The best five dollars I’ve spent in a long time

I don’t make tons of money, but I make enough. Enough to cover rent and the bills, enough to chip away at my debts, and enough to go out with friends from time to time.  But not much more. Consequently most of my charitable efforts are focused on volunteering as opposed to cash donations.

I recently found five dollars that I didn’t know I had in my pocket. I was psyched.  I wasn’t sure what to do with it: buy a few tacos and a coke at Three Amigos? Rent Back to the Future (which I’ve somehow never seen)? Go hunting for the perfect book at the used book store down the street?

But then I realized something – I didn’t really need that five dollars. I have more than enough food in my apartment, I can stream or borrow just about any movie I feel like watching, and I have a stack of unread books in my room that will keep me busy through 2012.

I wanted to spend this money well, but I had no idea what to do with it. As I was walking back to my apartment I passed a beggar.

“Spare change?” he asked.
“No, sorry man. Good luck and God bless” I responded out of habit.

And then it hit me: why not give the money away to the beggars in my neighborhood. I turned the bill into five $1 coins (I live in Canada) and walked around the city giving them to the first five beggars I saw. And something strange happened. I started to feel really good. I started to feel much more connected and compassionate than I normally do.

As a modern 20-something I have my own financial, social, and  professional concerns that keep me overly focussed on myself, on my own reality. By taking the time to give one dollar to five homeless people, I was forced to connect to their reality, if only for a moment. Not only did I make their day ever so slightly better, it was also a very sharp reminder of just how fortunate I am.  It forced me to focus again on how good my life is, and on my power to help other people.

I know that giving money directly to the homeless is a vaguely controversial thing to do – I have no idea if my dollar was spent on food  or heroine, warm clothing or alcohol – but it was the most satisfying thing I could have possibly done with it.

Giving this cash away directly to five people who needed it far more than I ever will, made me reconnect with my own compassion, which felt like a true luxury in the life of an otherwise distracted 20-something.

The next time you have five dollars and you’re asking yourself “how do I want to spend this?” I urge you to give it away.

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4 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The best five dollars I’ve spent in a long time”

  1. Drew Courcy August 29, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Dude, you’ve got to see Back To the Future.

  2. Will December 29, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Would it not have been more beneficial to give your $5 to a charity that helps out homeless people directly – like a homeless shelter? This way you can be guaranteed they will invest your money wisely – assuming no overheads of course. I make a point of never giving money to homeless people directly because of this. What if your money just went towards them having an overdose? You wouldn’t be feeling so great then. In London – where I am from, you get a lot of con men who make a living from being ‘homeless’ – they earn a fortune out of begging in central London. They don their outfit and even sometimes rent dogs for the day. There was a big expose about it in one of the national papers. These guys earn a tax free fortune – in the UK these ‘homeless’ individuals earn around £60k a year – the average salary here is around £26k. Just playing Devils advocate here. I know you acknowledged the controversy surrounding donating to homeless individuals but before you go patting yourself on the back too much maybe you should consider why it is controversial and donate to a homeless shelter instead!

    • jasonconnell January 11, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      Hi Will,

      I completely agree with you on a few points. If you want to help the homeless people via cash donations, giving your money to a responsible charity with a proven track record of alleviating poverty and equipping people to take care of themselves is the best thing to do. You get no argument from me there.

      And I think you’re right – simply giving people money rarely solves their problems. It has been my experience in the developing world and the developed world that money does not really solve problems at all. Sometimes it alleviates the symptoms but rarely does money eliminate whatever is at the root of the problem.

      I still think there was good gained by giving money to these five homeless people in Montreal. Specifically I was reminded that these homeless people who I so often ignore are humans in the exact same way I am a human; I just happen to be significantly more fortunate than they are. Of course, this could have been achieved without a cash donation. If I were to simply ask, “how are you?” and then truly listen to their response I would have gotten the exact same connection.

      The value for me was finding the reminder and the compassion that people who are often ignored (and of course, this is not limited to homeless people) are humans in the exact same way you and I are human. I think that this a good starting point for creating good.


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