Wednesday, August 25, 1999

What I Almost Forgot

By Shoma Aditya (

At my former place of employment, every October was "United Way" month. We were a corporate sponsor of this venerable institution, and for one month, we sent donation mailers to all the employees and held fundraisers, including bake sales, auctions, parties.

One year I volunteered with the fundraising -- okay, actually my boss volunteered me because enough people hadn't signed up. All the managers were told to get volunteers from each of their groups. The e-mail my boss sent me was along the lines of, "Well, this is an inconvenience that everyone in the company, once in a while, must go through."

An inconvenience. I was embarrassed when I read this. Not because I was shocked to see charitable giving referred to as an inconvenience, but that I hadn't volunteered myself when the original e-mail was sent asking for help. "I don't have time for this," I'd originally thought, "I have so many better things to do."

But my boss' e-mail struck a nerve. I thought about how many times I'd chatted with people as I'd delivered manuscripts, searched for office supplies, or went insearch of information. I thought about the coffee breaks I'd taken with colleagues and the many meetings I really didn't need to be at. Is this what I was so busy with that I couldn't give up an hour a week? Obviously, I wasn't the only one who's time was going to be wasted -- why else would managers be forced to volunteer people?

What was even more shocking was how many people refused to donate money, which is fine -- perhaps United Way wasn't the right charity for them. But no, they didn't support charitable giving at all. "Why should I give away my money? I have bills to pay, I can't waste it on charity." It seemed not too many people could afford to give up $25 (which is what I'd planned to donate) to any organization... even when they had the option of having a portion taken out of every pay check (a mere 48 cents a week!).

When I think about how many people go to Starbucks and spend $2 or $3 a day on coffee (I once fell into this group), it seems shocking that anyone would begrudge50 cents a week. To save $25, all you'd have to do is not drink coffee for one day a week. And yet so few people seem willing to do just that. Caffeine addiction aside, has money become so important to us that in seeking our fortunes, we forget how fortunate we already are?

My father, who immigrated to this country nearly 40 years ago with almost nothing but a degree in chemical engineering, eventually became a very successful businessman. But he never forgot that there were people less fortunate than he. He always impressed on us how blessed we were -- we were going to college, we could take vacations, we could go out to dinner -- and that we should never be so selfish to forget that so many people couldn't afford food or clothes. My parents have always donated to charities because it was important to them to give something to others since they had been given so much.

I almost forgot that. Yes, I had a job where I was just making enough to pay the rent and the bills. But I was still able to contribute to my 401(k) and my index fund, and I still managed to save money to buy shares of my Foolish 4 stocks. I had my health, a roof over my head, and I could afford a daily Starbucks coffee.

That year, we raised more than 10% over the previous year for the United Way.

So nowadays, while I peruse my portfolio, rejoicing in my gains or frowning at my losses, I never forget how lucky I am to actually have a portfolio to peruse. AndI no longer "waste" my money buying Starbucks coffee every day -- I make it at home instead.

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