Ping (zestyping) wrote,

An idea for 2010: personal consumption offsets.

Imagine you were confronted with a person in great suffering, and you were capable of helping to alleviate their suffering. If this person were right in front of you, it would probably feel unkind to ignore them.

Yet, rationally, there is no difference between the suffering of a person you can see in front of you, and the same suffering experienced by a person you've never met, thousands of miles away. Is it not equally as necessary to help any fellow human being in great need? Surely geographical location is not relevant to the worth of a life.

This has been my way of thinking for some time. Peter Singer explains it more eloquently in his 1971 essay, Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Yes, charities are less than 100% efficient, and choosing worthy ones can be complicated. And keeping ourselves in love with life is a necessary prerequisite for giving to others. But these are minor caveats in comparison to the main, inescapable point: most people give less than they should. I say this not to criticize any deficiency in their principles, but as an observation that their actions are logically inconsistent with the principles they choose for themselves.

Setting aside a fixed fraction of your income for charitable donations is a pretty common concept. Christians call it tithing, and Singer himself makes a similar suggestion, even proposing specific percentages for income brackets. The problem with the income-fraction approach is that not everyone can afford to give the same fraction of their income. Those barely able to make rent might only be able to afford a little, but billionaires can easily afford to give away most of their income. Singer wrote:

Given a society in which a wealthy man who gives 5 percent of his income to famine relief is regarded as most generous, it is not surprising that a proposal that we all ought to give away half our incomes will be thought to be absurdly unrealistic.

I've never set aside a fraction of my income to donate, even when I've had a regular income. I occasionally donate here and there, at random to a charity that strikes me as a good one, but certainly far less than 10% of my income, probably less than 2%. Having a real job has made me think about what I should do about this.

I have an idea for a different approach that I'm going to try as an experiment. It's pretty simple:

In 2010, I'll match everything I spend on a non-essential purchase with an equal donation to an effective charity.
What's essential? Rent, groceries, furniture, expenses incurred in order to do my job.
What's non-essential? Eating out, movies, gadgets, toys, travel for fun. Gifts for myself, basically.
What's an effective charity? IRC, MSF, PSI, and EFF are my current favourites, though I'm sure there are many other excellent possibilities.

There are a few things I like about this scheme, both practical and psychological:

  • By definition, this only affects non-essential expenses — so anyone can do this, regardless of income level.
  • The statement of the pledge is simple and doesn't involve arbitrary percentages.
  • It motivates me to donate more, while enhancing my enjoyment of the things I buy for myself.
  • I'll become newly aware of how much I spend on non-essential things.

My plan is to use Mint to tag my expenses as non-essential. At the beginning of each month, I'll do a round of tagging and make a donation.

Thoughts, ideas, or suggestions?

Thanks to Mitch and Slim for reviewing this post.

2010-01-09 14:00 PST: Welcome, @PeterSinger followers! — PeterSinger tweets: Nice idea on giving here: Thanks Ka-Ping Yee. And you can pledge as well at

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Interesting idea. Will this account for all of your donations to charities? What is missing is the idea of personal savings. How much should you just save for a rainy day (your one day needs) versus donate for someones immediate needs.

And also the idea that even essentials, can be acquired at any price. You can buy a table at a thrift store, ikea, or Danker. Sometimes you want one, sometimes another. Do those choices play into your idea? How does buying a good cut of meat for dinner plus the extras for you and a friend work as different than a meal out? The meal out, you help pay someones salary and you might spend less than a meal in your house?

And as you've donated a lot of time this past year, how does that play into donation. They say time = money.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy year!

I like it. Eight years ago I started my own scheme where I opened a special bank account into which I would make automatic transfers each month. The money in it could be only given away: to charities, friends or random strangers in need. Taking someone out to dinner counted, for example. The only other rule was that the account had to be emptied each month, which meant that I had to keep giving all the time.

Making the decision once about how much I would transfer into the account each month meant I only had to summon up generous impulses once. The rest of the time, the money wasn't mine anyway, so I had no qualms about giving it away. I also got a few rolls of loonies ($1 coins) from the bank, marked one edge with purple paint, and scattered them throughout my backpack and coat pockets. That way I always had money to give away with me.

I found it made me a more generous person because I got in the habit of giving, and didn't need to make the trade-off each time between something I wanted to buy and other people's needs.

Things are more complicated now with a wife, a condo, and an RRSP, so we've moved all our charitable donations to the last week of December. But I still recommend the former approach for anyone interested in trying it. I like your project Ping; let us know how it goes.

Clayton (clayton at claytronics dot organization)
You could combine this with something that looks at your debit and credit card transactions, then lets you classify each one as "essential" (no donation) or "non-essential" (donation). Then integrate with easymatch to make sure your donations are matched by Google. That way you can make it as easy as possible to live up to your values with this program.

