Hide table of contents


Earning to give has been a classic EA suggestion due to the value money can bring elsewhere in the world. Although lately e2g has fallen out of favor somewhat, for those already established in high-earning careers, or anyone who may have some extra cash available to donate, the question remains of how best to use money for optimal impact.

Previous research claimed diminishing marginal returns of money on happiness, and concluded excess money should be donated to effective charities. However, new research has shown that money can buy happiness after all, as anyone who has a lot of money and knows how to spend it could’ve told you all along. Thus, in this post we advocate for a new strategy of spending substantially more of one’s money on oneself, which we dub earning to live.

Earning to Live

The basic idea of earning to live is that the best use of one’s money is spending it directly on oneself. This includes not only survival needs such as food and shelter, but also “luxuries” (though we prefer to avoid the term due to negative connotations) such as travel and entertainment. Further examples are discussed later in this post. Compared to earning to give, earning to live has numerous advantages:

  • Reduced operational overhead: while any charity requires some administrative overhead, money you spend on yourself can go 100% to your desired target.[1]
  • Better quantifiability: a central challenge of effective giving is determining which charities yield the greatest impact per dollar, often relying on diligence and estimates by third-party evaluators. It’s much easier to get a feel for how you can spend money to bring yourself personal utility and then do more of that.
  • High neglectedness: while other causes may have thousands of donors contributing millions or even billions in funding, the number of people spending money on you is likely fewer than 10.
  • Improved productivity: it’s well established that a miserly existence can hamper your productivity and therefore your impact. By spending to make your own life more comfortable, you can build a virtuous cycle of higher output and thus higher income, which you can continue spending on yourself.
  • Research value: similarly, all personal spending may be viewed as investigation into what kind of spending brings you utility, so there are dual benefits of direct utility and value as data for deciding how to spend in the future.
  • Solipsism: if you happen to be the only real consciousness in the universe, spending money for the benefit of others is irrational.
  • Near-termism: if you value the present much more highly than the future, you can spend money on yourself immediately, but donations will take time to transfer and process before having any impact. This may be especially relevant if we all die very soon.
  • Long-termism: if you value the future as much as the present, you may instead consider investing your money in order to spend larger amounts later, or pass even greater generational wealth to your heirs.

Suggestions for spending

A tenet of earning to live is that you know best how to spend your money to maximize your utility. However, if you prefer to parrot views of charismatic thought leaders to establish your membership in an in-group, my standard recommendations are:

If you still find you can’t spend all the money you have, you can always send money to me, and I’ll put it to good use.

Potential counterarguments

How could my personal indulgences be more important than saving lives?

A useful framework here is the idea of “quality-adjusted life years.” While saving a life for a few thousand dollars may seem appealing, the person whose life was saved will likely never fly first-class or dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant (there are none in Africa). For a similar amount of money you could eat at Masa for a week straight, and the consequent quality of your life would be immense.

Spending What We Can

We hope this post has inspired you to pursue earning to live. If you want to commit to doing yourself good better, consider taking the Spending What We Can pledge to spend at least 10% of your income on non-essential personal expenditures that bring you happiness. You can also take a trial pledge at 1% if you don’t feel ready to commit, or if you’re very wealthy, consider pledging much more than 10%.

  1. ^

    In rare cases, personal spending may involve charity administration overhead, but where applicable this pays for itself in tax savings and the satisfaction that writing off your personal indulgences is really cool.





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

It's telling and slightly scary that this is pretty close to the actual framework most people (and probably most of us) have for living our lives and spending our money. Satire has a way of illuminating reality!

Little-known ways to invest for outsized increases in future wealth include lobbying the government, contributing to political campaigns, bribery, extortion and fraud. Fraud has considerable risks of criminal penalties, so we only recommend it for certain individuals in specific circumstances. Reach out to us to assess your personal fit for fraud.

I've sent you an IM. Let's talk.

This post makes me uncomfortable. I tried to talk to @Derek Shiller about making a 1% Spending What We Can pledge, and he muttered something about living in a van down by the river. Then he wrote a check to Shrimp Welfare Project. 

Are we doing this right? 

This is objectively the best approach. If everyone just stepped up and put in the work to take care of themselves, we wouldn’t need charity at all. I shared the post with Hank Rearden and he’s 100% on board.

while any charity requires some administrative overhead, money you spend on yourself can go 100% to your desired target.

This depends on the tax jurisdiction. Many places have some concept of tax deductibility for donations (or gift aid), which means money you spend on yourself can have higher overhead.

For example, say I earn an extra $100. If I choose to spend it on myself I need to pay $24 to the IRS, while if I choose to spend it on people who need it much more than I do I don't have to give the IRS anything.

This is perfection

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities