Rebelling Against the Joneses
Graham and April Smith live on little so they can give much
While most people work to make money, Graham and April Smith work to give it away. As Wall Street professionals, their incomes largely go to funding charities and causes they’re passionate about rather than fueling an extravagant lifestyle.
It’s their way of rebelling against the “golden handcuffs.”
“Golden handcuffs are when you have such an expensive lifestyle that you can never leave your job,” Graham said. “But they’re nice, because they’re golden.”
The couple often prays, “God, show us how to give our lives away together.” Speaking at the Generous Giving conference in 2019, Graham and April, who first met at a Bible study and bonded over their mutual desire to consume little and give much, shared ways they’re living out intentional giving.
Graham said his journey of generosity took a significant step forward when he moved to New York City to take a job with the global financial firm Credit Suisse. “When I moved to New York I found about five other Christian guys. We decided to all live together. I was in a bunk bed and shared a room with two other guys. I was paying $400 a month in rent, where my other Credit Suisse analysts were paying $3000 a month for a studio across the office.”
Those kinds of decisions eventually allowed him to “reverse tithe.” That means living on 10 percent of his income and giving away 90 percent. Now, as a married couple, it means renting out the “extra space” in their New York apartment and helping their roommate(s) donate the rent money to charity. “We’re on that journey with them as they learn about giving,” Graham said. “Also, we get to do life with them.”
Working in finance doesn’t exempt them from facing hard questions. “The danger is in investing,” said April. “It’s in feeling as though you want to be wise with your money. In my parents’ term that would be saving, saving, saving. But how do we balance that with investing in the Kingdom’s work?”
“Do you use money for good today?” Graham asked. “Or do we invest it so you can give more later?”
April, an Asian American whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong when she was 11 years old, says she felt the burden to excel. In the achievement-driven world of Wall Street, it’s easy to get sucked into the world of zeros, “but also within Asian culture, too, where you can spend a lot of money to let people know you have money.”
The couple has chosen a different way. “Our idea is an increase of income doesn’t change your way of living, but it changes your way of giving,” April said.
In 2017, they launched a not-for-profit vegan restaurant in Times Square, P.S. Kitchen. They asked, what’s the “best way to sustainably give?” They’re answer was to start an “impact investing restaurant” that would hire marginalized New Yorkers and whose profits would go “to fund the things we care about.”
“You get a beer and secretly you’re funding a social venture in Haiti,” Graham said. “Or you order the cauliflower and you’re funding a baby food company in Haiti.”
“It was the scariest leap of faith we’ve taken,” April said. “You go from tithing, to over-tithing, then suddenly this is a new idea for us.”
It took them more than two years after coming up with the idea to get the restaurant off the ground. That’s two years of paying Times Square rent straight out of their pockets. April says she was reminded that “just because God has called us to this doesn’t mean that it would be successful.” It was almost another two years before P.S Kitchen was turning a profit. At the time of their 2019 interview, it was. At one point, they had the cast of Hamilton come through. And the entire New York Knicks team.
Raul Rivera is a dishwasher at P.S. Kitchen. He grew up in the Bronx and was addicted to heroin as a teenager, leading to a life in and out of prison. After sticking with rehab in his 50s, he was ready to start a new life. For four years, he interviewed for jobs without success.
He thought, “I’m a changed man, things should be going right for me. But that wasn’t the case,” he told Asian American Life. “All I wanted was somebody to give me a chance.”
He interviewed at P.S. Kitchen and they asked if he could start the next day. “You’re hiring me?” he asked, stunned. “I walked out of the building, and I put my head against the wall and I just started crying. I get up every morning looking forward to coming here.”
April said, because of friends from Generous Giving, they were also able to fund marital counseling for Rivera and his wife and help provide Christmas gifts for their children.
If nothing else, Graham and April’s lifestyle has raised a lot of questions from coworkers. “I think as people watch us give recklessly into this project, there’s been more conversations about giving and stretching people’s giving muscles, just as mine have been stretched,” April said. One colleague agreed to give $50,000 for a school in Congo after a conversation at a work party. Another told her, “Every time I talk to you, it’s like money just flying out of my pockets.”
The couple says they want their lives to model “evangelism done through action.”
“It’s fun to have this restaurant, because the question of ‘why do you do this?’” Graham said. “And then we get to share the Gospel naturally.”