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$Monday: To Give or to Keep Your Stimulus Check?

My heart has been warmed by all the stories of generosity that have followed the federal stimulus payments. The news tends to follow reports of people behaving badly--angrily, selfishly, dangerously--but the reality is that the vast majority of people are responding to this global pandemic with heightened compassion and a wish to help. People are reaching out in every way they can, from sewing masks and volunteering for food banks to passing along their stimulus checks. This is beautiful and gives me hope for the future. And it also gives me pause. Is this kind of personal generosity always in the best interest of the community?


We all know that warm feeling of being able to make a contribution. My family is on a very humble budget, but last year, I received a raise at work, and my daughter's school received a federal grant for all children to have two free meals each school day. Little changes make a big difference to a tiny budget, so I found myself able to give a four-figure gift of money and to contribute hundreds of dollars worth of things to charitable causes close to my heart. Although a little scary, it felt great! And in this time of global crisis, the warm fuzzies are right up there with a comfortable stock of toilet paper in terms of value to our quality of life.

But when are you better off keeping that stimulus money for yourself? When giving puts you at risk of becoming another set of empty hands in a charity line, it's a foolish kind of martyrdom. It is a fact both touching and horrifying that those with less tend to be more generous than those who have more. Maybe it's because those of us who have been through hardship understand what it's like and have more compassion. Maybe it's because we don't value ourselves as much. This is worth a little reflection.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a "Springtime for Self-Care in the Fall of Capitalism." It is critical that we put on our own oxygen mask (or coronavirus protection mask!) first. It is less helpful to give until you become another statistic than to simply keep and responsibly manage your own resources. There is some amount of risk and some amount of loss (waste) in every action taken to assist another person, whether it's a financial transaction or a meal delivery or anything else. A system in which most household-bubbles successfully take care of themselves with minimal excursions and transactions is going to experience less viral spread and less economic disruption than a system in which most household-bubbles frantically toggle between giving bits of help to others and needing to receive bits of help.

So how do you know whether you are in a position to pass along your stimulus and get in on those delicious spiritual benefits? There's no perfect right answer to this question, but I've consulted a number of financial advice resources to come up with a reasonable formula.

Ask yourself each question below. If the answer is "yes" to any of the first four questions, you should really keep that money to bail yourself out--not because you are selfish but because giving now may put you at risk of becoming a burden on others in the near future. If you can answer "no" to all of the first four questions, you may be able to give. If you can answer "no" to all of the questions, definitely give! You are financially secure and will receive more personal benefit from the goodness of generosity than from hoarding wealth.

1. Do you have any high-interest debt (over 7%)?

2. Are your savings for the future off track to meet your retirement and tuition needs? (Are your retirement contributions less than the amount needed to meet your retirement goals? Are you failing to achieve the full amount of any employer matches offered to you? If you have children, are their educational funds behind the mark?)

3. Have you lost income to the point that your budget has become unsustainable (meaning, if this goes on, you will not be able to pay your bills after you burn through your savings)?

4. Are you considered "low income?" (This seems unnecessary to ask, but it's worth checking some numbers. A lot of people optimistically think of themselves as "middle class" when they truly aren't. Just like how a bunch of 60-somethings have been shocked to realize that they are "the elderly" with regard to the pandemic, you might actually be a tough and resourceful member of "the needy." Please consider the importance of keeping yourself stable until the crisis is over... probably a couple of years from now.)

If you can honestly answer "no" to all four questions above, congratulations! You've made some good financial choices combined with the luck to maintain financial stability. However, you may or may not have enough of a cushion to protect your household from an unexpected pothole in that yellow brick road of good fortune you've been on. If you are a member of a church or other spiritual or secular nonprofit community that can offer assistance back to you in case of your own personal crisis, you can give with less risk. Go ahead and come up with an amount that fills you with that warm bubble bath sensation--or, if the thought of giving your stimulus away gives you an anxious feeling, ask yourself the next two questions before making a decision.

5. Do you have any debts, excluding mortgage on your primary residence?

6. Do you have less than $10,000 - $20,000 (depending on your area's cost of living) per household member saved in a liquid emergency fund such as a savings account or money market fund?

If you answered "yes" to either of the last two questions, you are likely able to give a little something, but deciding to put that stimulus money toward debt repayment or into an emergency fund could be a wise and unselfish decision too. Give if you feel strongly about it, but don't let anyone guilt you into giving what you and/or your family might need.

If you answered "no" to all six questions, wow, Ms. or Mr. Moneybags! You are comfortable indeed! You are in an excellent position to pass along money, things, assets--whatever you can contribute to the survival of your communities.

Where will your gift do the most good? One way of thinking about it is where the money will grow the biggest garden of joy in your heart. A gift that you feel good about actually does the most good, because it benefits you as well as the recipient; it's likely to draw you into more positive involvement with your community in the future; and there is a halo effect that brightens and activates your peers to get involved as well. So the best choice is a personal decision rather than an objective one. You'll have to delve into your own values. What do you care about most?

For some people, the most important problem facing humanity is protection of the earth--clean air, water, and land and healthy ecosystems to support life into the future. Nature is experiencing something of a respite at this time of reduced travel and manufacturing, but there are also new dangers--such as hundreds of oil tankers parked on the surface of the sea due to a shortage of oil storage space on land. Corrupt government leaders, such as ours in the United States, have exploited the pandemic to sneakily undermine legal environmental protections for our future. Now is an opportunity to highlight the benefits of cleaner air, water, and land and fund efforts to protect people and animals from losing all those benefits, and more, when the economy roars back.

The field of environmental justice draws links between exploitation of human populations and environmental degradation. I won't go into a whole lecture here, but look up "environmental justice" to learn more about how racism, classism, and ableism are used to justify and enable environmental harm. And then, consider giving to individuals or nonprofits that are, or serve, people who were excluded from the stimulus or who are more unfairly affected by the pandemic. Make your gift benefit indigenous tribes and reservations. Give to immigrant families or advocacy groups. Target Black communities for assistance. Help your world to become a little more fair and just.

For some people, big issues like environmentalism and discrimination are intimidating to get involved in. And it's okay to start somewhere else. There are many interconnected causes in this world, and you should give to those that give you happiness. Every little seed has the power to grow something that benefits the whole fabric of society.

If it brings you a smile, pass your stimulus check to your local library. Support artists and arts organizations. Benefit your local animal shelter. Fill up the shelves of a food bank. Throw a lifeline to your favorite small business.

And then, if you have thick skin, go ahead and share with others where you've planted your stimulus seeds. Some people will gripe that this is "bragging" or pressuring others, but it isn't. If you simply share what you did and how good it made you feel, it multiplies the good you've already done by positively influencing many other people to step up and give from their own pockets--and reap the emotional benefits of feeling generous. It's hard, but ignore those who get offended at anyone doing better then they are; it's not you, it's them.

And if you aren't in a good position to give money away? Make a good financial decision for your own household with that money, and if you dare, share how you are taking good care of yourself and/or your own family. Others who care about you will enjoy hearing about it and be inspired to take better care of their own selves.

All of this boils down to respecting the humanity of ourselves and of others. Remember that we are all human; we all deserve life and the opportunity for happiness. Think about where your money will do the most good--staying with you or venturing out into the world. The answer is personal, and only you can make the best decision. Either way, may your windfalls bring you comfort.

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