addicted to giving away money
July 31, 2014 5:35 AM   Subscribe

This is my first ever question on metafilter, and it probably sounds absurd. I recently got a relatively-high-paying job away from home, and I'm only 23. Maybe it's because I'm lonely, but only time I feel good about myself or feel like I'm worth anything is when I help others.

A few months ago, I had a surplus of several thousand dollars. At this point, I've lent/spent/given so much away that I barely have anything. I'm not in danger of going under, but I worked myself half to death last week to scrounge up extra cash for a friend who was in danger of getting evicted by no fault of her own. She didn't even ask -- I offered, and I've never done anything like that for her before.

People keep telling me this is a dangerous path to stay on and I understand where they're coming from. But I feel so guilty about not helping friends out of tight spots, and it feels wrong in my gut when I have more than I need and keep it when others are struggling.

Any advice?
posted by Ain to Human Relations (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Practice the age-old lesson of helping people help themselves. A friend in a tight spot may benefit from side-work helping you paint a room, for example. Handing money over is generous, thought not sustainable on either side of the equation. Make a financial plan; there is no harm in including good deeds in there, though make sure to cover your necessities and savings.
posted by maya at 5:40 AM on July 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think anything that is done purely emotionally without some Input by reason is bad.
So I guess if I were you I would sit down with a piece of paper and write down my plans for the money. How much are you saving, how much is for paying off loans, how much for groceries etc.
Anything that is left is for you to spend on whatever makes you happy. But no more: the rest is spoken for and simply not available.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:42 AM on July 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

You should balance planning for your future with your altruistic needs. Do you have a savings plan? If you are making enough money that you can have thousands of dollars in surplus fairly quickly, then you should really put putting that into an IRA.

Check with work and see if you can have a portion (percentage or fixed amount) of each paycheck auto-deposited into an IRA or other long-term savings that is more difficult to touch/access for short term funds.

Then, you should also have a portion diverted into regular savings for any emergency needs.

Finally, open up a separate 'helping' fund/account where you put a predetermine amount of money into. That's your account you use for your altruistic endeavors.

I don't have a lot of spare cash, but I do have friends that have been fairly successful. They insist on giving back. There is nothing wrong with it, but do make sure you give yourself a solid base and plan.
posted by rich at 5:44 AM on July 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

Darling Ain, you are a kindhearted soul :) This is good for the world but can take it's toll on you.
There are predators out there who will sense your kindness and bleed it dry for everything they can get. People with darker intentions than your young and tender heart could even believe. This is a horrible truth to face but please learn it now. (I am in no way assuming that is your friend by the way!).

Money is weird. In a way, it's nothing. Pieces of paper. A bizarre way of attaching value to stuff etc. In a way it's vital and you sure as eggs never know when you're going to need it. Store stuff away for a rainy day always and guiltlessly forget about it. This makes you self caring, not selfish (there's a vast difference). Rainy days can come.. sickness, redundancy, unexpected expenses etc.. they just can and do.
posted by tanktop at 5:52 AM on July 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: First off, as I fellow human, I would like to say: Thank you!
Thank you for being giving back and caring about the people around. Never let anyone talk you out of that.

However, you also have to mind your duty to keep yourself safe.
When you train to be a life-guard, one of the first things they teach you is to keep yourself safe. Never try to save someone if it is going to put you at risk. Putting yourself at risk can back fire, and make the whole situation worse - then two people need to be saved.

For the betterment of society, we need people like you to secure themselves first. If you go under, if you give so much away that you fail, then the world loses double - then the world has yet another person in need of help, plus the world loses a successful person who wants to help others.

Take care of yourself first, please.
posted by Flood at 5:58 AM on July 31, 2014 [9 favorites]

Can you set a giving budget per month? Maybe open up another bank account and put the money there - that way, if you spend less than your giving budget one month, you will have it in the bank for a larger expense next month. And when you've given away all the money in the giving account, you can legitimately say "I would like to help this month but I can't".

