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Obligations and Expectations Stealing Your Joy (And How to Keep Generosity Alive)

Giving is one of the most fun, life-giving activities (kind of why I have this blog in the first place). Unfortunately, that joy can be quickly sucked away by obligation. I want you to Give Freely, but sometimes customs and traditions seem to take choice off the table. Here are some situations when giving is “expected,” and some habits I’ve used to change my mindset to keep the joy alive.


For the longest time, I saw birthdays as an inconvenience, especially during the month of October. We would do our monthly budget, and I’d pre-spend all the leftover money we had after expenses. Then like clockwork, I’d get crushed after remembering all the inconsiderate people who got together and schemed against us by sharing a birthday month. And don’t get me started on last-minute birthday invites. Having kids has grown those exponentially.

Fix: We started budgeting for most birthdays year-round by adding up what we wanted to do per person, then divided it by 12. This told us what we needed each month. No more “October-geddon.” With the money already allotted, we can spend more time thinking about the person we are buying the gift for. We also included Christmas spending in there as well. Speaking of which…


My stinginess for Christmas was easily the biggest indicator that I had a problem, and that I needed to change the person I had become. Because every year for a couple months I was an insufferable Scrooge.

Not to say that I wasn’t provoked by all the crowds, kitsche décor, crying children at the mall, massive consumer debt, black Friday sales, and singing the same songs over and over and over again. Amazon wishlists were an amazing invention, and our family uses them a lot. But I ended up incessantly tweaking the list, and inevitably disappointed when what I had pruned to the top of list didn’t make it under the tree. So I ended up avoiding the holiday season as much as possible.

Fix: Embrace the season. There’s not a great way to get around it, but you can find something you love to do and double down. As a family, it’s movies and neighborhood lights. On my own time, there’s a great punk rock Christmas album only I enjoy. Now that might not sound like a direct connection to giving, but I’ve found the more I embraced the traditions and festivities, the more renewed energy I have for giving. Also, deleting all my shopping apps on Black Friday may cost me a little bit of money, but gives me even more peace of mind.


Part of #adulting is learning new customs. The biggest change for me was “bringing something” when someone invites you over. This might be a bottle of wine, dessert, side, or salad. In high school and college, you just showed up to hangout. Now that you are a sophisticated adult, there’s some expectations when you go to a “dinner party,” namely that you bring something to contribute. However, the obligation to bring something feels less generous and more like a cover charge.

Fix: Gratitude and generosity are a powerful combination, and my go-to for reorienting myself in this situation. What could I bring to show gratitude for the person hosting the party? Is there some way we can help lighten the load or add to the festivities? And pro tip: never “make” a salad from scratch. Just buy the bag of premade, which is way cheaper and usually just as good.


In America, it’s customary to tip when you go out to dinner, and other countries build it into the cost of the dinner. Either way, the waiters are providing a service which you pay for. The wages they make are chump change, even with the 15-20%. So tipping is really not generosity. It’s the cost of doing business. Hearing that Christians are bad tippers blows my mind, because it only harms the people who rely on it most.

Fix: Tip Big. Leaving $100 when all you had was a drink and appetizer is super fun. But you don’t even have to give that much to make someone’s day. The “100% tip game” is a favorite of ours, where we tip the same amount as the bill. $35 for wings and beers at B-Dubs on a date night? Tip $35 as well. It’s not a lot of money really, but waiters are experts at calculating what a 20% tip should be as they lay down the bill. When it far exceeds that, it stands out. We’ve experienced more than one exasperated, fast moving waiter just completely stop what they are doing to come back and say thank you (even as we are trying to scurry out the back exit before they notice). They feel seen and appreciated like you wouldn’t believe.


Ever walk out of a mall only to be accosted by someone with a clipboard, yelling at you to give to their cause? It’s always urgent, and includes some sort of shame if you don’t. There was an AMC in downtown Burbank that I would purposely sprint out of because Greenpeace always had their people patrolling the entire area, ready to guilt you into signing something.

Fix: Say no and move on. I’m not sure if this is the right way to go about it. I might need to repent someday, but to me anyone who will use shame to get you to donate is part of the problem. Don’t feel bad saying no.


Most churches threw away their shiny offering plates for less confrontational options, like putting boxes at the back of the room, giving you a phone number to text, or creating a website to setup direct deposit. However, churches are still non-profits that mostly run off the generosity of their people, which is why there will always be an appeal made from stage for people to give. But for some people, this regular push to give is a reason to avoid coming to the church in the first place. “The church is just out for my money.”  

Fix: Give your pastor some grace, then learn to give with confidence. He or she probably feels awkward up on stage asking you to “consider financially partnering” or “giving back to God” or whatever lingo they use. No one likes talking about other people’s money. But eventually to give with confidence, we had to wrestle out what we believed about giving to the church. Was it a directive from God himself? Just a good thing to do? What about tithing? That’s a post for another day, but that journey helped us learn to give with confidence rather than allowing someone else to potentially or unintentionally cause guilt or fear.

If you are one of those that feels like the church just wants your money, go read the financial statements that most churches give out at the end of the year. Where did that money go? How much of it was to the poor, widows, and people in need versus another building project? Can you get behind that vision or not? And If you do believe that your pastor is way out of line in the way that he or she approaches asking people to give, then that’s better to address directly, and might either lead to understanding or a need to start a new chapter elsewhere.

One final tip. For most instances where I’m feeling like butting up against the customs and norms that assume a gift is involved, there’s one of the four goals I lean harder into: Give Abundantly. What are they expecting, and how can I go beyond that? How about bringing two bottles of wine, or spending even more on presents, or running away even faster from clipboard carriers (only slightly kidding)? Thinking of outdoing expectations resets my brain and my heart back towards generosity instead of complaining about the obligation it could have been.

Do you have habits that enable you to keep your joy in giving alive?

Cover image from Balloon Pop Vectors by Vecteezy. Enhanced by J.B.

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