how to give more

March 2, 2009

In these tight economic times, giving can be extremely hard to do.  You need every penny you bring in.  How can you afford to give anything, since it will require you to give up something?

While this dilemma is one that more and more people are facing lately, it should be noted that, if you’re not facing this dilemma, you’re not really giving.  Whoa!  What do I mean by that?  If you’re a giver, but you give out of your excess, giving doesn’t really affect you or impact you in any meaningful way.  If you have money to pay all your bills, have some fun, invest for retirement, and invest for your children’s education, and you still have enough left to give some away, how much does that gift mean to you?  It doesn’t represent a sacrifice of anything on your part.  You haven’t really given anything of yourself.

On the other hand, if money is tight at your house, but you choose to give some anyway, you are giving up something else you may have wanted.  Maybe you can’t eat out as much, or maybe it takes longer to save for your down payment, or maybe you have to wait until next month to get the car fixed.  If you give in the midst of these circumstances, your gift represents an actual sacrifice.  You have to give up something real and immediate in order to give.  If you keep this up for any length of time, you’ll also have to wrestle with personal, philosophical, and theological issues, and wrestling with these things will make you more human, more genuine.

Have you ever been presented with a real need, perhaps someone seriously hurting, but you don’t have any way to give?  You want to be ready to give at a moment’s notice, not be stranded with nothing available.  The trick is to decide beforehand how much you are going to give.  Every payday, set that amount aside in an envelope under the mattress.  Then, when you hear of someone with a need, you won’t have to struggle with how you’re going to come up with a gift.  Just go to the envelope and grab some cash.

You can also put $20 in a back corner of your wallet that you never go to, just so it’s there when you need it.

Use whatever tricks will make you more generous.  But don’t miss the opportunity to give.

This article originally appeared in the February 25, 2009, edition of the Greenhorn Valley View.

tax reduction strategies

December 31, 2008

The end of the year is coming.  The cold winter months of January and February will bring dreariness, depression, and tax forms!  Although the year is almost up, there are still some things you can do to lighten your tax burden or increase your refund for 2008.

Contribute to a retirement plan
Any money you contribute to a qualified retirement plan, such as an IRA, 401(k), 403(b), or any of the similar plans, can be deducted dollar for dollar from your taxable income.  And less taxable income means less taxes.  If you’re investing through your employer’s plan, you still have time to bump up your contribution amount for the remainder of the year.  Even though you probably have only one or two paychecks left in 2008, increasing your retirement contributions could earn you a couple hundred bucks back from Uncle Sam and his Cousin Oliver.  You don’t even need to itemize your deductions to take advantage of this.  It just comes right off your income.  Not to mention, now is a great time to be buying stocks.

Give to charity
Charities are always ready to accept your donations, but there’s no better time than Christmas to clean out your closets and open your checkbook.  Like retirement contributions, charitable donations are subtracted from your income, but you’ll need to itemize your deductions to take advantage of this one.  Add up all your deductions, and if they’re greater than the standard deduction, you’re making money!  Charities always need help, and you can benefit yourself and the charity by giving at this time of year.

Use all the money in your flexible spending account
If your employer offers flexible spending accounts for medical or child care expenses, don’t forget to check your balance.  All the money you’ve put into your account is tax-free, and can be used for qualifying expenses.  But if you don’t incur the qualifying expense before the end of the year, you’ll lose the remaining balance.  Check your balance right now, then plan how you’ll spend that money.  (some ideas: get your eyes checked, get your teeth checked, get an end-of-year physical, stock up on over-the-counter medicines.)

Make an extra mortgage payment
Mortgage interest is significant.  In the early years of a mortgage, most of the monthly payment is interest.  And all of that interest is deductible.  If you have a home mortgage, the interest you pay can be itemized and help get your over the standard deduction.  So if you make January’s payment a few days early, before the end of the year, you can count that interest too.  Of course, the following year you’ll only have eleven payments, unless you try the same trick next December, as well.

We have to pay taxes in this country, but we don’t have to overlook legitimate tax reduction strategies.  Make sure you finish the year out right!

This column originally appeared in the December 17, 2008, edition of the Greenhorn Valley View.


December 4, 2008

By now you’ve probably heard about the trampling death of a Walmart worker on the day after Thanksgiving.  You may also have heard about the shooting at a Toys-R-Us, and the man who punched a woman in the nose to get the last of the TVs on sale.  It’s enough to make you want to check out.