It's really tough. I've had to learn to say no because I don't have as much money as I used to, and I also didn't build good savings habits before - so while I have some savings, I could certainly use more. But it's tough.

Why not come up with a saving/giving budget? Over and above your basic expenses (and some money for fun/clothes/going out/etc) decide on a percentage - maybe you'll give 30% and save 70%, or give 50% and save 50% - and that's just how you divide your money.

I would suggest that you examine why you only feel good when you help others. For me, it was about feeling...not powerful, exactly, because I didn't want to control others, but central and needed, as if I would somehow exist more if I gave people things. Also I felt guilty about a lot of stuff a lot of the time, and felt that giving away things (even things I really wanted for myself) was a way to "expiate" what was wrong with me.

Just a side note - when I got a handle on those feelings, it included a very selfish phase where basically I just could not care about others' problems and didn't want to give anyone anything. (I mean, I did my best to fake it because I didn't want to let people down.) If you're really deriving a lot of meaning from being able to give, resolving some of your insecurities around that may produce some other strong and unexpected effects. If so, that's okay - it's okay to work through being really emotionally burned out or selfish.

Also, people very often solve their problems themselves if they have to. It's good to ease people's problems, and it's great to be able to forestall a real emergency (like eviction) but don't get in the head space of "everything will collapse unless I give away all my money". (You don't have enough money for that, for one thing.)
posted by Frowner at 6:25 AM on July 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

From the way you described yourself and your job, I wonder whether you feel like you don't deserve your job or your good fortune for some reason. Maybe a touch of impostor syndrome even. And that you're subconsciously trying to offset feelings of possible inadequacy by overdoing a good deed to the point where it makes you less successful so you can both feel better about yourself and simultaneously confirm your own opinion of your lack of worth. Sorry for the armchair psychologizing if this doesn't sound right, but if you think there's any truth to it, counseling could help you work through accepting your own success.

On a more practical level, this is something you can budget. Get out a spreadsheet, figure out how much you need for your own needs, then how much you would like to save in a given month toward retirement, then how much you would like to put away against a rainy day (both of those numbers are very important - you can determine the monthly amount, but having those cushions are non-negotiable), some for entertainment / splurges, and finally how much a month that leaves you for acts of kindness. When you hit that number each month, you stop. You can tell the person who needs help to ask you again next month, or resolve to help them them on your own when the next month comes. If you hit the end of the month and haven't overshot that money, you can put it toward the next month, or save it. Conversely, when you hit the point where saying no hurts, you can compensate by doing good in a different way: There are lots of volunteering opportunities out there where you can do more good by being there and putting in the work than you can by opening your wallet.

Don't forget that one of the reasons so many people say no when asked for a loan or a gift of money, is because sometimes the person asking for help can suffer more from getting it than they can by not having it. If you are giving indiscriminately, you may be inadvertently creating people in your life who assume you will always support them - not a bad thing if you can afford it and love them, but a godawful thing if you suddenly lose your job or hit a financial setback (an unexpected medical condition, a parent in need, having a child, whatever it might be) and have someone expecting you to support them because you always have. Some people need to be told no in order to learn to help themselves. Others need to find more than one financial source for help. You can't be everyone's only resource. Even when they tell you they are, they may just be saying it because you're clearly the easiest touch.
posted by Mchelly at 6:28 AM on July 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I got a little freaked out when I read this because I thought maybe I'd posted it in my sleep, but then I saw that you were only 23 and breathed a sigh of relief. I do this! Oh my god, do I ever do this. I do it because I grew up poor and even though I know there's just no way I could ever repay the world for basically not letting me starve or freeze to death (my parents didn't work and 100% of our income was from social benefits), I still want to try.

So here's something: You will not be able to keep this up forever. Your idea of how much you need to survive will, if you don't let up, continue on a downward trajectory until you are in a permanent and totally self-induced state of panic. You'll allow yourself less and less breathing room because there's always going to be someone worse off, near or far. One month I donated every penny of my non-essential (read: not already dedicated to mortgage, light bill, phone bill, pet bills, gas, or groceries) income to charity, my car broke down, I had to put it on credit, and it took me half a year to pay off the bill instead of just a few weeks. So dumb!

