Benjamin Franklin is probably America’s most famous personal-finance maven. He wrote one of the most widely read personal-finance books ever, the 16-page pamphlet, “The Way to Wealth.”

Unfortunately, Franklin has something of a dour image when it comes to managing money and personal habits. Biographer Walter Isaacson believes Franklin’s outlook on money and life is best captured by this maxim from “The Way of Wealth”: “I would rather have it said, ‘He lived usefully,’ than, ‘He died rich.’ ”

That’s a good maxim to think about as the holiday season draws near. With Thanksgiving not far off, now is a good time to think about charitable giving and volunteering. The mindfulness of giving and volunteering, the connections these activities forge in our community, are critical reminders about what matters most. How do you want to have “lived usefully”?

People give away their money for all kinds of reasons, including supporting the arts, contributing to their alma mater and funding food banks.

Faith is a powerful force. About half of all charitable contributions are directed toward religious organizations. The nation’s charities and nonprofit organizations are remarkably diverse.

“They are monuments to community,” wrote the historian Daniel Boorstin. “They originate in the community, depend on the community, are developed by the community, serve the community, and rise and fall with the community.”

Millions of Americans also participate in a wide range of volunteer activities in these monuments to community. People volunteer to mentor the young, answer phones during a fund drive and coach recreational sports.

Make a plan before giving and volunteering. Your money goes further and your investment in time has a bigger impact if you are thoughtful about what you’re doing.

Ask some basic questions: What matters to me? What kind of legacy would I like to leave? Who needs my help??

You will also want to make sure that the organization you would like to support is legitimate and effective at its mission. Watchdog groups like Charity Navigator offer good information to research.

Here’s the thing: Don’t stop thinking about your legacy and making a difference once you have made your charitable decisions.

Ask the same questions for the rest of your household finances — spending and saving. This way you will better align your finances with your values — the underlying goal of personal finance.


Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, “Marketplace,” commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.