How to Give Boldly from Earned Income: A Guide for Techies and Others Who Don't Come From Wealthy Backgrounds

By Ellie Poley (member Chicago chapter; former member Seattle chapter)

When my wife and I decided to create a bold, radical giving plan, we had to chart our own course because our money comes from monthly paychecks and annual bonuses, not from an existing fund or wealthy family members. I am sharing my approach to giving and financial planning to inspire people who want and are able to give from their income. While there are many ways to take action as a member of Resource Generation, I am focusing here on giving and redistributing one’s own money since I find it easiest for busy people to get started. Young people who work in tech are perfect candidates: we are busy with the work that pays our large salaries, but we tend not to have as many major financial commitments as older techies.

My Money Story
In Resource Generation, we often introduce ourselves by sharing our “money story”, a personal narrative of our class background and experiences with money. This is always tough for me to turn into an elevator pitch, because my class experiences are varied and complex. Unlike many RG members, my money story does not start with growing up with wealth. My parents grew up in middle-class white families; during childhood, my large family was somewhere around middle class; as a teen, we experienced eviction, unemployment, and temporary poverty even as I attended a private prep school on scholarship; I paid my way through private college; and I graduated with a computer science degree that earned me a $78,000 starting salary at a high-tech corporation. That salary steadily increased into the six figures, and I also started accumulating restricted stock unit bonuses. Although there have been barriers along the way for me as a queer woman working as a software developer, the professional wealth my wife and I have access to now builds on my race- and class-privileged access to education, experiences, resources, and stability as a kid.
Identifying as a Young Person With Wealth

As with my queer identity, my class identity is fluid and changing. Right now I call myself wealthy because of my work, although it seems like few of my colleagues would use that label–even those who are older, hold more senior roles, or have more upper class indicators than me. Ultimately this identity is personal to experience, circumstance and worldview, but I have no doubt that most software developers and techies have more class privilege than most Americans (even just through job security, benefits, and middle-upper class income). I call myself wealthy because I have more than I need, and I certainly have more access to money than almost all of my friends and family outside of work (excluding my RG friends, of course).

That being said, people like me with wealth from income have very different access than many people in RG, which is why we need a unique approach to building a giving plan.

Defining Giving
Except as indicated, when I refer to “giving” or “moving money” I mean this in a broad sense, including: tax deductible donations to not-for-profit organizations, cash transfers to support friends and family, moving money to non-deductible organizations, tithing, funding political work, purposely choosing to pay a fairer tax rate… anything where you release control of “your hard earned money” for someone else or the social good.

A Step-by-Step Plan for Slowly Building a Bold Giving Plan

Before You Start
Remember that the process of evaluating your long term financial goals, your plans for wealth redistribution, and your personal lifestyle choices is deeply personal, and you will never arrive at a correct, final answer. I am not offering a one-size-fits-all solution–instead, I hope that sharing my experience, an action framework, and some tips will help you reflect on your own personal situation and values, and start a plan that works for you.

Step 1: Move your company’s money with matching grants
If you ever donate to 501(c)3 non-profits, this is your easy, warm-up exercise. If applicable, start taking advantage of your company’s matching grants (whether they match money, volunteer time or both). File a request for every eligible gift to a non-profit, even if you’re just giving $25 here, $100 there. (Side note/bonus points: if your company’s foundation or office has any sort of employee-directed grantmaking process beyond matching employee gifts, consider joining the committee and trying to bring a social justice lens to their grant making.)

Step 2: Earmark some of your non-wage income for giving
The easiest place to start is giving more of the money you don’t depend on day-to-day: create guidelines for how you will allocate some of your extra non-wage income to giving. I designated a percentage of surprise money (bonuses, stock grants, tax refunds, small inheritance, birthday money), and whenever it comes in I immediately transfer that portion to the savings account that holds my giving fund. I started with 10-20% of bonuses and tax refunds.

Step 3: Create an initial giving budget
Many of us start by giving sporadically, as situations and asks arise. Start thinking about your giving as a budgeted plan. The goal is not to meticulously plan where and when you give, but to set a goal for how much money you want to give overall.

Set an annual giving budget, drawing from both your wages and non-wage income. Don’t let perfectionism stop you: pick an initial target, even if it is lower than you want, or arbitrary. Start by looking back at what you gave last year. Try to anticipate what’s coming up for the year: an annual fundraiser for your favorite non-profit? Regular member dues, tithing, or recurring donations? Helping your sibling with tuition next semester? Commissioning work from an artist friend? Don’t plan too hard—leave yourself a slush fund so you can react to whatever comes up. Once you pick a number, fold this budget into your personal financial plans.