That experience made me realize another thing: You and me, we're not gonna save the world. We're not billionaire philanthropists with untold fortunes to draw upon. Our resources are finite. Any money we throw at a problem is necessarily going to be a drop in the bucket, but we're not going to be able to keep filling up the bucket with our little droplets if we have to declare bankruptcy before we turn 40, dig? Now I set aside a consistent 5 to 10% of my income for charitable donations, and give a little more whenever I have the resources to draw from. It doesn't feel like enough, but it gives me breathing room, and it reminds me that even when I gave 100%, it still didn't feel like enough.

Just remember to keep your head and shoulders clear above the water at all times, because if you start to go under, your passion for helping folks in need will need to go on the back burner indefinitely. That said, this desire belies a tender heart (sometimes too tender) and a sense of goodwill (sometimes undeserved) toward your fellow earth-wanderers. It's a grand and wondrous thing and I hope you never lose it.
posted by divined by radio at 6:29 AM on July 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

As others have suggested above, you can't help other people if you aren't in a stable place yourself. How you define "stable" might differ wildly, but I would caution against cutting yourself right down to the bone to help other people. Sure, you COULD live on a bare mattress in a closet-sized room and eat only kale and never spend a cent on entertainment or anything that would give you pleasure and give every possible cent away that you don't need to just scrape by. But at some point most people are going to crack up living like that.

Maybe you could try dialing back on the giving-away, just a little at first, make a budget to help you with that. Then maybe dial back further if that seems okay, and see if you can find a balancing place that feels sustainable and good to you and doesn't make others scared for your well-being. (Not that what other think of your saving/giving is super-important, but if it's something you're hearing from a lot of different people, there may be some fire under that smoke, worth considering.)

For what it's worth, as someone who has an occasionally shaky stability situation and has accepted help from others - it would never occur to me that a friend would feel guilty for not helping me, especially if I hadn't even asked for the help. I'd be horrified to hear my friend felt that way.

I love my friends, and I want them to have good lives full of people and experiences and things that make them happy. My friends putting themselves in financial risk to keep me above water is something I would never want unless it were the most dire situation. Dire situations do happen, but if they're happening so often to so many people you know, I think you might need to recalibrate what 'dire' really is. Or whether there are other ways to help - can you offer an evicted friend a couch to crash on for a week, or hook her up with another friend looking for a roommate, vs. splashing out to pay back rent?
posted by Stacey at 6:31 AM on July 31, 2014

Maybe it's because I'm lonely, but only time I feel good about myself or feel like I'm worth anything is when I help others

I think this is the problem. Why is this? Have you always had the feeling that your worth depended on what you could do for other people? (Maybe not financially but in helping out other ways?) Or is this new? A lot of people tie up their self-worth in being helpers or saviors, it's not unusual, but then it's possible to sacrifice your own well-being in a lot of ways--financially is one way, but also to deplete yourself of time, energy, or emotional stability. I find that a lot of women, especially, have internalized the idea that their only worth as a person lies in what they can do for others.

If this is an ongoing pattern in your life, maybe consider some therapy to find a better balance. I'm not saying to stop helping friends or giving money to good causes, but finding a way to do those things at a level that still allows you some room for financial security, and for having friendships that give as much as they take.

If it's not, and you really feel this is just related to being in a new environment, maybe try to get out and meet some people or get involved in some activities.

Finally, concrete steps like "paying youself first"--i.e., allocating a set amount to savings and not touching that, or budgeting a specific amount for charity every month--might help you get a better handle on it. I think, though, that unless you address the emotional component, you'll find yourself mentally saying things like "how can I let this go when I have $X in savings?"
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 6:34 AM on July 31, 2014

It seems like you have a strong fix-it urge. You are expressing it financially. I know some people who do this emotionally--have a full-time job that's based on caring for others, then spend all their time managing the minor and major emotional crises of their friends. It is noble, but dangerous whichever form it comes in. Take care of yourself first.

