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Should I Tithe Pre-tax or Post-tax (or at all)?

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

When my wife and I first started dating in college – and back before I knew anything about personal finance – I often said that I wanted to learn to live on 1/3 of my income, save 1/3, and give away 1/3.  However, we never discussed taxes and how our giving should occur.  Should I tithe pre-tax or post-tax?

In this post, we will walk through our thought process on charitable giving, how it will impact our taxes, and how our giving might change in the near future after further consideration.

Let’s dig in.

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Tithing 10%

Over the last 18 months, our numbers have looked a lot different than the original plan of giving 1/3 of our income.  We have saved about 20%. Lived on about 20%. More than 30% has gone towards paying down student loan debt.  20-25% has gone to taxes.  What’s left (only 5-7%) has gone towards charitable causes (mainly tithing).

We stared to realize that, for now, this 1/3 charitable giving number seemed quite high (and random).  As reality set in, we adjusted this number down to 10% with the hopes of increasing our charitable giving each year.

Speaking of 10%, why is this very specific “10% number” talked about so much?

Well, whether your giving has a religious base or not, most people who tithe 10% of their money can find the root of their giving in the book of Genesis when Abraham gave 10% of his resources back to the priesthood.

This number, as arbitrary as it may seem, provides a pretty good foundation for charitable giving.  Whether you give slightly less or slightly more than 10% is up to you.

10% of what?

Yet, all of this begs one fundamental question:  what “10 percent” are we talking about here?

Is this 10% of our gross income? Pre-tax income? 10% of our take home? Some may even consider it to be 10% of their discretionary income.

As any long-time reader will know, I am a firm believer that the target audience reading this blog is quite intelligent.  It is not the purpose of this website to tell you how to spend, save, or give your money.

However, it is the purpose of this website to make you think and to help you make intentional decisions by arming you with information.

So, have you thought about what your giving percentage is and how to calculate this number?  If you give 10%, where does this 10% come from?

This is the question my wife and I have struggled with lately.

Should I Tithe Pre-tax or Post-tax?

For the past 18 months, we have given 10% of our take home pay.  Maybe slightly more when you incorporate other random charitable giving.  (We also give 25% of the profit from this website to causes we believe in).

Given that our student loans will (finally!) be gone at the end of this month,  my wife and I have started discussing what we will do with the additional money we will start to cash flow.

As I preach, we want this decision to be intentional. More and more, we are considering giving 10% of our pre-tax income instead of only giving from what we take home.

We figure that if we the government gets its share from our pre-tax income, then our tithing probably deserves the same sort of treatment.

After all, Abraham’s example was to give the first 10% and not 10% of what was left after he picked through it. It had to do with acknowledging where his resources came from, and trusting that it would continue.

How Does This Impact Our Taxes?

Fortunately, giving money to charitable causes can provide more than just an uplifting feeling by doing the right thing.  The government also honors charitable giving by decreasing our tax burden.

However, with the new standard deduction of $24,000 for married couples ($12,000 for singles), charitable giving must be part of a pretty large itemized deduction for it to decrease our tax burden.

Note: If you take a standard deduction, it may make more sense to double up your charitable giving in one year to overcome that large number and then give nothing and take full advantage of the large deduction the next.

In our situation, the interest from our new home purchase (and the repeal of the Pease Limitation) in addition to the $10,000 State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction will allow us to take advantage of additional charitable giving opportunities.

In other words, the SALT deduction and the interest from our home will put us above the $24,000 standard deduction.  So, it makes more sense to itemize if we decide to give to charity.

Given that we fall pretty squarely into the 32% tax bracket, the way I view it is that any money we give will reduce our overall tax-burden by $3,200 per $10,000 given to charity.

This seems like a pretty good deal to me. Who wouldn’t rather choose where their charitable givings go?  The alternative is having additional tax levied on us and letting the government decide.

How does this Impact Our Journey to FI?

The naysayer might point out that, while charitable giving produces a tax benefit, we are still sacrificing money that we could otherwise put towards achieving early financial independence.

To this person, I’d say two things.  First, they are right – it does delay our journey.  The second thing that I’d say is that they are missing the point.

If we spend our entire journey with the final destination in mind – while we ignore things that are important to us along the way – what’s the point?

If giving to those in need (which is where the vast majority of our church’s money goes as shown in the monthly expense reports) delays our journey, I think that’s entirely worth it.  Giving to those in need has always been a major goal for both my wife and me.

And, yes, we also give of our time and our talents.  Not just our money.

