Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The generosity generator

Lately I’ve been reflecting on our daughter’s generosity, and wondering if that’s a trait that skipped a generation, the way my grandmother’s Depression era thriftiness seemed to pass right over my mother before showing up in me.

On a recent family vacation, Rowan, 16, spent the souvenir money I gave her on gifts for a favorite teacher and her boyfriend. A few days later, she took food to a friend who, despite being sick, was pining for Taco Bell. A 79-cent order of triple-layer nachos would have sufficed -- this was, in fact, my hard-hearted counsel -- but she tacked on a Mountain Dew and cheesy fiesta potatoes, spending $3 of her $5 spending money for the week.

I can’t help wincing when I consider that on the same family trip, I was secretly glad we didn’t use the provisions I brought for a chicken-and-noodle dinner, knowing I could use them for a meal back home the next week. Whereas my sister-in-law would’ve been disappointed if we hadn’t used the dyed-black pasta and almost-orange alfredo sauce for our Halloween dinner. She, too, is more generous than I am, it would seem.

Not being naturally endowed with the sharing gene, I’ve had to construct an artificial mechanism for funneling a portion of our resources toward the welfare of other people and institutions. It’s been in action for five years now, and it’s worked remarkably well, neutralizing the irritation I used to feel when hit up for a donation and alleviating the anxiety that came with writing a check to those causes that we really did want to support. (Living just above the reduced-lunch income level for 15 years makes you hyper aware of every penny that goes out.)

Our charity fund is little more than a sudivision inside our savings account. We dump a portion of each paycheck into that cul-de-sac, and even though we’re still not up to 10 percent, it really adds up over time. Thanks to the magic of online banking, we just slide the appropriate amount over to the checking account every time we want to make a donation.

So, are we in fact being more generous, or are we just more aware of our generosity now that it can be documented?

The most obvious change in our charitable giving the past five years is that we’ve added monthly donations to the Unitarian church we periodically attend. Before 2004 we weren’t churchgoers, other than an occasional appearance (and small bill tossed in the collection plate) at the church I grew up in and my parents still attend. We don’t give as much as more traditional churchgoers probably do, just 1-2 percent, but that in itself probably matches and maybe even trumps an entire year’s worth of giving before we started tracking (and funding) this budget category.

A couple of other change indicators: We’ve cracked the triple digits in our annual giving to public radio, and now give five times as much to the American Cancer Society -- a development closely tied to my father’s bout with nonHodgkins lymphoma a couple of years ago. (Even as I write this, I wonder whether we should be giving more; can you put a price tag on your gratitude when a family member survives cancer?)

The real life-changing example that I always associate with the success of our charity fund, though, has to be the chicken dinner tickets my son’s baseball league sells.

This isn’t one of those slick yuppie travel teams, but a small town sandlot operation. Every year they ask the kids to sell 10 tickets. I was about to type, “I can’t tell you how much I hate this,” but in fact I can: I hate selling things, I hate making my kids sell things, even to relatives, we live out in the country so door-to-door sales aren’t an option, and on top of all that, only one out of the six of us even likes chicken on the bone.

Imagine my relief when our charity fund, emulating the holographic doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager,” tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Pardon me, ma’am, this looks like a job for Generosity Man.”

We used that account to buy the suggested $50 worth of tickets, then donated them to a food bank. One giant burden removed, two good causes supported.

All thanks to the artificial generosity generator we call our charity fund.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Inspiration in the express lane

I’ve been on a kick lately where I’ve been paying cash for groceries, partly for sentimental reasons -- that’s what I did years ago when I first quit work to be a stay-at-home mom -- but also to see if it was easier to make budget when I could clearly see what I had left to spend.

So I got in the express lane the other day with my four half-gallons of short-dated milk (69 cents each) when I noticed the young man checking people out had Down syndrome.

It was incredibly cool to see that somebody at this store, the Village of Coventry Scott’s in Fort Wayne, Ind., was willing to give this guy a chance to do something other than push a broom. But as I went to pay, I hesitated -- should I give him cash like I’d planned, or whip out the debit card to make it easier for him?

I went with the cash, and he did fine. More careful, probably, than the average teenager.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A new beginning

I returned from our annual family trip to Tennessee last month with a powerful urge to restart this blog, abandoned last spring when I suddenly found myself immersed in a project that, in hindsight, would’ve gone much better if I’d taken advantage of this outlet.

But I was having blog-concept issues as well. I knew I wanted to explore, and try to emulate, thrift found in nature. But I was limited by my knowledge of those processes in the natural world. All I could think of was water finding the most efficient, economical path to lower ground.(And we saw plenty of examples of that on the trail; water never sits still on a mountain.)

The other problem was that I wasn‘t entirely comfortable calling myself a “natural thrift.” I mean, I’ve known for a long time that thrift is a part of who I am, but I’ve had a years-long conflict of how I dealt with ‘fessing up to it, knowing that many people interpret frugality as stinginess. And sometimes it is. I’ve certainly struggled with that on this Odyssean journey that began 15 years ago with the decision to be a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom.

But frugality can also be a thing of beauty, like in nature, or in math. And all too often, in the past, the pride generated by what I perceived as a triumph of economy would dissolve into shame when exposed to the gaze of a “non-believer,” if you know what I mean.

I think I found some clarity on this latest foray into the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s too early to say whether I found my own fossilized backbone, perhaps misplaced years ago on an earlier hike up these same trails. But that’s how it feels.