One friend’s simple gesture forever changed the way I spend

The author (far right) and friends ice skating at Bryant Park in 2017.
Emmie Martin | CNBC

December in New York City is enchanting. Between trees lined with twinkling lights and storefronts decked out with elaborate holiday displays, a spirit of wonder and hopefulness feels almost palpable in the air.

I was initiated to the magic of the season during my first winter in the city when two friends invited me to the Christmas tree lighting in Bryant Park. The plan was to ice skate, watch the tree lighting and enjoy the live choir belting out carols, and I was more than happy to join. I didn't know these two women very well, and yet they were openly welcoming me into their circle of friends.

But when I arrived to skate, I encountered a problem almost immediately. The rink was cash only, and I only had a few bucks and a credit card to my name.

I awkwardly retreated to my friends where I quietly admitted that I didn't bring enough cash and wouldn't be able to participate.

My dad's gift-giving tradition taught me a critical money lesson that forever changed the way I spend

"Oh, I have some," one friend said without hesitation as she handed me a $20 bill. "Here you go."

"Thank you," I replied. "I can pay you back — do you have Venmo?"

"Don't worry about it," she said. "I know the next time someone needs $20, you'll give it to them."

That night stands in my mind as a quintessential memory of New York during the holidays: Laughing and skating while Christmas carols waft through the cool night air, watching the sky-high tree come to life as snow gently began to fall around us and looking around to realize that I had found friends who made New York feel like home. We even watched a couple get engaged in the center of the ice rink.

But more than the magic of the moment, something else has stuck with me in the years since — my friend's generosity. Without hesitation, she was willing to give whatever necessary to a near stranger, with absolutely no expectation of repayment.

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While giving me $20 to ice skate isn't exactly curing cancer or eradicating poverty, the attitude behind the gesture spoke volumes. Her first instinct was to help and give what she could, a choice I've seen her live out time after time. She had absolute faith that I would pay it forward, and her generosity inspired me do my best to live up that.

However, the intention to give means nothing if you aren't able to actually do it.

This leads me to a conversation I had with another friend this past summer. While discussing the importance of saving, investing and getting your own finances in order, my friend shared a mindset that motivates him: The more abundant your own finances are, the more generous you can be.

Keeping these two moments in mind has forever changed the way I spend my money. I admit that I'm not perfect and I'm certainly nowhere close to matching the financial impact of many. But it serves as a powerful reminder to be careful with my budget so that I too can be able to help without hesitation.

Shifting my mindset from "You can't buy that" to "The more you save, the more you can give," has been a gradual process. But especially as another holiday season comes and goes, I've realized that it's far more motivating to think of ways you can help others than to dwell on the ways you're depriving yourself.

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My dad's gift-giving tradition taught me a critical money lesson that forever changed the way I spend
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