How do you stop feeling guilty for having what you have?
December 27, 2006 7:08 AM   Subscribe

How do you justify how much to spend on yourself when there are so many out there without? And, how much should you give to charity?

I have struggled with creating a real budget since I became self-sufficient. The reason being mostly because I loathe the idea that I have SO much more than I need in comparison to so many who don't have enough to survive. Though I enjoy my comfort, I don't enjoy the idea that I have this comfort and thus, choose to almost entirely ignore the idea that it is money that provides it for me. I find that I have almost overwhelming guilt that I don't give more to others because there is ALWAYS more that I can give. Does anyone else struggle with this idea? How do you decide how much you should give to others? How do you decide how much comfort you "need" without feeling guilty?
posted by pinksoftsoap to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What Should a Billionaire Give – and What Should You? by Peter Singer
posted by Nahum Tate at 7:12 AM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

You might also appreciate Singer's answers to readers questions in response to that article. The link to the Q&A isn't obvious from the original article:
Questions for Peter Singer
posted by vytae at 7:25 AM on December 27, 2006

Buying things -- espeically finding ways to buy locally, either buying food and products that were actually grown/created locally or buying other items (like your Wii) from a locally-owned and operated store (rather than from a chain) enables your local economy to continue to do its economic thing. The world cannot run on charity alone. People would rather have jobs and earn money than get a handout. Only by being a contributor to the economy can you really assist people with long term economic self-sufficience.

Buy locally and shop carefully.
posted by anastasiav at 7:27 AM on December 27, 2006 [3 favorites]

Actually, it seems you are enjoying giving so so much and with a guilt trip so big about having something, I wonder if you aren't taking too much pleasure from giving.

Why should you _feel guilty_ about NOT giving more ? I can understand ones will to do some more for those who need and I do appreciate this generosity, actually I wish it was a lot more common than selfishness.

An opposite vice would be that of never getting enough, or feeling guilty for giving even little, being scrooges with a pathologic attachment to money, doing anything including taking away from others what one doesn't really need, for any reason including thinking they "don't deserve". Feeling guilty for being able to always give a little more is the opposite, I think.

Rather than feeling guilty for NOT giving, try feeling alright for giving what you gave ; instead of planning to do MORE giving, plan to give AGAIN or maybe to somebody else.

Bottom line : you shouldn't feel GUILTY for giving something good to somebody for a very minimal fee or for free. You should feel OK or happy when you do that.
posted by elpapacito at 7:30 AM on December 27, 2006

Another interesting answer to this question can be found in the work of another contemporary philosopher, Peter Unger. Try his book Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence. His views are...a bit extreme from what most people would call a "normal" perspective, but they're well-thought out and directly address the issues you're raising here.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:37 AM on December 27, 2006

Best answer: I suffer from the same affliction now and then, especially because my job often involves reading a lot about people who are drastically worse off than I am. I think I give more than a lot of people in my socioeconomic situation, but I still feel guilty.

One of the things that has helped me a lot is giving my time in addition to money. Doing something, as opposed to just writing a check, makes me actually feel like I'm involved in helping to fix the problems, which helps to replace some of that guilt with satisfaction about actually seeing some results. I particularly recommend volunteer activities that involve individual contact with the beneficiaries of your help. Tutoring has been a great activity for me.

In any case, I sleep slightly better at night on my pillow-top mattress with 300-thread-count sheets knowing that I'm not only giving money, I'm also giving of the skills and talents that helped get me where I am in the first place.
posted by decathecting at 8:01 AM on December 27, 2006

I can totally relate. I've felt this way many times myself.

For me, the guilt that I feel for not giving enough is really guilt that I am hopelessly married to the money. I can't just part with it because of the obligations I've signed up for.

The best way to handle guilt, is to chip away at it. Start with something small, like buying your Wii from a local shop or committing $50/month to a charity of your choice. Then focus on feeling good about it. This will combat the guilt and make it easier to give more later.
posted by jeff_w_welch at 8:13 AM on December 27, 2006

I find that I have almost overwhelming guilt that I don't give more to others because there is ALWAYS more that I can give.

I'm sure you realize that this is not really a reasonable position. When you find yourself thinking this way, a helpful phrase to come back to is "It's OK for me not to be perfect". Remembering those words, along with their companions "It's OK for you not to be perfect" and "It's OK for the world not to be perfect" helps me a lot. I'm not saying you need to stop caring, just that it seems like you would benefit from taking a more relaxed attitude to life.
posted by teleskiving at 8:33 AM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

There are lots of different forms of generosity, and only certain ones are going to make the giver feel good. Maybe you'll believe you're making a real difference in a few lives, or do something you enjoy at the same time, or feel satisfied about getting a lot of bang for the buck. It all depends on your personality and values. It doesn't make sense to volunteer at a nursing home if you'd really rather be making balloon animals at a children's hospital.