Step 4: Create a foolproof process for moving money
Remember, a target is nice, but the best way to make it happen is to set it on autopilot. Create a separate savings account for your giving fund, and set a recurring automatic monthly transfer out of your checking account. The transfer could be 1/12th of your annual target, but even if it’s just $20 a month to start, get in the habit! Now you have a giving fund, and you know by looking at its balance exactly how much you have available to give.

Step 5: Dream big
Step 4 is a fine place to stop, but I’m assuming you are interested in ideas for moving money boldly and radically—while balancing your personal needs and wants. So on to the intermediate level of money moving!
Now that you have a rough plan and budget, start dreaming up a goal. How much would you like to be giving? Here are some suggested goals:

Max out your company’s matching gift limit! That’s free money (like your 401(k) match). If your income comes from engineering work, put your optimization tendency to work. Many companies will match up to a few thousand dollars per employee per year; in tech, $5-6k is fairly common. My company matches $10,000 annually. Deciding to take full advantage of it started me on bold, intentional giving planning.

Does a nice round number call to you, like redistributing 10% of your income or 50% of your stock bonuses? What about aiming to give more each year than the previous year, perhaps by setting aside your annual cost of living salary adjustment? Can you set a goal with a partner? Is there a specific fundraising amount you want to aim for, like covering your parent’s car payment or funding one conference scholarship?

It doesn’t matter what your goal is—it just needs to be (pardon the icky corporate-ese) SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound), and flexible enough that you can adjust later.

Step 6: Build the plan and structure
Once you have a medium-term goal, lay out a financial plan and a timeframe for how you will reach it. I actually recommend doing the financial planning iteratively along with the goal setting: pick a goal, look at your life and finances, and adjust both the financial plan and the goal if needed.

Need some help shifting your household budget towards giving? Here are some ideas:
To start, consider other large financial goals besides giving. For example, our three big financial goals were giving, paying off our student loans, and saving for homeownership. We split bonuses/stock between them, and put a bit of income every month towards each goal fund. As we started closing in on our savings and debt payoff goals, we could be even bolder with our giving. We are now giving more from our bonuses (about 50%), and reduced debts means that we have more of our monthly income to give (and save) as well.

Adjust your lifestyle to enable your giving and other financial goals. Look at your household’s monthly income from wages, and your lifestyle and expenses. Can you adjust anything to make room for redistributing money? It’s important to listen to yourself and figure out answers to the question “what is enough for me/us?” Be sure to consider future plans. (Do you need to save for a house? Will you have kids? Will you be doing this high-income work forever?)

Also be self-aware: are you prone to selflessness at the expense of yourself, or the opposite? Did your class experience growing up make you worry about scarcity? Are you the first generation in your family to make wealth? Do you need to pay off student loans? Do you need to catch up on healthcare, therapy, or self-care that you didn’t have access to before? Are you a woman, person of color, or otherwise systemically disadvantaged when it comes to building wealth?

As one example, here’s what my wife and I have decided: we don’t subscribe to the “skip the latte” style of frugality–occasional small pleasures are important to us. We also like investing in high-quality, practical, and durable goods–something we couldn’t afford to do growing up. We instead focus on living below our means when it comes to both housing and transportation.

Although we could afford a luxury condo or a large house, we are happy with a small and modestly appointed apartment. It is also important to us to make housing choices that minimize displacement and gentrification. As for transportation, we share one reliable, inexpensive used car. More often, we rely on our nice bikes, our ergonomic walking shoes, and our transit passes. On the other hand, we spend more than average on other categories that matter to us: travel (our families are spread out), food (we value local, sustainable, whole foods), and health care. Having grown up a mix of middle class and poor, having long-term savings and a safety net is also important to us, although we try to avoid hoarding wealth unnecessarily.

Giving boldly out of your earned income is tough, but rewarding. It requires you to assess your values, set goals, build in structure to make it happen, and constantly adjust as life changes. It is also important to consider how your lifestyle fits into the picture, especially if you work in the tech industry, where luxurious consumerist choices are the norm, and self-care is often put on the back burner. Your giving plan, lifestyle, and financial plan will always be a work in progress, but I hope you can find a way to balance taking care of yourself, supporting others, and funding the movement for social change.