Five Dollar Bills

August 4, 2014
Six or seven years ago I heard a story on the radio about a woman who saved all of the $5 bills she received in tips from her waitressing job. At the end of each shift, she dutifully put the bills in a special place for safe keeping. In the beginning, her intention was to simply save enough money to buy a CD and earn some interest in a safe and predictable way. It didn’t take her too long to buy her first one, and she realized she enjoyed the self-imposed savings challenge and that it would actually pay off. So she kept it up.
 
When the first CD matured, instead of cashing it in and enjoying the added bonus of the interest it earned, she reinvested it all into a new one. And, she continued to buy new CD’s as her stash of $5 bills grew. She kept up this savings plan for a five years, and at the end had saved $12,000.
 
I was so inspired by this story that I decided to take up the challenge and start saving all of my $5 bills, too. But I’m not a waitress and don’t receive cash as part of my regular compensation, so I knew my savings would be a lot smaller. When I began this savings plan, I found a special secret place in my house to keep the bills, did not tell my husband where it was, and much sooner than I expected, I had $100. 
 
I will admit that over my own five years of savings, I did not invest in CD’s and turn the original $100 into $12,000. I used the money for special things like my now beloved red reading chair, airplane tickets to visit my kids, and spending money for travel.
 
And then I heard the story about a woman who on her way to Berkeley from the East Coast was given a fat sealed envelope by a friend just before she left. The envelope was stuffed with $20 bills. The friend asked the woman to give the money away to the homeless people she passed on the street.
 
I started to imagine what it must have been like to give those bills away, the look on people’s faces, the feeling in the hearts of both the giver and the receiver at the precise moment the money was given, whether or not they could look into each other’s eyes in recognition of their shared humanity.  And I started to think about my $5 bill stash and whether or not I could give it away.
 
The Buddha gave some very pithy instructions about generosity, instructions that have really sunk into my thinking. He said generosity brings happiness in three ways: 1st, in the initial thought to be generous, 2nd, in the actual giving, and 3rd in remembering our generous acts.
 
As I thought about whether or not to give the $5 bills away, I decided not to think about it for too long. My initial impulse to give the money away just felt right, and over the next couple of months I gave the bills to people on the street. While some moments were a little uncomfortable, I found it one of the more directly satisfying ways of expressing generosity. 
 
My stash is gone now and I have not yet replenished it, but when I think about the experience of handing an unsuspecting person a five, it does make me happy.