Under the cloak of frugality…

Half Full

I don’t know about you, but I often find it easy to lament about what I do or do not have.  Do you ever feel like when you are around other people there’s almost a sense that it’s a competition to see who has the tighter budget, is saving the most money by using coupons, or who is just plain old the most frugal?  We go around looking for sympathy because we’ve had to cut back to going out only once a week for dinner or limit our spending.  No one is talking about being evicted from his apartment or wondering if she will get her next meal.  Instead, we live in a society that seems to equate preference with poverty.

When in the heck did we develop such a screwed and inaccurate view about what it truly means to be poor?  Complaining because we don’t get to eat steak and shrimp at every meal when we have a full fridge and pantry is ridiculous.  Whining because we only have one bedspread and can’t buy the pretty new one that would look so amazing in our room is ridiculous.  Complaining about how we have “nothing to wear” when we can’t fit all of our clothes into our closet is ridiculous.  So why do we do it?  And, why do we encourage each other to do it?

The reality is that we each have a different budget, different expenses, debts and the like.  I’m not saying that each and every person’s financial situation is the same.  You might be struggling with paying some of your bills right now and want to give me the finger for bringing this up and I welcome that.  Aim it at the screen, get it out of your system.  But, chances are if you are pissed off that means that there is some truth to what I am saying.  We all make choices.  For example, our family chose to have my husband pursue a career as a doctor and therefore we have some student loans.  Do I complain about them, of course I do, but at the end of the day we made that choice.  No one forced him to apply and take on the debt of earning his M.D.  And if that means money is tighter for a few years, that’s how it is.  For some people it’s a house in a certain neighborhood, or having two cars, or a certain type of car, private school for their kids, clothes that don’t come from thrift stores, travel, eating out, and on and on and on.  We each have our own opinions about where and on what we spend our money.  And to be honest, I don’t really feel there’s a place for judgement there.  The place where I have a problem is when we begin to think that we are somehow entitled to everything on the list above and more.  And that if for some reason we don’t have all of those things, we have a right to complain.

I once learned about the terms “relative poverty” and “true poverty.”  They probably seem obvious, but I’ll define them just so you know where I am coming from.  “Relative poverty” is the type that is all comparative to where I live and those around me.  While I might feel that I don’t have as much as others, I still have.  “True poverty” is the raw reality where I have nothing.  There isn’t any room for preference or choice.  There is NOTHING to eat, NO WHERE to sleep, and NO CLOTHES to wear.  Basic needs are not met.  Why in the US have we started to place our overindulging selves into the latter category?  Why do we think we suffer so much?  You know I love me some iced coffee from Starbucks, but is not being able to get one everyday really a hardship??  Of course not.

I think I’m most worried about what is going on in our hearts, friends.  In my heart.  I claim to be frugal, spend time thinking about the things I want and don’t have and meanwhile clutch my savings account for dear life.  What am I really saving money for?  Is it so that I can be a better human being or more accurately live out who I think God has called me to be?  Is it so that I can write a bigger check at the next fundraiser I attend?  Or is it so that I can buy a new dining room table?  We constantly see celebrities giving away money on t.v., urging us to do the same.  They smile, they nod, they do the publicity stuff and act as if they have cured cancer.  Then they drive away in a rented limo, designer clothes and to their multi million dollar homes.  It’s a LOAD.  They aren’t missing that money!  Giving is supposed to hurt- we are supposed to write checks that we want to tear up.  It should be a sacrifice that leaves our hands empty.  It forces us to realize the truth about it all- in this world we truly have nothing.

This morning I heard it put so beautifully in Garrett, one of our pastor’s, sermon.  He basically said (more poetically and powerfully though) “Even the biggest bank account never stays with the owner.  He dies and it passes on.  That person dies and so on.  We truly are like landlords of our assets here on earth.”  I don’t want to completely spiritualize this, because I know that for some readers that will provide an opportunity to tune out this entire message.  So, I will emphasize that nothing in the quote above is from the Bible.  Anyway, just because we have a higher paying job than our neighbor does not mean that we are entitled to nicer vacations, homes, or things.  There are so many factors that went into you being who and where you are today and I would say that about 90% of them had nothing to do with you.  When we start to use terms like “deserve” for the abundance in our own lives we enter a scary place and imply that those who do not have also “deserve” their fate.  We all know that this is not true.  There are too many people in the world who suffer due to circumstances far outside of their control.  Just as no child should grow up thinking he’s done something so wrong to live in poverty, no child should grow up thinking she’s done something so right to grow up in wealth.

