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If you’ve been online in the past week or two, you have no doubt seen viral videos of strangers — and maybe even your friends — dumping buckets of ice over their heads. There is a charitable cause behind these videos. Most, or at least some, of the cold, soaked folks are accepting the challenge to support the ALS Association, a non-profit organization that provides support for research, assistance for people with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), and coordination of care, and the organization advocates for its cause through political lobbying.

Does dumping ice on your head have anything to do with curing a disease, and does it matter? I suppose the answer to both questions is no. There seem to be some disagreements about who started this latest craze. People have been dousing themselves with water to bring attention to causes for a while, but someone wishing to support the ALS Association caught onto this idea and it has certainly captured a lot of people’s attention.

And it’s working. According to the ALS Association, the organization has received $22.9 million in charitable donations between July 29 and August 19. For some context, that collection compares with just $1.9 million raised during the same time period last year, during which time no viral video was asking people to support the ALS Association. That is massively impressive. Good job, everyone who donated.

Still, more questions need to be asked. The ALS Association explains that the increase in donations come from both existing donors — those who have historically supported the organization — as well as 453,210 new donors. Presumably 453,210 persons or thereabouts were inspired by the video to do something they wouldn’t have otherwise done. And existing donors might have increased their normal contributions to be part of the frenzy.

How much of the $22.9 million has come from these 453,210 individuals? Are we looking at a case where a small group of major donors seized the opportunity to help the organization manifold, while your average ice bucket warrior kept their contributions slim? Does the organization even know what to do with $22.9 million?

Before I contribute to an organization, I like to know a little more about it, beyond the mission statement, beyond the marketing. The most important thing is whether the organization is a good charity, and that could mean many different things. Is the organization’s mission in line with something I’m passionate about and interested in? Are the executives taking care of the money they receive?

In the case of the ALS Association, the non-profit’s 11 executives earned $1.8 million in salary for the tax year ending January 2014. Another $950,000 was spent by the organization for marketing consultants. The organization raised a total of $23.6 million in funds that year, and only $363,000 of that was from government grants. During that year, only two individual donated more than $5,000 to the organization; one contributed $5.75 million and the other gave $500,000. While this doesn’t guarantee how people donated this year, it does seem like a good portion of contributions come from small donations like those that might result from a campaign like the ice bucket challenge. This is encouraging.

Here’s the organization’s explanation for the $5.75 million contribution:

In December 2013, the association received a bequest totaling $5,750,000, establishing a term endowment according to designations made by the donor. The proceeds of this bequest are to be maintained by the association in an endowment fund for a period of ten years. Earnings from the fund are restricted to support research and may be spent on a current basis.

The ALS Association’s total expenses in the last fiscal year wee $26.2 million, up from $25.7 million the prior year. These expenses include research grants, patient and community services, public and professional education, fundraising, and administration. Those administration expenses are 7.3% of the total. Charity Navigator, a company that rates non-profit organizations, comes up with a different result of 11% using the prior year’s financials, but considers that to be relatively efficient and provides the organization with an overall four-star rating.

The CEO received total compensation last year totaling $362,458. Is that the right price to pay for a non-profit CEO for a company with annual expenditures of more than $25 million? Maybe. Or maybe knowing the CEO is in a financial position those with ALS would like to find themselves in makes the idea of supporting the organization less tasteful. I do know that running a non-profit organization like the ALS Association is complex and difficult, yet an established organization certainly takes advantage of the willingness of people to support that organization — whether it’s smart people and consultants to advise the CEO or whether it’s the corps of thousands of volunteers who assist non-profit organization through some of the less sophisticated tasks of operating the programs.

Taking all things into consideration, the ALS Association seems to be on solid financial footing and is actively working towards its mission. The money raised by the organization has historically been distributed through grants from the ALS Association to groups doing the hands-on work in research in care, hospitals and universities. Judging by their financial disclosures, their IRS Form 990, and their reviews, you can feel confident giving to the organization.

