Wednesday, October 12, 2011

See a Beggar? Give Them A Dollar!

Today I have decided to do something that I hope will drastically change my outlook on life and the way I feel about myself. I face myself everyday, and everyday I’m left feeling a bit bad about myself. I want to think I’m a good person, who doesn’t? But when I wonder: “Am I REALLY a good person? Is there anything significant about me?” I’m left feeling more than a bit short. What do I do that’s really worth anything? I’m a pretty NICE person, I try to be NICE to people, I am supportive to my friends, I raise my family the best I can, but do any of these things mean I’m a GOOD person? No it doesn’t.

When I think about why I feel like a bad person, one thing comes to mind: money. I came from so little money that for years I didn’t have things other people consider necessities -- such as electricity and running water. And now, I’ve worked my way through college while raising two kids, own a modest 1200 sq. foot home, don’t carry a credit card balance, have a bit of money in my 401k, college savings plans, and regular savings. My savings is not enough to cover more than one paycheck should I lose my job. Regardless, I support a family of five on my income, and what I have to show for it is modest, but it’s there.

It’s also fairly recent that I’ve started to feel like I have a little bit of money. At the beginning of this year I realized, as have many Americans lately, that I was living well outside my means ... and for what? Some extra things in my closet? Extravagant gifts for people? Eating out a lunch every day at work? I spent hours creating an extremely tight budget, a completely comprehensive, to the dollar budget that left nothing out. It was tight, but it covered my bills, allowed for a solid credit card payoff plan, contributed to various savings, and had a (very) small amount of money set aside for some fun stuff.

Fast forward 6 months later, and something happened: I became much more financially secure. I might only be able to cover one missing paycheck, but that’s a whole lot better shape than I was in at the beginning of the year, where I was spending more than I was making and had only a few days pay in the bank account, and ran my checking to zero before each payday. After so long of living paycheck to paycheck, I actually had a money buffer. And while the money in my checking is technically allocated down to zero, there is now always money sitting in it, regardless of how close it is to payday.

I even started giving money each paycheck to various charities. Each time I get paid, I pick a charity to donate to. It’s in my budget, and therefore I gladly spend it, and it feels good. It has also been helping me to come to grips with letting go of my money. The way I’ve been holding onto my money is one of the things I most dislike about myself. The thought of someone else asking me for my extremely hard earned money makes me tighten up, and think of excuses as to why I couldn’t possibly spare it.

I work in downtown St. Louis, and am very frequently approached by beggars. Not once have I ever given any of them a dime. Every time I walk by them, I rush by with guilt, because I know it’s the wrong to ignore a person asking for help. Here is someone asking for my help, and whatever the reason, whatever they want it for, it shouldn’t matter to me. What makes asking for financial help any different than someone asking for help of any other nature? If you take the money part out of it, what is left, simply, is someone who is asking for help. Well, I believe in God, and these people asking for my help are also God’s children, and they have his love as much as I do. These are people who, for whatever reason that is not mine to judge, need help. How can I turn them away and walk right past them, when I am fully capable of providing the help they are asking for?

Today, as I was walking downtown, I spotted a likely beggar, and, like usual, walked quickly pass him without giving any eye contact. Only, he didn’t ask for money. He only grinned a big, toothless grin. For some reason, that made me feel even more guilty. After I passed him, I had a thought: I have two one-dollar bills in my pocket, and if someone asks me for money today, I am going to give them one of those dollars. I walked around my normal route, and actually slowed pace and made eye contact with anyone who looked like they might be inclined to beg me for some spare change. Not a single person did. But the fact that I was going to do it was so liberating! Suddenly, I didn’t have to walk around with apprehension that someone was going to ask me, and the guilt I’d feel afterwords. I WANTED that freedom, I sought that freedom.

Suddenly I realized that, once I had tasted this liberation, this freedom, that I couldn’t ever go back to my old guilt-filled, apprehensive ways. And right there I decided that I would carry around one dollar bills. I would make a point to keep a few stocked in my wallet at all times. And if ANYONE asked me for some money, anyone at all whose path I crossed, I would give them one of those one dollar bills.

I haven’t even given away a dollar yet, but I know, I feel in my heart, that I’m changing my own life here. Why I might not think a dollar is going to do much, it could make a huge difference to the person who hasn’t got one. I know the majority of people I’m going to give money to will most likely go out and by alcohol or drugs instead of food. But I also know that occasionally I will help someone who really did need it, and if I manage to truly help one person, well then I’ve done my job.

How this is going to fit into my budget, you wonder? Well, so do I. In fact, I have absolutely nothing budgeted for it, yet my budget is to the dollar accurate; nothing is left out. But this doesn’t fit into a budget. I’m not limiting my help to a dollar amount. My help is only limited to the number of people who ask, and the cash I have on hand. So I’m just giving them away, however many are needed, pulling out of money that should go to other things.

But oddly enough, I’m not worried about it. I will have to keep track so that I know what I’ve shorted myself, but I’m unconcerned with how I’ll be paying myself back. I have a cushion in my bank account, I will not be over drafted by a few dollars a week, as I would have been but 6 months ago. I will pay myself back by either allocating money that would have been spent elsewhere, or by applying money to it when I happen to get something extra in.

God will provide for my financial shortcomings, and that is the lesson I need to teach myself. It’s a hard lesson for someone who has forced herself to be completely financially self sufficient; someone who has built her security from the ground up (with God’s help, of course). Granted, I’m not jumping off any cliff here by handing out a few dollars a week. But for someone who watches and tracks her every dollar, it sure feels like jumping. But it’s so darned liberating, I swear I can fly.