It is a strange world we live in. Both inside the personal finance blogosphere and outside. A world where it is sometimes seem as more important to not get “scammed” even once, so we would rather not show kindness 9 times out of 10.
If you don’t know what I mean, I will explain in a moment. With a story, because stories are illustrative and nice.
It was the autumn several years ago. I was starting university about as far away from home as it was possible to get in Norway. From the very south to the far north. Past the Arctic circle. I was still more a child than an adult at that time. And as such, I was entitled enough to let my parents drive me the 24 hour drive up, combining it with a summer roadtrip.
After several days, we had arrived at the last resting point before the city that would become my home for the next three years. It was a basic pit stop. Consisting of nothing but two park tables, a toilet and some trash bins. We got out, stretched our legs and ate some food.
While we were sitting there, a young woman on a well-packed bike turned into the resting area as well. We were about the same age, so we got talking. She was from Finland, on her way to Tromsø for a solo-trip before taking the bus back home and starting her music studies. Her English was not the best, but we did the best we could to communicate (while I can understand Swedish and Danish, Finnish is a completely different language family).
As so often is with these kinds of meetings, we assumed we would never meet each other again. So we said our goodbyes and got back on the road.
I had worked a summer job that season, and I was proud of how much money I had saved up for university. I was convinced it would pull me through until I got my first scholarship payment. It was almost 3 400 NOK, or about $380. A lot of money to a young adult of working class background.
But it was not a lot of money in the big world, as it turned out.
When we arrived at the student housing office, they claimed 3 000 NOK of my precious savings for a deposit. I would not have gotten a roof above my head without it. I hid my surprise from my family, who would not be able to couch such an expense for me. Now I had less than 400 NOK ($50) left to start a new, adult life with.
Before we said our goodbyes and my family drove back home in the south again, we went out to eat in one of the cheaper restaurants, a pizza buffet type place with some salads and side dishes. All right but nothing fancy.
As the most unlikely of coincidences, we had just gotten our first portion when my new friend, the Finnish bicyclist came through the door as well. We waved and smiled at each other and we went back to our food.
Keeping half an eye on my new acquaintance, I could see she was struggling at the counter. She tried her card several times, but it didn’t work. Curious, I got up and walked over.
It turned out her Finnish card, despite being a Scandinavian neighbor, was not working for whatever reason. She was obviously tired and hungry after her week-long bike trek, and a warm, greasy meal would have been sorely appreciated.
I didn’t really need to think about it. I pulled out my own card and spent half of my remaining savings on a buffet for her. She was deeply grateful, and we shared a table separate from my family as we ate and made halting conversation in broken English.
She was a fascinating person to me. A classical cellist by trade, she had no concept of modern music or computers. I had never met someone so deeply engrossed in one skill before, and I admired it. So we talked classical music, and Apocalyptica. Because if there’s one thing Finnish cellists know, it is Apocalyptica and their skillful merging of classical skills and modern composition.
After we saw her safely to her district bus, we felt certain that this time, I would never see her again. I put the day away as a curious start to my new life and thought nothing more of it, but my father had other plans.
Dad, unaware of how little money I had left, pulled me aside, letting me know that being kind like that once could be a good thing, but I had to be careful in this new big city that I didn’t let myself get used. A horrible, filthy word in his vocabulary. I had to beware of friends who were just out to get stuff from me. He was afraid someone would take the shirt off my back if I let them.
I looked at my father in astonishment. It had never occurred to me that a chance meeting and a small kindness between two strangers could be likened to always paying for friends if we went out together, or people “forgetting” their wallet. Did my father honestly think I couldn’t tell the difference between “fool me once” and repeat offenders?
My father then, by proxy, gives no money to beggars. He’s afraid there are gangs behind it, or that they’ll use it for drugs. I was not sure what to think myself for a long time. I had grown up with my parents values ingrained in me after all.
Then I heard the story about an old man and his son. The old man gave money to a beggar, and the son warned him, much like my own father had.
The father replied “What the beggar uses the money for says something about their character, but whether or not I chose to help says something about mine.”
I realized that life is never as black and white as we would like it to be. Giving is not always about what the gift is used for.
It would be another week until my scholarship payment came through. I had to spend 35 NOK ($4) on a bus ticket, and I now had less than 150 NOK ($16) and no food in my cupboards at all. Unfamiliar with sidehustles as I was at that time, I scrounged like a good frugal person to get by. I walked everywhere, and bought a large bag of rice and some salt. It was the least interesting culinary week of my life, but I managed.
I never let my parents know how close I was scraping by that one week, and I never regretted my choice of kindness. I might have gotten slightly better food for a week, but it was only a minor inconvenience to me, I knew I would get money soon.
In the personal finance blogosphere, I often see two different kinds of people. Those who include giving in their budget and those who don’t. I must admit that we have been hyperfocused on putting on our own oxygen masks before we can help others lately, but we are finally starting to get to the point where we can give more regularly again.
If there is anything I learned from this unlikely chance meeting in the north, it is that I will never let myself be shamed for being kind. We might not have much money, but what good is it if you have a large pile of it and never use it to help anyone else?