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We are really not hurting financially. I would like to significantly increase our currently extremely low charitable contributions. Problem: My significant other (SO) is rather... stingy (SO has observed a lot of irresponsible spending from a parent, which has scarred SO for life).

Question: How can I best start a discussion about this topic with my significant other (SO) in regards to making charitable contributions?

A good outcome from my point of view would be to set aside x% of total income and let everyone donate half of this as (s)he wishes, with no judgment on the other's choices, and with a clear agreement of what to do with anything left over at the end of the year.

Here are a couple of details:

  • SO is not very financially savvy and has very little idea about how much we earn and how high up we are in terms of being in the top y% of households by income. I manage our finances. (No, simply donating behind SO's back is not an option.)
  • As I wrote, we are pretty well off, so that even a modest percentage is quite a bit in absolute terms. SO tends to think more in absolute terms than in percentages.
  • SO has mentioned a few causes SO would like to donate to. We haven't discussed amounts yet - see the bullet point below. I personally find other causes more deserving.
  • If I open this discussion up the wrong way, I risk that SO clams up on the subject. I really have only one chance to start this well. (Of course, I would be fine with broaching the subject and letting everyone think about it before we reach a decision. I'm just afraid of SO believing I want to squander our money and never be responsive to this topic ever again. Yes, SO is that way. I love SO for other reasons.)

Possible strategies:

  • Open up with "how much do you think we earn?" If SO believes we are earning half as much as we really do, argue that if we would be fine with Z amount but really make 2Z, there is a lot of buffer we could donate to others without pain. Problem: SO may overestimate our income by a lot, and I'd really rather not start the discussion by explaining to SO we really make far less than SO believes.
  • Take a similar approach, but start with "which income percentile do you believe we are in?" Could be better, but requires that I research this first. I'll do that while waiting for good ideas here.

I understand this may be a somewhat non-standard question here, but it seems similar to questions about teaching kids to invest and answers that mention teaching kids to share and donate.

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Does she not know the household finances because she has no interest, or have you not attempted to discuss it? She may be avoiding it because it's overwhelming, but I wouldn't be surprised if she feels bad broaching the subject (prying?) since you are the primary breadwinner. –  NL7 Apr 6 at 18:54
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Why is everyone assuming the SO is a wife? Seems rather sexist. Or did I miss something in the question? –  AlexMA Apr 7 at 1:32
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@NL7: SO has some interest, but phenomally little aptitude. SO is not stupid, SO is an award-winning tenured professor, but simply can't wrap SO's head around finances. Believe me, I have tried to educate SO many times. A bit of a phenomenon, really. (BTW: I carefully avoided mentioning who is the primary breadwinner, because I think it is not relevant.) –  user14263 Apr 7 at 5:18
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@AlexMA Obviously, reality is totaly sexist, too. –  Davor Apr 7 at 8:43
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Probably to avoid adding to the sexist, hetero-normative biases that are clearly already extremely present. Since OP has given the designation 'SO', you really don't even have to be bothered to type additional letters, so I don't see the problem. Kudos to OP. –  thumbtackthief Apr 7 at 14:20

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think the best way to handle her fears is to explain the income and expenses of the household overall, then explain the savings and investment strategies, retirement projections, and then finally explain a concrete number for allowable monthly or annual discretionary expenses (including charity, entertainment, vacations, etc.). You may have delicate relationship reasons for not doing this, but if you want a reasonable discussion, I would leave it this way.

Please do not open with the question "how much do you think we make" or anything similar because that comes off as a trick or a quiz. It sounds very condescending and highlights how much more you know about finances than she does. It also highlights subconsciously how little mental control she has over the finances, which is likely to make her feel greater anxiety.

You should emphasize how secure things are and explain why all the savings and investments you're using are conservatively likely to keep her financially secure. This sets the ground for her to be comfortable with the fact that she now has money, in contrast to perhaps a less financially secure personal history.

After that, charitable expenses come out of the expense budget, same as vacations, recreation, etc. If it does not implicate financial security, then it's not dangerous to spend on charity.

The alternate approach is to avoid the big financial talk and just propose a few small contributions this year. Then increase it every year incrementally. That may be easier to swallow once there's a psychological track record of donating without incident.

