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Random Acts

Austin Dorenkamp

BUDGETS CAN BE a contentious topic. Some people swear by them. Others argue they’re unnecessary if you easily spend less than you make. No matter which side you take in this debate, I’d advocate budgeting for one item: kindness.

I’ve always enjoyed reading news stories about strangers who left unusually large tips for their waiter. After reading such stories, I’d daydream about where I’d leave large tips if I was that rich. One day, as I was reading one of these feel-good stories, I realized I had $100 in my wallet that I’d received as a birthday gift. At that moment, I knew exactly what I was going to do with the money.

The next time I went out to eat, I paid my modest bill and left a $100 tip. As I was getting ready to leave, the waitress stopped me and asked if I’d made a mistake. I smiled at her and said, “Nope. That’s for you.” Her gratitude and my generosity-fueled dopamine rush confirmed that I’d invested my birthday money wisely.

At that moment, I resolved to leave a $100 tip for a stranger every year on my birthday.

I kept up that annual tradition for several years until I had an epiphany. If I enjoy leaving a $100 tip so much, why am I only doing it once a year? After sitting down with my wife to review our monthly budget, we determined that we could set aside $100 every month to spend on a random act of kindness.

How we’ve spent that $100 each month varies. Sometimes, we tip our waiter or hairdresser. Other times, we contribute to a GoFundMe or CaringBridge fundraiser. On occasion, we use the money to buy a gift for a friend out of the blue.

We’ve set two rules for ourselves. First, the $100 can’t be used to cover any of our typical expenses. That means we can’t use it to pay for a birthday gift that we already planned on purchasing and it can’t go toward the normal 20% tip at a restaurant. Second, any unused portion of the $100 rolls over to the next month.

We’ve been setting aside $100 each month for random acts of kindness for several years now, and we’ve noticed three benefits. First, there’s the visceral joy that comes from surprising someone with an unexpected act of generosity. Don’t just take my word for it. A quick Google search turns up a variety of sources supporting this.

Second, giving away money regularly has increased our financial contentment. To give, we have to consciously decide what amount of money we currently have that’s more than we need. The act of deciding has profoundly changed how we view our finances.

Third, knowing that we have $100 every month to give away has helped us develop greater empathy for and interest in those around us. Is someone having a hard day? Are folks going above and beyond what their role requires? Every time I’m out in public, I’m now more interested in getting to know those around me, because an opportunity to show kindness can present itself at any moment.

If you’re interested in trying this out for yourself, here are some tips. First and most important: budget for kindness. I’ve found that if you allocate the sum ahead of time, it’s much easier to part with the money.

Next, pick a dollar amount that works for you. It doesn’t have to be $100. It could be $50 or even $20. Finally, pick a frequency that you think you can sustain. Annually, quarterly or monthly are good places to start.

In my experience, random acts of kindness that are $50-plus seem to have the biggest impact on the recipient. I’d recommend decreasing the frequency of your gifts so you can increase their size, until you feel comfortable giving away at least $50 at a time.

Keep in mind that this type of financial generosity doesn’t come with any tax benefits. If you give away significant sums each year, it makes sense to direct most of your generosity toward tax-exempt organizations, such as churches and other nonprofits. But I can confidently say that the return on investment I receive from giving people unexpected $100 gifts far exceeds the tax advantages I’ve given up.

Austin Dorenkamp wears many hats including husband, father, software engineer, program manager, landlord and therapy dog handler. He’s even been called an ice cream sommelier. If he’s not giving those around him unsolicited financial advice, Austin’s likely cracking a joke or driving in a time-efficient manner. Check out his previous articles.

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