The Generosity Paradox

The other day I read an article that should have been very moving. At least, that should have been my reaction based on the reactions of people who were sharing the article on Facebook.

The article is about a growing number of anonymous donors at Kmart stores across the country who are paying off bills and layaway account for people who can’t afford to buy Christmas gifts for their kids.

Before I continue with what I have to say, I want to be clear: I am not in any position to tell people how to spend their money or how to define generosity. If it feels good for you to give in a way that I can’t relate to, that’s totally fine.

My first reaction as I started to read the article was: This is so cool. It’s the equivalent of the person in front of you at the toll booth paying for your toll, except the generosity of the Kmart givers specifically targeted kids. Kids who can’t help that they’re poor.

But then I read this: “Dona Bremser, an Omaha nurse, was at work when a Kmart employee called to tell her that someone had paid off the $70 balance of her layaway account, which held nearly $200 in toys for her 4-year-old son.”

Let that sink in for a minute. Here are my two points/questions:

  • Why are you spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need? Isn’t that one of the major reasons why America’s economy is terrible? And why, if you walk into Kmart with a fistful of cash and are feeling generous, would you enable someone to continue to spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need?
  • $200 in toys? For a 4-year-old? I’ll tell you what I wanted when I was 4 years old: a cardboard box and chocolate. If the money was being spent on clothes or necessities, I think I’d understand the vastness of that expense. But $200 on toys for a little kid who will play with them for a month and then forget about them? That’s just irresponsible.

These generous donors made Christmas miracles for these parents and kids, that I cannot deny. I just wonder if it’s responsible giving, given the irresponsibility of that parent (and countless others, I’m sure).

What do you think?

18 thoughts on “The Generosity Paradox”

  1. This made me laugh 🙂 Good points, Jamey. Do we know if the nurse was hurting for money? Maybe she just hadn’t gotten around to paying the balance yet. I opened a store account one day just randomly (not at Kmart) because I had left my debit card at home and didn’t want to drive all the way there and back if I could just open an account and pay it off at my convenience. Not the ideal solution and not one that I have used since, but at the time, it worked fine.

    Reply
    • We don’t know if the nurse was hurting for money? If she wasn’t, that makes it somewhat better (that she was spending money that she actually did have, just maybe not on her person at the time of purchase) and somewhat worse (a donor just gave her money she didn’t need when those funds could have been given to someone in need).

      Reply
  2. I completely agree. There are much more useful ways to give away money. Another point you didn’t make, consider that the money is going to a large corporation. Sure, they employ people, make jobs, blah blah blah. The point is it helps the bottom line of a large corporation that doesn’t “need” it.

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    • Exactly. I don’t think it’s my place to tell people how to give, but personally I’d rather give to a variety of charities and causes that I believe in instead of to someone who overspent on Christmas gifts.

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  3. I saw something like this on PostSecret a few weeks ago. Someone sent in a secret that they were at Wal-Mart, and the woman in front of them had her credit card decline while buying $400 in toys for her kids. The person writing the secret said they paid for all of the toys themself and ran out to the parking lot to give them to her. I think that’s sweet and extremely generous, but I couldn’t help but wonder why that woman was buying $400 worth of toys that she didn’t seem to be able to afford.

    My daughter is 4, and I spent just over $100 on her for Christmas this year. Almost half of that came from a single toy that she’s been asking me for non-stop since September. I actually got upset with my mom because she keeps buying her a ton of stuff she doesn’t need this year, and I hate to see it all sit there and not get played with because, well, she has the attention span of a 4 year old! I’d rather save some of my money to take to her to fun things throughout the year than watch it go to waste at the bottom of her toy box. And it would keep me up at night to worry about how I would pay for food or living expenses, knowing that I’d blown my budget on toys. I have a soft spot in my heart for Christmas just like a lot of people do, but not enough to override my practical side.

    This also makes me think about a toy drive I volunteered for a few years ago. I was under the impression that these toys would be for underprivilged kids who may not have (m)any other gifts under their tree that year. Instead, I saw kids throwing their toys back on the pile because they didn’t like them, or mothers requesting endless swap-outs of what they had received, because their kids “already had that toy” (and that toy, and that toy, and that toy…). The whole thing was really disheartening. I’m sure this isn’t the case with most toy drives (hopefully), but I did not walk away from that one feeling like I’d made a difference for anyone.

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  4. Katie–Thank you for such an insightful comment. I’m really glad a parent responded to this, because in my position of having no kids, I certainly can’t relate to the idea of having my kids go with (or without) presents on any given Christmas. I like how you describe that if you budget with a focus on Christmas, it leaves financial wiggle room for the rest of the year so that Christmas isn’t a one-stop shop for joy.

    As for the $400 worth of toys and the toy drive, that’s just sad.

    Are there any practical gifts that a kid could receive and have the same elation of receiving a toy? Like, I’m thinking that no little kid is going to open a package full of clothing and be ecstatic about it. But what about something that a child “needs” that’s also fun?

