It’s okay, Pagans, take that charitable tax deduction

I had someone tell me that e did not believe that writing off charitable giving on the ol’ tax return is a particularly moral thing to do.  The argument, as I understood it, is that it makes the donation less sincere if you’re going to get some of it back.

I see things differently.

I said, "Duck!"Money acquires characteristics based on how it’s used.  I prefer using money that has been given freely away for most of my money work.  It’s got an aura of selflessness about it that can’t be found elsewhere.  There are other ways to acquire it, but duck.

Not all of the money that I give away goes to formal institutions that can provide the paper trail I need to deduct those donations on my tax return.  Some of it goes to people I meet on the street, or gets dropped in a collection box, or is otherwise untraceable, unprovable, inauditable.  There’s a Jewish belief that this sort of anonymous charity is one of the highest forms, and I don’t doubt that divorcing oneself from the credit carries some value of its own.

One curious detail about the discussion I had about tax deductions is the fact that my conversation partner doesn’t subscribe to the concept of anonymous giving, saying that it is not in keeping with eir understanding of Hellenic polytheism.  If you’re making an offering, don’t be shy about it!  That’s fine, but to then go on to say that it’s disingenuous to acknowledge the gift to the government seems almost like a return to anonymity, at least in my eyes.

Where I see the value in keeping track of my giving is in two main ways:

  • First, I have more money.  That means I have more money to give, if I get what’s effectively a rebate when I do it.
  • Second, I know what I gave last year.  Budgeting is important to make sure you’ve got money at the end of the month instead of the other way around, and the records also help me see if I’m giving more (which I’d prefer) year over year, or less.

Particularly if your tradition encourages public offerings to the gods, deems gifts to the poor as valid offerings, and sees abundance as some kind of flow, deducting the donations is a good idea.  Lucky me, my tradition has all three of those aspects.

TPW’s debt story, or: how one Pagan got buried and dug himself out again

My debt story began the way it has for many people before and since, with college.  Some of the details are timeless, but others might be quite different than what the students of 2016 are experiencing.  One thing I suspect is unchanging is the fact that college is more financially perilous for the children of the middle class than anyone else in the United States.  Wealthy people have always been able to plan for the expense of college, and those in poverty either get aid, or they don’t go at all.

I was a student at a time and in a place that was infused with the assumption that everyone in my socioeconomic bracket was expected to go to college.  Not that there wasn’t the oddball kid who ended up going into a parent’s trade or joining the military, but they were special cases.  It would be decades before there was a widespread recognition that the number of college graduates was creating a glut of people with that skill-set and a yawning chasm where the electricians, plumbers, machinists, and other skilled workers belonged.  It was understood that I would go to college unless I came up with something better, and at the very least “something better” would mean paying rent to continue living under my parents’ roof.

Youngest of more children than any couple today could possibly afford, there wasn’t any savings to speak of for my college education, and even then, the financial aid options of even a generation before were weakening.  I was too young to have received a free college education in California even if we’d lived there at the time, and the scholarship I received to my own state system was for the same amount my father had declined 30-odd years earlier.  If he’d taken it, it would have covered his tuition; for me, it didn’t even pay for half of the books I needed each year.  As with so many of today’s students, I relied almost entirely on loans to support myself and defer my costs.

DebtThat was not, however, where my debt really began.  Yes, I was on the hook for that money, but not right away.  It didn’t feel like I owed anything, and surely I would get a job to cover it.  No, the real debt for me came in the form of smiling department store employees, seated at tables in my college’s student union, offering gifts in exchange for me filling out credit card applications.  The first was for a JC Penney’s card, and got me a set of four glasses that I was pleased to add to my dormitory possessions.  Since the store was on the far side of town, I never got into the habit of using it.

It was cool -- I picked it right out of the book!

It was cool — I picked it right out of the book!

Within a couple of years, though, I had bank credit cards, and those were much, much easier to use.  The minimum payments were always so small, and the rewards were so large in comparison.  It was easy to keep up with payments on my financial aid . . . which was, the reader might recall, pretty much all loans.  At least two rental car trips and a few tattoos (two on a friend I haven’t seen since well before the turn of the century) inked by a guy who called himself Doctor Strange (whom we traveled to see because of a rumor that he was Pagan, something we never thought to ask him about) ended up on the card, not to mention the bill for repairing the cigarette burn which mysteriously appeared in the upholstery.  It was easy!