I want to check out of the consumerist society.  I want nothing to do with a culture that says the $2 pair of pajamas is more important than the guy I’m walking over to get them.  I hate the fact that stores have to have high volumes of cash coming in so that they can have a “good” holiday season.  And we, the consumers, have to do our part.  It is our duty to spend, spend, spend to help the stores get into the “black”.  And if the stores don’t have a good holiday season, they might have to close up shop.

Don’t sit back and say, “Well, I would never act like that…”  We don’t get a pass because we live in the Greenhorn Valley, where there are no large stores.  Human nature is the same everywhere and I have no doubt that in the right time and in the right place, all of us have the potential for the same kind of behavior.  Plus, Pueblo isn’t that far away.  If we wanted to get involved in a tussle at Walmart, it wouldn’t be that hard.

So how do we tame the greed that causes all this?  I don’t know, maybe go ahead and pay the normal $4 price for the pair of pajamas.  And save up and buy the TV at a normal sale price, rather than the deep discount on the day after Thanksgiving.  You might pay a little more than you would on the day after Thanksgiving, but you still have your sanity, your soul, and you didn’t trample anybody.

Also, you might consider the opposite of greed.  You could actively look for ways to give.  You could give more than you get.  You could play Santa.  You could pay a neighbor’s utility bill.  You could throw a feast and invite the whole block.  Remind yourself that people are much more valuable than stuff.  Instead of looking for the absolute best deal on material goods, you might look for the absolute best deal on generosity.  How could you get the most bang for your buck by giving money away?  There is no run on generosity.  You won’t have to fight anybody in the giving line.

This article originally appeared in the December 3, 2008, edition of the Greenhorn Valley View.

be generous

November 26, 2008

Generosity is usually a touchy-feely kind of subject. As a man, I know that a lot of men aren’t interested in talking about any touchy-feely subjects. But generosity is a subject that really needs to be addressed. If you’re a man, I dare you to hang with me for the next 429 words.

The inborn desire that men have to provide is a good desire. We are programmed to hunt it, kill it, and drag it back to the cave. Our hunting, killing, and dragging looks a little different than it did 10,000 years ago. As a computer worker, I don’t stalk errant electrons or slaughter out-of-bounds integers. And I’m sure, whatever your occupation is, it doesn’t involve dragging anything home. Still, our natures haven’t changed at all through out history, and we still want, and need, to provide.

What if your need to provide can’t be met. What if you’ve lost a job or suffered an accident or are otherwise unable to bring home the bacon? It’s times like these when generosity shines. We may need a little help now and then, and that’s not a bad thing. The economy, our jobs, our health all ebb and flow – they’re up and down, back and forth, abundant and scarce.

I’m convinced this cycle repeats itself many times throughout our lives. If you haven’t experienced the full cycle yet, you will. At the bottom of the cycle, when money is scarce, we may not want to admit we need help, but we may not be able to make it without help. At the top of the cycle, when money is plentiful, it’s very easy to forget where we’ve come from, and how difficult it was at the bottom. Just as we were unable to make it without help, now it is our turn to be helpful. Right now, you probably know somebody who is at the bottom, and who might not make it without your help.

Don’t think of it as touchy-feely, think of it as grasping the arm of somebody dangling from a cliff. The guy dangling from the cliff usually isn’t too proud to accept the help, and the guy grabbing his arm from above isn’t some super-human hero, he’s just doing what any humane person has to do.

But don’t think you have to wait until times are better to be generous. Whatever you have, even if it’s not very much, you can give some of it right now. You might find that you get more out of it than the person you’re helping.

This article originally appeared in the November 26, 2008, edition of the Greenhorn Valley View.

I am unemployed

September 4, 2008

I am unemployed.  I got a call last week from my company telling me they were doing more downsizing and I was the next to go.  This is the sixth time this year they’ve let a bunch of people go.

As a personal finance writer, you could reasonably expect that I have a big enough emergency fund to weather this storm.  Three to six months living expenses is the standard advice, after all.  But, woe to me!, I have only one month living expenses saved up.  From past experience, I know it takes about three months to land a new job.  So we’re praying for a miracle this time.

If you don’t have enough in your emergency fund to survive three months without a paycheck, might I suggest you make that your top priority?  Whether you know it or not, your job is probably as precarious as mine.  You could lose your job in a heartbeat, and then be left to wonder how you’ll put food on the table.  Do yourself a favor.  Scrimp and scrounge until you have an emergency fund (and don’t forget to check under the couch cushions), and then don’t spend it except in an emergency.

