How to Become More Generous in a Me-First World


Americans like to think of themselves as generous people.

And often, the numbers back that up, such as a recent report that revealed they gave a record $373.3 billion to charity in 2015.

But as impressive as that sum seems, most people still struggle with the stingier side of human nature, putting their own material wants first and considering charitable giving only as an afterthought, say John Cortines and Greg Baumer, co-authors of the book “God and Money: How We Discovered True Riches at Harvard Business School” (

“We don’t need to point fingers at ‘those greedy people over there on Wall Street’ or wherever,” Cortines says. “Greed lurks in all of us. The question is: What are we going to do about it?”

The good news, Cortines and Baumer say, is that while greed is a widespread human characteristic, so is generosity.  Reflecting on their lifelong journey, they took a hard look at biblical passages while at Harvard and became convinced that their own hearts were full of greed and needed to change.

“Take your pick of a worldview and it encourages sharing with others,” Baumer says. “Eastern faiths, Abrahamic faiths, atheism – it doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to this topic. Virtually all of humanity values generosity.”

But valuing generosity is one thing. Making it a significant part of your lifestyle is something else. Cortines and Baumer say mindsets about money can be broken down into three groups: spenders, who pursue the greatest amount of consumption right now without much thought of tomorrow; savers, who limit their consumption to accumulate wealth; and servants, who limit both consumption and wealth building so they can give the most money possible to help others.

“That last group, unfortunately, is the rarest,” Cortines says.

There are steps people can take to become more generous, Cortines and Baumer say. Those include:

  • Make giving a priority. In any endeavor, how well you do depends on how much of a priority you make the goal. It’s tough to be generous if the amount you give is based on what’s left over after you’ve satisfied your own wants. Cortines and Baumer give right off the top, before setting the rest of their monthly budgets.  (They give away 12-18 percent of their gross incomes, currently.)
  • Talk about your finances. In our culture, we talk about almost everything, but are strangely silent about personal finances. Sharing your financial life with a trusted friend can help you gain perspective, Cortines and Baumer claim. They each fully divulge their finances to close friends, soliciting advice and encouragement.
  • Set “financial finish lines.” While it’s important to take care of yourself and your family, Cortines and Baumer say it helps to come up with a cutoff point where there is no further need for more spending or more wealth accumulation. Both authors have publicly committed to live a middle class life, regardless of their earnings. Getting more money should increase our standard of giving, not our standard of living, they say.

“You can always find ways to justify more spending and more accumulation of wealth,” Baumer says. “But at some point you should ask yourself, ‘How much is enough?’ ”

About John Cortines and Greg Baumer

John Cortines and Greg Baumer are co-authors of God and Money: How We Discovered True Riches at Harvard Business School ( Baumer is VP of Business Development for naviHealth, a Nashville-based healthcare technology firm. Cortines is Executive VP of Emerging Leaders for Generous Giving, an organization that exists to share the biblical message of generosity.


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Last modified: November 30, 2016

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