Earning to Save (Give 1%, Save 10%)

Claim: A common, default action people should be encouraged to take, upon getting involved with effective altruism, is “Earning to Save.” Specifically meaning:

  • Give around 1% of your disposable income (after rent and major necessary expenses)

  • Aim to save at least 10% of your net income.

Longterm, if you’re not otherwise planning to shift your career trajectory, earning-to-give 10% is still a good aspiration.

But this should be after you’ve made sure you’re on the route to financial security with substantial runway, and after you’ve considered options that would require you to take a lot of time off to learn a new skill, or found a new project/​organization.

[Update: 80k essentially already recommends this for people until they have 6-12 months of runway. So I think my claims here are essentially that: a) this messaging should be more upfront, and b) I think 6-12 months is not actually enough, 12-36 months is better, and that it should be comfortable runway, not “living in your parent’s basement” runway, for reasons listed in this comment)]

Reasons I think this:

  • Default options are good – EA is a confusing, intense field to get involved in. There’s a huge amount to learn, the best practices are constantly shifting over time. It’s psychologically helpful to have a simple, default option you can take which fairly clearly communicates (to yourself, and others), that you’re taking EA seriously. (And then in the longterm, as you learn more, you can take more complicated actions)

  • “Donate 10%” is impractical as a default option – There are too many people who aren’t actually in a good enough financial state where I think it makes sense to take on the GWWC pledge. And for many students, the pledge often doesn’t make sense because you haven’t yet thought through your longterm career options. It’s too big a commitment, at a time when people have too little information.

  • Having financial slack is important, both individually and as a community

    • When people don’t have resources to spare, it makes it harder to take advantage of sudden opportunities (such as taking a new job, quitting a terrible job to look for a new one, moving to a new city, or taking a year off to study a new important skill)

    • Having a lot of people who don’t have spare resources can create resources crunches that affect a community. Some in-person EA communities provide a valuable informal role of helping out members who are undergoing hard times (job layoff, mental health crisis, etc). Sometimes through direct loans, sometime through just having a spare bedroom or couch. However, there’s a limit to how much people can take care of each other.

    • If you don’t have a comfortable savings cushion, then

      • As soon as you hit a crisis, you may need to draw upon resources from people around you, and if too many people need this at once the community can’t support them without causing downstream stress and burnout.

      • If other EAs or people around you hit a crisis, you won’t be able to help them.

  • Many valuable EA paths require taking time off to think, or learn, or found a project.

    • Existing EA orgs are bottlenecked on specific skillsets. Gaining those skills may require taking time off to learn/​train, or pay for schooling, or switching careers so you can learn on-the-job (which requires taking time to job-hunt).

    • I recall a story [citation needed?] where someone was at a hedge fund making a lot of money. They heard about EA, got excited, and donated all of it. Then decided they wanted to quit their soul-crushing hedge fund job and do some direct work, and started up a new project relating to global poverty. They turned around and asked the EA community to donate to allow them to do so. And… this was just the wrong way to go about it. If you have a million dollars, one of the whole points of being able to donate that much is you can direct it to seed fund early stage projects. If you are an early stage project, you can just fund yourself.

    • In “Critch on Taking AI seriously”, I go into the possibility of just taking time off to think, to immerse yourself in all the most important problems and landscapes. Give yourself enough time to think deeply about them and develop a plan.

  • There opportunities to convert money into time or other resources.

    • It’s not a good place to be in, to need to penny-pinch when it comes to important things that can multiply your productivity or give you more time. Copied from “Critch on Taking AI Seriously”, some ways you might want to turn money into resources include:

      • Buying a larger monitor, iPad or even large pen-and-paper notebook so you have more “exo-brain” to think on. A human can only really keep seven things in their head at once, but having things written down externally makes it easier to keep track of more.

      • Paying for cabs that gives you space to think and write during travel time.

      • Paying for food delivery rather than making it or going out.

      • Paying for personal assistants who can do random odd-jobs for you. (Getting value out of this took a lot of practice – some things turned out to be hard to outsource, and managing people is a nuanced skill. But if you can put in the time experimenting, learning, and finding the right assistant, it’s very worthwhile)

      • Paying for a personal trainer to help you get better at exercise because it turns out exercise is pretty important overall.

  • You might just want, you know, to have savings for retirement.

  • Donating 1% and Saving 10% still gets you on the path towards donating more, and putting aside money for some kind of thoughtful, serious use.

For all these reasons, I think the intro-to-EA resources should emphasize a bit more being financially secure.