By Kim King

Giving Without Guilt: Tips for Living Generously

The season of giving is quickly approaching — giving gifts to friends, family, and charitable organizations. How can we think carefully about our gifts? What guidelines can help us live a generous life while also being responsible with our finances? And how does this holiday exchange of money affect our hearts? We asked Kim King, attorney and manager in the law department of Exxon Mobil Corporation for over thirty years, and author of When Women Give: The Adventure of a Generous Life, to help us frame our giving as a spiritual discipline. Thank you for this practical advice, Kim!

How can we think about charitable giving and financial stewardship as it relates to our own spiritual formation? Particularly in the Christmas season, how can we watch for ways God is shaping our souls through our use of money?

God has made each of us to be unique and blessed us in many ways special to who we are. How we steward (or use) all of those blessings is a daily spiritual journey. It begins with our attitude. Do we have an attitude of abundance or one of scarcity and limits? We get to live in God’s abundance, including sharing that with others. It is a journey of joy and adventure.

Financial stewardship is a key part of living generously. There is nothing that vies for our identity, our source of joy, and our source of security like money. Holding what we have loosely before God is one of the key tests of one’s level of trust in God.

How can we transform our attitude from scarcity to abundance without being foolish? And does it have anything to do with how much a person earns? (i.e. is this easier if you have more money?)

We begin by understanding what Jesus taught about the abundant life. When one looks at how he and his disciples lived — as well as what he said about money — one realizes that he did not come to make us wealthy financially. We have to ask ourselves whether our definition of “foolish” giving is the world’s definition or God’s. We have to recognize when our definition of “foolish” may be giving at a level that requires trusting God and depending on God. Jesus clearly says give and it will be given to you. This requires trusting God to keep his word.

Having said this, good financial stewardship is not unbiblical. Create a budget for living and include a percentage for giving. Better yet, set a percentage for giving, and then plan to live on the rest.

Is it easier to give when you have more? I think often it is more difficult for those who have much, mainly because as their income and assets increased, so did their lifestyle. To give more requires changing one’s lifestyle and saying no to cultural expectations. A study conducted by UBS found that regardless of how much one had, one always thought one needed three times more to be secure. We are always tempted to place our security in money, and as a consequence believe we need more.

What are some helpful ways to make decisions about charitable giving at the end of the year?

At the end of the year ministries typically ask for a year-end gift. They do so because they know that many donors will act in response to the spirit of the season or for favorable tax consequences. Our giving, however, should be spirit-led, rather than IRS-led.

We should also give wisely, as we would throughout the year. Charity Navigator and GuideStar provide relevant information on a large number of charities. Also, one should do a search on the internet for information. Read the publicly available online IRS form 990 each charity must file for information as well. Before following someone’s recommendation, we should ask what due diligence has been done. One can always give when one has received answers to any questions, whether this year or next. Remember: there are no numbered years in eternity.

In a season of generosity and even sometimes excess, what are some strategies for following one’s own budget and not getting caught up in the moment? Or are there times that being caught up in the moment are good?

Budget is the key word. We should have an annual budget including an amount to be given. [If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of creating a budget, Kim’s book includes a step-by-step guide to building one!] We then should create a giving plan for the budgeted amount at the beginning of a year. Pray for the Spirit to lead when we create it and follow it throughout the year. We then have freedom and peace when we say "no" to solicitations or opportunities outside of our giving plan.

I always include in my giving plan an amount for undesignated giving. I refer to this as a "Holy Spirit surprise." Sometimes this may be spontaneous giving. A fun exercise in living generously is to keep some bills in one’s wallet earmarked for spontaneous giving and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you to whom to give. Consider those who live on little, such as custodians, waitresses and waiters, clerks, lawn workers, and others. When we give, we can also ask how we can pray for them.

What are some useful frameworks to think about when giving gifts and celebrating?

During the Christmas season as we focus on God’s greatest gift to us, Jesus Christ, our gift-giving should reflect God’s heart, whether we are giving to family, friends, ministries or strangers. Do we give to meet someone’s expectation? Do we give out of a sense of duty or to conform to cultural or family traditions? Or do we give out of love for others? We may ask others, “What do you want for Christmas?” What if instead we asked God to show us how we can show that person we love her? How can I show that person, even a stranger, that I love them, as does God?

If we find ourselves giving gifts to meet various expectations, what do we do about it? I'd love some practical suggestions to find a way out of difficult emotions around giving. It doesn't always work to say "I shouldn't feel obligated to give a gift to so-and-so.”

Difficult emotions as the result of the expectations of others are present in many ways in the life of discipleship. If we do what pleases God and have a deep belief that he loves us and is pleased, then we must focus on that truth, rather than letting our emotions rule our decisions. The holidays present a roller coaster of emotions and memories for all of us. Recognizing this and seeking God’s strength in the face of these emotions is the first step.  

Another step is to advise family and friends of your giving plan for the holidays. Suggest something concrete, such as sticking to immediate family or keeping all gifts below a certain dollar amount. Clear communication can help create realistic expectations. Another suggestion is not to reciprocate when someone unexpectedly gives you a gift. Show appreciation and gratitude but avoid the temptation to perpetuate the gift exchange. Do this in the context of showing them in a different way, maybe at a different time, that you appreciate them in order to separate holiday gift-giving from the value of relationship.

Gifts bring a lot of baggage. Some people attach a great deal of significance to them and some people do not have strong feelings. There is a lot of real pressure! How should we navigate that with consciousness toward budget?

Yes, there is a lot of pressure, and we can’t expect to navigate it without some mistakes. My dad gave my mother a set of jumper cables for Christmas one year. He thought he was showing her how much he cared about her well-being. Mom had a different view.

The awareness of love language is most important in the context of our closest family and friends. Helping someone with the gift-giving and gift-receiving love language to understand your love for them and the thinking behind the gift you chose to give them will go along way toward ensuring that they understand how much they mean to you. Those who resonate with this love language often don’t need expensive gifts. They desire thoughtful gifts. In addition, they love gifts throughout the year, not just on expected occasions.

Do you have any practical tips for seeking God and learning to show love in gift-giving?

One thing I try to do is not let the gift do all the talking. Write a note to include with the gift that says how much you appreciate them and why you chose this gift. One of the best gifts I ever received was a kitchen tool — a zester (which is why I continue to have skin on my knuckles). The giver explained what it was, how to use it, and included a great recipe using lime zest.

We all have too many knick-knacks, and they usually don’t suggest anything personal. Consider something that can be used up. I like to give and receive lotion, candles, herbs, writing pens, sunglasses or reading glasses, books or bookmarks, and socks. I have given my favorite writing pens on several occasions with a note that explains why I like them. To my surprise, I have received more thank-yous for them than many more expensive gifts. I have done the same with my favorite socks. And we can always give a gift in their honor to a charity, maybe one that reflects an issue close to their heart.

About the Author

Kim King (JD, University of Alabama) served as an attorney and executive in the law department of Exxon Mobil Corporation for over thirty years prior to leaving to pursue speaking and writing. She continues to practice privately assisting nonprofits and the under-served. She is a member of the leadership team of Women Doing Well Initiatives, an affiliate of Generous Living, which provides education and tools for women to facilitate generosity. Most recently, she joined the Board of Trustees of Thrivent Trust Company, a Christian financial services company. Kim lives in Houston, Texas.

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