There has certainly been some criticism in social media about the ice bucket challenge. Many challengers passed along the message by asking that the people they “nominate” either dump a bucket of ice water on their head or donate. This has stirred backlash — other people believe that people should donate regardless of whether they want to record and share a video of an impromptu ice shower. And there are always a good percentage of people who take the challenge, sharing videos with their friends on Facebook, without even mentioning ALS or otherwise identifying the purpose of the video.

But if the numbers can be believed, it’s working. It doesn’t even matter that some people are dumping water and maintaining the virality of the cause without donating or without mentioning ALS. In this case, it’s working, because the medium is so large, the message is getting through. Assuming the ALS Association is not behind this, and that it is a true grassroots campaign, this is a beautiful situation for the organization. Usually, you have to spend a lot of money on marketing to raise funds like this, and companies that handle the fundraising often take a significant piece of the revenue.

For example, hiring a company to handle telemarketing keeps some of the most important outreach work for an organization manageable, but a company that raises $133,000 might keep $111,000 for itself, leaving only $22,000 to the organization it’s working for. $22,000 is better than nothing, but it’s just a portion of the total raised.

In this case, I have to side with the supporters of the ALS ice bucket challenge, not the critics. In other cases, yes, acting foolish on social media in support of a cause, without even mentioning that cause, could backfire. People who have no concept of charity will naturally join in on the fun when they see their friends and strangers doing it. It reminds me of the planking meme from a few years ago. There was no organization to support, just a feeling of inclusion in a popular movement. Luckily for ALS, the penetration of the ice bucket challenge meme is so high that even if 60 percent of video participants have no idea about ALS and neglect to donate money, the benefit to the organization is still fantastic.

If you do choose to participate, you should focus on ALS and give to charity yourself, to the extent that it fits in with your budget, whether it’s $1, $5, $100, or more. Then again, if you don’t give, even if you don’t mention ALS, in this case you are likely still helping the organization. However, you could look at the recent figures and determine your $100 amid a haystack of $22.9 million in one month has diminishing returns for the organization this year, and might do better for an organization that receives much less public attention — at least this month. There are many ways to look at the situation to determine whether you should participate and donate.

Some of the other criticisms of the challenge don’t really stand up to scrutiny. Is it a waste of water? The amount of water needed for the challenge is negligible, but could be seen as a waste in areas where there is a drought. Is it a case of “slacktivism,” where people can feel good about “supporting” an organization without really doing anything? Maybe, but if so, just throwing money at a problem is the same thing — the real charity is donating time and effort. What I don’t like is that this is an indicator of how culture is changing from an externally-focused, doing-good model to a look-at-me-I’m-doing-good model. Celebrities are jumping in on the craze. I’ve even seen friends use the ice bucket videos to market their businesses or “personal brands.” The self-centered trend runs counter to altruism, empathy, and charity, so it’s interesting to see this combination of people drawing attention to themselves in addition to the disease.

Will you do take the ALS ice bucket challenge? Donate to the ALS Association here.

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I grew up in competition. It was a part of my life, all over the place. And sometimes competition moved me to push my self far, motivating me to be excellent, and in other cases, competition broke down my will to excel. An individual reacts to competition different depending on the psychological factors, the situation, and how past competitions have played out. Because competition is everywhere in the world, particularly in a career or a quest for financial independence — not to mention just meeting personal goals one might set for oneself — look for ways to make competition work towards a positive outcome.

I wrote recently about one particular competitive experience. When I first began learning to play a musical instrument in school, we were seated by our perceived abilities. I was last in the row, worst clarinetist in the class. And I didn’t enjoy playing music for school, even though I had been musical at home. The following year, my family moved to a new location and a new school, and at this new school, I had a head start because my classmates were just beginning to pick up their instruments. Suddenly I was at the head of the class. And just as suddenly, I loved playing music again.

Year after year through high school, I continued playing, and continued working hard to stay the best. I was the “first chair,” and constantly faced challenges from friends who wanted to take my seat. To keep my position, I had to practice hard and stay focused on being the best. I eventually decided to study music education in college. Had I stayed in my first elementary school, it’s unlikely I’d ever pursue music as a career.

