majority of people. I am 52 and live in a Western country where food, water, sanitation and medical care allows most people to live to a ripe old age. Large populations of Asia and Africa still have life expectancy similar to a century ago in the United States or European nations. I have already outlived most of them. Mortality rates have decreased drastically and the quality of life for many, including me, is an outlier of human history.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011, 94,281 people out of 100,000 born alive were still alive at age 50. Nearly 6% cashed it in. Looks like I am a winner again. Lucky I was born in the right place at the right time. The same CDC table shows 84,368 out of 100,000 still alive at age 65. It seems another 10% die between my age and what is considered retirement age. One in ten! I might need to reconsider my attitude toward working one more year.

Life expediencies for most of human history has been lower than 50 years of age. Even in our modern world a large number of people do not survive to “normal” retirement age. Outside North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and a few pockets of longevity, a majority of populations die before living to my age. It is this luck of the draw, this gratitude I feel each day I wake which motivates me to improve the human condition wherever I can.

Unified-Relay-1613-1024x682Endless Choices

Non-profit organizations file Form 990 with the IRS. You can review a candidate for your charitable money here before you send money. My policy is always research the organization before supporting. I look for a few key points. I want to see most of the money going to the charitable cause they claim they support. Large percentages going to fundraising or to executive salaries are a bad sign.

The choices are endless. There are over 1.5 million non-profit organizations in the U.S. alone. Research takes time so I have a limited number of charities I support and keep supporting. Here is my list.

  • Doctors Without Borders: The next time you think all doctors are overpaid with a bad bedside manner, think of the doctors working in this organization. They travel to dangerous parts of the world and provide medical care to people with serious needs at no cost. I can’t imagine what these doctors go through to help their patients. Talk about house calls! I have supported Doctors Without Borders for over a decade. I am not sure I would even want to live in the conditions they work in so they are on my short-list of organizations to fund.
  • Special Olympics: In the past I have supported Wisconsin Special Olympics Wisconsin Special Olympics provides sporting opportunities for over 10,000 athletes each year. Once again, this is work I do not think I could handle. Working with these remarkable people would bring me to tears. When I see these outstanding individuals reach for the stars I am humbled. Anyone who can personally help the disadvantaged do something I know I am not man enough to do myself deserves kudos. Just writing about this makes me emotional. Even now I fight tears knowing I am not good enough to help these people who really need support. Regardless their disadvantage, they never quit. They have more fight, more spirit than most people with no disadvantages. We can learn a lot from these outstanding men, women, and young people.
  • Bethesda: This is the closest I get to donating to a religious organization. Twenty-five years ago when I still attended church services, a man from Bethesda came to my church and shared some of the work they did. They provide a home setting for severely mentally challenged people. What stuck with me was one story. He explained how they broke down the process to tying a shoe into 87 steps. They would patiently work with some of their clients for years teaching them just one more step in the process to tying a shoe. Their patience moved me emotionally. My personality has no room for that kind of patience. The cost to run such homes is expensive. People with special needs frequently have no money for that need. Bethesda is possible because people like you and me support their work. I take my hat off to all the patient men and women who help these people day in and day out. If there is a heaven, these are the people who will populate it. There is no room for people like me there.
  • CommunityFest: This is one local event I periodically support. Every few years I donate a slug of money supporting this local event over the 4th of July holiday. Prizes, games, music, fireworks, and great family fun are all free for families in our local community, paid for by local businesses. From a tax viewpoint, the donation is really a business promotional expense and deductible by the company. Technically not a charitable donation, it shows how individuals and businesses can support local programs to improve our local communities.
  • Children’s Hospital: I never donated directly to Children’s Hospital, but I have supported Children’s Hospital through the Vic Ferrari Golf Event and similar programs. The Vic Ferrari Band is a client. They are awesome performers and do more than jam tunes; they make a difference. Vic supports several local charities through special events. The Vic guys deserve a humble bow; they are valuable members of our community. If you never saw these guys perform you need to fix that.
  • Other Charitable Work: To a lesser extent I have contributed to charities in a wide variety of fields. In a limited fashion I have supported the arts (Wisconsin Writers Association) and other charities through special events.

I have a few additional rules when supporting charities. I never support a cause whose sole purpose is to raise awareness. It might be an unfair rule, but my resources are limited and I want the bulk of my money to support disadvantaged people with few options for a better life available. You can see I strongly support the down and out. The truth is I support organizations that help people I am unable to help myself. The patience, love, and kindness these people show every day in such challenging situations is more than I can bear to think about for any period of time without tears coming to my eyes. What they do every day without real recognition is beyond my comprehension. I support them because they are better people than I will ever be. I hope you will support them too.

List your favorite charities in the comments below.