Once you get it working for you, release the software for others to use. The hardest part may be integration with the debit/credit card. There's a creepy new startup, however, that's trying to handle that problem by encouraging you to share your credit card purchases with your friends --
Maybe they'd be willing to share their expertise for a good cause like this one.
I was planning to do this by tagging my expenses in Mint. Integrating with easymatch is something I hadn't thought of, though.
Great, I don't use Mint so I didn't realize it could do that. Is there a way to build something on top of Mint that could handle some of the tagging for you (and everyone else who uses it)?
Peter Singer does have some good analysis on this point. He mentions GiveWell here:

But, I have to wonder if this is mostly symbolic on your part (not that that's bad...). You have extraordinary gifts as a developer, designer and thinker. Any single program you write is guaranteed to have a larger impact on the whole world than a single cash donation. Your lifetime body of work will be an incalculable gift.

Which means every time you purchase a 'non-essential' which makes it easier for you to live in a way which creates maximum opportunity for you to create, you've given far more to the world than the cash value of the non-essential, with the work you create.

Any single program you write is guaranteed to have a larger impact on the whole world than a single cash donation.

I am not always as confident as you that this is true. Think of this as hedging, perhaps: even if my other work has less impact than I might hope, I'll still be contributing money. Or, more deviously, think of this as a psychological self-hack: it facilitates enjoying life and dwelling less on guilt, which may ultimately make me more productive.

And, thanks for mentioning this. It's good to be reminded of the important thing which don't get talked about enough.

She defines her essentials on page 2. I've been reading her articles for a couple years now and I disagree with her on a few points, but her theory's are sound.
I have to admit one thing I miss from not having a normal job...

it that I used to "tithe" I was raised strict southern baptist and it was one of the good leftovers.

I think this is an awesome idea (and tell Mitch hello :-) one of these days I'll make it to CCC.)
Hey, whatever floats your boat, but is it really okay to discriminate between essential and non-essential?

There's a sort of puritan ethic there -- that having fun somehow isn't essential to being a human being. If you flip that around: people are always angry when they find out that poor people might use some of their welfare check to amuse themselves. Like pay for cable TV, a DVD player, or god forbid, a video game for their kids (who otherwise might have to play in dangerous streets). I think we can agree that's bad.

So likewise, I don't want relatively well-off people to feel terrible about their expenses -- they should feel bad (or good) about what they're doing with their LIVES. One right livelihood is worth a million foregone amusements.

Personally I do engage in tithing of a sort, but I discriminate by revenue source, not expenditure category.
I think it's okay to discriminate. Yes, you gain something from a very expensive dinner instead of a simple one, but it should be clear that the benefit you gain from the expensive dinner vs. the simple one is far less than the benefit someone with malnutrition would gain from a simple dinner vs. none.

having fun somehow isn't essential to being a human being.

I don't think Ping said anything about having less fun (much less not having any fun). Since he seems to be the kind of person who feels good when he helps others rather than when he gains wealth, maybe he will have more fun this way! (The non-essential spending he would have performed otherwise, plus the knowledge that he's helping to solve essential needs for many other people.)
What a great idea! When I decided not to buy anything I didn't need, the same questions came up that I see here. People asked you buy deoderant? Underwear? Dental floss? Paper towels? I quickly made a list of what I WOULD buy and sometimes have to add to that. After doing this for several months now I've found that I have far more satisfaction now from the things I currently have than ever before. It kind of disconnected me from that search for happiness through buying. I actually have more money now than I did when I wasn't giving away 5% of my income. And to address a previous comment, I'm considering it essential to save for retirement. I don't want to live on the street when I'm old. I want to live with an awareness of what I'm spending money on and what really makes me happy. And I'm finding that more stuff does not make me happy! I'm really interested in seeing what your experience is like this year.


January 10 2010, 06:31:34 UTC 7 years ago

Ping, this is great! In my giving,I wanted to branch out, and decided that each month I would choose a different charity to give to, or to be involved in. Much of the time I have more time than money, so I like to consider that part of my giving. Involvement in a variety of helping organizations has helped me to see the good that is happening in my community, as well as, the needs of others. Good luck with your plan this year. Thanks for writing this and for getting us thinking...
I like your idea too. By the way I'd like to find a good and effective charity devoted to non-human animals. Is it PETA a good one? It would be nice to find a comparative effectiveness evaluation of this kind of charities.
Have a nice day.

PETA's very extreme, unfortunately, and has an obnoxious habit of using ad campaigns that sexually objectify women to get attention. The Humane Society does a much better job, in my opinion.
Wow, very cool!

