Guns and other stuff: think before you buy

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In many U.S. states, there is a mandated waiting period before you can purchase a gun.  For Jodi and me, living in Costa Rica, we have a mandated waiting period before we buy just about anything.  Here’s how this reality has helped us make progress in living simply:

In Costa Rica, most consumer goods are readily available, but usually for 50% to 100% more than in the States.  Just a few random examples:  Converse shoes are $60-80 instead of $13-20 on Slickdeals; laptops are easily double, as are just about all kids’ toys.

This extreme price difference means that we still buy most of our stuff from the U.S.—we make our purchases online and send them to the next visitor who’s kind enough to schlep them to Costa Rica in their luggage (thanks mom, bapa & nana, LKVP, D/CD, G/CB, KH, MS, SK, NN, SL, J/EC)!

Thus, just like buying a gun, nearly every sizable acquisition carries with it a significant waiting period—often several months—from when we first want something to when we actually buy it.  We’ve found that this time gap is an excellent mechanism for thinking twice about whether we really need more stuff.  It gives us space to prayerfully discern whether a particular item is a necessity or a luxury, whether it is a tool or a toy, whether it is part of the life of economic discipleship to which God calls us.  As Richard Foster says,

one clear advantage to this approach is that it effectively ends all impulse buying. It gives time for reflection so that God can teach us if the desire [for more stuff] is unnecessary.

For Jodi and I, our “waiting period” spiritual discipline has become an integrated part of our lifestyle , no matter where we end up living in the long term, and we’d like to urge you to consider it as well.  I close with some provocative discernment questions, adapted from Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, that we’ve found helpful in guiding our prayers during our “waiting periods”:

  • Am I buying this for its usefulness or for the social status it will give me?
  • Could this purchase produce an unhealthy addiction for me?
  • Could this purchase blur my spiritual focus or distract me from pursuing God?
  • Do I need to buy a new product, or would a used or borrowed one work just as well?
  • If I buy this, will I still be able to meet my goals for giving to the poor and to God’s Kingdom work?
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Charitable Gift Funds

What is a Charitable Gift Fund (CGF)?
A CGF, also known as a Donor-Advised Fund, is basically a holding tank for you to finance charitable donations.  Instead of making your donation directly to a charity, you first put money into your CGF, and then recommend grants from the fund to your charity of choice.  It’s called “recommend” but in reality it’s directing the money to any US-registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit.  You take a tax deduction at the time you fund the CGF, not when you recommend the followup grants.

Why would I want to donate indirectly through a CGF?

  1. Simplicity. If you track your charitable giving for tax purposes, it’s a headache to keep and organize all of the receipts.  I was audited in 2005, and witnessed a friend audited in 2008, both times to verify our charitable giving.  Fortunately we had all of our receipts, but it takes work to respond to an IRS audit.  I believe you are less likely to be audited if you donate only to a single organization (your CGF), as it’s simpler to track the total amount and less likely you’ll make accounting mistakes.
  2. Privacy. It’s unfortunate, but many charities share mailing lists.  When you donate, your name and mailing address become very valuable and are sold to other organizations.  This results in a flood of junk mail from worthy-sounding organizations with urgent cries for help.  It can be overwhelming to sift through all of these requests, and your reward for responding is yet even more junk mail.  I prefer to search for charitable organizations on my own, rather than respond to those who send the most advertising/fundraising mail.  When you donate indirectly through a CGF, your address is not revealed, so it can’t be sold or distributed.  Less junk mail means less wasted time, and it’s better for the environment.
  3. Budgeting. If you budget your giving on a monthly or yearly basis, it can be difficult to find charities to fund in sync with your giving.  A CGF enables you to store money ahead of time and decide on grants later.

Are there any disadvantages to a CGF?
Since donations are all done through the CGF organization writing a check to your recommended charities, you cannot do instant credit-card donations in response to say, a friend raising money through a walk or pledge drive.  There may be a lower limit to each donation you recommend, something like $100.  Also, there is usually a small annual fee, like any investment fund.  We keep our CGF at Schwab, which charges 0.6%, with a minimum fee of $100/year.

How do I start a CGF?
Simply Google “Charitable Gift Fund“, and you’ll find a number of banks that will set one up for you.  We chose Schwab because we already had other accounts there, and we’ve been happy with how easy it is to recommend grants through their website.

Showering

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine told me how she saves water while showering.  She turns on the water, steps into the shower, gets wet, and then turns the shower off.  Then she shampoos her hair and lathers up.  When she’s ready to rinse, she turns the shower back on.  She learned to do this when she was a young girl and lived in a South American country where water was more expensive.  She does it now to consume less of the world’s water and to reduce her water bill.  Right now, I’m trying to do that with every other shower I take.  I try to give God thanks for hot water, to help my heart be thankful and not begrudging.  Perhaps in a little while, I’ll be ready to save water in the shower six out of seven times a week, joyfully.