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Give Thanks by Paying It Forward

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In the spirit of Thanksgiving, how about sharing your wealth? I'm not talking about opening your checkbook or wrapping a shiny, blinky thing for the office toy drive.

The kind of giving I'm talking about is entirely different: This year -- as I do every year -- I propose that all Motley Fool readers give thanks by paying it forward.

Six degrees of reparation
This modified pay-it-forward idea is based on the movie of the same name. In the flick, a young boy gets a lofty social studies homework assignment: to better humankind in some way. His plan is to perform a selfless act of kindness for three people. But afterwards, instead of paying the favor back to him, the recipients are asked to do a favor for someone else -- to pay it forward. If his theory works, then kindnesses will be paid forward ad infinitum.

Of course, there's a catch: The "it" in the pay-it-forward movement must be something that recipients cannot, or think they cannot, do for themselves that would truly improve the recipients' lives. It's not always a cakewalk for the giver to deliver, either.

I won't ask you to hand over the keys to your Jaguar or write a letter of forgiveness to a longtime nemesis. Those selfless acts play great on the big screen, but you can do better for yourself and humanity.

Pay forward your financial smarts
The most valuable assets you have to offer are locked up in your noggin -- they are the financial smarts you've amassed over the years. By paying that knowledge forward, you can improve the financial footing of someone you love, and as the favor is passed to others, the fiscal stability of someone you don't know at all.

Where do you start? There are many ways to pay forward your financial knowledge. For instance, you can help a friend plot a retirement savings plan, or help youngsters in your life learn basic money math skills.

You don't have to come up with a way to pay it forward on your own. Ask worthy recipients for suggestions how you might help lessen their financial worries.

A few ideas to get you started:

  • Offer to review a co-worker's 401(k) choices, and help select an appropriate place to invest pre-tax dollars. Show your cube mate how simple it is to set up an IRA.
  • If it's debt that's got a friend or neighbor down, offer a lesson on the fastest way to pay off debt, and lend a sympathetic ear whenever the urge to splurge strikes.
  • Have that thoughtful and frank conversation with someone who is struggling with financial issues. Do more listening than talking, and make it clear that you are not there to judge. Offer your emotional support when times are tough.

A simple way to start paying it forward now
At The Motley Fool, we feel so strongly about improving the financial smarts of everyone that we've made financial literacy the focus of our philanthropic Foolanthropy campaign.

Our goal is bold: We want to ensure that every young person in the world gets a basic financial education.

Ambitious? Absolutely. Critical? Unquestionably.

Today's youngsters are financially handicapped from a very young age, with the majority completely unprepared to make even the most basic financial decisions -- setting up a budget, saving for the future, avoiding the siren song of easy credit -- by the time they leave the nest.

We can fill this void in our educational system in two ways:

1. Pay it forward on a personal level: Most of us can honestly say that some of our money smarts are due to making a few boneheaded mistakes along the way. By paying forward what we've learned -- 'fessing up to our hard-earned lessons and lending a tutoring hand to the people we love -- we'll reduce the stigma of talking openly about finances and create a charitable environment where ideas and support are freely exchanged. (An open environment for sharing ideas -- sounds quite Foolish, no?)

2. Pay it forward on a grand scale: We can ensure that the next generation has a better handle on their finances than we did at the same age by pooling our resources to support the Fool community's hand-picked financial education charity. This year, Foolanthropy will be supporting DonorsChoose.org, a dynamic nonprofit organization that provides a way to fund specific projects in public schools. Teachers from across the United States post project proposals for "citizen philanthropists" to fund. The partnership between DonorsChoose.org and The Motley Fool will specifically fund projects dedicated to financial and economic education.

Imagine the kind of movement that we could start if everyone reading these words right now did just one thing today to eradicate financial illiteracy today ...

  • Credit card debt would cease to be a rite-of-passage and an everyday reality.
  • Retirement savings would be a standard line item on everyone's budget and not an afterthought or a far-fetched, unfathomable ideal.
  • In households across the world, compound interest, opportunity cost, and investment ideas would be everyday dinner conversation.

Let's put countless others in a position to pay their financial smarts forward someday.

This article was originally published on Nov. 21, 2007. It has been updated.

Dayana Yochim owes mankind countless favors for all the things Fools the world over have taught her. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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