In a letter to his mother in 1750, Benjamin Franklin caught her up on what he was doing. “I read a great deal, ride a little, do a little Business for my self, more for others; retire when I can, and go [into] Company when I please; so the Years roll round, and the last will come; when I would rather have it said, He lived usefully, than, He died rich.”
Franklin lived much larger than his words suggested. He had an astonishing career as a scientist, networker, raconteur, founding father, ambassador to France, emissary to Britain, writer, creator of libraries and businesses. He also wrote one of the most widely read personal finance publications ever, “The Way to Wealth,” a 16-page pamphlet.
Franklin understood that sound personal financial habits were a means to an end, not an end in itself. The line “I would rather have it said, He lived usefully, than He died rich,” writes Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson, was “a pithy credo that summed up his philosophy.” The goal captures the essence of the personal finance journey.
The difficult question is how to stay focused on what matters when earning and managing our money. The answer at least partly lies with putting giving at the core of household finances. The season for giving offers an annual opportunity to highlight how giving away money and volunteering time can help instill personal finance habits that lead to having “lived usefully.”
People give to express their faith, to support the arts, to combat hunger and to shelter animals, among other priorities. Giving is a powerful way of breaking the hold money can have on us. People also volunteer their time to causes they feel passionate about.
Our money goes further and has a bigger impact if we’re thoughtful about our giving and volunteering. During this season, we typically ask fundamental questions like: What matters to our household? Where can our money make a difference? Who needs our help? How can my giving be useful?
The trick is to pursue the same questions with our spending, saving and investing decisions. Is this a business I want to support with my spending? Am I investing in companies that take sustainability seriously, pay workers a living wage, or steer clear of buccaneer capitalism? Investing with a conscience has become easier with the rise of ESG funds.
Giving is an expression of what we believe is important. A giving mind-set encourages thoughtful spending and saving choices, as well as supporting the charities we believe in.
Christopher Farrell is a senior economics contributor for “Marketplace” and a commentator at Minnesota Public Radio.