Tithing and Happiness

In All The Money In The World (yes, that link goes to a placeholder website for the book!) I talk about how best to give money away. Some research has found that spending money on other people — either in the form of gifts or charity — is one of the easiest ways to buy happiness. While this doesn’t make intuitive sense (why would buying a DVD for someone else make you happier than buying it for yourself?) the reality is that humans are social creatures. We derive a big chunk of our pleasure in life from our social ties, and social ties are strengthened by doing things for other people.

Of course, not all pro-social spending buys happiness equally. The smartest way to give is to do so in a way that consciously creates and nurtures social ties. This is why, intuitively, we give generously to our children’s school fundraisers, our neighborhood associations, civic organizations we also volunteer with and, for many people, their place of worship. We actually care what these people think of us!

That last category is where this all gets interesting, because certain religions prescribe exactly how much you are supposed to give. The Bible calls for a tithe of 10%. For many people, this would be quite a stretch from their current giving levels, and so I talked with various people about the theories behind it, and the controversies. Over at DailyWorth a while ago, for instance, a reader named Beth was tithing and also going into debt to pay for an expensive international adoption. Financial expert Liz Pulliam Weston suggested she think of adoption as a form of giving to God, and cut back on the tithing for a while.

So I asked Greg Rohlinger, pastor at the Palm Valley Community Church in Goodyear, Arizona, what he thought of that. Rohlinger’s church actually has a money-back guarantee on tithing. If you tithe for 3 months and don’t feel like your life has been blessed by more than you paid out, you get your money back! He told me that I was framing the issue the wrong way. This was a situation where “the church has to be the church,” he said. “In our small groups, when there is a financial need, we encourage people to meet it.” In other words, an expensive adoption doesn’t mean you stop tithing. It means you ask your fellow church members to tap their networks to help you pay for the adoption.

It’s the whole pro-social concept again. By concentrating your giving on your local church — and hence being deeply invested in it — you help create a community that will support you. Even through tough financial times. In theory, it’s kind of like kicking in payments to a co-op rather than actually bidding it adieu.

It’s an interesting idea. I have not necessarily been convinced by it (we’ve never been tithers — and indeed, can’t even settle on a church) but it’s something to ponder.

Do you tithe? Has it been a stretch for you? Do you feel like it’s created strong social ties?

In other news:

  • I had a column in today’s (Thursday) USA Today called “Obama Youth Have No Where To Go.” Despite various salivating from people like Karl Rove that millennial voters will go GOP or stay home, I think that’s fantasy. And I say that as a registered Republican!
  • I wrote a piece for Fortune.com called “Why You Should Cool It With The Corporate Jargon.” Acronyms and jargon just serve to make language less precise and accessible. Even among “internal stakeholders.”
  • I will be on a pseudo “maternity leave” starting next week. While I’ll be posting occasionally, I will also have several of my favorite bloggers chipping in guest posts too. If you blog regularly and want to get in on the fun (and incur my gratitude) please let me know.

(Photo courtesy flickr user MoneyBlogNewz)



12 Responses to Tithing and Happiness


  1. Twin Mom says:

    We tithe because we believe it’s a religious obligation, not because it’s pro-social. I definitely would have preferred using that $500/month for a housecleaner or babysitter during my children’s early years. But it’s not a question of what I want, it’s a question of what I believe I owe God.

  2. Susan says:

    I agree with Twin Mom. Our giving is about our faith – not about the community at the church. While we could certainly use the money for other expenses, we have always had enough to pay all of our bills. Part of that is choosing priorities and part is having faith that we will have our needs met.

    • Laura says:

      @Susan- I completely understand that faith would be the primary motivation. But would you agree that part of “having faith that we will have our needs met” comes from being part of a church community? That if you do hit a tough patch, you have a community of people who will pray for you, and do what they can in earthly matters to help you?

  3. Twin Mom says:

    quote from today’s NY Times article, Limits of Empathy on people whose lives are structured by a moral code. “People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.”

    It would be interesting to see percentages of religious and nonreligious tithers and the effects on retirement savings. (Do tithers save less or spend less or both?) Low income people who are “very religious”, which often includes tithers, are far less likely to struggle with social problems such as divorce and single parenthood than other low income people. However, they are more likely to struggle than higher income people. (Best predictor for a lasting marriage, currently, is a 4 year college degree.)