Competition was a main theme for me in high school. Another example happens to be related to music as well; our marching band competed with other similar marching bands from other schools throughout the northeast. Not every teacher agrees that competition of this type is useful in an educational setting. But competition exists in the real world, and learning how to deal with competition as a teenager might be a good way to prepare. We compete for jobs, we compete for money, we compete for recognition, and as is coming more clear to me with social media like Facebook, we compete to have admirable lives among our friends.

In the marching band world, competition was tightly controlled. One group competed against another only if they were similar in terms of size. Today, there are even more guidelines for appropriate competition — not only is size a factor, but so is funding, so a hundred-member band with twenty staff members available to focus on separate aspects of the performance doesn’t compete directly with a hundred-member band making do with only two teachers who have to do everything on their own.

Competition presents some challenges, in work and in life.

But when we compare ourselves to other people, we are often unaware of advantages, whether they are our own or of others. I can’t think of a time when I competed directly with a coworker for a promotion, but this happens all the time. And when faced with competition like this, some people shut down and give up, others rise to the occasion. If you tend to get motivated by competition in work situations, are you also using competition in social situations to motivate you?

Facebook recently conducted a social experiment on its users (without their knowledge but with the consent that comes in the form of agreeing to a contract when you sign up for an account). The news feed showed mostly positive status updates to some users and mostly negative updates to some users, and saw that users’ own moods (as measured by additional status updates) were affected by the tone of the updates they saw. On top of this, Facebook is a chance for people to market themselves to their friends and to feel good about themselves. Thus, people tend to share personal good news more often than bad news. People are more likely to use Facebook to tell the world “I got the promotion!” or “I got engaged!” when appropriate, but when a situation would call for announcing “She turned me down for a date!” or “I failed the bar!” chances are you won’t see it.

All of this makes it difficult to live up to the implied social competition. Even without Facebook, it looks like everyone’s life is better than yours. That’s only because you primarily about the good things that happens in someone’s life, while you still experience bad things even if you don’t share them with your extended group of friends.

Make competition work for you in your career.

You compete for a new job, you compete for recognition with your work, and you compete when you own a business. Without good experiences with competition in the past, there is a good chance that taking the easy way out is safer emotionally.

Steal a technique from video games. When you play a video game that’s based on progressing through a series of levels, you start out easy. You’re able to overcome initial obstacles, and as your abilities improve, you are able to face tougher challenges. The game takes you through a series of levels, training as you go to handle difficulties. You don’t get thrown to the wolves on your initial attempt.

In real life, you may not be able to choose your competition. But you can set your expectations so they match your abilities. I wouldn’t think I’d be able to compete for a first-chair position at the New York Philharmonic without first being the best clarinetist at my university (and I wasn’t). I wouldn’t think I’d be able to compete for a job in charge of a non-profit with someone who has been leading non-profits for thirty years — but I could take a different approach and start my own.

It also helps to keep a larger goal — or a mission — in mind. You may not always be recognized for your hard work, whether the recognition comes in the form of a promotion, a salary increase, an award, or even just getting a job. But if you’re doing what you need to be doing, you’re improving yourself whether other people see it or not. It can be demotivating when you constantly perform competitively and others seem to refuse to recognize how well you are doing. There are many reasons why people are rewarded for their actions, and sometimes it has nothing to do with your particular performance.

Don’t take other people’s achievements personally.

The competition to have the best life is one you can never win. If you’re feeling pressure from other people’s successes you read about on Facebook, and it’s affecting your emotions negatively, either stop reading Facebook or keep in mind that everyone who shares anything personal is automatically biased. Everyone wants to project a favorable appearance.

Not everything has to be a competition. You don’t have to be the first person among your friends to reach an important life milestone. You don’t have to show off everything that you’re happy about. People live their lives at different speeds and have different goals. You shouldn’t live your life based on anyone else’s personal achievements.