I was starting to think about what would happen if we all start to throw more of our resources into one big global pot.  Can you imagine if the playing field were to truly be leveled?  Not just through a onetime gift, but indefinitely.  No one would cling to their stuff and I think the overall whining level would diminish.  In my frugality I can find excuses of why I can’t give and do you know what’s really sad about that?  Rather than this mindset increasing my assets, it strips them bare and leaves me even more impoverished than when I began.  When we choose to spend our time amassing wealth, we end up so empty.  We are never going to be satisfied.  We’ll never make enough money to buy all of the things we want and let’s face it, when we do earn more money we just make new goals or find more things that we want.  I don’t want to live like this!  I’m done.  Aren’t you?  I want to choose to live openly with my life and my stuff.  All those boxes in my basement, take them.  What I was saving for a “rainy day” is coming out now.  How sad to think that a life could have been impacted by something that I had but was too cheap to relinquish.

I’m challenged today and I want to change.  If you aren’t giving regularly to anything or anyone it’s time to start.  All that stuff you were going to sell on Ebay, go donate it instead.  Purge those closets, call 1-800-Junk to cart the stuff away and you will be amazed at the freedom you will find.  It won’t be easy, but the investment is sure to payoff regardless of the economy.

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19 thoughts on “Under the cloak of frugality…

  1. Great message! We had a sermon a few weeks back on finances, giving, tithing, etc. I came away with a similar feeling and came up with some ideas. I will admit that I don’t think I have followed through on many. I also came away with the reminder that giving isn’t only financial. There are so many ways to give for “free”: helping someone to their car in a parking lot, donating items (like you suggested), smiling at people and making eye contact, taking a meal to a neighbor unexpectedly, just to name a few. And if you have a few extra bucks, why not pick up a $5 starbucks card and hand it to the next person you see. Maybe you have plenty of money one week, so why not surprise an unsuspecting restaurant patron by paying their bill, or paying for the groceries of the person behind you. Random acts of giving. When you start thinking of others and less of yourself, you will find that giving is truly rewarding. For example, the other day while at Walmart, I had loaded the kids and the groceries in the car and then looked at the cart. SO tempting to just leave it as I often do. But something else won that day and I walked it over to the cart corral. As I did that, I heard someone yell “Thank you!!” I turned around and the guy that gathers the carts was so grateful that I had done that. Makes his job so much easier. I thought to myself that by giving a few extra seconds and not being lazy made someone else happy. I didn’t even realize I was giving. Maybe that’s a weird example, but it just reminded me that giving can come in many sizes. Even the smallest gesture might mean the world to someone else. OK, I’ve gone on long enough, I hope I didn’t depart from you message too much. Thanks again for writing!!

  2. I agree with so much of what you said. However, I disagree with putting our assets into one large pot. That experiement has already been done and it failed. People need motivation to work. While people may not cling to “stuff” as much, they will become lazy. People need to be pushed to work hard. People are not going to work to see 60% of the rewards go to “the greater good”, especially if that “greater good” does not come back to help them individually.
    That being said, the concept of “relative poverty” drives me crazy. I hate seeing people who claim they can’t feed/clothe their kids yet have the fanciest cell phone and television money can buy. I have family who claims they can’t afford much needed therapy for their children (sexually abused by a babysitter) yet they spend hundreds on going out, fancy clothes and technology (cell phones, computers, blu-ray, etc). It makes my blood boil. I’m angry to the point that the next time I see said cousins (they live far away, so it is unlikely to be soon) I doubt I will be able to speak to them. The kids, yes. Their horrible parents, no.
    Anyway, good post. It is nice to use my brain for a few minutes on something other than the exact temperature the baby wants her milk in order to drink it uncomplainingly.

