We were moved after seeing a recent major motion picture about the trans-formation of a rich man who comes to mobilize his privilege to protect others. At the end of "Schindler's List" the protagonist, who had saved the lives of 1200 Jews from the Nazis, cries out in grief and horror as he realizes how many more lives he could have saved with his money. 'This gold pin,' he exclaims as he tears it off his jacket, 'that could have been another two lives right there!' What will it take, we asked ourselves after the movie, for the life-saving power of our wealth to become real to us, as it did for Schindler?
Most of us suspect we have more money than we need. We know deep inside that the assets we're sitting on could be of enormous benefit in the wider world--they truly could save lives. But because we haven't done the work to figure out what our needs really are (and what "need" means to us)... because we haven't sorted out the complex emotional issues involved in letting go of the wealth... because we can't bear the pain of acknowledging the devastation affecting millions in our world right now... and because we don't have the support to make figuring all this out do-able in our lives... we continue to sit on excess money decade after decade.
If you're in this category but long to snap out of it, we've outlined a process that will get you there. We acknowledge that many of these steps may be challenging for both practical and emotional reasons. See the article on the giving alliance for one image of support for this process.
Phase One: Calculate your financial surplus.
Determine your ongoing needs. Figure out how much income you need to live at your current lifestyle (or at the lifestyle you want.) How much do you actually spend? How much of your assets do you need to produce that income, or to back up your earned income?
Plan for emergencies and long-term goals. How much money do you need to have available for these? Think in depth about all your concerns (children's education, disability, retirement and old age, special medical care not covered by health insurance...) and all your dreams (homes, travel, gifts...) To price them out you would need to get very specific. For instance, does "buy a house" mean a 20% down payment on $100,000, or $1,000,000? If you like, add 20% to your total, for leeway.
Plan what to leave your dependents. If you have dependents and want to give them assets (when you die, or before) think very carefully and practically about what you want to enable in their lives. Does "provide for children's education" mean four years at a state college or eight years at an Ivy League school? If it's "freedom to do work they love," do you mean a year or two of financial slack for extended job-hunting, or not having to make money for the rest of their lives? Are other relatives already leaving them money? If so, find out how much. Do you feel obliged to make them as rich as you, and, if so, why? Are there ways you are confusing money with love or happiness? Decide how much you want to leave your dependents and how.
Determine your surplus. Based on the above calculations, figure out how much (if any) of your money could you reasonably call "surplus." Take into account whatever yearly appreciation on your wealth you have above inflation. A note to the less wealthy: it may seem incredible that anyone would have money left over, or that people wouldn't have thought this out already, but believe us, both are often true.)
Phase Two: Put Your Surplus to Use
Examine your fears. Consider what you would like to do with some or all of your self-defined "surplus." What feelings and concerns arise when you ask yourself what uses of these resources would most delight you? Fears for your current safety or your well-being in old age? For what family would think? For lost opportunities or a shift in identity? Pay attention to all your thoughts and feelings. Create a safe place to explore them--for instance, in a journal, with a partner or friend, in prayer, in a support group, or in therapy. Which of your concerns do you respect and which not? Examine ways to address each fear.
Take practical steps towards increasing your sense of security. If you had less surplus to rely on might you want disability insurance? life insurance? nursing home insurance? Ask friends have less money than you how they create security in their lives.
Explore how you could use the money to better society. What are your passions? Who's doing effective work on the problems you most care about? Get advice from people and organizations that are informed about your areas of concern.
Give away part or all of your surplus. Even before you have figured out exactly who you might give to, you can set up a donor-advised account through an existing foundation. Give now, claim your deductions, and figure out the specifics in the coming few years (you can take the tax deductions for up to five years).
Phase Three: Engage in a Process of Simplifying Your Life.
Phase One assumed your current lifestyle. But you probably know that the "global consumer class," those of us in the top fifth of the world's economic ladder, consume far more than the earth can sustain.
Whether your reasons to simplify are ecological, spiritual, humanitarian, or just practical, we encourage you to join efforts to move our society towards appropriate levels of consumption. For most of us, this is not a "quick fix," but a step-by-step process of changing ourselves both inside and out--a process that may continue throughout our lifetime.
Create ongoing support. Connect with others who agree with this direction in your life, and build in systems which will give you regular encouragement. Create time in your life when you can listen to your deeper self.
Build non-material forms of security. Financial consultant Michael Phillips believes some of the best investments we can make to prepare for old age are non-monetary: investing in our emotional and physical health, building a mutually-supportive community of friends (especially with young people, who keep our minds open and flexible), and becoming the most interesting people we can be.
Other sources of non-material security include developing practical skills, work we'll always love doing, a sustaining spiritual practice, and intimate relationships (including family). In the long run, these sources of security can lessen over-dependence on wealth.
Take steps to consume less. Small steps may eventually add up to big changes--in how you eat, work, play, travel, teach your children, and experience life.
Phase Four: Repeat
Repeat phases one and two, as your values and financial needs change. .
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