Listen to the above advice about making sure you're saving for retirement, having a savings buffer for your own needs. Also, the idea of having specific giving budget is sound. And see if you can offer some support that isn't financial. Would volunteering help? Having a down-on-their luck friend over for dinner and sending them home with leftovers? Letting a friend crash on your couch for a few days?
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:34 AM on July 31, 2014

Maybe it's because I'm lonely, but only time I feel good about myself or feel like I'm worth anything is when I help others.

There are soooooo many ways to connect with others and celebrate our shared humanity that don't need to be giving cash directly. You can help people with transportation by giving rides, take an older person to get groceries, write letters to your relatives friends, to service members, adopt a grandparent and send them postcards, invite your friends in tough spots over for a meal. Our society wants us to believe that money solves every problem, but it can't buy us human connection and community. You can build that for free. :)
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:35 AM on July 31, 2014

I want to also say how it's very kind and awesome of you to be so generous: I do hope you can work out a long-term approach that supports your personal financial security so you can save for you and also exercise the kindheartedness! I'm a big fan of Michelle Singletary, a personal finance columnist for the Washington Post, who is a giant saver but also equally big on giving back due to her own experiences as well as her faith. In fact, she has a live chat today and I recommend your asking her this question there as well (even though people above have given such fantastic advice already!)
posted by smorgasbord at 7:15 AM on July 31, 2014

Yeah, it's a good instinct and one that society tries to suppress and denigrate -- recognising when you have much more than you need, and recognising the moral/ethical imperative to fix that situation is a great part of yourself to cultivate, defend and maintain.

The advice above to sit down and work out how it's going to work in terms of figures, administration, and avoiding being exploited and tricked is good and needed as well, of course.
posted by Drexen at 7:33 AM on July 31, 2014

I work in the nonprofit sector (in fundraising) and I meet a lot of people like you. The best advice I can give you is the advice I give those donors:

- Don't loan anyone money. If you want to give it away, give it away, but stop with the loans. They complicate your life in a way that you don't deserve.
- For every dollar you give away, sock away a dollar for yourself; a matching gift. Don't touch that money. An emergency (for you) could come tomorrow and you'll need it.
- Increase your privacy in giving; the last thing people need to know is that you have money. Being an undercover altruist will increase your happiness and satisfaction. If you're thinking, "How will I be happy if no one knows I am giving away money to help people?!?," go see a therapist, because that's a problem money can't solve.
- Dismantle any feelings you have of deserving or being entitled to a quid-pro-quo, even in the future. The people you give money away to don't owe you anything, and if you ever can imagine yourself going to them in ten years when you're broke and saying, "I gave you $1000 back in 2014!" then stop giving away money right away.
posted by juniperesque at 7:35 AM on July 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

I applaud your instincts!

Two things: First, you are at a very good age to start saving. When I was your age, someone basically forced me to make a savings/investment plan. That should be an item in your budget. A windfall of a couple of thousand? Invest half of that. It would really be good to read a book about investing for young people or even talk to a financial adviser. Saving/investing even a little at your age will help you out so much later.

Second, it is really good to help people. My father helped support a family we were close to for a period of years, without making a fuss about it. It's one of the best things I remember about him. But what seems even more remarkable now was the grace that family had about it. We always remained close to them and the money did not come between us. Sadly, a lot of times when you help people out with money, it causes resentment on one or both parts. Either because you are in a position of more power and that is not a nice feeling for them, or because their needs escalate and you can't meet them, or whatever. Helping with money is not always good for relationships. For some reason, people seem to be able to ask for help with time, energy and connections and accept it without problems, but money is a different story. So take care with your relationships in that regard.
posted by BibiRose at 7:42 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having had a job in which I needed to decide (with limited resources) who and how to help people in cash-emergency situations, let me add this.

Giving money to someone about to be evicted does not help that person unless they have a reasonable plan to make sure it doesn't happen again. Not just a hope or buying time, but something concrete and workable.

