There’s No Formula for Radical Generosity

Image of child climbing a ladder to the sky representing radical generosity
The journey to radical generosity requires climbing the ladder of giving one step at a time.

One of the realizations I’ve come to as The Rich Fool is that it isn’t easy to suddenly live a life of radical generosity. Even when I’m convicted about my own wasteful consumption and the foolishness of always chasing more, I still have a tendency to hold on tightly to money and want to hoard wealth.

That’s why I’ve come to believe the radical generosity is a journey rather than a destination. We never quite arrive, but we should constantly be moving one step closer, moving away from comfort and security. Like anything in the Christian life, we should always be a work in progress.

One of the most challenging money passages in the Bible is the story of the widow’s offering in Mark 12, where Jesus praises a poor woman for giving away a penny even as rich people put large sums into the offering box. After watching the faithful give their offerings, Jesus tells his disciples that the poor widow gave far more than anyone else. She gave out of her poverty, while others gave out of their abundance. In God’s economy, sacrificial giving is worth more than giving that doesn’t hurt.

I’ll be the first to admit that my giving usually doesn’t cost me much, at least not in terms of real needs. It might cost me luxuries, but it doesn’t really change my lifestyle. As a rich fool living in America today, I’ll probably never know what it’s like to truly give out of poverty. But the story of the poor widow should serve as a warning that we’re falling short if we’re only giving out of abundance.

The answer lies in a concept called “the ladder of generosity.” We should constantly be climbing the rungs of the giving ladder until we’re on the scary top step that few people reach. It’s a process that requires a step of faith at each rung until we reach a place of radical generosity.

Climbing the Ladder of Generosity

I’ve always been a faithful tither, but my giving stalled at 10 percent for years. For a long time, I gave on autopilot without much thought. As our household income grew, the tithe amount grew as well, but it became less sacrificial. It no longer stretched us.

As I created The Rich Fool, I attempted to create a giving framework based on the ladder of generosity concept. I wanted to develop a way to introduce discipline in climbing the ladder, encourage frugality and make hoarding difficult. My goal was to end up in a place of radical generosity personally, and create a blueprint for others.

My generosity framework included giving tiers anchored to spending in four categories: needs, discretionary purchases, long-term investments (called “barns,” inspired by the parable of the rich fool) and everything left over (“excess”). As spending moved away from the basics toward wants and savings, I would give a higher percentage. At the excess level, I would give away everything.

I called it The Rich Fool Giving Ladder, and the tiered giving framework had some advantages. It would have taught progressive giving and introduced the discipline of radical generosity as income and wealth increase; left less money for barn-building at each rung of the ladder, eliminating the temptation to hoard excess; and acknowledged God’s provision as blessing increases. As more spending is allocated toward wants and dreams, rather than immediate needs, giving would grow at an accelerated rate.

A Failed Formula for Radical Generosity

I was excited about my giving framework, until I actually attempted to put it into practice. As I revised my family budget based on the new math, I soon realized how difficult it would be to implement. It become too complicated to tie generosity to spending rather than income. There were too many variations, fluctuations and gray areas. The math wasn’t easy, and the spreadsheet turned into an overly complicated exercise.

If I was struggling to create a budget based on the framework, how could I possibly explain it to others?

Then I shared the idea with a friend and financial advisor, who seemed confused by the whole concept. He challenged me to simplify my thinking, and rightfully asked me whether God wants our giving to be formulaic.

At that moment, I realized I had created a spreadsheet for something that should be a heart issue. I abandoned The Rich Fool Giving Ladder and considered again what radical generosity really requires.

Generosity can't be determined by a formula or spreadsheet. It has to come from the heart. Click To Tweet

A Simpler Solution: Heart, Not Formula

When my wife and I put together our 2018 family budget, we discussed the heart of what I was trying to accomplish. Formulas aside, it was an honest attempt to prevent us from hoarding excess when our income is growing rapidly. We wanted a financial guardrail in our lives.

So we asked ourselves: How can we make this less complex and still accomplish the same goal? We came to a surprisingly simple answer: We would give away at least as much as we store up in “barns,” defined as long-term investments not earmarked for short-term needs. That includes 401Ks, college funds and brokerage accounts.

We can still sock away extra money, but we must match long-term savings dollar for dollar in additional giving. This solution accomplishes our goal of preventing hoarding; we calculated financial finish lines for how much money we should put into 401Ks and college funds based on projected future needs (rather than accumulating with no ceiling), and then set our budget accordingly. And if we want to save more, we have to spend less because of the 1:1 giving requirement.

As long-time 10 percent tithers, this pushed our giving rate up to an uncomfortable 19 percent. While we could give even more, this commitment is stretching us. It’s another step in our journey toward radical generosity.

I’m not sure whether we’ll keep the same commitment next year, as circumstances and convictions change. And we want to keep pushing the limits and climbing the ladder. That’s the way it should be, because generosity can’t be determined by a formula. It comes from the heart.

The Rich Fool

I'm a journalist turned marketer navigating the intersection of money and faith, and trying to find the balance between financial independence and radical generosity. I'm a Christian, husband, father and marketing executive figuring out how to wisely manage excess riches I never expected to receive.

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2 Responses

  1. Mr. Financial Freedom Project says:

    Great article! As a data hound, I think the concept of your Rich Fool Giving Ladder sounds quite intriguing and would have liked to see it. That said, I fully acknowledge the likely shortcomings of a formulaic approach versus one based on heart condition and calling.

    Your goal of matching excess savings 1:1 with giving is admirable! While we became financially independent so recently that we’re still figuring some elements of the new lifestyle out, our plan right now is to take any income / earnings beyond those needed for our retirement budget and use this as an opportunity for additional giving (we 10% tithe on all income already).

    • When I first wrote this post, I shared more detail about the formula. I decided it was too confusing and distracted from the point I was trying to make. Just proved my point that I was making generosity too complicated. Our accelerated giving this year will slow our path to FI, but we’re good with that. I spent about a year aggressively going after FI, and something didn’t feel right. Saving and giving at the same rate this year feels like a good balance.

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