This doesn’t even bring up what this lesson implicitly teaches our kids, which is that it is possible for people to be financially literate, make specific financial goals, and to still prevent money from becoming our God.

Take Home

There are not many financial decisions that require more of an intentional thought process than where and how we give of our resources.

Hopefully, today’s post has encouraged you to think about this topic, which isn’t discussed often enough in this community.

Do you give to charity?  How much do you give?  Is your number calculated on pre-tax or post-tax money? Let us know in the comments below.

TPP

13 Comments

  1. Crispy Doc

    TPP,

    Terrific exploration of giving, thanks for leading by example.

    If you can batch a few years of giving together, consider a donor advised fund, and check out PoF’s terrific article on establishing one.

    It cements the tax advantages of giving, reinforcing the virtuous cycle you seek to continue.

    Fondly,

    CD

    Reply
    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      Completely agree on batching if your itemized deductions are not significant. And I think using POF DAF method is a great idea (and have linked it now in the post).

      TPP

      Reply
    • Sharon Griffiths

      Hello Crispy Doc,

      I’m not a physician, but happened upon your site after searching for ways to reduce my taxable income of 200k +. I was recently laid off of my 6 figure IT job back this June. I agree with this post, as I have always thought the same, that God should get the 1st fruits of my income and I tithed 10% of my salary off the gross for the entire 18 years – sometimes more with no regrets. When I got laid off this June, I received a severance package of my same salary and also received a sizable bonus in September (Only God could allow a bonus after being laid off). I am now at 200k and have a few more severance checks coming (I’ve made more unemployed than when I was working- I thank God). This has now put me in a new tax bracket and I’m wondering what my tax bill is going to look like next year as an unemployed single mother? I thank God to see there are still God fearing physicians on the land. Great Post!!

      Reply
  2. Dr. Cory S. Fawcett

    Nice summary. It’s good to note that the word tithe means “a tenth portion.” I like your pre-tax idea as your tithe should not change if the government changes its rules. Whatever the IRS rules state, you still earned the same amount of money and the tithe should not change. Also, in Abraham’s time, he got what he earned. Now you don’t get it all today. You should also be tithing on the retirement plan contribution and health insurance from your employer, neither of which shows up in your check but both were earned from your labor.
    You provide a great example to follow. Keep it up.

    Dr. Cory S Fawcett
    Prescription for Financial Success

    Reply
    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      All great points, as always, Cory. Thanks for helping hold others accountable!

      Reply
  3. Jerry Yu

    My peace of mind comes from recognizing that taxes are not “my” money.
    The government see taxes as “their” money.
    The money that is mine, I tithe.
    The money that is the government’s, they tithe.

    If one thought that taxes were “my” money, then I would have to recognize that the government tithes much of what they collect to help many poor souls who cannot provide for themselves any longer. Then all the tithing the government does with “your” money, would be “your” tithing. Food stamps, unemployment, public assistance of many kinds, social security payments to those who will take out more than they ever paid into social security, medicare payments to care for those who will spend far more in medicare than they ever paid into medicare in their lifetime. A form of government tithe to help the needy. If one did that calculation, then you probably already tithe through the government far more than 10%.

    So my peace of mind comes from recognizing that taxes are not “my” money.

    Reply
    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      It’s such an individual topic, that’s why I tried to leave room for interpretation. Thanks for sharing your view on how you sort this all out. I found it helpful and interesting!

      Reply
  4. Rho

    TPP, I love this! I recall you saying you and your wife were thinking about increasing your tithe from 10% of your take home pay to 10% of your gross on my post about tithing while we’re half a million in debt. I’m glad you guys made a final decision. I think you’re exactly right that if the government gets their cut from our gross income, God should, too.

    Reply
  5. FPmdNC

    Malachi 3:10-Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it

    My 2 cents:
    God wants to do some awesome things for his people including his people doing the giving. I think we should all pray about it and ask God what He is calling us to…either way He is so generous and I’m excited to see what He does through the tithe. At my church we are seeing tons of people set free from strongholds including wounds from their past and addictions. We tested God on this with moving to pre tax giving. We have seen Him bless others and He has richly blessed us as well!

    Reply
    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      We give pre-tax, too, now.

      We don’t tithe gross, because I plan to continue to tithe in retirement (which would be tithing on that money when we receive it then).

      Reply
  6. Anonymous

    Thank you all for your insight; I have been pondering the topic for some time, and hearing the thoughts behind all your tithing choices has really pulled this together for me. This has been the answer to my prayers and the best collection of thoughts I could have asked for.

    Reply

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