You might consider setting up a fund that is administered by other people, maybe through a local charity. Both having the money and making the decision is difficult. You'll have to say no at times and this can be trying.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:47 AM on July 31, 2014

You're not going to be any help to anyone if you don't secure your oxygen mask first:

1. Max your 401K and IRA. Yes, you need to start now. You don't "have more than you need" if you haven't already maxed your retirement accounts.

2. Set aside an emergency fund of 6 months expenses -- put this in an account you can access when a true emergency (your emergency, not anyone else's) arises, but maybe something you don't have super easy access to, so you aren't tempted to spend it. You don't "have more than you need" if you don't have an emergency fund.

3. Make a budget using your remaining funds - allocate what you need for rent, food, entertainment, insurance, vacations, etc. and make a line item for "generosity" or the like. Stick to your budget. If you reach the limit in a given month, and someone needs something, say "it's just not possible right now, I may be able to help in a few weeks." No one knows your financial situation unless you tell them, and there's no shame in saving for your safety/comfort/retirement first.

4. Don't loan money to friends. Give money freely or not at all. That is, if you want to maintain friendships. I'd also stay away from "hiring" friends to do "tasks." Being your friend's creditor or employer makes for weird dynamics at best and friendship destruction at worst.

5. Consider volunteering your time instead of money and also seeking therapy for your self esteem issues.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:58 AM on July 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

With all the caveats people have listed-- by all means, don't stop giving! Young people who give have a lot of power. But consider doing it in an organized way. Look for fundraisers in your community where you can take part with time as well as money and forge connections. Or go on Kickstarter when you feel that urge, and find a community-oriented project. Your urge to give back is not something to be suppressed, just channel it into something that will increase your ability to give back rather than just drawing it down.
posted by BibiRose at 8:10 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's great that you're so generous. I would try to focus on volunteering your time to help people in person, and limit actual financial donations to 10% of your income. Then, as others mentioned, start investing for retirement--it's almost shocking how much more money you can end up with if you start now versus later in your 20s or 30s. That means more money you'll have later in life to give away, and make an even bigger difference.
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:42 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've had a fraction of these feelings, and also want to recommend volunteering as a way to work with the only-feeling-good-when-I-help-others situation. I'd also say you might explore that feeling more, in therapy or otherwise - that's the part of your post I really identify with, since it was how I felt at my most depressed.

One of the things I did at that time was to sign up as a stem cell and bone marrow donor at, which I found especially useful because being a future donor requires me to stay alive, healthy, and in sufficiently stable financial condition that if I need to take a week off work to undergo surgery (or just donate a ton of blood stem cells and recover) to save some kid's life, I can do that. There were days where that future commitment - to be there if needed - was incredibly helpful to me when I was struggling a lot more with self-worth, and if Be The Match ever calls, I will be there.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:20 AM on July 31, 2014

Other people are not necessarily going to be grateful for your help, asked for or not. It changes the dynamic, whether they (or you) are willing to admit it or not. So it may make you feel good, but others, after the first rush of relief - maybe not so much. You can't buy friendship.

Just something to consider.

Then too there's the opportunity cost. Give away money now and you are unable to grow it for later. Invest it now and there will be more to give away later on. Assuming that fate does not throw you a curve ball and wipe out your income stream when you least expect it. Which, believe me, happens a lot more than you think. And which would mean that you would really need that money for your self.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:05 AM on July 31, 2014

I worked myself half to death last week to scrounge up extra cash for a friend who was in danger of getting evicted by no fault of her own.

One of the things that hardens you as you get older is when it dawns on you that the people who get screwed "by no fault of [their] own" are always the same people. To the point where you realize that they're doing the same things that put themselves in their situation.

I did have a friend who got evicted and was locked out of her place while the final proceedings with the courts were worked out. I let her crash at my place for a week and gave her my old boxes when she needed to pack her things up and move. Plenty of cohabitation relationships end forcing one of the partners to move out in a hurry, and people work it out, finding temporary places to stay and friends who can provide a truck to help move their things. These things tend to work themselves out. ("When you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose")

And if you're working yourself half to death to come up with the money, you don't actually have the money to spare. Build savings, put money away for retirement, and give a portion each month to charities and local social services agencies who employ people whose job it is to help people navigate the court system when they get harassed by landlords or bill collectors.

