I started fundraising and creating an endowment for suicide prevention at Colorado State University in 2010-11. Before I graduated and went to my doctoral program in Iowa, the fund was permanently endowed — reaching $25,000 in about a year. Last week I received my annual “Endowment Report,” which provides the earnings, contributions, and total value of the fund.
As I opened the report, it was hard to stay standing. Today, about 3-4 years since the founding, the scholarship has nearly $34,000 in funds! When the scholarship reaches about $50,000 in savings, it should be able to pay out multiple scholarships each year — or one large check. Ultimately, this can go into the pocket of a college student in need, who hopes to make a difference in the field of mental health.
But back in college, I only had a few hundred dollars in my name. When I got the idea to start a scholarship, I donated nearly everything I could to help seed the fund. I was passionate beyond belief and this cause was everything to me. I remember looking at my bank account, wondering how much more I could give without going broke. It was a delicate financial time, but I had money. And that’s an important point.
When I entered graduate school, I took out massive amounts of student loans, was ignorant about budgeting for the semesters, and irresponsible in spending. Between car, credit, and student loans, I amassed about $40,000 of debt in two years. Throughout this period, I never stopped giving to charity.
Each year, I spent anywhere from $200-500 — small sums in the grand scheme of things — in donations. I kept giving and giving — even when I had nothing. Zilch, nada, zero. Loans were the only thing keeping me afloat.
Even worse, I began to feel the pull of credit debt. This is the particularly nasty kind — an undertow that’ll sweep you out before you know it. With thousands in credit debt, I started engaging in credit balance transfers. These are financial shell games that you can play with yourself and credit companies. You open a new account that provides a 0% balance transfer, and then pay a little fee. Usually, that company provides 0% interest in those funds for about a year. A great deal, if it weren’t for the fact that my spending never stopped.
My spending was out of control and that included charitable spending. I hate writing that line. I hate the idea of cutting back gifts to charity. And I certainly hate the advice I must give today.
I need you to be ruthlessly defensive of your finances when in debt. I need you to ignore your desire to help others, so that you can help yourself. I need you to consider a future where you can help others even more, when you have the savings available.
To those in debt today, you need to put the mask on yourself first — before helping others. Now you may ask, “Why would I do that? Generosity is exceptionally important to me!” In response, I’d say, “I can relate to that feeling. I have given every year of my adult life to charities — in and out of debt.” But it’s time to change our perspective to charitable giving while in debt.
See, when you spend beyond your budget and give to charities when in debt, you’re actually writing a fat check to banks. Those that retain and house your loans — from the federal government to private corporations — receive their own donations when you make this financial mistake. The interest on loans given to you allows banks to realize ever increasing profits and earnings. Worse, it forces you into debt longer than you need be, and prevents you from being able to give more at a later date.
It’s with a pained heart that I must suggest that you stop giving until you’re back in the green (or black). I don’t want banks to make another dime off you, and I’m sure you don’t either. So let’s make a pact to stop giving until we’re done with debt. Then, and only then, let’s consider how we can best help those in need.
Special shoutout to Ben and Stefanie at The Broke and Beautiful Life for an awesome article that inspired this!