Cutting out charity in tough times


Question: Dennis and I were hoping to retire this summer, but with the stock market slide, we now have to continue working. Until we replenish our nest egg, we’d like to cut back on giving to the local food bank, but we fear it will fold if we don’t make our annual, substantial gift. What should we do?

Answer: Tough times mean tough decisions. But this one, though unpleasant, is easy: Your first obligation is to put your own financial house in order. As deserving as the food bank is, you are no longer in a position to give them a large donation if your savings have shrunk to the point that you need to postpone your retirement. Charitable giving is an important part of the social contract, but – to paraphrase Justice Goldberg — the social contract is not a suicide pact.

What you should do, though, is tell the folks who run the food bank that they won’t be able to count on you for an anchor donation this year, and tell them now. They need as much time as possible to find replacement funds and/or to figure out how best to cut back their services.

You may find that the food bank staff isn’t that surprised to learn you’re downsizing this year’s check. The world of worthy causes has not failed to take note of what’s happening in the economy, and we assure you that belt-tightening is as much a theme of their conferences, journals and board meetings as it is a topic of your – and many other families’ – kitchen table conversations.

Questions? Email Money Magazine’s ethicists – authors of “Isn’t It Their Turn to Pick Up the Check?” (Free Press) – at

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