    Reply
    • As a kid I definitely have stronger memories of DOING things and LEARNING things than of GETTING things. Like going to the zoo or to Disney (I grew up in Orlando, so we’d get a season pass–it’s relatively cheap/cost-effective to get a season pass with blackout days…I just looked up prices, for a 4-park, weekday-only season pass it’s $175 for a kid for the year). I definitely have tangible memories of my sister puking in front of Peter Pan and of my mom saying “Want to go to Disney today?” on Wednesdays when she’d pick us up from elementary school (Wed.=short day in FL). And maybe I don’t remember toys as much because we didn’t get that many toys? I remember playing with Legos, Quints, Little Bears, and LOTS of stuffed animals. But I don’t remember specifically receiving them.

      I think that the idea of doing things together during Christmastime is more appealing than just getting stuff on Christmas Day. Like baking cookies together, decorating the tree and house, driving around to look at lights. When I look back on Christmastime with my family (which is making me sad because we’re not going home this year) I remember that kind of thing more than opening gifts on xmas morning.

      That is disheartening about the toy drive. But something I often wondered… As a kid, I would’ve HATED getting any kind of baby doll. I found dolls to be really lame. So, if I got a baby doll from a toy drive, it would’ve been a bad fit. So, I can understand *that* aspect of it, but it’s still disheartening to hear they just kept swapping out for something else.

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      • I keep encouraging my family to get Charlotte a membership to the Magic House or the zoo (even though the zoo itself is free, the memberships do come with special perks like free parking and train ride tickets).

        I think they’re hesitant because they know that for a 4-year old, opening up an envelope with a gift certificate inside isn’t nearly as exciting as ripping open some wrapping paper and finding a new toy you’ve been coveting. But I like to see things in the long term. It sounds silly, but I always think about the gift-giver throughout the year when I get those kinds of continual gifts. Like in the middle of May when I’m strolling around the zoo in glorious weather, skipping past the prairie dogs while eating ice creamnn and holding Charlotte’s hand. Who WOULDN’T want to give someone that kind of gift, even if can’t be played with on Christmas day?

        I have a few fond memories of actual Christmas gifts (my Alf doll which I was given when I was six and still have, my first typewriter, the New Kids on the Block sweatshirt that got me so excited I gave myself a bloody nose), but I also remember mostly the moments spent with my family

        1. My great-grandmother being modest and stating that she thought the cranberries in her cranberry sauce were a bit tough this year, and my clueless cousin agreeing with her, much to the horror of everyone at the dinner table.

        2. The underwear I received as a shy 13 year old that I wouldn’t let anyone see. A short time later I got up to go to the bathroom, and when I came out, everyone was silent and grinning from ear to ear. I asked what was going on, just as each pair of my new underwear floated down from the sky, placed on the ceiling fan blades by my brother and cousins, who then turned the fan on high.

        3. Getting sick almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas for several years running, a feat I have managed to sustain well into adulthood (and if how I feel today is any indication, this year looks to be another doozy). Scarlet fever when I’m 7 years old? Only meant for Christmas Eve. Food poisoning on Thanksgiving? But of course!

        4. Hanky panks, Dick’s dip, and the fake poo in the chamber pot: things only my family would understand.

        5. Giving my grandfather back our Christmas cards every year after we took the cash out so he could reuse them the next year, and the next year, ad infinitum. My mom and aunt still carry on the tradition with the same cards even though he passed away 7 years ago. He had remarkable penmanship and seeing his writing on my card every year brings back great memories.

        I could go on and on. But these kind of memories far outweigh any kinds of gifts or Christmas morning excitement I ever felt. Out of all of the gifts I received as a child, I can probably only name 3% of them, but it seems like I remember a moment spent with family from every year.

        I was so proud when Charlotte told me this the other night out of the blue as she looked at the presents already under my tree:

        “Even if we didn’t have any presents for Christmas, that would be okay because we have each other, Mom!”

        Apparently I’m doing something right.

        Reply
        • Oh, wow! $400 of toys for a kid who’s barely potty trained and probably wetting his bed every night. That’s kinda insane. I remember the fun and good old family times with the family. We used to have big parties, played games, and gift exchange lottery style. Now we do dinners with lots of talking and maybe karaoke. I also don’t remember a lot about what gifts I got because it wasn’t important and usually the gifts weren’t to my liking and not practical enough. Hope those needy kids get what they deserve and not just toys. Toys are awesome, but time with the parents who are willing to take time off work to spend some them is definitely priceless.

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  5. I didn’t want to even read the K-Mart article posted by so many, because I knew I would not think as positive as everyone else, and didn’t want to spend the time dwelling on everything that was wrong with it. But here, I go dwelling and spilling my thoughts…

    Until I reached the age where all my hard personal hard work started paying off, all I can remember is financial struggles. Through these times I remember A LOT! I don’t know how much my mom spent on Christmas, but I often felt guilty wondering how she could afford it all. (I doubt many young kids think like this.)

