By Donovan Ervin
I want financial independence – more precisely, I want to have enough wealth to live comfortably without the need to work or depend on anyone else. Much of this desire, I’m sure, stems from the financial vigilance I learned while growing up in a single-parent household. Although I never went without anything I needed, I internalized the story that money was scarce – a familiar story told in many Black households dealing with the cumulative historical impacts of wage theft, segregation, and exclusion. I’m therefore drawn to the security and stability that financial independence promises, and I urgently want to reach that point within the next 15 years.
Over the past few years of research, I’ve discovered that the most important factor in accomplishing my goal is having an aggressive savings rate (i.e., amount saved as a percentage of income). The more money saved, the better. In fact, thanks to compounding interest, saving more exponentially decreases the time to reach financial independence.
As a lifelong saver, I’ve always treated money with care. I used to regularly iron my cash (with starch!) before neatly stowing it in its special place under my mattress. I also recently found a will I wrote in my Tasmanian Devil journal when I was 8 or 9. It had clear instruction that in the event of my untimely death, all my $71.48 would go to mom. Naturally. As an adult, I still hold a similar respect for my money. My academic background has put me on a career trajectory where my salary far exceeds my day-to-day needs. Yet, I drive a 2006 Honda Accord with 250,000 miles and find it difficult to spend money on frivolous things. As a result, early financial independence is within reach for me.
For most people, however, financial independence is a fantasy. Six in 10 Americans don’t even have enough emergency savings to replace a month of income. These folks are concerned merely about financial survival. That’s in part because too few of us get meaningful training about how to manage finances. Our culture also tells us that happiness is on the other side of consumption. So, we buy things to fill a void, to the detriment of our pocketbooks (and the planet).
Our economic system and the rules that govern it – not individuals – are the biggest culprits. Despite greater productivity and output over the past few decades, average workers have seen their real wages stagnate, if not decline. Meanwhile, the income of the top 1% has grown exponentially. Individual and corporate greed has exacerbated inequality and put more people on the brink of financial collapse. I’ve seen it in my own family. And it’s evident when walking down the street in [insert major urban center]. The problem is even starker along lines of race, gender, immigrant status, and disability.
I’ve dedicated my career to improving outcomes within the system – as an educator, nonprofit professional, and now as an impact investor. Given that experience, I often ask myself how I could aspire to reach financial independence by actively participating in a system that extracts wealth and perpetuates suffering for many. Because I’m a descendent of enslaved people, that question rings more noisily.
The dissonance jars my mind and spirit, my identity and sense of self.
Although I no longer regularly participate in organized religion, I’ve revisited the tenets of my Christian upbringing for some guidance on this existential quandary.
From an early age, I learned about the holy act of tithing. The Hebrew law requires that followers generously and joyfully give a tenth of their earnings back to God, who’s the source of all good things. Every week at church, there was a brass collection plate passed around for people to place their gifts before standing to sing and pray in thanksgiving. Admittedly, as I grew older, this ritual felt unsavory at times, particularly as I saw more than a few church leaders use guilt to squeeze more money from congregants while flaunting their wealth with luxury cars and big houses.
But the ritual itself goes beyond a single religion.
Reciprocal giving is a core tenet in many worldviews. In Islam, zakat is the compulsory yearly alms that must be given by all who meet specific financial criteria. The Yorùbá tradition of West Africa observes Ebó, which requires members to make offerings or sacrifices as a part of the natural order of “give and take.” In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer similarly speaks of the “Honorable Harvest,” a loose set of common principles that many Indigenous cultures follow to respect the forces that sustain our life and livelihood. One way to do that is to “give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.”
These practices, which have persisted across geography and time, represent some universal wisdom that I wanted to consider. So, I decided to try tithing. Since I’m not affiliated with a religious institution, I give ten percent of my salary to a mix of mission-aligned nonprofits, family and friends, and people in need.
I’ll be honest: it doesn’t always feel good, natural, or comfortable to give money away. Especially when I look at my monthly cashflows, I can’t help but think about how tithing is immediately shaving off ten percent from my savings rate, prolonging my journey toward financial independence by years.
However, I’ve come to see tithing as additive. I get to show up for loved ones and community members in material ways. I also am supporting organizations serving people who have been marginalized by our political, economic, and social systems.
I, too, have benefited greatly, as tithing has propelled me towards internal growth. Two reflections stand out:
- I don’t own my money. When I reflect on my life, it’s clear that I’ve benefitted from immeasurable generosity. So many people and institutions have contributed to my life and my ability to earn an income: family, teachers, and mentors; public schools, financial aid benefactors, and yes, church programs. Not to mention the countless human and nonhuman beings who have literally sacrificed their bodies and energy, providing the building blocks for a healthy body and mind. Giving tithes is a reminder that independence – financial or otherwise – is not a thing. True wealth lies in honoring interdependence and re-membering community.
- My money doesn’t own me. Decelerating my journey to financial independence encourages me to cultivate a healthier relationship with money and ambition. The logic of the American Dream says that I, a Black man who has climbed the class ladder, should keep climbing as high and fast as possible. That mindset, though, is unsustainable and has led us to social and ecological imbalance in the first place. Of course, I can have goals, but I don’t have to pursue them to the point of extractive or self-centered hoarding. Instead, I can choose generosity. As silver is for electricity, I can be a conduit for that mysterious current of blessings to keep flowing to others.
Returning to my existential quandary, if anything, my journey with tithing has unearthed more questions than answers. Should I be building wealth within an extractive economy at all? What if I gave more to political efforts that transform the rules, instead of only addressing symptoms? How can I expand my understanding of generosity? While I may not ever have satisfactory answers to these questions, tithing has shown me that the path to a more just economy is not solely professional or intellectual but is also spiritual and personal. Guided by ancient wisdom, I’m learning to subscribe to a new narrative of abundance that says that I have enough – that I am enough.
 Braiding Sweetgrass, Page 183
Donovan Ervin (he/him) is Vice President in the Investment Group at Tiedemann Advisors. In this role, he is helping to direct capital toward a more inclusive, just, and regenerative economy. This work aligns closely with Donovan’s professional mission: developing and supporting new markets that shift patterns of production and consumption, distribute power and ownership more democratically, and expand the definition of wealth to include individual, community, and planetary health and well-being. Previously, Donovan has held positions at various organizations in the social sector, ranging from K-12 education to community development to environmental justice. Based in Dallas, Texas, Donovan is a graduate of Yale University (MBA and Master of Environmental Management) and Stanford University (BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity). He is also a proud advisory board member at the Yale Center for Business & Environment. Outside work, Donovan enjoys writing, exercising, and being with his people.