How Much is Too Much to Give to Charity?
But let me tell you about one dusty Middle Eastern custom that deserves a comeback: tithing. For those who skipped Sunday school, tithing is the practice of giving 10 percent of your annual income to the needy. You donate one out of every ten dollars (or shekels or sheep) to the orphans, the widows, the destitute, or the temple high priests. Granted, some folks in 21st-century America still tithe (devout Mormons, for instance, are expected to cough up 10 percent). But the practice has largely gone the way of pharaohs and women named Bathsheba. Which isn't surprising. Tithing is hard as hell, especially in these lean times.
I first learned about tithing a few years ago. At the time, I was trying to follow every rule in the Bible—a journey I chronicled in a book. The Bible told me to tithe. So I tithed.
When I told my wife, Julie, about my plan to tithe, she fretted. In general, she's much more magnanimous than I am. She's a sucker for those charities that send you free sheets of return-address labels with little cartoons of a Rollerblading Ziggy, along with a heartbreaking brochure about lymphoma. I tell her it's emotional blackmail. She ignores me and mails them checks.
But even for Julie 10 percent is high, especially with the ridiculously expensive prospect of raising children in New York City. Julie asked whether I could count my literary agent's fee as a tithe. She was only half-joking.
"Can you at least do 10 percent after taxes?" she said.
That night I called a friend who's a Lutheran pastor. "You shouldn't get too legalistic," he said. "Give what you can. And then give some more. It should feel like a sacrifice."
I studied my Bible for insight. It seems that in the time of ancient Israel—before the Romans took over—no one paid taxes per se. The tithes were the taxes. And the tithing system was as complicated as any 1040 form. The farmers gave to the priests, the temple-keepers, the temple itself, the poor, the widows, and the orphans. So I decided after-tax tithing was probably okay.
I calculated 10 percent of my projected salary. It wasn't a huge number—but that was precisely the problem. If I were making $10 million a year and had to give away $1 million, that would have been easier.