    I remember the year a random donor gave my brother and me new coats (the one’s we were wearing for years didn’t fit and were falling apart.) I still remember how awesome that coat was, and how I couldn’t wait to wear it! I remember getting a bag of used (but new to me) clothes, more than doubling my wardrobe from a family friend. I tried on all of the “new” clothes in my room, feeling so thankful for the free shopping spree I just won!

    What I remember most about Christmas though were the traditions like Lorena mentioned,… baking in the kitchen together. And how EVERY year we would make a birthday cake for Jesus and read different parts of the Christmas story from the bible, then discussed what it meant to us in different ways.

    It’s because of these experiences that I now strive to give thoughtful gifts, regardless of the price (but always something I could afford). I also give to my president’s personal charity which helps shelter young women sold into sex slavery and provide used and new items for families in need here in Saint Louis.

    I am not one to tell you how to spend your money. From my experiences, I simply don’t agree that the K-Mart story was the best option of making an unforgettable difference.

    Reply
    • Jodie–Thanks for sharing your Christmas experiences. The theme of doing things together with family seems to be way more memorable and impactful than individual presents. Also, I LOVE that you guys made a birthday cake for Jesus! If Santa gets cookies, baby Jesus deserves some birthday cake. I might need to adopt that tradition…

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  6. Interesting comments. Although I agree that yes, there is responsible spending issues in this country…

    For one thing having been in finance all my life, that is not the only reason that this country is in the mess its in right now.

    Now as far as responsible giving, I am bewildered as to what that means. If I have $50, $100, $200 or even, $1000 to give, I am going to give it.

    Now, if you are contending that the recipients ought to take more responsibility about what they do after I give them the money or what not, to me that is another topic.

    As to the corporation argument, I find this confusing also. Kmart has demonstrated that you can come back from bankruptcy and help the economy. This reminds me of the arguments against GM and Ford. Yet, GM paid back its debt in record time. I think we should applaud these companies that are contributing to the gross national product, an almost defunct concept due to a deficit in trade.

    Back to the topic at hand. When I was four, I think I wanted a Barbie. Later in life, you learn to appreciate things more. Do I agree that you should give according to your means? Absolutely. I still remember that Barbie. I remember some other things too. I like gift cards. My family received one to spend at Target (yes, another big corporation) and I spent it gleefully.

    Generosity itself to me is a virtue. Weren’t we taught, it’s the thought that counts? Some imply then that going overboard is as bad as being miserly. My rebuttal is, if we start analyzing the intent of the giver or the recipient, this defeats the purpose of being generous.

    I disagree in that it made a difference to those people. Paying it forward is precisely part of generosity.

    Reply
    • Orianna–You make some interesting points. First, I am definitely contending that recipients ought to take more responsibility (both before they receive money and after). But I’m also saying that givers need to take responsibility as well.

      I like your point about Kmart coming back from bankruptcy and therefore keeping a lot of people in the workforce.

      Regardless of whether or not we were taught that it’s the “thought that counts,” I don’t think that works in every case (there are plenty of axioms that don’t make sense for real-life situations). Let’s use an extreme example: Charity A raises money to kill endangered species to make coats for rich people in poor countries. Charity B raises money to provide water for starving infants.

      You can give to either charity. Is it the thought that counts if you give to Charity A? Not at all. Your gift is enabling a terrible organization. You’re doing more harm than good. If no one gave to Charity A, it wouldn’t be around for long.

      Obviously that’s an extreme example. My point is that you hold a lot of power when you buy something or when you donate money to a cause. Use that power wisely.

      Reply
  7. Ok, this begs the question of how do you perceive that power was not used wisely? Again, my argument is that the recipient holds that responsibility.
    When I give money to someone I deem worthy, they then decide what to do with it. If they choose to buy alcohol, that decision befalls on them. Right?
    As to the fur example, yes extreme, but let me spin that around.

    I would concede that we should also make educated guesses about where the money is going. That is all we can do. As there are charities that rip people off all the time.

    But, what if charity B is dishonest? In that case, at least Charity A is upfront about where your money is going, right? Rich people get fur coats in poor countries. Whereas, these charlatans use my money to mine blood diamonds instead of offer the water. Should I feel guiltier that I didn’t know?

    I know that my money went to the homeless person and I know that he or she may not use it wisely. The Kmart people knew the intent of their donation. They in my view, used their power wisely.

    Reply
    • Orianna–Totally, Charity B could be dishonest. When you give $70 to Charity B, you trust that they’re doing something good with it, but they might not.

      But that’s exactly the case in this article. People were blindly paying off layaway accounts for parents who had vastly overspent on toys. I consider that irresponsible.

      For those who have the financial ability to support those who don’t, I think they hold a certain responsibility to not enable the bad habits that keep poor people poor.

      Are you more likely to give to the pandhandler with a bottle of whiskey in his hand or the panhandler who asks for a sandwich? Either way you have a good idea of what he’s going to do with what you give him. Isn’t it your responsibility to support one over the other?

      Reply
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