gains & losses ross levin

­When Giving Is All We Have

One river gives

Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.

We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.

We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,

We have been wounded by it —

Giving has its many faces: It is loud and quiet,

Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,

Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.

Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you

What I had to give — together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

—Alberto Ríos

I have been in a lot of client meetings where we have discussed giving — to family, to friends, to causes. Rios's poem points out how impactful giving can be as well as how difficult. What are the things we can think about before we decide to give?

A gift with strings attached isn't a gift, it is a payment for expected behavior. This is fine, but money given this way may be as likely to wound as it is to help the recipient. Gifts with conditions are imposing your values on the receiver. There may not be anything wrong with this, but there are generally consequences from it.

One of our clients has chosen to reduce her lifestyle in retirement so that she can make regular gifts to her adult children. We had a family meeting where we talked about the strategy and we made three points — the money can be spent or saved in any way that the children want; the money will be gifted monthly with no advances on the gifts (so it is essentially a part of the children's budget), and the gifts will be made for the foreseeable future (but the commitment is not eternal). The children now have money that they can count on and the parent was clear that this is all that she will be able to give. Certainty was created for both parties.

It's only a gift if it is no longer yours. When couples manage their money, there often is a primary person following how it is being used. If the person tracking the money is also the one earning it, things can go sideways quickly. One strategy that we like to employ is have the person doing paid work fund money into an account for the nonwage earner. Since it is a couple, it is not technically a gift, but it works similarly. If the person who is financing the account is tracking where that money is spent, it defeats the purpose. The wage earner has more financial power than the non-earner; the only way to attempt to even the playing field is by setting aside some money that the other person has total autonomy over.

Giving really does change us. Whether it is handwritten thank-you notes, helping a friend move or making donations, giving changes us. It moves us from our world into that of others. It helps us become more appreciative of what we have, while it helps us cling less tightly to those things.

A client celebrated his own major birthday by paying off his child's second mortgage as a surprise gift. When he talks about the best birthday gifts, he mentions this first. It was a meaningful gift because he got to experience his child's gratefulness, and more important, he got to acknowledge his own level of comfort with his situation.

Regardless of what we may or may not have, we often play scared with our money. Intentional giving can actually allay those fears.

Giving is loud and quiet. I know someone who quietly gave to a friend through a third party and the friend had no idea from where the gift came. This removed the financial power from the gift and kept the friends on equal footing. There are other times when loud giving can be useful. Since giving is often social, seeing others whom you think are in your situation making gifts to causes that are important to them may help you make or increase your own gifts. While making anonymous gifts may take the focus off you, sometimes that focus encourages your peers to give.

Somebody is always giving to us, are we able to receive it? A friend was giving me a compliment that I shrugged off and deflected. I deprived her of seeing my gratitude from the kindness of her words and I was prevented from receiving someone's kindness. One of the biggest gifts we can give is to appreciatively receive what others offer.

Sometimes children are not grateful for their parent's gifts, because they wanted something more or different. At times, charities that no longer fit clients' plans are a little resentful that their donations have moved in another direction, rather than being appreciative for the previous years of support. Receiving well is a gift. We gave a small graduation gift to a son of a friend and received a thoughtful thank-you note that shared what he was going to be pursuing and how he intends to use our gift. His note was a far greater gift than what we offered. It was hand to hand.

Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina.