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Pay It Forward

My husband, Judah, had the idea of leaving some money in our wills to our friends … with the charge that they have to gift half of what they receive to someone else.

For example, if we left $10,000 to Jamie, she would have to give $5,000 of that to someone else, and they would be required to give $2500 to someone else. For easier math, let’s say that person would be required to give $1200 to someone else, who gives $600 to someone else, who gives $300 to someone else, who gives $150 to someone else.

I find this idea interesting from many angles.

If I imagine myself as Jamie, I am excited when I receive $10,000 unexpectedly! I start imagining what I might do with the money. Then I find out I have to give half of that to someone else, and I am less excited. Now I only have $5000.

But I didn’t have any of it the moment before I learned about the will! So I (Jamie) still have $5000 I didn’t have before, which I did nothing to earn.

On top of that, I now have the ability to gift someone else with money they don’t yet have and did nothing to earn.

At the moment of receiving the money, each person would have to face their own response. I imagine some people will simply be grateful for the money and excited to pass some on. I don’t actually know if anyone truly would react this way, but I like to imagine there are people like that out there.

I personally would have to face my greed and selfishness. I want to be the kind of person who immediately responds from a grateful and giving place. But my humanity tells me I would have to face gross emotions first. And possibly even struggle with “How will they know if I pass the money along or not? How will they know how much I pass along? I could keep most of it and still give a couple thousand dollars to someone else.” The lengths to which my brain could derive plans to keep more than my share seem endless.

And the crazy thing is, if I remove myself from the equation and place myself in the role of the witness (or judge!), I would say, “But you still have $5000! That’s a lot of money!”

It’s only in comparing that I feel cheated.

Cheated?! I just got something for nothing!

Yes … cheated!

It doesn’t make it right. But some part of me feels like I was handed $10,000 and then told “I’m sorry. There was a clerical error. You were only supposed to get $5,000.” Like somehow the $10,000 meant I was worth more … like to the core of my being! And now I’m being told there was an error in judgment and I’m only so-so. Still worthwhile, but not as much.

Once I’ve wrestled with these bits of my humanity (in my imagined experience) and come to terms with the fact that I “only” get $5,000 (free), then I look at the other $5,000 and start fantasizing about who to gift the money to.

Now, I’m the ultimate philanthropist! Gracious and kind. Thoughtful and giving. Selfless. Carefree.

To whom shall I bestow my great wealth? My overflowing abundance?

I make a list of worthy options.

(What even makes someone “worthy”? Perhaps this is part of my problem when receiving the money in the first place! The belief that I was “worth” being gifted such generosity.)

I choose the unsuspecting recipient of $5,000 (really $2500 once they gift half of their free money) and make my move.

Now, I can’t know how it would all shake down, but my suspicion is that the smaller the amount received, the less the pain in halving it and the quicker the joy in “getting” to pass it along.

When I’m gifted $10,000 and have to give $5,000 away, that feels like a huge gut punch. When I’m gifted $300 and have to give $150 away, the stakes are lower.

But why?

Because I can buy more with $10,000 as a starting number than I can with $300. When I am told “here’s $10,000”, my imagination makes quick work of a million possible ways to use that money. Extravagant. Lavish. Or even just paying off debt.

When I’m told “here’s $300”, my imagination moves more like a sloth. Won’t make a dent in my debt. Doesn’t buy a cruise. Doesn’t even fully pay for a plane ticket to visit my mom.

When that $300 becomes $150, I haven’t already spent it 500 ways in my mind, so I don’t feel like I have to give up my dreams and desires. The stakes are lower.

Unfortunately, we still haven’t made our wills. It’s been on the to-do list for almost ten years. I don’t know if this idea will make it into the documents or not. If we had enough “extra” money, I think it would be interesting to run this experiment while we’re alive and see what people do with the money, how they respond.

Ultimately, I love the idea of people blessing others with unexpected money. When I’m not emotionally involved with my own selfish response as a fictitious recipient of the money, I love the birds-eye view of people lovingly spreading money around. Maybe we should all do this on whatever scale we can.

As a thought experiment, put yourself into the scenario.

What would you do?

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Apr 23, 2021


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