How You Spend Can Be Just as Important as How You Give

Whom can you invest in today?

When you live in one of the world’s poorest countries, you often feel as if everyone needs your money. And most of them probably do.

I’m an American missionary living in Tanzania. I used to be wracked with guilt by the poverty surrounding me. Every time I ate meat, went out to dinner or put gas in my car, I would mentally calculate what I spent compared to the average Tanzanian’s weekly wage. Spending money on anything they didn’t have—whether toilet paper or a refrigerator—made me feel guilty.

And my husband and I do give. We always look for ministries to support and worthy recipients of donations. But after living many years in East Africa, I have learned an important lesson: How I spend can be just as important as how I give.

“Material poverty alleviation involves more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things,” write Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in When Helping Hurts. “Rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people close to being what God created them to be.”

When God placed Adam in the garden, He gave him work to do (Genesis 2:15). True, the toil of work is a result of the Fall, but work itself is a gift from God and one of the ways we reflect His image. In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul warned against idleness and placed work in high regard. Scripture exhorts us many times to help the poor, but what if one of the best ways to do that is by creating work for others?

Where will I invest my money today?

Daily, the money I spend is being infused into the Tanzanian economy. I can choose where it goes. I ask myself, Who am I going to invest in today? It’s actually a pretty fun way to think about how I 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. 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 young woman to come to the house and braid my daughters’ 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.

Everything I need is an opportunity to give someone a job.

We also have two full-time workers, even though we don’t really need full-time help.1 By paying them good wages, we also support our house worker’s kids and our gardener’s grandmother. Two families are sustained, and as a result, we have more time for ministry.

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 recently immigrated 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 to walk my dogs or be my children’s 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 likely means paying more for stuff that would be cheaper at Walmart. It might require the sacrifice of time or comfort. But shouldn’t that be OK?

Those of us who know Christ and who live comfortably are 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.

1In developing countries, it's expected that anyone who can afford to do so will hire house and garden help. Even my own house worker has her own hired nanny. The affordability of such help in this economy frees me up for much more direct ministry.

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