Please go into the discussion remembering three things:

  1. People with strong anxieties may not respond well to pressure, quizzing, or cajoling. Give her the information as a soft sell and let her process it in the way that works best for her.
  2. Do not assume that she will share your view of how much security is enough security. She may place a higher personal risk discount, such that X value to you is only 0.7X to her. Rather than seeing it as cheapskate versus spendthrift, this is just a different personal risk premium. She may also feel insecure assuming that your income will not decrease in the near future.
  3. Do not assume she gains as much personal satisfaction from charity. You disagree with viewing money in absolute terms, but all consumer items are priced in absolute terms. Your charitable gift of X is equivalent to depriving her of X dollars worth of consumption. She may be less interested in charity than you are, and you can't change her personal preference by condescension.

But above all, please do not open up with a quiz. Have a simple discussion with her. Give her time to consider the expenses budget relative to the savings budget as a proportion of income. And then allow for the fact that she may place a strong premium on savings and a strong discount on charity.

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The alternate approach is to avoid the big financial talk and just propose a few small contributions this year. Then increase it every year incrementally. That may be easier to swallow once there's a psychological track record of donating without incident. –  NL7 Apr 6 at 18:59

"has very little idea about how much we earn and how high up we are in terms of income percentile."

The first part of this sentence is tough to understand. My daughter was 12 when she told us what she estimated our income to be. She looked up the price of our home, worked backwards using conservative numbers, and was pretty close. Here you are saying your wife doesn't know the family income? Percentiles are meaningless. There are $60k couples who donate 10%, and there are $300k earners who are not charitable at all, and don't even save. It's time to have a general budget conversation with her. Perhaps starting with the rate of savings, and show how there's room for charity. If your charitable desire is based on a religious compulsion, shar that as well, the 10% is what many feel commanded to share by their maker, and feel that it comes off the top regardless of their income level. In reality, this issue is not financial, it's about open dialog between spouses. Money is difficult for some to discuss, but you need to start somewhere.

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Thx. I edited the Q a bit: "Percentile" referred to being in the top y% by household income. I agree that this is tough to understand. My SO honestly has no idea about how much people earn, including the household. I have unsuccessfully tried to educate her. I appreciate your core message about open conversation. –  user14263 Apr 6 at 12:52
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I understood what you meant. I just wanted to avoid "we are in the top 2% of income" / "yes, but we spend every dollar". Show her how charity fits your budget. –  JoeTaxpayer Apr 6 at 14:50
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I don't believe the OP said anything about a wife or even a spouse. –  Eric Lippert Apr 6 at 17:05
    
You are right. If OP corrected me, I'd be happy to change my wording. –  JoeTaxpayer Apr 6 at 20:33
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@JoeTaxpayer: I purposefully did not discuss who is wife/husband/spouse/whatever, since I don't think it is relevant. But anyone is free to substitute terms he/she is more comfortable with. Certainly no reason to go back to edit your answer. –  user14263 Apr 7 at 5:21

SO has observed a lot of irresponsible spending from a parent, which has scarred SO for life

OK, so we've got fear...

SO is not very financially savvy and has very little idea about how much we earn

...and ignorance.

You are entirely correct to worry about the conversation. Fear plus ignorance equals disastrous conversations.

I manage our finances.

Apparently your SO wishes to have input on the management of your finances without understanding them. It strikes me that this serves neither of you well.

I would note that it is exceedingly difficult to rationally argue someone out of a position that they arrived at through irrational fear and ignorance. So I wouldn't start by having a conversation about charitable giving at all. Rather, I would start by addressing the ignorance, because that's the easy one.

how high up we are in terms of being in the top y% of households by income

Income is irrelevant to the fearful; income can vanish with debts remaining. If your SO is not earning much of that income then SO's future financial security is dependent on the whims of another, which has already turned out badly once for SO.

Focusing on raw income is the wrong way to go; focusing on an abstraction like percentile is even more irrelevant.

The figures to focus on are not income and percentile, but rather net worth and change in net worth over time. Income $300K, expenses $350K eventually leads to poverty if you lack net worth, even if you are in the 1% of income earners.

Open up with "how much do you think we earn?"

