Monday, January 19, 2015

Money is the New Food

I feel like I should apologize for having taken so long to write this post, but the truth is that I've been thinking about this post for a long time--almost a month, in fact.  I decided, at the beginning of January, that in 2015 I wanted to become "better" at giving tzedakah.  I do donate money to several charities every year, but it has never felt like enough, nor like I'm doing it in the right frame of mind.  I wanted giving tzedakah to feel more like a spiritual act, one in which I would engage regularly and to which I would commit more fully.  So, I planned to do some learning about tzedakah and research effective giving practices, and then I was going to write a post teaching about tzedakah and explaining how meaningful the whole process was for me.

It was a great plan...but it didn't quite work out.

First, let me back up and explain:  why the focus on  tzedakah?  Well, because it is one of the Jewish values and practices that I think is the most beautiful and the most just.  The Rambam (Maimonides) wrote extensively on tzedakah, and he explains that giving money to people who need it is the way to live out the Torah value of, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Vayikra 19:18):
"This is the commandment that we were commanded, to love each other just as we love ourselves.  That is to say that my concern and love for other Jews should be the same as my concern and love for myself--as far as both possessions and personal needs are involved...Whatever I want for myself, I want the same for that other person.  And whatever I do not want for myself or my friends, I do not want for that other person.  
This is the meaning of the verse, 'And you shall love the other person as yourself.'"
--Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot

I also fully believe in the Jewish idea that the money I have isn't really my money--it is G-d's money, given to me so that I might use it to better the world.  Obviously, I need to make sure my needs are met, but beyond that, I need to remember that the money has been entrusted to me--it doesn't belong to me.  

So, with all of that in mind, I was ready to dive into more mindful tzedakah giving...until I came face to face with a hard truth:
The way I relate to money mirrors the way I used to relate to food. 

Allow me to demonstrate with a little table:

Thoughts About Money
Old Thoughts About Food
  • Spend as little as you can.
  • Save your money!  You never know when you might need it.
  • That $2 you are about to spend on an iced coffee?  That REALLY MATTERS.
  • If you wait long enough to buy something, eventually you will just stop wanting it.
  • Restriction, restriction, restriction!
  • Eat as little as you can.
  • Save your food!  You never know--you might be hungrier later.
  • Those few extra calories in that cracker you want?  Those REALLY MATTER.
  • If you wait long enough before eating, eventually you’ll just stop being hungry.
  • Restriction, restriction, restriction!

Needless to say, when I sat down to figure out how much disposable income I actually have on a monthly basis so that I might better determine how much I could give away, I could feel my anxiety climb higher...and higher...and higher.  I am a public school teacher living in an expensive city.  After the fixed monthly deductions from my paycheck for things like taxes and health care, and after rent, utilities, gas, and food...there's very, very little left to work with.  As I crunched numbers with my parents, our conversation inevitably went from being about tzedakah, to being about my basic principle of financial restriction: 

Me:  "This is why I hate dealing with money.  It stresses me out to see that there's basically nothing left.  It's better if I don't know exact numbers and just try not to spend anything."
Parent:  "Well, but you're actually doing okay.  You certainly don't have to deny yourself things.  What if you set aside $X every month that you could just spend on yourself..."
Me: (in my thought bubble) "WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!"

This conversation was an important moment, because it brought home for me that although I have done a LOT of work on dismantling my old thoughts about food, I have done relatively little work on challenging my approach to money...which, I think it's safe to say, could be characterized as obsessive and ultra-controlling.  And, while I do think that, values-wise, it's "more important" to give tzedakah than to spend money on myself, I recognize that this belief is also a way for me to avoid working on a huge challenge: "Normal Spending" (kind of like, "Normal Eating").  

At the end of the day, I realized that although I might want to dive right into giving away 10% of my income, as is suggested by Jewish law, I'm just not ready for that.  Similarly, though I always wanted to achieve Full Recovery, I wasn't ready for that right out of the gate, either.  Money and I have a lot of work to do, and it's going to take time--just like it also has with food. 

I did, in the end, come up with a respectable dollar amount that I could give to tzedakah each year without feeling like I'd have to compensate by never, ever buying myself anything.  It's a good starting point; I hope to be able to give more one day, but that will come with time.  For now, I'm going to try to feel satisfied with what I can do--and to commit to working on my "money issues," a little at a time.