Stop comparing yourself and your life to others, and I guarantee you’ll be happier and better able to focus on achieving your own goals, whether in your career or in your life. If you’re focusing more on yourself, you’ll be able to see competition for what it is: something healthy that can spur you to move forward.

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Whether you’re the most frequent of frequent flyers or someone who is more likely to have miles expire, understanding the real value of what you’ve earned is the key to making the right choices as a consumer.

With miles programs constantly being changed and consumers’ loyalties challenged, those with frequent flyer miles have to decide when it’s worth trying to accumulate more and when it’s time to cash in. And even when you want to use your miles for a flight, it might not be that easy.

“Miles are worth less and less all the time — that seems to be a constant,” said Jason Cochran, editor of Frommer’s and author of several travel guidebooks.

“The airlines have given so many (miles) out, partly in the pursuit of loyal business travelers, that they can be incredibly hard to redeem. It used to be that you could find a decent seat many months ahead, but now the market is flooded with points and seat inventory is down, so you may find you can’t find a free direct flight on miles almost immediately after schedules are published.”

There’s no one-size fits all answer for consumers, but having some perspective before using your miles should help to make a wiser decision — wiser, certainly, than letting them expire.

You know you’re an infrequent frequent flyer when you get that notice in the mail about converting your miles to magazine subscriptions or to donate or to redeem for some sort of gadget. For many, choosing one of those options might well be the best way you can use miles when you aren’t close to getting an upgrade or earning a free flight.

First, before you react to the notice that your miles are expiring, often sent by magazine subscription companies, be sure that they really are.

“Lots of outfits will warn you that your miles are expiring, and it’s true that some airlines do allow your miles to expire if your account doesn’t have any activity on it,” Cochran said. “But that takes a long time, and notice that those outfits don’t always tell you when your miles will be expiring. Look at your balance page yourself. It might be a year in advance, and if you should take another flight between now and then, the deadline will bump further in the future.”

Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com, said for most consumers the ideal use of miles is, well, on airplanes.

“The best use of frequent-flyer miles is almost always cashing them in for flights or upgrades. The economics are straightforward: the cost to the airline of giving away a seat that would have gone unsold anyway is negligible. As a result, a ticket with a published price of $500 can be had for 25,000 miles. That amounts to getting 2 cents for every mile redeemed.”

When airlines offer frequent flyer club members the opportunity to redeem miles for any number of different goodies, from golf clubs to electronic gadgets, they have to pay for them. That means the consumer ends up being charged more miles than they would to get the same value in airline tickets or upgrades. “For example,” Winship explained, “members of United’s MileagePlus program would have to pay 56,400 miles for a Callaway X2 Hot Driver golf club, widely available online for around $330. That’s less than 1 cent per redeemed mile. A Roku 3 media player, available from Amazon for $89, costs 18,200 United miles, delivering less than half-a-cent per mile in value.”

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get the golf club if your goal was to not have to use any money out of your own pocket. “It’s nice to have options, of course,” Winship said. “But in the great majority of cases, non-flight awards are simply lousy values.”

As for using your airline loyalty bounty for hotel stays, Cochran said a similar rule applies. And it’s worth some pause before going in that direction.

“What’s worth more: what it would cost you to get that room on your own, or how much it cost you to accrue those miles to begin with? Given how easy it is to get a discount on a hotel room these days, the answer is almost never in favor of getting rid of miles for that purpose,” he said. “Yes, it takes a little homework, and not everyone wants to price-check the street value of what they’d be using their miles for — and that’s exactly what these pitches are about. They want you to spring for the convenience of the redemption for something other than an air ticket, and they know you’re unlikely to take three minutes to figure out if you’re actually getting a deal.”

That leads to an exception to the rules. It’s the one thing that consumers who truly have accumulated hardly any miles can take advantage of it. Magazine subscriptions.

Winship said using miles to buy subscriptions is actually a good deal. “In pure dollars-and-cents terms, cashing in miles for magazine or newspaper subscriptions can deliver a solid return on investment,” he said. “But really, how many magazines do you want in your mailbox?”

