When we talk about money, the subject of giving is often a distant afterthought. That’s unfortunate, because tithing—that is, the practice of giving 10 percent of your income to charity (typically a church or religious community)— has been espoused for centuries, both by those in and outside religion.
True, the idea of setting aside a tenth of one’s income might press your buttons, and for a good reason.
While the Bible and other religious texts make a case for tithing as a “gateway to abundance”, quantifying the return on investment isn’t nearly so easy as, say, connecting the dots between a stock purchase and its yearly dividend.
Yet if there’s nothing to tithing—and if the idea that it manifests wealth is purely imaginary—that what are we to make of this observation from mutual-fund pioneer Sir John Templeton? Keep in mind that Templeton was one of the greatest investors of the 20th Century, so he knew a thing or two about money and business.
Here’s what he said:
I have observed 100,000 families over my years of investment counseling. I always saw greater prosperity and happiness among those families who tithed than among those who didn’t.
That quote is contained in a short book about the practice called “Tithe: A Living Testimony.” It’s by Andrew McNair, who is not a minister but the owner of SWAN Capital, a wealth management firm based in Pensacola, Fla. Written from a Christian perspective, the slender, 61-page volume explains in a straightforward manner why tithing is more than just a good idea—and how it’s possible for even for people on limited budgets.
Although much we hear about tithing comes from an evangelical Christian perspective, keep in mind that the practice of gratitude and the idea of reaping what you sow are not exclusively religious concepts.
McNair espouses a principle called “backward based budgeting,” which is the financial equivalent of leadership guru Stephen Covey’s habit “begin with the end in mind.” While most people calculate their budgets simply by adding up the numbers (and not always with a sense of priorities), McNair provides easy-to-understand charts and diagrams that show how income gets divided ideally. There are mandatory expenses (i.e., food, electricity); long-term expenses (retirement, mortgage); and discretionary income.
McNair’s suggested approach is to include tithing as a mandatory expense, and to work backwards in terms of what’s necessary in a budget versus what’s optional. While that’s nothing revolutionary—we’ve all heard suggestions about taking Starbucks out of the budget countless times—his insistence that we look at tithing as a mandatory expense, rather than a discretionary one, requires a subtle shift in thinking. You don’t tithe with the scraps you have left over, but rather off the top (where the cream is). This is inline with the idea of paying yourself first–making your savings a mandatory expense that comes first rather than something you do with what’s left over.
Again: There’s no empirical proof that tithing “works” per se as a financial strategy, nor will there ever be. Nor is my task in this column to sell you on tithing as something you must do. In fact, McNair makes that case stridently in his book, often to the point of finger wagging. It would be refreshing to see him show a bit more Christian sympathy and compassion for those who struggle financially. I wished he would’ve made his case for tithing out of its sheer transformational power, as opposed to using guilt-provoking phrases such as “If we are not tithing 10 percent of our gross incomes, we are disobedient.”
It’s entirely possible that a person who doesn’t tithe is something else entirely: desperate, scared and disorganized are just three apt, alternative descriptions that come to mind. Others of us want to explore how tithing works and what it means, but we don’t have the tools at our fingertips to make a fairly significant financial transformation.
The math is easy: If you make $100,000, you should tithe $10,000, or $833 a month. It’s the leap of faith, if you will, that’s difficult for so many of us.
If we give up that much of our income to tithe, will there be enough left over when the bills roll in? Will we ever be able to afford that winter vacation of the things we dream of having?
One point McNair makes that I side with comes back to the central issue of how blessed we are. When I take a look at my own life, I realize how much God has showered me with material possessions and friendships I could not have dreamt of a decade ago. Tithing is a logical response to such an accounting: the outward manifestation, if you will, of an attitude of gratitude.
It also helps to have at least one more money maven who’s a big fan of tithing to make the case for it. Sean Hyman, a Texas-based pastor turned financial advisor, has been a regular guest on CNBC and Fox Business. And here’s what he told me about tithing:
“People grapple with that concept, but I’ve found it to be correct,” he says. “The average American lives too high on the hog, as we’d say in Arkansas, which is where I’m from. Really people should live off of no more than 70 percent of their income. You need that extra padding in case something comes up—and almost every year, something will come up, whether you need a new roof on your house or your car engine blows up.”
Hyman concludes: “A lot of scriptural principle doesn’t make sense to our minds—including giving away 10 percent—but it works. All it takes an inkling of faith. I would tithe if I had to hold down three jobs.”
Or if you prefer your wisdom straight from a billionaire, here’s what John D. Rockefeller Sr. had to say on the subject, courtesy of McNair:
“I never would have been able to tithe the first million dollars I ever made if I had not tithed my first salary, which was $1.50 per week.”
What about you? Do you tithe, or otherwise give a significant portion of your income to charity? Why or why not?