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.