My wife and I decided to do the fraction-of-income thing (N% per year, where N is the number of years since we got married; seemed like a fun choice that increases appropriately), but I like this idea too. :)

In case you're interested in learning about more charities, here are some we chose for last year:

Fistula Foundation --
Friends of Aravind --
GiveWell --
Hunger Project --
Interplast --
Oxfam --
Partners In Health --
Stop Tuberculosis --
VillageReach --

(I think all of these are recommended either by Singer or by, so they're hopefully efficient.)

It's interesting to see the EFF on your list -- I'm a programmer too, so I certainly empathize with the choice, but I haven't yet worked out how to justify tech charities like the EFF/FSF in a consequentialist way. Is it enough to have an intuition that the technology world would be a worse place without groups like the EFF, or do we need to be able to make a stronger statement?

-- cjb.
Good point. It's true that a lot of what the EFF does is not quite in the spirit of Peter Singer's original pledge to help people in extreme poverty, since they focus much of their effort on policy and legal battles in the United States. In this case, I was thinking of EFF's international work on privacy (e.g. Tor) and intellectual property (e.g. WIPO) as it affects people living under repressive governments and access to health technology in developing countries.

I do intend to direct my donations specifically at helping people in extreme poverty and not just any organization that does something good; perhaps I should have made the statement of my pledge more precise. I realized in a conversation yesterday that I forgot to include PSI on my list.
Thanks for the reply. ToR seems like an excellent example of a technology that helps people demand better government (I suppose I'm thinking of Iran in particular), which can certainly be a way of escaping poverty, when that poverty is being caused or maintained by poor government.

More generally, it's tough to have to avoid charities that you're passionate about because you can't form a direct-enough link between them and extreme poverty relief. (Seems like one answer to avoiding that conundrum would be to classify the spending on those charities as a preference, i.e. a non-essential expenditure, rather than a morally-consequentialist act in itself. That's still a little unsatisfying, though!)
Not to be the nay-sayer here or anything, but ... I'm concerned about this idea, and I think you should think twice about it. Perhaps most people have the problem of spending too much of their money on non-essentials for themselves, and not spending much effort to save the world by donating their time or money to great causes. But you tend to have the opposite problem. You tend to spend so much time and energy on saving the world that you tend to neglect yourself. It seems like you often feel guilty about spending much time having fun, figuring out puzzles, having a good time with friends, because it isn't directly related to saving the world.

And... it's true that having a good time is not technically essential. It's true that food, shelter, and the job that will give you food and shelter are all technically essential. It's true that there are no very obvious ties between you having a good time and the world being closer to being saved. But I have two thoughts about this:

1) Having fun, figuring out puzzles, travelling, talking to friends -- all of these things recharge you, energize you, give you new perspectives, relieve stress from working on saving the world all day. And therefore, they improve you, they make you even better at saving the world than you would be if you did not engage in these activities. There's a reason why young people travel and say it was tremendously helpful and eye-opening, that mensa puzzles are said to be "good for you," that most people -- including very very successful people -- have families or very close friends, and have hobbies. It helps them think and work better, which helps you save the world better.

2) You're just as much a person as the starving children in India are people. You deserve to have a good time just as much as they do. By taking care of yourself, by making yourself happy and feel good, you're improving the life of a human being, and that's saving the world on a small-scale. And I believe that you need to value your own life before you can fully value the lives of others.

So, here is what I propose:

1) You spend all day working on saving the world, on fulfilling your ideals; you don't need to spend more of your efforts doing it. You've already done your piece. So, don't worry about it too much if you are or aren't spending much money on charities.

2) Turn the equation around -- figure out how much money you want to spend on charities, and then spend that much money on non-essentials for yourself. First, find some causes you care about -- planting trees, helping families and children in third world countries. Then, figure out a few causes you care about, and a personally meaningful impact you would like to have toward them. I.e., say, this year, I want to plant 10 trees in a threatened rainforest in Brazil, I want to feed and house two families in Mali, I want to vaccinate three children against Malaria in Kenya, and I want to support the development of one really cool energy-efficient technology. Then, donate however much money reaching these goals for the year requires. And lastly, spend this same amount of money on yourself for "non-essentials" that are only for you, and making you feel good and happy. In doing this, you reach two goals -- you make a very meaningful, personal contribution to causes you care about, and you take care of yourself so that you can be even better at saving the world.

So, in writing this post, I was not directly involved in saving the world. I didn't write any software for making cars more efficiently, I didn't educate ordinary citizens about factory farms. But, in two very important ways, I was involved in saving the world. One, I hope that I made both of us more aware of the importance of taking care of ourselves, and how that is a necessary step in saving the world. And two, I thought of creative solutions of getting people to donate to charities. I've both exercised my creative abilities to come up with such solutions in the future and have sparked my interest in pursuing similar ideas after I graduate. And hopefully I didn't hit the TLDR level in the process.

Be well!
I beat you to it.
The trouble is, everyting I buy is essential. Honest.