When you live in one of the world's poorest countries, you often feel like everyone needs your money. And well, most of them probably do.
I used to be wracked with guilt. Every time I ate meat, went out to dinner, or put gas in my car, I would mentally calculate how it compared to the average Tanzanian's weekly wage. Spending money on anything they didn't have--whether it be toilet paper or a refrigerator--made me feel guilty.
And we do give. We always look for ministries to support and worthy recipients of donations. But over time, I learned a really important lesson: How I spend can be just as important as how I give.
The money I spend (which originates from many of you) is daily being infused into the Tanzanian economy. I can choose where it goes. Who am I going to invest in today? It's actually a pretty fun way to spend money.
When our washing machine breaks, and I hire a technician, I am supporting his family. When I buy pineapples on the side of the road, I'm helping that vendor send his kids to school. When my language helper comes to my house, I'm helping her save money to open a shop in her neighborhood.
Every day, every time I hand over cash, I am helping to build people's lives. Often, that means I make conscious choices about how I spend it. For example:
- I try to buy groceries from small shops instead of always shopping at the large stores.
- As much as possible, I buy food that was produced in Tanzania or Kenya.
- I hire a gal to come to the house and braid the girls' hair instead of doing it myself.
- I buy gifts for friends from local artisans instead of Amazon.com.
- I pay for the shoe repair guy to fix up my son's shoes instead of purchasing new ones.
- When I eat out, I don't always go to the nicest places, and I try to tip well.
- I hire a seamstress to sew my daughter a dress instead of buying a new one online.
I've wondered how I would apply this way of thinking if I ever moved back to the States. Even there, could I help the people around me by how I spend money? Of course.
Could I seek out the plumber who is just getting started? The gardener who just moved to America? The hair stylist who doesn't speak much English? Could I use Etsy to buy gifts? Could I hire someone to mow my lawn even though I am capable of doing it myself? Or walk my dogs or be my nanny? Could I eat at the local diner instead of the big chain restaurant, and leave a big tip?
The difference is that in Tanzania, I am surrounded by these kinds of opportunities, and in America, I might have to seek them out. It might mean frequenting businesses that could be considered on "the wrong side" of town. It could mean dealing with the inconvenience of working with someone who is not fluent in English. It could mean paying more for stuff that would be cheaper at Walmart. It might require the sacrifice of time or comfort. But shouldn't that be okay?
But the point is that it's possible to help poor and disadvantaged people beyond just donating gifts to a charity at Christmas, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or even buying free trade coffee at Starbucks. We can "distribute our wealth" simply by how and where we choose to spend our money.
Those of us who are rich should be burdened for others who could use our money. By all means, let's be generous. But let's also consider those who could really use our business. Sometimes, that can help even more.