By the time I escaped from the college environment, I had a few thousand in credit-card debt, and my student loans on the horizon.  I was unemployed, not particularly qualified to do anything specific, and again completely dependent upon my parents to ensure I had a roof over my head and food in my stomach.  At least I had a queen-size bed to sleep in, though! — although it was a wee bit outsized for my childhood bedroom.  I was grateful to have a home to return to, but I knew my parents would not be providing me with a car, or spending money, or anything beyond love and the basics.

Paying down the debt like a madman

Once the sweet, gauzy memories of college fell away before the harsh light of real life, I immediately disliked my station in it.  I found myself a job as an overnight security guard, for which I was able to borrow a parental car for transportation, and learned to love coffee.  My friends were able to attend concerts and movies, but both my weird hours and crushing debt load kept me from most of the social pleasures enjoyed by my peers.  I misered down and sucked it up, realizing that immediate gratification was going to make my life one of eternal torment.

Computers were becoming more common, but I had no money for such a tool.  Instead, I started keeping track of my expenses and income — my meager, meager income — on paper.  I drew columns with a ruler and calculated how much I needed to set aside out of each paycheck to cover the credit cards and the student loans.  I also started saving for my own car, but saving is a story for another time.  My obsession with getting out of debt got so intense that my friends didn’t just think I was cheap; they actually made up stories about my legendary thriftiness.  My favorite had me riding a unicycle to work because I figured out it was less costly to maintain than a bicycle — fewer moving parts, you know — and that I’d picked up drinking kerosene for recreation because it was so much less expensive than beer.

I’d like to be able to claim that I paid off my debts on the pittance I was earning and freed myself from the shackles of debt forevermore.  That would make for a good story.  However, the truth is that I got a much better job about five years later, after a long time in the security world and a series of food-service jobs that I chased out of a desperate belief I could make a career out of them, and it was the higher pay which made it possible.  However, that’s still only part of the story:  the reason why the better job allowed me to pay off the last of my ill-gotten debt was because I doubled my income without changing my standard of living.  I lived beneath my means.

That’s the nugget of wisdom I learned from my own mistakes:  the only way to actually pay off debt is to learn spend less than you earn.  That’s progressively more difficult the less money one makes, but it never is particularly easy at any income level.  Our society encourages us to enjoy today’s pleasures on tomorrow’s dollars, and the tattoo I got was paid for with dollars that I labored to earn as much as seven years after the needle hit my skin.

No instant fix exists to make debt go away.  All of the options require effort, persistence, and discipline.  I wish I could claim something else is true, but once debt is acquired, it’s no mean feat to slough it off.

I will help as much as I can.

The year we freed Isis

Let’s make 2016 the year we free Isis from the shackles of terror.

I’m not just talking about the goddess, whom some might argue can take care of herself.  There are many hundreds of businesses that have seen their names changed out of a very real concern of vandalism, including Isis Books and Gifts, or because it’s actually impacting business to have a name associated with a terror group.

Women, too:  it’s been considered a fortuitous name to give one’s daughters, at least until recently.  What kind of harassment must they be experiencing?

Heck, even a fictional spy agency got scrapped for that reason.  Petitions haven’t gained much traction in getting media outlets to shift how they cover this group, nor have statements, despite the fact that it’s not a name used by involved governments such as those of the United States and France.

I propose that in 2016, any who is bothered by the harm caused by this inaccurate name target NPR specifically, because as a member-supported agency its executives are theoretically more sensitive to reader concerns.

  • If you see something, say something:  comment on the Facebook story or Tumblr post, or contact the ombudsman.
  • Be polite, but firm:  “Don’t you think it’s time you start referring to this group by the generally-accepted Daesh by now?” or perhaps, “Using the name ISIS is really very 2015.”
  • Get personal, but not emotional.  If you are aware of suffering caused by the confusion, such as vandalism or threats, share that in one or two sentences.
  • If you’re a member, say so.  What will it take for you to renew?

If we start with NPR, and get a policy change by applying consistent pressure throughout 2016, then we will be empowered to take our case to another major news agency, like CNN, or MSNBC, or the New York Times.  We’ll save the Fox folks for last.

This isn’t just for the relatively few people who worship Isis.  It’s for anyone who has worked at, created, or patronized a business with Isis in its name.  It’s for anyone whose child, friend, parent, sibling, acquaintance, loved one, or self who is suffering because her name no longer seems beautiful.  It’s about respect.

It’s time we all step up.