Playing rhetorical games with ignorant people seems both risky and perhaps unethical to me, and it seems unlikely to engender trust.

I would approach this situation by first removing the ignorance, rather than attempting to take advantage of it for rhetorical purposes.

I would also institute a policy that ignorant people don't get a say. If SO wants to abrogate financial responsibility to you, then SO should accept your decisions without question. If SO wants to have a say in your joint financial life then SO has a responsibility to make recommendations based on both facts and feelings, not just feelings.

So, how to remove this ignorance?

This will take some doing, but not much. Go through your records and account for:

  • Every major asset
  • Every major liability

From that you can compute your net worth.

Then go back a few years and account for:

  • Every major source of income
  • Every major expense

From this you can show the effect of your past prudent decisions on your net worth.

There should be no percentages. There should be no math more complicated than adding and subtracting, and it should be very clear what adds and substracts to what. People who are financially savvy are extremely intimidated by jargon. If some of your increase in net worth came from a realized capital gain less taxes do not say "realized capital gain less taxes" on your summary document. There should be no "depreciation" or "cost basis" or anything even vaguely like that. Even "assets" and "liabilities" are too jargonish. "Possessions" and "debts" are more easily understood.

I'm thinking something like:

In 2012 we decreased the mortgage from $ to $, decreasing our debt by $.
In 2012 we paid $ on housing taxes, insurance and interest, decreasing our possessions by $.
In 2012 the value of our stocks went from $ to $, increasing our possessions by $.
In 2012 we were paid $ from our jobs, $ was deducted for taxes, so $ was deposited in our bank account from the jobs.
... and so on.

My SO is financially savvy and still I do this about twice a year; it's helpful for both of us to have a quick summary of what's coming in, what's going out, and what we've got.

Once the ignorance is gone, then start working on the fear. It sounds like the fear comes from a betrayal of trust, so it's not just enough to be trustworthy, you've got to consistently appear trustworthy. A great way to do that is to keep doing what I already suggested: on a regular, ongoing basis inform SO of how you are doing financially. When SO sees that net worth is consistently improving over time, that you are not one bad decision away from poverty, the fear should diminish. Expect this to take a long time.

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Although you have some good points, I think the tone of your answer is totally off base. If it's approached this way they'll probably soon break up. This is important in this case because the whole point of the question is how to approach the issue in a tactical, diplomatic way. Telling your SO "You're ignorant, so you don't get a say in our finances" is pretty much the opposite of that. –  BrenBarn Apr 6 at 17:46
    
@BrenBarn: Who said anything about doing that? Recognizing that someone is ignorant and acting to remedy that does not imply telling them "you're ignorant". –  Eric Lippert Apr 6 at 21:46
    
@EricLippert: you said "institute a policy". Now that you've clarified, you must have meant to institute that policy without informing the SO in so few words. I don't think it was initially obvious what you expected to be said about this policy. Let's suppose the questioner has the good sense to translate your ideas appropriately, rather than just reading out your answer :-) –  Steve Jessop Apr 7 at 8:42
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+1 - unfortunately, 'ignorant' is taken by some to be a pejorative term, even though it literally means a lack of a particular bit of knowledge, not general stupidity. The issue is a tough one and the same answer that might work for one couple may be a disaster for another, as we each have our own emotional triggers. –  JoeTaxpayer Apr 7 at 13:30
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Should "People who are financially savvy are extremely intimidated by jargon." have been "People who are not financially savvy are extremely intimidated by jargon."? –  Roger Lipscombe Apr 7 at 14:54

A budget that you both agree on is a great goal. X% to charity, y% to savings, $z a month to a reserve for house repairs, and so on. Your SO is likely to agree with this, especially if you say it like this:

I know you're concerned that I might want to give too much to charity. Why don't we go through the numbers and work out a cap on what I can give away each year? Like, x% of our gross income or y% of our disposable income?

Work out x and y in advance so you say real percentages in this "meeting request", but be prepared to actually end up at a different x and y later. Perhaps even suggest an x and y that are a little lower than you would really wish for. If your SO thinks you earn half what you really do, then mental math if you say 5% will lead to half what you want to donate, but don't worry about that at the moment. That could even work in your favour if you've already said you want to give $5000 (or $50,000) a year and mental math with the percentage leads your SO to $2500 (or $25,000), (s)he might think "yes, if we have this meeting I can rein in that crazy generosity."