If you miles really are expiring, however, and you’re at the low end of the miles spectrum, at least it’s something. And least you know it really can be a good deal.

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No, I’m not attempting to start a class warfare riot. As the title of this article states, recent studies have shown beyond any doubt how wealth or a feeling of wealth leads people to behave in a more self-interested manner.

Paul K. Piff, a social psychologist post-doctoral scholar in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkeley, led this research and shared his findings in a recent TED Talk, which you can view below. If you’re not reading this article on Consumerism Commentary, you can watch the video here or at the TED website.

In one of the experiments, the researchers created a rigged two-player game of Monopoly for one hundred pairs of subjects. By virtue of a coin toss, one subject in each pair was chosen to play by an advantaged set of rules, while the other would play by the standard set of rules. These are the privileges afforded the advantaged player by design:

  • The advantaged player begins the game with twice as much money.
  • The advantaged player collects twice as much bonus money for passing “go.”
  • The advantaged player rolls two dice rather than one, as the disadvantaged player rolls.

With hidden cameras, researchers were able to observe the attitudes of the players. The rich players smacked their playing pieces around the board aggressively, consumed more snacks, and celebrated their successes. The aggressive behavior wasn’t limited to their relationship to inanimate objects; the advantaged players acted ruder towards their competitors. One of my favorite quotes from the recorded gamin sessions came from a rich player: “I’m pretty much untouchable at this point.”

The games were limited to only fifteen minutes. Unlike non-rigged Monopoly sessions, these games wouldn’t have lasted much longer than fifteen minutes anyway. When the games were over, the researchers asked the rich players to reflect on their success. The winners attributed success to their skill, completely ignoring the fact that the game was obviously rigged. Their success was, in their opinion, due to the choices they made in buying properties.

Had the coin flip at the outset of the game produced the opposite result, this game-playing skill would have gotten these winners nowhere. Had they started out with half the wealth of their opponents as measured in Monopoly money and were forced to move around the board slowly, they would be in the losing position — most likely blaming the situation on their environment, not their supposed lack of skill.

The video includes additional demonstrations that show how an increase in wealth correlated to decreases in compassion, empathy, and even willingness to obey the law. At the same time, the increase in wealth is correlated to increases in selfishness and narcissism.

From Scientific American’s report on the study:

But why would wealth and status decrease our feelings of compassion for others? After all, it seems more likely that having few resources would lead to selfishness. Piff and his colleagues suspect that the answer may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused.

Will taking on those personality traits and attitudes associated with wealth help to bring about financial success? If you start acting greedy, will you be more likely to grow your wealth? Many authors have suggested thinking like one is wealthy in order to become financially successful. When wealth is revered as a goal, those who have achieved it are revered as well. And they’re more than happy to share their insights with the rest of the “average” world listening. You’ll rarely hear any expert advice from the wealthy that touches on luck, circumstance, or privilege; the key to wealth lies in hard work, perseverance, and making smart decisions.

Those great attributes for attaining success don’t work for people who are living in poverty, but they sell a lot of books.

There is virtue in taking responsibility and blame for your circumstances, whether those circumstances are positive or negative. It helps you identify aspects in your life than you can change to improve your situation. There’s a tradition of blaming bad situations on external forces — the economy, your employer, your parents’ skills — while taking responsibility for good situations, just like the research subjects did in the Monopoly experiment. It takes objective analysis to separate yourself from the situation and truly evaluate the forces that played a role in any particular situation.

Taking responsibility for the good and assigning blame for the bad is a variation of a defense mechanism. If good situations are a result of our choices, they can be repeated, and success will continue despite of the world around us. If bad situations are someone else’s fault, there is nothing inherently wrong with us; given the right opportunity, we will succeed, too.

Not every financially independent person displays these negative personality traits, and not every wealthy person cares little about the world around him or her. You can see that in highly-publicized examples of wealthy individuals making selfless choices.

  • Bill Gates, the privileged founder of Microsoft, formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle many societal problems around the world.
  • Warren Buffett, along with the aforementioned Gates, launched the Giving Pledge in 2010, encouraging some of the world’s richest individuals to give away their wealth to charity.
  • Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook donated $1 billion last year, 5% of his total net worth.