Right now, you see generosity as a way to lessen your guilt, but you could try turning it into a real positive. And I agree with jeff_w_welch that you should forget about the big picture for a while, and just do one thing. Then do it again, or do a different thing and see how you feel. It sounds as if you like to contemplate your own motivations, and since you're going to be doing that anyway, go ahead and experiment with making donations and see what happens.
posted by wryly at 8:41 AM on December 27, 2006

How do you justify how much to spend on yourself when there are so many out there without?
Why would I need to justify that? It's my life.
posted by Memo at 8:41 AM on December 27, 2006

and by "life" I meant "effort".
posted by Memo at 8:42 AM on December 27, 2006

Best answer: There was g good thread in AskMe a few months ago talking about fulfillment and what the various religions thought we should be doing with your lives. koeselitz had an answer that always stuck with me.

"Look, lots of people, everybody religious and everybody not religious, will tell you: "helping other people. That's it, that's what were here for." Well, that's bullshit. If you spend your life trying to save the world, you die knowing you simply failed. I think people say that nowadays because they see how awful the world is, and they feel really alone.

That's not to deny that the most important part of life is our interaction with other people. I really think that we feel most fulfilled when we're looking into the eyes of other human beings and understanding their thoughts. But you take that enjoyment, that fulfillment, you savor it, you try to do what you can for people out of gratitude, and then you be content. It's poison to feel a deep moral obligation to help everyone constantly, because that's ultimately borne out of shame.

What I was trying to say before was: I really think that 'enjoy life first, help people second' is at the core of all the religions I know of, even Christianity. Christ said, "I came that you might have life, and have it to the full." Enjoy the fucker. If you spend all day feeling guilty that you're allowed to enjoy it, or feeling like you have some obligation to save people or something, it means nothing. Just live, treat everyone around you as well as you can, and die. It's all any of us can do, and it's damned nice"

I work more or less from similar principles, I keep my mind and body happy so that I can share my efforts and energies with other people to the extent that I can without getting so overextended that I become ineffective. Some of this has to do with material things -- volunteering your time, buying locally, living low on the food chain, gettting involved with your community -- but a lot of it has to do with the unquantifiable stuff you do that also helps the world - listening to your friend when she's had a really bad day so she doesn't go home and yell at her kids, giving someone a ride home from the bus station so they don't need to call a cab, being graceful when the guy at the ticket counter who has been having a bad day is exasprated and short with you and not starting a whole "no fuck YOU" tussle, spending some time talking to older peope who are lonely.

It ebbs and flows and only you know what your cycle is. I'm usually in helpful mode for a few weeks and then I'm in recharge mode where I stay home and bake and read books and help myself. Part of getting over guilt is realizing that it's okay to include yourself in the list of peopel to help. You're getting yourself self-sufficient, that's great, really cool, I bet it was a lot of hard work. So, spend some time in "yay me" mode and use that energy to help other people try to get to similar places in their own lives.

In terms of "how much help is enough" general rules of thumb are 5-10% of your income or time. If you have a full time job, try to spend 2-3 hours a week volunteering, or donating that money someplace where you think it could make a difference.

Above all, be kind to yourself. You're not effective when you're self-absorbed with guilt, so try to put that on your "to do" list and let the guilt propel you into action. Good luck, your heart is in the right place.
posted by jessamyn at 8:53 AM on December 27, 2006 [11 favorites]

You should read the Singer article, or other pieces on social capital to see why the "I earned it, I'll do what I want with it" idea is not completely valid.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:53 AM on December 27, 2006

Best answer: Your guilt means that you're a good person. Please don't work too hard to kill it off, lest you start admiring The Fountainhead.