    1. Love, love the comments. Heather, there is definitely a lot of truth to what you said about the work ethic factor. I guess I see more of a pot of excess, if you will. My needs are met, so here’s the rest. Kind of like the penny jars at some convenience stores where if you are short you can grab one, or if you have some extra change you throw one in. Laziness is DEFINITELY not to be promoted!! Bummer about your family- hopefully they can get their priorities in order! Ang, thanks for you ideas. I totally agree that sometimes doing little things can have a huge impact. So much better to get Starbucks to share. And the cart thing for sure! Keep the great ideas and thoughts coming!

  3. i’m thrilled with the content – shout my amens – let’s all get on board…..and then find wandering in my head something that needs to be part of this conversation, at least between paul and me. The first question would be to think through how much money we feel we need to bring in each month – what might need to change in how we spend in order to live within that amount. Then, we need to talk again with your thoughts, and that monthly amount in mind about how often Paul (and I) could be at peace offering his services for free. He’s a relational coach for some who may not know that – and many many of his clients want it to be free. Many of them would say finances are difficult. And many of them get it for free, not because they’ve been given that gift; in fact, they’ve signed a contract, but because they never get around to paying. I have tended to feel it’s important for them to pay for their sakes, being responsible to their commitments – but if he were truly able to offer his services for free because we decided we could live without that income, would that be healthy for them? Do people work harder if they’ve invested some money? Isn’t greater value placed on the services if they have to stretch their budget to include it? Those have been my rationales – and I tend to still agree with them. I admit get so annoyed when Paul is owed thousands of dollars, and know that some of those who owe him have several homes, etc. I hope this isn’t totally missing your point, – you simply stirred an area around money that is unsettled in me. I want to live generously. And for those who are truly poor financially, I am all over trying to find ways to tangibly come alongside that both help and, at the same time, boost their esteem and hope and sense of personal value by learning from them in places of their strength.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Susie. I definitely don’t think that people getting “handouts” or simply taking advantage of a situation is a good thing. Paul’s situation is one where I too would feel frustration. You have that tension between right and wrong and wanting to live in a way that is open and generous. Sometimes generosity does mean we can feel taken advantage of, for sure. Are we willing to live like that? Something to wrestle with

  4. mmmm… I love a good discussion about charitable giving! In fact, it is one of my favorite topics 🙂

    I think some of the most important things to remember here are that
    1. All we have has been entrusted to us but is not ours. That means ALL we have. Not just our money.
    2. We (Christians) have been commanded to give freely (Matthew 10:8). We should feed the hungry, clothe the poor, take care of the widows and orphans, etc.
    3. We should give with a glad heart because the giving is essentially more about our relationship with God than anything else.

    Really, those are the basics. If those three aren’t coming together, something is off.

    One of my favorite quotes about frugality is “Living frugally to give generously.”

    Though, I can certainly say I am not frugal at heart, though I always think I should be. I’m definitely having a discussion about giving at my little corner of the web this week. Stop on over for a chat 🙂

  5. Funny this should come up, because mark and I were out last night (on a *date* a real live *date*) and we started talking about this subject exactly.

    Our main frustrations lie in exactly what you talk about — relative poverty. Specifically people who live “paycheck to paycheck” and complain that they never have any money but yet they really do have things that they can cut out. It’s all about persective.

    I think the first and most important thing is for us to get ourselves in line first — you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first. The whole oxygen mask on the airplane principle. Make a budget, live below your means, have a 3-6 month emergency fund (so we aren’t the ones in need of help the next time the economy crashes). Get out of debt, retirement… I know it seems like I’m talking about a lot of “me, us, I” things, but it is important to make sure that we are taking care of ourselves so that others won’t have to. And it isn’t like you can’t give and give generously within this. I know for a fact that you can.

