The life you save may be your own


Haitian children attend school classes provide...

Haitian children attend school classes provided by Non-governmental Agency Partners in Health, at Ancien Aeroporte Militaire Individually Displaced Persons Camp, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Apr. 27, 2010. The camp houses over 40,000 displaced Haitians of which about 13,000 are children. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Feeling a little pressed these days? Maybe your retirement savings are, oh, half what you probably need. Or that secure job doesn’t look so secure. Or your kid is suffocating under college loan payments. I’m here to tell you you’re lucky.


If you live in the United States, no matter how poor you are, you’re way better off than most of the world. College bills? At least your daughter got to learn to read. High cost of health care? You can get cataract surgery rather than being a blind beggar by the side of the road. If you get hit by a car, an ambulance will come to pick you up. Losing half your assets in a divorce? At least you can get a divorce. No, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. I’m trying to make the point that how we evaluate our financial situation is—compared to what?

I’ve had people look me in the eye and tell me they can’t possibly live on $300,000 a year, which is true if they keep spending at the level they’re currently at. If you’re feeling poor and live in this country, you need to adjust your standards and compare yourself to a more rational standard. You will feel really and truly filthy rich if you take my recommendation: go read The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer, a bioethics prof at Princeton. Or just check out the website.

Singer thoughtfully demolishes every one of my pathetic excuses on why I don’t give to charity (at least not enough). Wasteful administration, ineffective programs, too broke, don’t know what’s appropriate, don’t know where to find good charities, can’t decide what issues are most important? Singer addresses and gives sound and thoughtful guidance on all these straw men. If you’re not writing a check by the time you finish this book (or thoughtfully read the website material), well, your name must be Newt Gingrich.

I don’t agree with all of Singer’s conclusions as to where to give, but my guess is he wouldn’t prevent you from donating to environmental causes rather than his preference—third world causes. Nothing prevents you from thoughtful giving to your own priorities. Singer does a terrific job, but I’ll add a few financial planner tips:

  1. Put your money where your mouth is. It’s a favorite leisure activity to complain about politics, how government doesn’t do such and such, ain’t it terrible, those people, etc. Donate to something you really believe in and BE the difference.
  2. Don’t scatter it all over the place. The only thing you’ll get is more junk mail. Give larger donations to charities whose mission you really care about. Maximize your investment.
  3. Just as in investing, put your money into things you understand. Take the time to check out the charity on Charity Navigator, GuideStar, or GiveWell, look at the charity’s website, or pick one where you or someone you know has worked or volunteered.
  4. Don’t be shy about touting your favorites. Singer says other people’s giving increases if they think all their friends are giving. And if you have a regular job, get that employer match!
  5. Give, but don’t feel guilty. Singer has a terrific suggested donation level scale on the website. For most of us, his suggested amounts could be accomplished without much pain on our part.
  6. Keep up with what the charity is actually doing. Many charities can be “liked” on Facebook or have an e-newsletter. Yeah, I get a ton of junk, too, but I make an effort to read about ones I’ve donated to or am thinking of, just as I try to keep up with other investments I’ve made.
  7. It’s not wrong to support charities by buying gift products or accepting membership bonuses. Of course, if you don’t need another coffee mug you can always turn it down and save them some money. But if a scarf or backpack causes you to donate more than you ordinarily would, I say go for it. Nothing wrong with feeling good while you’re doing good.

Since I can’t ever resist the temptation to give advice, I am going to suggest a few of my favorite charities—I don’t have any scientific evaluation process (other than following their activities and checking them out as above)—but you can use them to get started on thinking. Trust me, you’ll feel a lot better about your life and your financial situation in life.


The Fistula Foundation

What they do, and the condition they address, is astounding. Maybe don’t read about it before lunch if you’re a woman or have daughters.

Partners in Health

For even more information on this one, read Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains beyond Mountains. They provide critically needed community health care in many of the dirt poor countries of the world.

Village Health Works

Inspired by Partners in Health and others. Another Tracy Kidder subject—check out the book Strength in What Remains. How you can barely survive genocide and still want to RETURN to help the country that nearly killed you is beyond me. Luckily, others have more courage.


Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation

They treat a ton of the busted, hurt, and otherwise impaired wildlife in this area. I don’t know how they do it with minimal staff and budget, but I’m glad they do.

WBEZ Public Radio

Okay, they’re not the poorest of the poor but I listen a lot. I’d sure miss ‘em if they were gone. Plus they give you a nifty discount member card.

Between Friends

They focus on helping victims of domestic violence. May you never need those services, but I guarantee you know someone who does.

So, I’m encouraging you to take the pledge at The Life You Can Save, and put charitable donations in your financial plan. You’ll save your sanity, ground yourself, and your life will most definitely make an impact on the world. Not such bad outcomes.


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Posted in Charitable Giving.


  1. Great subject. Thanks for the donation suggestions. I thought I would share my method for avoiding feeling like I cannot afford to donate. In the face of income ups and downs, for many years I have automatically taken 10 percent of all monies received and put it in a separate checking account. From that moment forward it isn’t my money any longer, but is available for giving.

    • It’s a great suggestion. As you point out, segregating money in separate accounts takes it out of the spending stream.

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