Thrift & Generosity: A Loving Couple

Andrew Kline, The Free Lance Star, 12/23/2012

Generous behavior is a light that shines through the darkness. Giving, informed by thrift, by what we have created, earned, nurtured, husbanded, invested in, and saved, is all the more powerful. Make a plan. Initiate a relationship. Take small things and think big. Give.

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Subject: Thrift

More by: Andrew Kline

'Tis the season for end of the year giving! There are connections between the forgotten American ideal of thrift and generosity, and ways to give wisely.

The first point is that we cannot be generous with what we do not have. Thus thrift has always been associated with not spending more than we make, to wit, saving. Secondly, in order to be generous we must build capacity to give; this involves both working and investing, or leveraging talent and time to build wealth. Yet, as research shows, those who have the most ability to give are not, necessarily, the most generous. This requires some detective work.

Thrift found its first voice in the flowering of global capitalism in the 17th century and peaked as a social reform movement just before the Great Depression. Thrift takes into account what it takes to thrive, and has been described as both "the ethic of wise use" and the art (or spiritual discipline) of "earning all you can, saving all you can, and giving all you can" – John Wesley's justly famous maxim.


Thrift is a big idea, equally at home in Benjamin Franklin's America and the modern entrepreneur's workshop. It integrates mind-fulness, industry, zero tolerance for waste, diligence, foresight, innovation, creative application and resourcefulness. Thrift is about giving every person a future. It has always been the ethic of "the small saver" and the "rising classes."

Thrift is at the heart of cooperative savings-and-loan institutions – the credit union and a loose network of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) are still standing. Because of their community focus and opportunity ethic these movements are growing and finding new customers everyday. (Witness especially CDFI's notable new partnership with Starbuck's through their "Create Jobs!" campaign.) Thrift's inspiration and its most important by-product is generosity.

From a hardwired perspective, however, generosity precedes thrift. It shows up as an impulse – a baby's smile or a stranger's outstretched hand. Seedbeds of generosity are in our dependence upon the group for survival. Most of us want to go deeper because we have experienced expressions of generosity that leave us surprised by joy. The Good Book captures this in one of its shorter sentences: "God loves a cheerful giver."

But does that mean we put sentiment in the driver's seat? To counsel thrift at such moments is not to urge stinginess but to admit we need to do the numbers. The frugal husband or wife worthy of the name is happiest knowing the cold hard facts, including those about our disposition to give.

Take inventory. How much do we spend on ourselves? How much on others? What counts as "waste"? What lies as untapped resources? What do we count as assets that we steward and share: our stuff, our profession, our families and friends? What significant investments, if any, have we made? As we answer, we realize we are in search of an answer to a more fundamental question: "Am I a generous person?"

A rich definition of generosity may help. Christian Smith, a sociology professor at Notre Dame and lead authority on the new science of generosity, defines generosity as "the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly. Generosity also involves giving to others not simply anything in abundance but rather giving those things that are good for others. Generosity always intends to enhance the true wellbeing of those to whom it gives."

This deceptively simple definition grows in complexity through each sentence. If freedom and abundance define one pole, so do measures of intention and wellbeing. Strikingly it suggests that "true generosity" rules out "mere charity." Generosity is social, intentional about consequences, to the core. It is not so much about the gift, but the social meaning of the gift exchange.


Generosity and thrift go hand in hand to build our capacity to give, just like small prudential investments made over time. Here are some of the ways to grow in generosity:

Tie your giving to a relationship you want to deepen. In a relationship you learn what is needed and can match what you can give. Invest in people, not things, and don't expect something in return. Start a reciprocal feedback loop strengthening mutual wellbeing.

Plan to make a gift. Longstanding research shows that those who plan their gifts give more.

Allow faith to inspire you. Those who belong to houses of faith that inculcate the discipline give more.

Remember that generosity is not defined by wealth. Those with more money do not necessarily donate more, certainly as a percentage of their wealth.

Guilt or sentiment is not a great motivator in the long term. The cynics and resourced strapped non-profits both remind us that volunteerism always increases around the holidays. Be someone who heeds that call year-round.

Concentrate on the joy and freedom of giving to bestow wellbeing. Studies of older populations show that those who volunteer live longer!


This time of year is truly defined by generosity. Let's do more than count our blessings. Let us be revived by the thought that we can feel an inexplicable affection for all.

These are tough times for many people. Americans are no longer looking just for jobs but for a living wage with a future dream attached. The great thrift-based parables of abundant caring and sharing have always emerged at times of economic and social upheaval. In the face of industrial revolutions and post-Depression uncertainties, miracles do happen: Scrooge buys the turkey for Tiny Tim and everybody understands that George Bailey is the richest man in the world.

Generous behavior is a light that shines through the darkness. Giving, informed by thrift, by what we have created, earned, nurtured, husbanded, invested in, and saved, is all the more powerful. Make a plan. Initiate a relationship. Take small things and think big. Give.

But there is one more thing. In response to the question of how much one should give, one of the wisest practitioners of the art shared this bright shining sentence: "Give just enough, until it hurts." Real generosity carries with it always the sweet smell of sacrifice. Honor both your thrift and your generosity. Thankfully, you have a whole new year ahead to increase both.

This article originally appeared here.


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