When Hurricane Harvey ravaged southeastern Texas, one of the first things I thought was, “what about the animals?” Household pets, livestock, and wildlife were lost, abandoned, or even killed by the effects of the storm. As an animal lover, it hurt my heart knowing that innocent animals were suffering. From 2,000 miles away, I was compelled to put my money where my heart was, so I donated to a national nonprofit whose efforts were going to help displaced and homeless pets affected by post-Harvey flooding. My donation was modest; my income and debt levels don’t support the ability to give large amounts (I graduated this year with over $40,000 in student loans). But it still felt wonderful to be able to say I did something, especially when I couldn’t actually “do” anything.
After submitting my donation, casually mentioned it to one of my older family members. His response: “When you squeeze your budget to live within your means and attack your debt, you may discover that donations are a luxury you cannot afford!” Mind you, this family member is from a different generation—one that didn’t use credit, and was raised to believe that if you owed money, you paid it back before “just giving it away.” Like many other millennials, I live in the shadow of student debt. I also spend some money on occasional meals out, a leather handbag, and way too many lipsticks. “Frivolous spending” is something most of us are guilty of, even when we carry debt burdens and earn modest incomes. But when we give our money to a cause or organization we believe in, our mindset shifts: no longer is it a purchase or expenditure we’re apt to later regret (added to our waistline or as clutter in our home), but an unselfish, intentional investment in something that actually matters.
“Tithing” (donating 1/10th of one’s earnings or belongings is a part of the Old Testament, and many religions believe that consistently giving to one’s church or charity should be a priority, even in times of financial hardship. I’m not religious, but I do believe that giving is still important, but should be adjusted to your personal situation. Ten percent is a steep number if you’re only making $35,000 a year—about $290 a month. That amount could be better spent applied towards some of your debt burden. But what about $10, $25, $50? These can be allocated into your actual budget, alongside your groceries and utilities. “Smaller” donation amounts aren’t going to make or break you financially, and that intentional spend goes toward something that’s not only relevant to you, but also benefits the community/country/world as a whole. A $20 donation to the World Wildlife Fund may not “do” much on its own, but it represents your charitable intentions and backs a cause you believe in. It also supports a healthy habit of giving and generosity, which can grow as your income grows and debt burden decreases.
Some personal finance writers are adamantly against giving while carrying any kind of debt burden. As far as I’m concerned, there is a significant difference between donating money when you’re living off of credit cards (bad) and doing so when you are living reasonably within your means and chipping away at debt (good). Not giving any money to charity is a Scrooge mentality, and does not align with the type of person I want to be. Giving to those less fortunate or advocating for causes like the environment and animals is and always will be an important part of who I am.
It is also important to remember there are other ways of giving than donating money. We can donate clothing, shoes, books, and household goods to organizations like Goodwill. We can give old blankets to an animal shelter. And of course, perhaps the most valuable of all donations, is that of time—which for me personally, is more difficult to part with than actual cash. So many organizations are in need of volunteers—if you can’t give financially, then consider giving the gift of your time.
If we postpone giving for when we (or if!) are completely debt-free, we could be spending decades of our lives not giving. And if we choose not to give, we’re ultimately doing ourselves a disservice by not living with intention.
What are your thoughts on charitable giving with debt? Tell me in the comments below!