Sunday, April 15, 2012

Just like me

For a school project, I'm helping a local mental health center apply for a grant. In looking through grants, I was struck by how many of them are for very specific demographics.

This foundation only funds projects in the northeastern US. That one only funds projects that serve people with paralysis. Why so specific? Because the founders were from those demographics. They wanted to help people like them. A lot of charitable giving works this way. Disease foundations do major fundraising from people with that illness and from their relatives.

Now, I can see how this problem selection makes sense if you're doing some kind of direct service. If I were going to a support group, I would want help from someone who had been in my situation. But the nice thing about money is that it works the same no matter who gives it. You don't have to have personally experienced another person's affliction to help ease it.

I had epilepsy as a child. When I hear about a kid with epilepsy, I do feel that squeeze of recognition, the memory of what it was like for me. I'm sure the Epilepsy Foundation would love to get my donation to help "people like me".

But I'd like to see a redefinition of who is "like me."

I've never starved, never experienced chronic pain, never watched people die around me. I can't know exactly what it feels like to have those experiences, but I have a guess. It sucks that other people are sick or hungry or oppressed, like it sucked for me to have epilepsy.

When I give, I want to help people like me. People with human loves, dreams, and hurts. We don't have to have the same problems. We're still kin.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The budget

I talk a lot about deciding how much to give, but I want to make it a bit more concrete. I know it's weird to lay your finances before the world, but I think it's helpful to get a feel for what a high-donation life might be like.

Since finishing college, my husband and I have been giving somewhere around 1/3 to 1/2 our income. For the past two years I've been in grad school earning nothing, so donations haven't been on our usual schedule. We've also been in a variety of living arrangements (our own apartment, a large apartment we shared with another couple, and currently living with Jeff's family).

I want to show you numbers from 2009, because it was a year we were both in paid jobs and living in our own apartment. Jeff was a computer programmer and I was an administrative assistant at a nonprofit. Our combined income was around $95K. We were 24 and 25 years old.

“Saving” was Jeff's retirement fund and my grad school fund.

“Allowance” is discretionary spending money, $38 a week for each of us. This covers clothes, shoes, meals out, gifts for other people, hobbies, phones, computers, and entertainment. It also covers feel-good donations. Having separate allowances works well for us because it avoids the argument about "You spent how much on sound equipment?" or "You already have enough shoes!"

Housing was a studio apartment in Cambridge, MA. Rent was $1,100 a month, utilities included. It was small but pleasant:

Some things that helped keep costs down:

We had no car. We chose an apartment near train, bus, and subway lines that took us almost everywhere we wanted to go. The apartment (and living in an urban area) cost more than housing in a less transit-friendly location, but the increase in cost was much less than a car.

At the time, we had one cell phone. It was part of Julia's parents' plan and cost about $15 a month.

Jeff's work paid most of our health insurance costs. We weren't sick, so there weren't a lot of copays.

Food was groceries, not eating out. Occasional meals out came from allowance.

Some things are different now: We've been giving less because I've been in school and not earning money. Our expenses are lower because we're living with Jeff's parents for a while. But our general spending pattern is the same.