Saturday, June 8, 2013


As a young person, I was extremely struck by the realization that my choice to donate or not meant the difference between someone else’s living and dying. A lot of decisions started to look very starkly wrong.

I remember telling my dad that I had decided it would be immoral for me to have children, because they would take too much of my time and money away from better causes. “It doesn't sound like this lifestyle is going to make you happy,” he said.

“My happiness is not the point,” I told him.

A few years later, I was deeply bitter about the decision. I had always wanted and intended to be a parent, and I felt thwarted. It was making me sick and miserable. I looked at the rest of my life as more of an obligation than a joy.

So Jeff and I decided that it wasn't worth having a breakdown over. We decided to set aside enough for our personal spending that we could reasonably afford to raise a child. Looking back at my journal entries from before and after the decision, I'm struck by how much difference it made in my outlook. Immediately after we gave ourselves permission to be parents, I was excited about the future again. I don't know when we'll actually have a kid, but just the possibility helps me feel things will be all right. And I suspect that feeling of satisfaction with my own life lets me be more help to the world than I would have as a broken-down altruist.

I've attended Quaker meeting for the last ten years. The founder, George Fox, gave his followers this advice in 1658: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing.”

Quakers have tended to emphasize the part about “that of God in everyone,” with its implication about equality: how can it be right to keep slaves, for example, if the slave has an element of the divine in her?

But my favorite part is that word “cheerfully.” Fox was a man who had been jailed and beaten for his religious beliefs – surely he had a right to be bitter. Quakerism later developed a stern and dour style, but George Fox was not about that.

Some things I can do cheerfully. It turns out that giving up children was not one of them. Other people would have no problem giving up parenthood, but I suspect that everyone has something that would cause an inordinate amount of pain to sacrifice.

So test your boundaries, and see what changes you can make that will help others without costing you too dearly. But when you find something is making you bitter, stop. Effective altruism is not about driving yourself to a breakdown. We don't need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable. We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What's it like to give half?

It's been a while since I ran the numbers on how much Jeff and I give.  Recently we figured out what we gave in 2012: it was about half our income.  In 2012, Jeff was working as a computer programmer and I was mostly in grad school, then starting a job as a social worker towards the end of the year.  In the interest of transparency, here's what we did with the money:

(Note: it's surprisingly tricky to figure out what counts as income and donations  for example, if I do a job for someone and ask them to donate instead of paying me, does that count as me donating or the other person donating?  For simplicity's sake, this post will use the income and donations from our 2012 tax return.  More detailed information on Jeff's website.)
  • Donations: This was our best year yet for donations.  If we earn more in the future, we'll be able to give more.
  • Taxes: Our taxes are lowered because of donating.
  • Savings: We're saving for a house, children, and retirement.
  • Housing: Our costs were unusually low because we're renting from Jeff's parents.  This will go up soon when we buy a house.
  • Food, clothes, transit, etc.: We spend about $200 a month on groceries.  We pay $70 each for a monthly public transit pass.  We each get about $40 a week in spending money, which covers clothes, cell phones, gifts, vacations, meals out, etc.
  • Medical: Jeff's work pays for most of our health insurance, but we pay for some of the insurance and some out-of-pocket expenses.
These numbers are atypical, because Jeff earns more as a computer programmer than most people do.  (He's an example of the earning to give model  if you want to be able to donate more, seek a higher-paying job.)  We also save on living expenses because we're two people living together.

So let's look at how I might budget if it were just me. This hypothetical budget is based on my earnings as a social worker from the past year, including four months when I was unemployed.  My total income was around $38,000 (close to median personal income in the US).

This assumes:
  • Saving 15% of income, which is pretty standard financial advice
  • $800/month rent and $100/month utilities, which is doable in the Boston area in a small apartment or an apartment shared with friends
  • $150/month on groceries, $80/month for public transit and $45/week on other personal spending, which are all more than I currently spend
  • My employer might pay 60% of my health insurance, so I would pay $250/month for insurance and out-of-pocket medical spending
  • Leaving $8,500, or 22%, for donations.  Not bad!
So even on a modest salary, it's possible to give a significant amount.  You don't even have to live in a cardboard box, I promise.