Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reminders about how much I have.

When I was growing up I didn't really "get" frugality. Money was either free or later, when I was working, it was easy to get. I've spent most of my life single, white, educated and well off so I've always had what seemed like a surplus of money. Jobs were easy to get, money was easy to come by.

When I found out, the hard way, while living in Chicago that, in fact, money is not always easy to get and bills are easy to fall behind on, I had family to help me get back on top of things.

But even after that I wasn't a big saver and my opinion in my early 20s was... hey, you can't take it with you! Why not buy food and toys? Being "cheap" for no reason had ever appealed to me, I was never seduced by thrift for thriftiness' sake.

In my mid-20s though, I read a book about ethics that changed the way I looked at the world and my place in it. This entry isn't about being preachy, so just suffice it to say that I started giving to charity and being more conscientious about how I spent money. (Though I still clearly have a long way to go on this.)

Despite this new disposition, for a while I was very skeptical of "panhandlers." That is, people who are homeless (or appear homeless) who ask for money as you pass them on the street. No one likes to be taken advantage of or even feel like they might have been taken advantage of. How do I know this person isn't just taking money and laughing? What if this is a scam? Plus it's just sort of uncomfortable to be confronted while you're doing something else and asked to make a decision on the spot.

About a year and a half ago, though, I was at a gas station and a couple of teenagers were there at a pump adjoining mine. Sheepishly, they asked me if I could spare any money for some gas. They'd borrowed their mom's minivan and didn't think they'd have enough to get home. My knee jerk reaction was to tell them I had "no cash on me, sorry." And I drove away.

But as soon as I'd gotten on the road, I thought... what? How cynical have I become that I can't spare $10 in gas to help someone out? So what if they were just scamming me. At worst, I'm out $10 to a couple of people who have resorted to begging to make money. But the flip side was if they weren't lying I could entirely relieve them of a stressful situation for a pittance. I turned around, drove back and filled their gas tank.

I decided then and there that the best case scenario for people asking for money from me was much more valuable than the worst case scenarios could outweigh. If someone's life was to the point where they thought their best option was to go out, usually in dirty clothes, and shamefully ask people for money then even if they were "taking advantage of me" the tiny amount I was giving them still didn't make up for the fact that my life is vastly more comfortable than theirs.

Once I'd taken this view, these encounters were suddenly not uncomfortable at all. I simply give whatever I have whenever someone who looks down on their luck asks. I rarely carry any large amount of cash, so we're only talking a few dollars, but I never debate it anymore.

Today, when I was getting Chipotle for Susie and I, a weather beaten guy with a white mustache in a sleeveless tee shirt sheepishly approached me and asked if I could spare some change. I took out the largest bill I had and gave it to him. It was just $10.

It was just $10 to me, but when he saw the dollar amount, his eyes welled up. He couldn't believe it. He tried to thank me, but he barely had words to give me, so he just hugged me. He tried to hold back his tears, but he had a lake in his eyes when he said "Thank you so much, bless you!"

I told him, "You're welcome, it's no big deal." He replied, stuttering, "It is... it's a big... it takes hours to get just a dollar sometimes... thank you."

Perhaps this man is the best actor in the world and he just stole my $10. Perhaps he laughed when I got in the car and drove away, but I don't think so. He was overjoyed to receive that little piece of money and he got more happiness out of it than anything I could have done with it.

I know that when I give money to aid agencies, they are helping children all over the world who die from diseases that take mere cents to cure. I know that they will put my money to good use, probably better use than that old man will.

But giving to a human energizes me and reminds me why I try to give as much as I "can" to charities who help those much less fortunate than I. It's a humbling, humiliating thing to remember that I'm just human and my dumb brain is wired to care more about things when I can see and experience them.

But that's why I'm glad this poor man ate his pride and asked, politely, for my money... it reminded me why I was ultimately seduced by thrift: to give to those who don't have anything.