When helping friends in need, be "generous" rather than a one-man charity. Help your friends move, buy them dinner, rent a truck or help them out with yours when they need a hand moving. And don't ask or expect anything in return.
posted by deanc at 12:05 PM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a friend who behaved similarly. The only time he felt good was when he helped others. He was actually drawn to people with screwed-up lives, so he could bail them out and feel better about himself. His life was filled with people who got repeatedly fired, evicted, exploited sexually, bitterly drawn-out divorce, alcoholic, car towed, can't make rent, etc.

He saw these people as helpless, but I could see that they were actually in situations of their own making. The ones who kept getting fired were doing a half-ass job at work. The ones who couldn't make rent had mismanaged their money earlier in the month. The ones who kept getting exploited sexually had a habit of getting drunk alone with shady strangers.

He claimed that he wanted to help them stand on their own. But what really happened is that he enabled their harmful behavior. He bailed them out again and again, which allowed them to go for a longer time down their self-destructive path before they hit rock bottom.

Consider how it can be that you've given away several thousand dollars in the space of a few months to many friends in tight spots. If I tried to give away several thousand dollars in the next few months, 99% of my friends would say that they cannot possibly accept money from me. They would refuse to borrow money or take my cash as a gift. If a friend I care about came to me and offered me cash as a gift or loan, I would also adamantly say no.

You have a high-paying job. Let's say your coworkers are responsible people. Can you imagine what would happen if you approached one of your coworkers and offered to give them cash? They would probably look at you strangely and decline. That's the dynamic you want in friends. You don't want someone who eagerly says yes and thanks you for "saving" them from their drama-of-the-month.

Remember that you are actually hurting the people you think you're helping. Your enabling behavior is extending the length of time until they are forced to get their lives together.
posted by vienna at 1:26 PM on July 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

Heh, this sounds a bit like me after getting my first high-paying job. What helped me was seeing how little my money actually provided a long-term benefit to a lot of the people I was giving to. Obviously it depends on the person and the circumstances, but while I do still help out from time to time, I try to focus on what the person actually needs and what will actually help them rather than being overly-generous and making myself feel good and look good to my friends.

In the meantime, I do try to make healthy donations to well-researched causes and charities I believe in (which also have the benefit of being matched by my employer). Also keep in mind your own needs and your own ability to hold your own in the face of rainy days; it is a really good idea to save enough money to live off of for several months, as uncertain as employment seems to be these days.
posted by Aleyn at 2:59 PM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy reading about effective altruism: wikipedia, TED talk. An important piece of EA rhetoric is that they encourage people to limit their giving to what is sustainable for long periods of time.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:58 PM on July 31, 2014

For one, good on you! I was in a terrible bind not too long ago, and if it hadn't been for the generosity and kindness of a few organizations, I would have been on the streets. I'm out of that bind now (I lost my job, the company contested my unemployment so I didn't have income for a while, have since gotten a new job and have gotten caught up with my bills). People will abuse it but your compassionate heart

But, you also need to be kind to yourself. Here's hoping you don't end up hitting the skids yourself, but there many not be someone like you around to help when things go south. I hate to say it, but it's a possibility. So... what if you budget a set amount towards altruistic pursuits, as mentioned upthread, or adopt a particular cause? Volunteer with an animal shelter (cats and dogs will absolutely want to be your friend!) or the elderly (people with seventy-plus years have the best stories, srsly) or work with people getting back into the workforce (hell, if you're doing awesome, let other people know how to replicate your success!) or the local library (librarians are cool as hell, and f something weird happens, you can always hide in the stacks!) Volunteering will scratch two itches... it will help get you out there, introduced to other people that want to give back, and maybe you can find your tribe that way, AND you'll actively be engaged in an altruistic pursuit.
posted by mornie_alantie at 8:35 PM on July 31, 2014

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