“Hi there, Aaron. How can I help you today?”
For all my scheming and planning, I realized I had neglected to come up with a coherent response to this most basic question.
Half a dozen of my previous responses ran through my head, but none of them made sense for this particular situation.
Things were going to get awkward.
The Not So Automatic Transmission
I was standing in the lobby of my trusted auto mechanic of the past 10 years. As much as those of us in the FI community love to wear our older cars as badges of honor, we often forget to share the “joy” of performing maintenance on these lovely cash-bought, paid-for chariots.
As someone who struggles to tell the difference between a radiator and say, the uh…carburetor(?) (I totally just looked that up on Google to see if it was a real word), maintenance means building the kind of trusted relationship with a mechanic where we know each other by name. In fact, most of the folks in the front office knew me almost as well as they knew the innards of my 17-year-old SUV and my wife’s 10-year-old minivan.
But today I wasn’t here to discuss either of my vehicles.
It was just a few days before Christmas and neither of our cars were in the shop for maintenance, or in need of any new maintenance. This eliminated the usual phrases I would use when dropping off or picking up one of my vehicles.
My brain was having a hard time forming a request outside of those two scenarios…and Bill could see it on my face.
The Gift That Keeps On Meaning Nothing
Several years before I found myself tongue tied in the lobby of my mechanic, my wife and I discovered we had grown disenchanted with the idea of exchanging Christmas gifts with our extended family. It’s not that we don’t love our family, but we recognized two things.
- We loved spending time with our family – chatting, playing games, doing fun things with the kids – more than the exercise of exchanging gifts.
- We were all reasonably well off. Some would say blessed, or lucky, or privileged, but the simple fact was that I didn’t need to buy my dad golf balls and my mom didn’t need to buy my wife earrings as a way to show our love. The act had grown superfluous. It just wasn’t as meaningful as we all were hoping it would be.
So my wife and I proposed a new tradition. We would buy the kids Christmas gifts, but the adults would take the money we would normally allocate to buy gifts for each other and instead use that money to help someone in need. Someone who was in a far more desperate situation than we were. Someone who would appreciate the gift far beyond what we would.
It wasn’t the most popular idea. Traditions come with their own momentum and baggage, but our families were open minded and decided to give it a try.
That first year my sister and brother-in-law bought groceries for a family that was struggling financially. My parents helped a family in their church that was going through a job loss.
These kinds of stories become the new “gifts” that we shared with each other around the dinner table for Christmas. The kids still got to open their presents, which we enjoyed as much as they did, but our adult gifts migrated from material things to things we’ve done to spread the Christmas spirit beyond our own family. Actions to show people in the world that they matter, that they are not alone.
The Christmas season had become a time of looking beyond ourselves and our own families.
Which brings us back to the lobby of my trusted mechanic.
Car Repair Bills Suck
I drive right by the my trusted mechanic’s shop every day on my way home from work, and honestly don’t even notice it unless one of my vehicles is in there getting some TLC.
On this particular day, however, I recognized that Christmas was coming up, and neither of our cars were in the shop. That alone was a huge blessing that I often take for granted. But on this day I had a new thought.
Inside that shop were a dozen cars that belonged to other people. Strangers that I didn’t know and had never met. But no matter who those people were, I realized that having your car in the shop for maintenance just a few weeks before Christmas was never a good thing. I was so grateful that I wasn’t having to deal with that, but also heartbroken for those people who were.
And then it hit me. What if our Christmas gift this year was paying for the car repair bill for a complete stranger?
It sounded crazy even as the thought ran through my head…and I loved it.
The Great Debate
Later that week I shared this crazy idea with my wife. It’s probably an understatement to say she wasn’t fully onboard.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like the idea, it just didn’t fit the mold of what she wanted to do with our Christmas money that year. As a rule, we had to agree on how we spent the money. This was the first time that rule had been tested.
Dismayed I tried to let the idea go.
We spent the next several days combing through the Kiva website and praying about other opportunities for us to use our money to help others.
Then, one night after spending some time in prayer together, my wife looked at me and said she thought we should do the car thing. I was both surprised and ecstatic.
I knew this could really help someone in a tangible way, and the idea of doing it anonymously made it that much more fun. The recipient would only know that some stranger showed up and paid their repair bill. It was exciting partly because it was just that crazy.
My wife and I talked some more and came up with a budgeted amount that we agreed to pay. I was confident I would be able to find a repair that would come in under budget. (We can’t just be reckless with our money, right?)
A few days before we were set to head out of town for Christmas, I drove down to the mechanic shop. I had just walked into the small lobby when Bill saw me.
“Hi there, Aaron. How can I help you today?”