Not to put too fine a point on it, we have become a civilization of gluttons, which would be acceptable if either our consumption made us happier or there weren't people pathetically suffering for want of life's necessities. It's probably too much to ask of most people, me included, to triumph against the pervasiveness of this culture of consumption. That doesn't mean you have to give up, nor does it mean you have to sink into depression because you don't always succeed.
posted by Nahum Tate at 9:03 AM on December 27, 2006

OK. So Am I a Scrooge? I give a small cash donation to local legit groups (Salvation Army, FoodBank etc.) this usually adds up to less than 1% of my income. However I firmly believe that the fact that I have a good paying job, and own a home that I pay more than my fair share of taxes that in part go to support those less fortunate. Now I'm not saying that we should decrease the surplus population, but rather the established programs that use tax money need to be taken into account when considering tithes.
posted by Gungho at 9:07 AM on December 27, 2006

Gungho: the US gov't gives 22 cents out of every $100. Factor that into your tax calculations and see if it measurably increases your donation as a percentage of income.
posted by aramaic at 9:16 AM on December 27, 2006

how much should you give to charity?

My rule of thumb is 10% of my net income, and based on the Jewish concept of tzedakah.
posted by amro at 9:18 AM on December 27, 2006

If you were walking, and saw a child drowning in a pond, would you jump in and save the child?

If you were wearing $250 shoes that would be ruined, would you still jump in?

Every day, people die of poverty. They just don't do it where you are likely to see them or hear of them.

Give as much as you can, and enjoy saving a life. I just did my end of the year check-writing. A bit more than 1% of my pre-tax income. I probably give that much again during the year. I'm not wealthy by US standards, and I don't live extravagantly, but by the standards of most of the world, I am rich. It feels good to share a bit of what I have. I'm a fan of Oxfam and Unicef.
posted by theora55 at 9:41 AM on December 27, 2006

I find that I have almost overwhelming guilt that I don't give more to others because there is ALWAYS more that I can give.

Exactly. Even if you gave away every cent you earned, got kicked out of your house for not paying your rent, and went hungry, all of the money you donated would be a drop in the bucket compared to the scope of the problems you describe. Don't take the weight of the world on your shoulders. Recognize that there's only so much that you, an individual, can do to fix problems affecting hundreds of millions -- no, billions of people. You don't have to fix everything that's wrong with the world. All it's beyond your powers anyway, even if you were to commit every resource you had.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:47 AM on December 27, 2006

"And it's beyond your powers . . . "

posted by jason's_planet at 10:43 AM on December 27, 2006

Wow, for over five years we've been discussing Peter Singer's views on philanthropy.
posted by norm at 10:57 AM on December 27, 2006

when you give money to "causes", you often don't see it help anyone. your money becomes a drop of water in a bucket. that bucket is full of many drops of water, and eventually that bucket can help put out a big fire. but maybe you'd derive more satisfaction, and peace, from picking a smaller fire and blowing it out yourself.

so, maybe helping specific, result-oriented causes will help you actually feel like you're making a difference? i've felt similar guilt as you mention. my solution was to give time and money only to causes that let me see results.

to share my time, i became a youth mentor, teaching writing and performance skills to facilitate creative self-expression in at-risk teens. i love doing this- i feel like i can really help these kids develop confidence and self-esteem. i see who i'm helping, and i see their progress, and i keep in touch after the program ends (even if only via occasional comments on MySpace). it's surprisingly rewarding.

as for money donations, i have a foster child. i drop about $400 a year in her direction- just over a buck a day, in monthly installments- it's pretty manageable. i chose a non-religious organization, and a child from a part of the world i was curious about.

from her bi-annual letter and photo, i can actually see this little girl growing up, and feel good to know that the money i send is helping make sure she and her brother are properly fed, vaccinated and educated. i like imagining her learning to write using the pink sparkly pencils i sent her.

$400 a year and maybe 60 hours of volunteer time is not a huge commitment, and sometimes i too feel like i should be doing more, giving more. i do still give drops into other buckets too- but the $400 is the biggest chunk of what i give, and to be honest, it's by far the most satisfying. i definitely feel like that $400 is doing something specific, and i love seeing specific results. i love that i know the names of the people i'm helping. when i get those ~~~WeiRDly PuncTu8ed 3mails FrOm da Kidz I worKed WitH !n da PROgrm~~, i'm absurdly touched and flattered that i made enough of a difference that they still want me on the edge of their lives.

so, maybe try giving money or time to something very results-oriented. become a Big Sibling or work at a shelter or be a youth mentor-- just do *something* where you can see the face of the person you helped. i think that will mitigate your feelings of inadequacy.
good luck!
posted by twistofrhyme at 11:10 AM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Not an answer but a must read about Zell Kravinsky who gave away his entire fortune and a kidney. Could not find the link to the excellent profile in the New Yorker. A good read and many questions.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:24 AM on December 27, 2006

A recent example from the Boston Globe:
[Susan] Loucks, who is paid $48,000 as a program manager for a Boston nonprofit organization, lives on $15,000 a year. The Wellesley College graduate... doesn't own a car, gets by without a home computer, and spends about $200 a year on clothing. "I shop at Goodwill."

