How I Learned to Give Back — And What It Taught Me

My financial journey from living below the poverty line to financial security began when I graduated from college in the spring of 2007. In the course of one week, I secured all the markers of “adulthood” — I got my first job, purchased my first (beater) car, and a temporary housing arrangement with friends of friends.

In the next few weeks, my lifestyle shifted dramatically. The only constant in my new life was attending dinners with extended family most Saturday evenings. One evening, without fanfare, my uncle shoved a fistful of hundreds and twenties into the palm of my hand as I opened my car door to head home. My stunned expression matched that of his amusement at this spontaneous and excessive gesture. I stammered out a feeble “thank you” and drove home without counting the dollar amount of this unexpected windfall. I counted the cash when I got home — it was more than $700. This was nearly enough to cover a month and half of rent for the three-bedroom apartment I shared with two roommates. It was a life-changing amount because not three months after embarking on my first job out of school, I was unexpectedly and unceremoniously fired.

It was my first shocking, real-world failure. I had just signed a twelve-month lease on my apartment. The end of the grace period for my student loan debt was creeping closer and I was still learning just how much groceries and gas can add up each month. After a couple of weeks of being paralyzed from soul-crushing and debilitating fear, I went and got a job at Starbucks and began applying for full-time work. I was underemployed for nearly six months before landing a career-building job.

With this change in circumstance, I eagerly began my quest for financial security. In my determination to never again find myself in a vulnerable situation, I managed my resources and expenditures like a business to usurp control of my financial future. I conducted audits and minimized my fixed monthly expenses, various inefficiencies and cut just enough fat to feel like I was doing just a little bit more than I could reasonably expect myself to do. Embarrassingly, it was well into my journey of concentrating all my efforts on this singular pursuit before I came to the confronting realization that in my fear of financial destitution, I became kind of an anxious, self-absorbed asshole.

Sure, I was concerned about the wellbeing of others, but only in theory. I didn’t contribute to the advancement of charitable causes and I passed on too many social activities like eating out or going to the movies to avoid “wasting money.” I allowed my fear of financial insecurity to determine the framework of my life. At this point in my journey, I had secured a living wage and amassed a positive net worth. I considered my newfound privilege and recalled my uncle’s act of generosity at a frightening time in my life and took a step towards becoming a more giving, conscientious person. I saw clearly that I was in this enviable position because of the people who propped me up and pushed me towards upward mobility. To turn around my scarcity mindset, I started contributing a minimum of $50 to one or two charities a month. I felt good about this decision — and it made me wonder what else I could do to help.

Like many Millennials in search of employment during the recession, I moved often for work. I left behind a lot of people I care about in various cities and states. So I carved out $200 a month out of money previously earmarked for my general savings account and spent it freely on charities and gifts to friends and family. In addition to sending gifts to celebrate important occasions and milestones, I made time to text, call, email, and visit to show I still loved and cared for them. When I missed people, or felt a pang of gratitude for these cherished relationships, I sent random practical gifts like foodstuffs and household items I knew the recipient would appreciate or need. I picked up tabs more often with both old and new friends and I counted these restaurant purchases as “Gifts” in my Mint account. Consumable purchases like meals out no longer felt like wasted purchases, but a way to appreciate my friends while also treating myself to meals superior to anything my culinary chops produced.

An interesting and unexpected thing happened once I decided to be more generous with people I loved and organizations doing amazing humanitarian work — I became more generous with myself. I reconsidered how I viewed money and what expenses were “wastes of money.” I had been borderline ascetic; I once thought it was frivolous to purchase unnecessary consumables like ice cream at grocery stores and meals out at restaurants. I resisted treating myself to conveniences like opting for Uber or Lyft rides instead of public transit, and picking up takeout or ready-made meals. I started paying for services like house cleaning ($80 plus 20-30 percent tip), quality haircuts ($50 plus 20-30 percent tip), and more frequent dry cleaning and alterations. I now allow myself to spend money on unnecessary expenses that I could do without, but undoubtedly add value to my life.

I remember the first time I took a car service to a doctor’s appointment. Instead of carving out a solid two-and-a-half hours out of my work day to take a 45-minute bus ride each way and the one-hour appointment, I could get it done under an hour and a half. The time saved felt like a long exhale and shifted my perspective in how I saw city-living — an engaging, albeit sometimes inhospitable way of life. I came to the discovery that the city grind doesn’t always have much to do with the city itself, but can be a reflection on one’s disposable income and the value-based personal finance choices one makes. I noticed how so many of life’s discomfort can be avoided with the use of money. It seems ridiculous that it took me this long to figure out this truth, but I never allowed myself to think about it too much, as my default choice was always the most frugal, often exhausting option.

After guarding each dollar fiercely and protectively, I found what could best be described as relief in parting with money for purposes with potential to make life a little bit easier. With an increasing number of rides driven by strangers looking to make their living, I was confronted by the fact that my household isn’t a business or fortress I can defend fastidiously. Instead, my personal economy is part of a larger one. There’s no option to exist outside of this system, unless one lives off the land and off the grid (and even with that type of disconnection, outsourcing services and resources are still needed at times). As I zoomed out of my microscopic and singular focus for financial independence by interacting more closely with the community of solopreneurs and business owners at large, I realized the exponential value of being nice to myself — I was a willing and participating member of my community and local economy. This understanding helped me relax my guarded nervousness about letting go of each dispensable dollar and changed how I show appreciation for others.

An embarrassingly bougie conundrum I face each holiday season is determining how much to gift my building staff members. Last year, I reflected on the value the concierge staff brought to the community. They manage, organize, and catalogue all packages that come into the building and deliver, fetch and close out each transaction. This is, of course, in addition to services like organizing community events and coordinating and scheduling appointments for a number of residents’ needs. Last year, I decided that $50 was appropriate. This year, I aim to earmark $100 for our full-time concierge and $50 for our part-time concierge.

It’s kind of shocking to see that I am now in a very different place from the days of lacking access to healthcare services. I can acknowledge this truth, but I am still marked with the insecurity of needing reduced-priced school lunches. In addition to my ongoing quest for financial security, my opposing goal is to challenge my trauma-informed fear of scarcity.

In asserting kindness to myself and support for my community, I discovered that spending money on little pleasures, conveniences, services, and tipping generously were far from a waste of money. I’ve been mindful in choosing mom-and-pop markets and restaurants, independently-owned stops, and other family-owned businesses. Instead of guarding every dollar spent in fear, my heart expanded with my newfound gratitude at the realization that I am able to deliberately support people in my network and community, in addition to myself. With relief and humbling gratitude, I learned that each act of giving is an expression of hope — the opposite of fear.

Michelle Song does things including writing, editing, and marveling at life’s absurdities. Yes, she is an introvert and coincidentally is an older Millennial unlikely to be found anywhere but her inbox at

Photo by LinedPhoto on Unsplash.

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