    I feel like this is such an area where it is between you and God. Obviously, I don’t think it’s responsibe or being a good steward to keep getting things when you aren’t giving and don’t have the money to pay your bills. However, I DO think it is fine to take a vacation, even a really nice vacation or that hot new car you crave, if you are being responsible and generous. I don’t believe it is God’s heart for us to not enjoy his blessings, because with giving does come blessings. We have to be careful when judging people “excess”. For example, my in-laws are on a fabulous trip to Costa Rica right now that seems excessive… but when you compare it to their giving and missions… meh, it’s not so bad. Does that make sense?

    I guess what I’m saying is that it’s about giving freely and joyfully but realizing that God does want us to enjoy the fruits of our labor also. I look forward to taking a cruise one day. 🙂

  6. Since this is such a great discussion, I’m going to post this over at our Newton Presbyterian Church page … That’s what happens when you blog, right? Your ideas get shared.

  7. Hi,

    First time poster here! Great post. You had me until the ‘global pot’ thing but after skimming the comments I see you’ve addressed that. I live in a socialized country right now (England) and the work ethic is definitely not what it is in America. Not that lots of people don’t work hard but when there are so many handouts and high taxes, there is little incentive to work and better yourself. Don’t want to get too political though…

    I find it interesting that now that the recession has hit, people are suddenly becoming aware of budgeting and frugality. I grew up that way so it’s nothing out of the ordinary. I’m not picking on you all, nor am I tried to brag, like I’m so frugal but I think your comment about relative poverty is very insightful. Even though times are tough economically, it’s a check and balance time for all of us to evaluate our financial perspective.

    We put our money where our priorities are. My parents didn’t have a lot of money when we were kids, as they were in ministry, but we always took a vacation (nothing fancy) to make sure we had family time. Those memories will be with me for a lifetime.

    I think money is great. I don’t need it, I don’t love it. It is a tool to help people, to do God’s (and good) work. Saving money and working hard to make it has allowed me a wonderful education, adventures in foreign countries, supporting missionaries that I choose (not giving to charities I don’t believe in through government taxes. There I go again…), fond memories and traveling to places to meet new people.
    Only God can judge our hearts in regard to money and when He blesses us with it we indeed need to give back, after all, it’s not truly ours anyway.

    Keep up the good blogging.

    From your very opinionated and loving friend,
    Stephanie 😉

    1. I’m pasting a comment that Paul e-mailed me since his computer was not allowing him to post it. Here are his words

      “As long as we see churches that reflect culture to the extent they do we will not begin to either care about the poor or get what it means to live frugally. We build massive edifices that sit unused most of the time but continue to consume heat, light AC , maintenance and more and say we need to do this to honor God or create an appropriate place to worship or some other equally lame reason. Last time I checked what God made serves as a great place to worship, as do a host of schools, centers and other places that would work great for this purpose. It seems that the practical theology for so much of the western church is we need a place to flaunt who we are and often the bigger the better. This seems right in step with a culture that always suggests that bigger is better. The economic model is clear that you better have more this year than last or you are failing – and likely to be fired! The church goes right along with it. The successful ones pull down their barns regularly and build bigger ones that take more money to maintain staff etc. Then we send these big name successful one on junkets to inspire all of us to be concerned for the poor. What is the difference between that and any other pr campaign a corporation might run. World Vision spends millions on mailers to countless people because it brings in money and entrenches the notion that slick marketing techniques are the key to ending poverty. They pay their leader hundreds of thousands of dollars and by doing so only encourage all of us to seek to get more and more so we can be successful and be like ‘them’. Pastors earn salaries well into 6 figures and this offers an example of sacrifical life to oh perhaps professional athletes and Wall Street bankers but relatively few others. We own homes where empty rooms abound and we react to the idea of sharing that home with ‘I am a private person’ to which I suggest so then are you a follower of Jesus who leaves little doubt that community, communal responses are not optional for us who seek to be like him.
      So some ideas…. Sell every church we can and use the money to enable others to build their own businesses around the globe. At times this may be a grant but more often than not loan the money to others do not give it to them. Create a far greater sense of community among believers where the share all in common gets practiced far more often. Start filling up schools etc more than Monday to Friday. Reduce the personnel costs that often consume 80% or more of a church budget. I know that we can live well on far less than we pay many people. Confront the economic engine that drives so much of this we have to have more than last year mentality. I probably have been removed from the kingdom by now so let me stop here…”

  8. I’ll be quite honest with why I’m not a fan of the “global pot”…

    We have people on both sides of our family that are or have been on the welfare system. Yes, I know that it works in some cases, and is a lifesaver to many infants, but in the vast majority it just doesn’t.