Frugal for herself, Loucks is generous to others, giving away about 10 percent of her annual pretax income to charity. This is done in part by "taxing" herself: For every dollar she spends on entertainment or eating out, she gives another to charity.
posted by alms at 11:37 AM on December 27, 2006

I tend to look at these things from a taoist perspective, that if we all act as we wish to, things will go well. For some this may result in unchecked selfishness, for others, extreme generosity. But people tend to be kind, we're made that way. If you feel guilty: give. If you feel poor: keep.
The one thing you don't want to get caught up in is guilt and shame and moralising. Don't give because you feel you have to, or not give because that's what everybody else does. Listen to what you think you should do, and do it.
posted by greytape at 12:09 PM on December 27, 2006

Aramaic: Where do you get that .22 per 100.00? The list I'm thinking of is nearly endless...Welfare, foodstamps, SSI (not the social security, the other SSI), medicare/medicaid, public education, special ed, ELL, veterans benefits, numerous grants, programs, etc. Sure some are State funded rather than Federal, heck some are even locally funded, but I consider them all when counting the aformentioned tithe.
posted by Gungho at 12:44 PM on December 27, 2006

Oh, and is that Susan going for a Sainthood? She heads a non-profit and she doesn't have a home computer? How much more could she be doing for said non-profit if she were also able to do some additional work at home?

Which brings up the issue of in-kind donations. A lot of people don't have the financial means to make a donation, but in this case donated time is money.
posted by Gungho at 12:47 PM on December 27, 2006

Lots of great words up there. I'll only add that for me, wasting something -- anything -- is much worse than merely not giving or not giving enough.

If I make too much food, I wrap up left-overs and walk them outside to a nearby corner where homeless people will find them.

I regularly assess which items around me are being under-used, and give them away. Clothes, shoes, books, housewares, kitchen stuff, whatever -- someone is always in need.

I also make monetary donations, specifically to organizations where I can see the results of my giving. And on holidays that are less associated with philanthropy (Valentine's Day, Easter, 4th of July) I'll cook a lot extra on purpose, sometimes a whole ham or turkey just to bring outside. It feels extra good when I can hand a warm, home-cooked, nutritious meal to a hungry person.

All too often when I would just write a check or hand over loose change, I would stop and wonder, "is this really helping?" That disconnect feels empty, where seeing people individually touched by my efforts or money feels good. Concentrate on the giving that feels good, and take pride in your contributions rather than feeling guilty for what you're not doing.
posted by nadise at 12:51 PM on December 27, 2006

Gungho: apologies, I should have been clearer -- the $0.22 derives from the amount of foreign aid spent by the US gov't, divided by the gross national income of the US. So, for every $100 of income in the US, the government spends $0.22 on foreign aid (of that, the majority goes to support US political aims, not to eliminate gross poverty).

It appears on page 3 of the Singer article linked previously.

Domestic aid, in terms of the VA etc., don't figure into the article since it is concerned with aid to the poorest people on Earth (the ones whose depth of poverty exceeds even the poorest homeless person in the US), not with charity in general (important, but not the focus of the article).

Note also that the math in the article is aimed primarily at the richest 10% of US citizens.
posted by aramaic at 1:02 PM on December 27, 2006

I'm not currently self-sufficient but I understand your feelings, I live in San Francisco and enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle as a student. We're surrounded by people far less fortunate than myself in this city, yet there's little I can do financially to help out. One thing I have take to doing is to volunteer occasionally at a kitchen that cooks meals for the homeless. I do this infrequently enough that I don't think I'm really helping out that much, but it gives me a chance to face this situation directly. I find that the direct confrontation with these people and their tragic situations helps me to understand the reality of this city. I'm not sure exactly what I'm getting at here but yeah, it helps me sleep better at night having this increased uderstanding.
posted by garethspor at 1:14 PM on December 27, 2006

I find that I have almost overwhelming guilt that I don't give more to others because there is ALWAYS more that I can give.

As a practical matter, you may be able to find some peace by taking on the guilt head on.

Go travel in parts of the world where children are starving to death around you. Realize, right there in the physical presence of those kids, that even if you poured your entire life into feeding them, the kids over in the next village would be just as dead.

When you've cured yourself of the sneaking suspicion that you *can* save everyone, it becomes a lot easier to deal with the fact that you aren't going to.
posted by tkolar at 11:07 PM on December 27, 2006

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