Make sure your budget is complete. You don't want your SO worrying that if the furnace wears out or the roof needs to be replaced, the money won't be there because you gave it away. Show how these contingencies, and your retirement, will all be taken care of. Show how much you are setting aside to spend on vacations, and so on. That will make it clear that there is room to give to those who are not as fortunate as you. If your SO's motivations are only worry that there won't be money when it's needed, you will not only get permission to donate, you'll get a happier SO.

(For those who don't know how this can happen, I knew a woman just like this. The only income she believed they had was her husband's pension. He had several overseas companies and significant royalty income, but she never accounted for that when talking of what they could afford. Her mental image of their income was perhaps a quarter of what it really was, leading to more than one fight about whether they could take a trip, or give a gift, that she thought was too extravagant. For her own happiness I wish he had gone through the budget with her in detail.)

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Welcome to Money.SE. In my world of PF bloggers, women are well represented. I hope to see this board reflect a fair mix as well. –  JoeTaxpayer Apr 6 at 14:53

How can I best start a discussion about this topic with SO?

I'm guessing your SO is more visual than verbal. I'd break the ice by presenting an income pie chart and an expenses pie chart, maybe just for 2013 or comparing 2012 and 2013, and then offer your interpretation of an interesting slice or two: "I noticed we're saving so much each year that..."

Or, instead of starting with graphically demonstrating your cash flow, start with appropriate graphics demonstrating your savings is growing fast enough that making a few donations wouldn't be a serious impact. "See how little we spend compared to our savings?".

In any case, a picture is worth a 1,000 words, so starting with pictures is a good way to start your discussion.

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This is a good idea. (I know because I already did exactly this ;-) However, I'll use dotcharts instead of pies, since pie charts are abysmal at conveying information, dotcharts are much better. –  user14263 Apr 7 at 6:26
    
dotcharts are better? I don't think that's true for everyone. Right-brainers probably prefer pies. Even a child can grasp dividing a pie before understanding a dotchart. Be careful you don't get too fancy for your audience. –  joe snyder Apr 7 at 18:03

A slower approach: keep any discussion of income out of it to begin with. Remaining within discretionary income Z, just go back to the charities your SO has proposed, and say that you would like to set up monthly donations. You would also like to donate a similar amount to charities of your choice. Say what bills your proposed contribution is less than. Once your SO has got used to the idea of charitable giving as a regular expenditure, and has got back the grateful charity newsletters and whatnot, then address the issue of how much you "should" give by comparison with income.

Whenever you do consider income, your SO doesn't really seem to want anything to do with this. So I'd approach it as seeking agreement. Eric Lippert has a more long-term approach for seeking involvement.

So, present the following information however seems best, probably with a pre-amble establishing that you both want to support charities, so the question is how much and how to get it done.

"We earn U. This means we are fortunate enough to be in the top V% of households. Our income breaks down as:

  • W taxes on income
  • X fixed expenditure
  • Y committed regular savings and investments
  • ... leaving Z discretionary income. Of this we spend A on average, leaving Z-A that we add to savings.

This being the case, we can afford to be generous. I would like us to give to the charities that we each care about, to the extent of N. Charitable giving is important to me because ... The amount I suggest we give is less than what we spend annually on ..., and I chose that amount because ... "

Depending on the tax situation, you may then have to explain how N from gross income translates to an actual amount available to give to charity. Or charitable giving might be tax free.

If the N you want is greater than Z-A then it might be wise to suggest a smaller amount, but ask that you both make a plan in increase it in a year or whatever. Similarly if N strikes your SO as a scarily large number then I would think the best thing to do is just reduce it so that at least you start somewhere.

If Y is low or zero, and your SO suffers from anxiety about financial security, then increasing Y at the same time might be a good way to offset the fear of N. When stating income you might want to exclude any income from savings/investments. Although legally it's income your SO might see it psychologically as capital gains and hence touching it would endanger your savings/investment/pension returns. Even though it's all fungible.

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