Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century social-philosopher (and the only Frenchman that Americans consistently seem to love), marveled in “Democracy in America” at how citizens in the new nation hustled to make a buck. At the same time, he was struck by the equally powerful need that Americans showed to band together, with neighbor helping neighbor.
By rereading portions of De Tocqueville’s masterful analysis, you see that he doesn’t see a conflict between the push to get ahead and the pull of generosity. No, they feed off and reinforce one another. More recently, Yale University economist Robert Shiller made a similar observation. “We trust one another, and not just the government, to make important decisions and to take action,” Shiller wrote in the New York Times. “Self-reliant does not mean selfish: while it is important that we manage our personal finances responsibly, we also have a deep tradition of giving to others.”
I’d go even farther, at least when it comes to personal finances. Generosity is the key to managing money well over a lifetime. Giving comes before savings and spending, and giving is what leads to smarter saving and spending.
I thought about the links between managing money well and generosity during a recent evening gathering in Minneapolis organized by the Colonnade Group, a team of certified financial planners with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. The theme of the event was “generous living.” One speaker emphasized the importance of changing our money mind-set from one of scarcity to abundance (a shift that will be helped in my case when our youngest graduates from college next year). The mental shift is a good place to start.
Why is giving vital for managing money well? If you think about it, most discussions about money these days involve tips on saving for retirement, emergency savings, smart debt strategies, paying for college, creating a budget, savvy tax planning and similar financial topics. Giving typically rises to the top of the list during the holiday season and the end of the tax year. Big mistake.
The power of generosity lies in the questions we ask ourselves and our family when we’re giving money away. We think about how we’d like society to be better, about the kind of legacy we’d like to leave behind, about the social and philanthropic causes that move us deeply. These questions and conversations are meaningful. They touch at the core of who we are and who we are trying to be in our everyday lives (often falling short).
Well, why not ask the same questions with spending and saving decisions? With spending, think about the activities and experiences you want to support, that you cherish, and the behavior and products you don’t want to reward. Similarly, save with a conscience. Generosity at the core of household money management reinforces the goal of putting our values behind our spending and saving habits.
Chris Farrell is economics editor for “Marketplace Money.” His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.