There were several times in the last year when I was tempted to put some feelers out, to see what other jobs might be out there.  But somehow this always seemed wrong to me, like I was being disloyal to the great job I already had.  I am now no longer worried about loyalty.

If you have a job, realize your job security is only as strong as your company’s ability to pay the bills.  If they’re having trouble paying the bills you can expect them to start cutting expenses, and employees are expensive.

If you are an employer and discover that one of your employees is checking out the job market, don’t fret.  That employee is just being sensible.  Unless you have reason to believe otherwise, that employee is probably not unhappy, but just trying to stay aware of what’s going on out there.

So now here I am, a week into unemployment, soon-to-be-penniless, with only a couple leads to go on.  But here’s something else I’ve learned: something will come up.  If you’re unemployed, just realize the one who knows when a sparrow falls to earth knows you need a job.  If you stay optimistic, you’ll save yourself a lot of ulcers.  You’ll also be in a better mental state to evaluate and take advantage of any surprise deals/offers/ideas you run across.  In the words of the immortal philosopher, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

This article originally appeared in the September 3, 2008, edition of the Greenhorn Valley View.

financial help

April 30, 2008

johnny worried about a billWhat do you do when someone you love needs financial help? I think we all know someone who could use some financial help, and we all know someone who has ruined themselves by giving money to someone, only to see it wasted.

The desire to help those in need is innate. It is a very cold person who can see a loved one in need and not desire to help. But the desire to protect what you have is also innate. The thought that someone we love might misuse our resources keeps many people from helping in the first place.

So what to do?

If you are the lender in this situation, DON’T LEND ANY MONEY! The lender/borrower relationship is necessarily strained, and the last thing you want is to let money drive a wedge between you. The fact that your relation owes you money will be the only thing you think of every time you see him. And believe it or not, it’s the only thing the borrower will think of every time he sees you.

Instead of lending money, giving money might seem like a more sensible solution. If you give the money, without any expectation of having it returned, you’ve helped out without placing a needless burden on either of you.

But now you have another problem. Is the money you are giving actually going to help? Or are you simply enabling the other person to keep doing what they’ve always done? Is the other person learning new habits? Or are they being allowed to continue in their destructive habits?

Those are questions I can’t answer for you right now, the answers depend on the individual situation. But they are very important questions. You must learn the answers to those questions if you don’t want to see your money wasted.

There are perfectly legitimate reasons for giving money to help someone out, and giving money may be a great short-term solution, but don’t forget that the best way to help the other person is often to let them struggle to figure out the problem for themselves. The lessons that stick with us the longest are usually the lessons we’ve had to learn for ourselves. By giving someone money, you may inadvertently be teaching them the incorrect lesson. You may be teaching them they can depend on you when they’re in trouble, rather than depending on their own abilities.

Give when necessary. Withhold when necessary. Carefully consider all the aspects. Above all, use your head.

This article originally appeared in the April 30, 2008, edition of the Greenhorn Valley View.

the ultimate gift

January 14, 2008

There are certain character traits that are extremely important in life.  Traits like a strong work ethic, understanding the value of a dollar, and the importance of generosity and hospitality, for instance.  These qualities are far more important than skills like the ability to understand math or the ability to start a new business.  People who are nearing the end of their lives don’t want to pass on the knowledge of starting businesses, they want to pass on the knowledge of being a better human.  Skills are important, of course.  They are the tools that can help us reach our goals.  It’s just that our goals should be more others-oriented than self-oriented.  The goal should be to make the world a better place, not to start a business, but starting a business may be a valid method of achieving the goal.

I just read The Ultimate Gift, by Jim Stovall.  In it, a wealthy cattle-baron has just passed away and in his will he lays out a plan of action for developing strong character qualities in his grand-nephew.  The nephew isn’t excited about the plan, but as the book progresses he becomes a better person as he submits himself to his uncle’s plan.  The uncle has the nephew perform twelve month-long tasks, each task teaching him a new, and highly valuable, quality.  The nephew learns lessons about work, money, friends, and the thirst for knowledge, to name a few.  By the end of the year, the nephew has become a new person, having been transformed by the hard lessons he has learned.  Because he has learned all these lessons, he earns the ultimate gift, control of a $1 billion charitable trust.

Here’s the thing, I don’t have a $1 billion trust to leave my progeny.  And even if I did, I’m a long way from leaving it to them in a will.  But I desperately desire my offspring to understand and internalize all these lessons just like the nephew in the book.  How do I instill a strong work ethic in my children?  How do I get them to crave spending time with people and giving themselves away?  How do I instill any of these desirable character traits?