Bearing Gifts

Rand Spero

GIVING GIFTS DELIVERS significant emotional and health benefits, or so says the research. But I find much depends on how the actual giving takes place.

My best giving lesson occurred many years ago. At a rural busstop on the island of Crete, off the coast of Greece, I sat next to an old local woman dressed in ragged clothing and torn shoes. Neither of us spoke the other’s language. She carried with her a small bag of fresh peaches and motioned for me to take one. I smiled and declined. But she was persistent, so I assumed she was offering to sell me one. I took out some money. She shook her head “no.”

Instead, she handed me a huge peach and gestured that I taste it. After biting into the delicious fruit, I let out an appreciative sound and grinned. As we both got on the bus, the old woman’s face unfolded with an amazing smile of pleasure. I was moved by her simple humanity and her willingness to share something she viewed as so special.

But other times, giving feels disingenuous. I think about my former employer. I was assigned to be secret Santa to a co-worker I disliked. Nothing about the experience was positive. All I remember was that my gift expenditure matched the recommended amount. I’ve had similar negative experiences when purchasing other gifts solely out of obligation.

Even giving to a worthwhile charity can result in different reactions, depending on how we approach it. I feel more connected when I mindfully focus on a charity’s mission and goals. If, in addition to contributing financially, I get involved by volunteering, my commitment grows even more.

But when I view a charitable contribution from a purely economic perspective, something feels lacking. As a financial advisor, I understand that a close review of how each nonprofit manages its donations is essential to understanding a charity’s effectiveness. I also appreciate that there are tax-planning options to consider, so you receive the biggest tax savings from any particular donation. Still, seeing our contribution only as an economic exchange can diminish our sense of connection to the charity involved.

In other words, while giving may seem like a straightforward activity, it isn’t always uplifting. Here are five lessons based on my experience with giving:

  1. If we’re willing to make a real sacrifice and extend ourselves, it means more.
  2. When we expand our framework from friends and family to the larger world community, something special occurs.
  3. We should focus on who and how our money is helping. This will make the gift more satisfying.
  4. Internally motivated giving provides greater emotional benefits than gifts given under duress or out of a sense of obligation.
  5. An open heart leads to generosity and a meaningful connection with others—as the old Greek woman reminded me.

Rand Spero is president of Street Smart Financial, a fee-only financial planning firm in Lexington, Massachusetts. His previous articles include Admission of GuiltLife Support and Monthly Affliction. Rand has taught personal finance and strategic planning at the Tufts University Osher Institute, Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Management and Massachusetts General Hospital.

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