    • Laura says:

      @Twin Mom – that would be interesting to hold tithing constant and change religious status and compare… I’m guessing there probably aren’t too many non-religious tithers, There are non-religious full-time philanthropists (e.g. Bill Gates) but I’m not sure what the rest of us could necessarily glean from their experiences. I’ve seen some statistics written about by Arthur Brooks that lower income people are more generous, as a percentage of their income, than middle-income people. But most Americans give in the 2-4% range. 10% is way beyond what most people do. I’m very impressed with people who do it. I wouldn’t be surprised if tithers save for retirement at the same or a higher rate than non-tithers of the same income level (despite having less “disposable” income). Being conscientious in one area of life often carries into others.

      • Twin Mom says:

        Good points. Also, we “tithe” on our net income. We don’t tithe on income taxes, employer health care contributions, social security employer match, etc. I think being self-employed and tithing before paying for a nanny + her payroll taxes, medical insurance (and bills if you have a $10k deductible) and 15% social security contribution would be more than most of us achieve. If you give 4% of your income before those expenses, you’re probably as close to tithing as I am. (Tithing plus paying for childcare negates some of the value of working.)

        One of my atheist friends in college planned to tithe to charity because he saw value in the Judeo-Christian moral code even though he didn’t believe in God. I don’t know if he and his wife do or not.

    • Mike says:

      Actually, the best predictor for a lasting marriage isn’t a 4 year college degree, it’s couples that PRAY TOGETHER! The divorce rate for couples that intentionally & regularly pray together is only 2%.

  4. Cara says:

    I believe in God and Jesus but I would probably not ever give $500 a month to the church. I think Jesus would want us to help folks directly. Like in the street when you have a chance. I would like to FIND a church that had Sunday school and I could relate to. We are catholics my kids go with the grandparents but I haven’t really found a church of my peers. If church’s offered say non judegemental mom’s groups I’d be in but I don’t feel like I”m seen at most churches or given the direction I Need. Once I went to a mom’s group at the Catholic church and a woman from Opus Dei told me to get home and spend more time with my kids ! – I went in work attire from a networking event and was totally judged as a working mom!
    I DO THINK THAT giving to your social group — neighbors and friends, your friend who you do babysitting coop or playdates with.. this is very great and biological — how we were evolved to do for others who help us.

  5. Amy says:

    I am not religious, but I do give 10% of my income to charity and I do feel that having more morally obligates me to help those with less. I tend to give my money to national non-profit organizations, rather than to places like my children’s public schools, because I don’t feel the money is needed as much in the community in which I live as it is elsewhere, in poorer areas. This means I don’t see any direct community building from my money; it just makes me feel good to give it. However, I do tend to give my time to local groups and charities, which has built community for me.

    • Laura says:

      @Amy- I think I may be inspired to track down a few non-religious tithers. I smell an article in this. You are totally correct that giving money away makes people happy, period. I’ve been more exploring the question of maximizing happiness, and I think the concept of giving either one’s money or time in a way that builds community (as you do with volunteering) has a leverage factor. By the way, congrats on starting your new business!

  6. christina says:

    I do tithe to my local church and give “extra” elsewhere to causes that are important to me for various reasons. Tithing is an act of faith in itself. For me it comes from a basic belief that all I have comes from God. So tithing is not actually giving up 10% of my income, it’s recognizing where it comes from by “giving it back.”

    But I do believe tithing also helps make you more invested in the local church (or whatever organization you are giving to). (Something about your heart being where your treasure is.) If you support a local church, you care what is happening there.

    I certainly do not tithe so that I might be able to count on the church if I had a financial crisis–but I’ve seen that happen plenty of times. The church can be a great community, but I think you’re holding out on it if you don’t give to help support it. In the end you not only short the church, but yourself.

    • Laura says:

      @Christina – Any community you want to be part of requires support. Someone raised this point with me the other day with alumni volunteering and giving to universities. On one hand, after you’ve paid so much $$ to go there it seems crazy to give more time and money, but that investment of post-graduation time and money is what keeps the value of your degree high — thus making sure you maintain your return on investment.