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I know a couple of people who would very much like to be effective altruists, but they’re poor and busy and in jobs which aren’t high impact, so they feel like they can’t.

So I have a couple of thoughts. First, you don’t have to be an effective altruist. A lot of people doing effective altruist outreach have more-or-less explicitly targeted rich people. If someone makes $200,000 a year, getting them to donate 10% to the Against Malaria Foundation saves about six lives, and the only cost is that they go on a slightly less nice vacation. If someone makes $20,000 a year, getting them to donate 10% to the Against Malaria Foundation saves about half a life, and the cost is that they might have problems paying rent or getting health care that they need. The former is an obviously better situation.

Even if you are an effective altruist, it’s okay not to donate. It’s unsustainable in the long run to sacrifice your financial stability, health, or happiness to donate more money. If you can’t afford to donate money, but you fully intend to donate when you’re in a less precarious financial situation, then you’re an effective altruist in my book. (Well, unless by “precarious financial situation” you mean “I can barely afford my fourth yacht”.)

But I do think it’s a good idea to get yourself in the habit of giving, even if your financial situation is a mess. Think about what you can do. Can you set aside twenty dollars a month? Ten dollars? One dollar? Can you put your spare change in a coffee mug and then when it’s full take it to the Coinstar machine and give it to UNICEF? (Sadly, Coinstar machines do not have the Against Malaria Foundation.) Whatever is possible for you is fine. If your financial situation becomes more stable, you can up the amount you give.

Finally, no less an authority than Peter Singer himself has said that donating ten percent of one’s income is unreasonable for most people. He suggests that people under the US poverty line ought not donate; for people making more than the poverty line but less than $105,000, he suggests a donation of between 1 and 5% depending on exactly how much you earn. You can plug your income into the calculator here. The suggested donation for a person making $20,000 a year is $206, which is about $17 a month. For some people, that’s still going to be way out of reach, and that’s totally fine– I suggest, well, giving what you can. But if that sounds a lot easier to you than giving ten percent, maybe give Singer’s pledge a shot instead.

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