Alternative Living, Finance, Happiness

Project Maximum Altruism: A Year of Serious Giving

Last week, Andrea and I moved for the third time this year. Anyone who’s ever moved can sympathize with this mentally and physically exhausting process. Not only did we have to pack our lives’ possessions up and throw them in a U-Haul van, but since we’ve majorly downsized we’ve had to consider nearly every item to decide if it stays or if it goes.

Now that we’re moved in though, it feels amazing. I didn’t think I would be as excited as I am to have a small piece of the world that I own.  I already have this immediate sense of security and contentment. Plus I can paint the walls whatever color I want and no one can stop me (one of the many glorious benefits of leaving renting behind). Booyah!

But back to the contentment thing. As our little condo has brought about a general feeling of satisfaction with life as-is, it has resulted in a mini epiphanous moment where I’ve realized that there isn’t really any ‘thing’ I would need to improve my quality of life.

First of all I think it’s somewhat natural that as well as we get older, we start to see through this empty promise of material wealth bringing lasting happiness. I’m personally starting to think, “well, all that buying-stuff thing didn’t really improve my life all that much, so what does improve my life?”

It’s too bad it took me until I was 30 to figure this out. But from what I can see, I’m pretty sure the most joy bang-for-my-buck comes from #1 doing fun stuff with friends and family, and#2 doing some sort of good deed, or helping someone out. Not to say I’m immune to purchasing cool stuff and the fantastic fleeting jolt of dopamine that come with it. For instance I just got a new kick-ass rain jacket, but I know that new-ness excitement will wear off fast, just like it did with my old, equally kick-ass rain jacket that it replaced.

I also can’t say that I’m the most altruistic person out there, but I think I’m slowly getting better at thinking less of myself and more of others. I’ve started slow, such as helping out a community garden, or giving the homeless guy on the street $4 for lunch if I have change on me. But there’s a lot more I can do.

And that brings me to this evening, writing this post. I’ve been lazing around the house, thinking about what role I want altruism to play in my life. What if in 2017 I just went full-blown-mega-altruistic for the year to see what sort of effect that had on my life?

From the money-giving side of altruism, I get this little twinge in my stomach when I think about giving away an amount that isn’t just the odd $10 for a box of Girl Guide cookies. I think we all get this to some degree, when for instance someone comes to our door (or those guys canvasing catch you on a busy street) looking for donations, our brain goes defensive being like “beat it buddy, you’re not getting my hard earned money!” We feel like we’re being scammed, and suddenly we feel very protective of our bank accounts.

But why are those of us, the global 1%, so nervous to part ways with our relatively enormous sums of money? Do you think it’s reasonable to say that most working class people could donate even just 1% of their income without considerable repercussions?

So in terms of my personal comfort level of giving. I know that Mormons donate something like 10% of their income to the church. And a quick Google search led me to, where you can take a pledge to donate 10% of your salary for the rest of your life. I have such a good life, and would have an equally good life with 10% less of my income, so why is it so scary to commit to something like that? I make around $55,000 per year, so that represents $5,500, or something around $460 per month. Yikes. Thoughts of lost opportunities like a trip to Hawaii flicker in my mind.

But it’s worth a try, at least for a year.

If I was to do some kind of year of altruism, I think the rough framework would look like this:

1. Little to no eating at restaurants. My favorite meals are always home-cooked, and they save me tons of money. That extra cash can go to people who need the food more than I do. We’ll still go out with friends because that’s something I value highly, but if it’s going out because I’m just too lazy to cook, I can work on curbing that.

2. Local trips only. We are fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. How can I use my vacation time to instead to support local business, and help out where I can?

3. Coffee shops: I tried this for the first time last week. I won a $20 Starbucks gift card at our company christmas party, and when I got to the till after ordering myself, I made the spontaneous decision to leave the remainder with the clerk. I told him to use it up on people that came after me. I didn’t get to enjoy seeing people’s reactions, but it still felt like a really cool thing to do.

4. No buying sh*t. I was a big fan of Geoffrey and Julie, a duo in Calgary who completed a Buy Nothing Year, called it “a Life Experiment of Not Buying Shit.” Much of our collective over-spending comes from purchasing crap we don’t need. Our tiny condo should take care of this automatically as there’s actually no room to put more stuff, so this one might not be too challenging.

5. One complement every day. This one would be the hardest to track, and would be easy to forget about. Plus I’m not very outspoken by nature. It would be to dole out a daily complement to anyone, friend or stranger.

6. 5% of my gross salary to chosen charities. Since that paragraph above, I waffled with 10%. The more I thought about it, by saving and investing today I can generate a dividend income stream over time, part of which can be donated. Giving 5% is still a fair chunk but quite manageable. That represents about $2,700 for the year, a daunting number, but it feels much more palatable in monthly chunks of $230.

So far I have already done or set up as monthly payments:

  • $40 / month to United Way, a great local non-profit that supports low income and new immigrants
  • $20 / month to UNHCR, the United Nations official refugee fund. Everyone deserves a good home, I couldn’t imagine being forced to leave my country. This was a no-brainer.
  • $100 one-time donation to Serniña, our friend Danielle’s girls empowerment group in Guatemala. I had the privilege to see first-hand the kids and schools there and how big an impact even a small donation can make.


Super cute kids from the Sernina program
Super cute kids from the Sernina program

That means I still have a long ways to go to $230! With inspiration partly from Mr. Money Mustache, I will be adding to the list to start January 2017:

  • $30 / month to Against Malaria Foundation. This group was considered by to be the most bang-for-your-buck charity, literally saving lives with relatively small donations
  • $40 / month to the Nature Conservancy of Canada. If someone asked me if I had a ’cause,’ environmental protection would be it. Us lucky Canadians live in a natural paradise, and these guys do great work to keep it that way.
  • $40 / month to Doctors without Borders Canada. Their website says they provide emergency and humanitarian medical relief in over 70 countries
  • $40 / month to the British Columbia SPCA. In honor of our dog Dallas, who has shown me the complex emotions of animals first-hand, and the amazing feeling of giving a pet a good home.
  • This leaves $20 / month for spontaneous giving like buying a friend lunch (oooh)

Well I gotta say, this is already feeling great! I just get to pick all these amazing organizations, and leverage my money to fund experts in the field that are doing good in the world.

And keep in mind, aside from Serniña, these are all Canadian registered charities that I get a considerable tax deduction for. The online federal tax calculator said that if I donated $2,000 in 2016, I’d get $820 back! That’s like a 40% rebate! How awesome is that? It’s almost like the federal government is matching my donation $1 for $1.

I don’t know how this overall project would impact my life, but all I know is that I want life to be bigger and more meaningful than just solely chasing self-betterment and hedonism. And from what I can see, the world could definitely use some more compassion

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