Since I’m a graduate student on a tiny budget in an expensive city, money is always in the back of my mind, and quite often at the forefront of it. When I look at friends at different stages of life (lawyers, doctors, insurance agents, photographers, business execs, you name it) who have more than I do, I find myself experiencing a strange kind of jealousy: I’m jealous of their ability to be generous, whether by hosting dinners, buying rounds of drinks, or supporting worthwhile causes.
I know my situation isn’t unique to graduate students. These discrepancies in income never disappear and, for most of us, there will be at least periods in our lives when we aren’t free to give much, if at all.
Of course there are small ways in which we can still practice generosity even when times are tight. I try to keep granola bars in my car to give the homeless people that wait at most intersections here in D.C. Occasionally I’ll buy a meal for someone loitering outside a grocery or drug store. If I have cash, I’ll put a few dollars in the collection basket on Sundays. And I know that these acts, insignificant in terms of the objective value of the money spent or given, are still acts of real generosity.
In spite of this, it’s still hard for me to feel like I’m actually practicing generosity. And while there are other good qualities proper to states and seasons of life, surely generosity isn’t the prerogative of a certain income bracket.
So I’ve been racking my brain (and my friends’ brains!) for ways to practice this virtue in contexts other than monetary giving. Here are a few ideas if you, like me, can’t practice monetary generosity right now—or even if you just want to broaden your practice of this key human virtue.
The gift of time
Time is as precious a commodity as money. In our hyper-busy society, we all have multiple pulls on our time and energies. So investing time in friends and family members is a way of giving of your resources. For me this means calling a friend who is going through a hard time, meeting my aunt for coffee, inviting a friend to run with me, or FaceTiming with my sister-in-law. There are always other things you can do with your time, so it’s a real way of giving of yourself. If you engage in these encounters with real presence and attention, you’ll be giving of your resources in a profound way.
The gift of presence
Even if you have little time to give, make sure that you’re fully present to the people you’re with. Instead of frantically thinking through how much you need to do as soon as this conversation ends, make yourself listen well, ask thoughtful questions, offer honest comments on your own life, and engage in the moment—even, and perhaps especially, when the meet-up is unplanned. A ten-minute conversation won’t make or break most days in your life, but a genuine encounter can make someone else’s day. So choose to be present.
The gift of talent
This also involves time, but the emphasis is different, so I’m giving it its own entry. Here I’m thinking of things like joining the church choir, doing the flowers for your friend’s wedding, editing a friend’s paper or project, giving your gals a makeup tutorial, writing a clever party invitation, playing your guitar for your friends, and anything in that vein. Things that you do as part of your daily life may seem unexceptional to you, but they’re precious commodities in the eyes of your friends and family—so think of these as your untapped resources and give from them liberally.
The gift of hospitality
If you enjoy making your home a lovely, welcoming space, consider opening it up to your friends. Offering a homey space conducive to good times and good conversation is a way of showing love to your friends and of contributing to the group social life. Throw a game night (salad bowl is one of the best—and it costs zero dollars!) or invite friends over for a back-porch jam session as the spring nights warm up. Split costs with a roomie or friend and ask friends to bring something to share.
The gift of receptivity
The saying goes that it’s better to give than to receive, but deliberate, other-centered receptivity is really a variation of the virtue of generosity. The choice to graciously and gratefully accept generosity is itself a kind of generosity. I struggle with this a bit because my pride pushes me to say that I don’t need things from people, and because my guilt complex kicks in when I can’t return their generosity in kind. But refusing someone’s generosity is usually a selfish act. Many people show their love through gift-giving, which can translate into literal gifting but also and more often into dinner-making, drink-buying, grocery-store-shopping, and the like. Let your friends and family show their love for you with their generosity: allowing them to practice this virtue is a parallel way of practicing it yourself.
Grand gestures may belong to the well-to-do, but we can all practice simple generosity in simple ways, regardless of income.