New Year’s Resolution: Don’t Get Rich

Don’t Get Rich

An inadvertent resolution.

Photo: Eric

A strange thing happened to me over the course of the last year: I became middle-class.

I switched job sectors from theater to higher education. That helped. My new job gave me a raise. Then another. By the end of the year I found myself making $48,000 per year. Important to note: I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have no debt and no dependents. My lovely partner and I live in a home that she owns, with two roommates. I am almost pathologically cheap.

For a person like me, $48,000 a year is a lot of money. Too much, maybe. For the first time in my life I felt uncomfortable telling people my salary, and unsure what I should do with the extra dollars in my account at the end of the month. See: pathological cheapness.

I felt weirdly adrift in my sudden financial security. So like any good millennial, I turned to the internet. I started reading personal finance blogs, like this one. I googled things like “ethical investing” and “high yield savings account.” I made spreadsheets and opened a Mint account to monitor the money that had started accumulating in my checking account. I attempted to understand compound interest. I did not succeed!

I didn’t really hit my stride until I walked into my bank and opened up a savings account. When I saw those numbers start to climb my adrenaline spiked like a retiree buying bingo cards: I wanted more, more, more! I suddenly needed to save a mountain of money, a pile that would protect me from any conceivable catastrophe. Broken arm? Whatever, I can pay the deductible. Car towed? No sweat, man. Emergency vet visits? Do all the tests!

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The spring and summer were consumed in a frenzy of saving. I was putting away more than $1,000 per month. There were no catastrophes, and the few times I dipped into the account for non-essentials it felt like I was reaching into my chest cavity and scooping out my lungs. I saved a lot of money–a little more than $10,000—and I felt really proud. It wasn’t until the fall that I noticed the collateral damage.

My charitable giving had plummeted. My obsession with fiscal responsibility meant I’d given away less money than I had in 2014, when I made $18,000 less per year.

This tracks with general trends in giving: in my state of Minnesota, people with an annual income of $25,000 or less give 8.22% of their adjusted gross income to charity, according to a survey of charitable giving compiled by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Minnesotans who make between 25,000–50,000 give 3.96% of their AGI to charity, and folks making between 50,000 and 75,000 give away even less: just 2.85%.

The more money you make, the more you’d like to keep your money, it seems. Paul Piff, a psychologist and researcher at UC Berkeley who studies generosity and class, said in an interview with the Atlantic: “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people…[they are] more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.” Oh.

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There have certainly been times in my life when I’ve exhibited characteristics that might be, you know, stereotypically associated with assholes. I’ve been working on this! Needless to say, I found my own replication of Piff’s study results to be worrisome. If increased wealth is directly correlated to increased self-absorption, maybe I needed to take a closer look at my own balance sheet.

This examination led me to the single most achievable New Year’s resolution of my life: don’t get rich.

What does this mean? It means that 2017 is the year I’m going to step up my charitable giving, no excuses, no assholery. I’m taking a close look at my budget, and putting 8.22% (the same amount that a person making $25,000 or less would) of my income back into the community. On my salary this means I’ll be giving away about $220 per month.

My partner and I have also committed to hosting monthly generosity dinners in our home (her brilliant idea). Each month we invite a bunch of friends over for dinner. Everyone brings $20 and the names of a few organizations whose work in the community they admire. At the end of the meal, we vote on nominees, and donate the pooled funds to the winner. Not only does this help me stay with the practice of giving, it offers lots of great ideas for places to send my own monthly funds.

Will this resolution mean I’m saving money at a slower rate? Obviously. Does it feel like the least I can do? I mean, yeah, it does. This resolution made me realize how narrowly I’d been defining what makes someone good with money. I’d divided my approach to money into two categories: on one side, conspicuous consumption (gross!). On the other side: manic tightwaddery (virtuous!). I’d completely ignored the third option: acknowledge your privilege, and spend your money on other people.

Resolved: 2017 is the year I’ll do just that. This is the year I don’t get rich.