    It is so frustrating to see a fairly large chunk of money come out of our check every month to go to these family members and others like them. The ones that have absolutely no skills in budgeting money, holding down a job, spend every last dime on frivilous things, and are often addicted to drugs and alcohol. And they “live better” than us some of the time! If you only count the kinds of food they eat, the amount of times they eat out (um, always) and the clothes they buy. It makes my head spin. When I look at that amount of money that goes to our broken system it makes me angry to think of all the kids I could sponsor, the goats or cows I could buy for a woman in India, etc, etc, etc… It makes me ill.

    I believe that anyone that wants to be on the welfare system needs to take a class to learn to budget their money. Cause, dude, I’ve known a ton of people that have used the system (and I do mean *used*) and they are in a pit they can’t get out of because even when they do get a decent paying job, they don’t know how to deal with the money.

    I agree with Paul that we need to make better use of our resources — use buildings in “off” periods. Don’t build huge churches. You’ve seen ours, I think. And the a/c and electricity is off about 80% of the time. And we only have 2 paid workers… and they AREN’T the pastors! It’s possible! It just takes some creativity.

  9. Not sure where to start here, but I have to say I love your post! It is so truthful and real- something that is hard to find a lot of these days.

    What really strikes me is exactly what my husband and I have always talked about: Life is full of CHOICES. When you make one, accept it, change if you want, but take responsibility. Ever notice that everyone blames someone else for their situation or challenges? (ok, maybe not everyone, but it feels like it sometimes). We should own up to the choices that we make and like you mentioned, acknowledge why we have made them. Do you want the latest phone, car, etc? Do you want to work or stay home? Do you want to live in a certain school district? Do you want a certain job title? Whatever your decision, I wish more people would start to embrace their decisions and stop complaining about them.

    For me, I’m a stay-at-home mom. Yes, we live on 1 income, we have tons of student loans and a mortgage, etc, BUT we made these choices and are happy with them because it is what we want for our life. Do I try to be frugal, use coupons, and save as much as possible? Yes, but I don’t complain about it, I embrace it.

    Wonderful discussion!

  10. Amy, I’m so glad I read your blog today. I needed it! I’m so frustrated right now because all I want to do is have a baby with my husband. Unfortunately, I’m struggling with our work schedules, the potential cost of childcare, health insurance, or in our case–lack there of, living in a one-bedroom condo we can’t afford to sell…my husband wanting to get a college education before his GI Bill money runs out, but not being able to make do on my salary alone….argh! Your post helps put some things into perspective for me. Rather than complaining about our lack of living space, I should be greatful we have a roof over our head that we can afford, etc. Anyway, thanks. 😉

  11. Wow… Talk about a timely read. Cody and I are expecting our first child in January and it was a COMPLETE surprise. We don’t know how we’re going to pay our bills, and then food, gas, etc. once we lose my income, but one thing we need in a big way is perspective. This post provided that! I’ll be linking and discussing on my blog a little later because I have way too many thoughts to share here (well, that and I have to get to work)… Thanks for a fantastic post, Amy!

    1. Thanks for your comment! I’m eager to check out your blog too. BTW, if it’s any encouragement, our first daughter was completely unplanned and in the middle of medical school. We had no idea what in the heck we were doing, but it all worked out. And, looking back now, the timing was absolutely perfect. Good thing God knows the big picture!

      1. Amen to that! And yes, it is always encouraging to hear from other couples who were caught off-guard by parenthood. Mostly because it does ALWAYS work out, one way or another. God has never not provided for us- I don’t see why he would stop with the arrival of our little one 🙂

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