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Illinois couple save $25,000 for a selfless Christmas gift

Suja Thomas, who wears holey socks, isn’t giving her husband anything for Christmas. When Scott Bahr proposed to Thomas in spring 2008, he offered her a red plastic heart in place of an engagement ring.

The couple’s intense frugality is by design. Their idea is to save as much as possible in order to give more to those in need. This Christmas, the pair raised the stakes: Thomas and Bahr pledged to give up to $50,000 of their own money to five charities by matching donations from others.

As of Thursday afternoon, they had raised about $25,000. Although short of their goal, that still means five charities will split a minimum of $50,000. The Champaign, Ill., couple launched their campaign Nov. 23; it ended Thursday. But the couple said they would continue to encourage the spirit of giving through their website, thegiveblog.

“In our lives, we have been looking for the next thing to make us happy -- a new bike, a new shirt, going to the movies, going out to eat, cable, or the next vacation,” the couple’s mission statement says. “We have discovered that we obtain the most fulfillment in our lives from looking beyond these daily cravings to what our money can do for people who are in need.”

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The couple can afford a comfortable life. Thomas, 43, is a law professor at the University of Illinois. Bahr, 41, also works at the university, as a controls programmer in the facilities and services department.

The choice stems from their own love story. In 2007, the pair met on a mission trip to a poor township in South Africa. They bonded on the last day, when Thomas and her mother took the last two seats on a bus for a group outing to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Thomas, who had been helping people find jobs, ended up next to Bahr, who had been building homes.

The couple married in June 2008, coming together at a time when both were questioning the consumer culture.

“Even as a kid, I remember every Christmas thinking, ‘My life is going to be changed when I have this new present.’ Of course, my life was never changed,” Thomas said.

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The scale of their commitment to changing their lifestyle kicked into high gear when children in South Africa asked for their bottled water.

Of course, the couple still struggles with their choice.

They disagreed, for example, about buying a new toaster after theirs broke: Bahr wanted a new one, but Thomas said they could just use the stove. When two strangers who had heard about their effort to raise money and live frugally donated toasters, Thomas insisted she and her husband give the gifts to a family who needed them more than they did.

“When you are being challenged, I’d love to say that it is easy and we are always happy,” Bahr said. “Sometimes it is hard.”

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Then there are the immediate benefits, like not having to shop for Christmas presents or worry about whether your clothes are in style.

Thomas said she used to love to buy coats. Her mind-set about shopping has completely changed.

“It’s just so freeing not to be thinking about that,” she said. “I don’t care anymore.”

In the last year, as far as Thomas can recall, Bahr bought a pair of jeans and she bought two pairs of hiking pants. She also bought Bahr a T-shirt for his birthday. The couple are debating whether it’s time to pick up some new socks.

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solkon@tribune.com


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