“Oh, hey Bill. Well…uh…I don’t actually have a car in the shop today…and…uh…I’m not dropping one off either.”
“Uh…okay,” Bill responded quizzically.
All I could blurt out was, “I was actually hoping to pay for the repair bill for someone else today.”
“Oh, that’s no problem. Who’s bill were you looking to pay?”
Aw snap! Another question I wasn’t expecting. I really should have spent more time thinking this through!
“I’m not sure exactly. I…uh…don’t have a specific person in mind. I was hoping that maybe…uh…you could help me find someone. Maybe someone who could really use a break this Christmas.”
“Ohhh…uh…that’s very generous of you,” Bill responded, trying to process the concept. “You know. I think I may have just the guy.”
He wheeled his chair around to a vertical metal rack on the wall filled with papers. He slowly fingered his way down the stack.
“Aha…here it is.” He wheeled back over to the counter and took a moment to look over the paperwork. His eyes began to tear up.
“This guy brought his car in a few months ago, but he doesn’t have enough money to pay the bill. He’s been making monthly installments, but obviously, you know, we can’t return his vehicle until the bill is paid in full. In fact, he just called last week and said that he lost his job and he might need some extra time to pay it off.”
It was even more perfect than I imagined. At this point I was starting to tear up as well. If there was ever such a thing as a divine appointment, I believe this was one of them.
“That’s it. That’s the one,” I mumbled trying to keep my voice from cracking.
As if things weren’t awkward enough, several other folks had walked into the lobby and were trying to make sense of the odd scene of me and Bill clearly having an emotional moment over some paperwork.
I asked how much he owed on the repair. The total repair was over $2,000 and the amount left was a few hundred over what we had budgeted. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should call my wife and talk it over.
But I already knew exactly what she would say. “That’s a no brainer! Just pay for it.” (There’s always room to be a little reckless when we’re helping others.)
“This is perfect, Bill. I’ll pay for it,” I said.
“The whole thing?” he asked.
“Yep. Let’s pay it off.”
Bill was clearly more emotional now, which was making me more emotional, which was making everyone else in the office more freaked out about the alternate universe they had stumbled into.
Noticing a handful of new customers that had walked into the lobby behind me, Bill calmly said, “I’ll be right with you as soon as I’m done having a good cry over here.” We had a nice laugh at that. The customers became more curious.
As a few of Bill’s co-workers inched closer and closer to the weirdness they were seeing, he explained that I was paying the full bill for this guy as he lifted the paperwork to show them.
Apparently most of the office workers knew “this guy” as they had probably taken his calls, processed his monthly payments, or possibly had to have the difficult conversation of telling him he couldn’t have his car back.
Before long, everyone at the front desk was thanking me and telling me what a generous thing this was. I definitely had not planned for that. This was supposed to be a clandestine, anonymous event, but it had already turned more public than I had intended.
When the transaction was complete, Bill had one more question that I wasn’t prepared for. He asked If I wanted a copy of the receipt. I had no idea how to answer. Technically it was my receipt, but it wasn’t my car, it wasn’t my name and address on the receipt, it wasn’t my bill or any of my business really.
But I ended up taking a copy of the receipt, partially to show my wife when I got home, and partially to have the guy’s name so I could pray over him and his car.
As I was turning to walk out, Bill said, “I’m going to call him right now. I’m going to tell him his car is ready to be picked up. What should I tell him about you?”
I thought for a moment.
“Nothing. Just let him know that someone cares about him and I hope he get’s a new job soon.”
One of the reasons we enjoy this type of rogue generosity is that we weren’t always in a position to do these kinds of things. It wasn’t that long ago when we were struggling to pay for the maintenance on our own vehicles, let alone worry about all those other cars in the shop next to ours.
But our decision to ditch debt, live on a budget, save money, and intentionally create a “servant giving” line item into our budget every month made it possible for us to slowly take our eyes off ourselves and our family and start seeing the many needs of those around us.
My wife and I have had the most fun coming up with creative ways to bless people – during the Christmas season in particular – but also throughout the year. Not all are as big as paying for someone’s car repair, and we’ve learned that when it comes to being a blessing, the amount of money is largely irrelevant. Many of the most urgent needs we’ve encountered range from cheap to free, requiring time more than anything else.
And every couple of years we challenge ourselves to give more than we feel comfortable with. We truly believe this is a healthy exercise. If we ever love money more than people, we’ve missed the point.
That Christmas we had another good cry sharing the story with our family over dinner.
Have you discovered a creative way to bless someone around you? What did you do? Did you learn anything interesting in the process? I’d love to hear your stories of radical giving in the comments.