Lest the reader believe that this research and other studies by this author pertaining to social class are too critical of the wealthy, Piff does point out when the attitudes of the rich have positive outcomes for them, and for those who adopt the same principles. The wealthy believe, due to their control over their situations, that the quality of their health is in their control. They go to more appointments with doctors and take advantage of preventative medicine, while others who believe they have little control over their health end up in emergency rooms for problems that could have been prevented.

This is a stratification based on wealth, but also based on access to medical professionals and trust of the health industry. The realization that we can control many aspects of our lives results in better health, but also increased wealth — relatively.

The word entitlement is usually used in American society when talking about welfare benefits or other governmental assistance for the poor. It’s often used in a pejorative sense, implying that those who receive these benefits don’t deserve them because they lack the motivation to improve their situation. There is also the implication that wealth redistribution (in that particular direction) is bad for society because it encourages complacency. What the studies about attitudes of the wealthy and the average show is that those with power and money consider themselves entitled.

With a high level of self-efficacy, the wealthy believe they earned their success through hard work. They perceive the poor through that lens, as if that difficult situation is a matter of level of effort, while the poor look through their own lens of opportunity, seeing the wealthy as have been provided advantages by society.

It’s difficult to take a large step back and look at the progression of my life as if I were an outside observer trying to understand an individual. I maintained a low sense of self-efficacy for a while, and a former boss of mine continued to chastise me for it. I wasn’t disadvantaged — in fact, I had a relatively advantaged background, able to explore my passions without completely devastating my finances — but I was not very well-positioned to handle the small amount of money I was earning with great decisions. I was making the most of a bad situation, which could have been much better if I had made a few better choices. I thought I’d be able to pursue a degree in education and a job in non-profit, but I didn’t have the financial grounding to make that possible.

After a few difficult life lessons from experience, I opened my eyes a little bit more and started taking control of my situation. Again, I wasn’t living in poverty. I was smart and marketable to employers. Things were going to get better for me once I put the effort in, but these advantages aren’t available to everyone. The question is whether my approach towards other people has changed in the years following as I drew closer to financial independence. I’d like to think that it hasn’t, but I’m sure I’m not immune to the subconscious changes.

Watch the video above to see how the feeling of wealth can affect an individual’s attitude towards another person. Have you seen evidence of wealth being correlated to meanness? Is selfishness an essential personality trait for attaining wealth?

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Kathleen, December 2013 Net Worth

by Luke Landes
Naked With Cash: Kathleen, December 2013

In Naked With Cash, seven anonymous Consumerism Commentary readers publicly track and analyze their finances on a monthly basis. For almost a decade, I tracked my own finances on Consumerism Commentary; now I’m sharing the benefits of public accountability with the participants. I’ve partnered with financial planners who will offer some guidance along the way. ... Continue reading this article…

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Welcome to Naked With Cash 2014

by Luke Landes

It’s time to get naked! (Again!) Last year, we started Naked With Cash, a series and feature at Consumerism Commentary. Last year’s introduction can provide you with the in-depth look at the purpose of the series. This year, I’m joined by Miranda Marquit to help organize the series. She, I, and the financial experts you’ll ... Continue reading this article…

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12 Alternative Financial Resolutions for 2014

by Luke Landes
New year hat

New Year’s resolutions have become so cliché that the process of making them has become a joke. People settle for mundane goals for the year like “losing weight,” “quitting smoking,” and “getting out of debt.” These are great goals, of course, but most who think about these only when the calendar changes soon forget their ... Continue reading this article…

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Boycott Wal-Mart on Black Friday and Thanksgiving?

by Luke Landes
Black Friday

Someone I know is boycotting Wal-Mart. I would not be able to boycott Walmart myself, as I never shop there in the first place. My absence from Wal-Mart does not have any effect. I believe I’ve stepped inside the store twice in the past decade or longer, and I don’t remember why. The basis for ... Continue reading this article…

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