Frugal Living: A Win-Win?

Frugal Living: A Win-Win?

 

Living frugally has two benefits: it’s good for me and it’s good for others. It’s good for me because it’s liberating — greedy materialism is an obstacle for a happy and spiritually deep life. And it’s good for others because frugality frees up resources for donations. Frugality thus has a double dividend.

I think two groups of people haven’t grasped just how strong this win-win really is. First, secular effective altruists underemphasize the first win. Second, Christians underemphasize the second win.

Effective Altruists

Effective altruists often point out that donating money instead of maximizing expenditures on oneself is not only beneficial for the recipient of donations, but also for those who donate the money (thus turning effective altruism into excited altruism). The evidence they give for this is empirical happiness studies.

In addition to this psychological research, Christians have a further piece of evidence for the claim that donating money benefits the donor: the Bible. It warns repeatedly that a desire for wealth is a spiritual danger (and it does so apart from the fact that greed prevents us from sharing wealth with the poor). One famous warning is 1 Tim 6:10: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (But there are numerous others: for example, Luke 12,15; Proverbs 23,4; and Matthew 6,24; though admittedly the Bible also exhibits relaxedness about wealth in other passages). Thus, striving to increase our own wealth is likely to be detrimental not only to our earthly happiness but also for our relationship with God and – by potentially undermining our faith – to the salvation of our own souls.

Christians

There are a lot of Christian resources on managing one’s finances in a biblical way. I have the impression (and I admit that this is merely a subjective impression) that this literature puts too much emphasis on the benefits for oneself: The authors go on at length about the harmfulness of debts, the importance of accountability, the spiritual dangers of greed, the liberation provided by simple living, etc. It’s all about how good financial stewardship helps me and my relationship with God. This observation applies to both advice from conservative Christians (which has more an emphasis on tithing, living debt-free, etc.) and to advice from more progressive Christians (which has more an emphasis on simple living, anti-consumerism, etc.). Both are often quite self-centred.

Often, it is a mere afterthought that managing my finances well frees up resources for donating to people in poverty. Yet this should be at the centre. Of course, the benefits for myself matter, too, but a biblical approach to finances should primarily be shaped by how our resistance to consumerism, our simple living, our debt-free living, our tithing, etc. can benefit others. I think we should focus less on bringing down our own consumption levels and more on bringing up the consumption levels of others. In other words: we should focus more on the second half of the slogan “Living simply so that others may simply live”. (Ideally, of course, we should do both).

What does such an other-centred focus mean in practice? Here’s one example of a crucial difference: If managing my finances biblically is primarily about making myself and my relationship to God whole, and if donations are thus rather a side-effect of liberating myself from money, then the effectiveness of donations wouldn’t seem to matter much. (In fact, it might be better to burn the money instead of donating it, in order to disengange from it as thoroughly as possible!). If, however, people in poverty are the primary concern, I will care about the effectiveness of my donations much more than about which style of frugality is most spiritually rewarding for myself.

In conclusion, taking personal finances seriously is more win-win than many realize. The benefits for myself are deeper than many EAs realize, and the benefits for others are more important than many Christians realize.

5 Comments

  1. Elise 2 years ago

    Thank you Dominic for this great article! I cannot agree more, frugality to free up resources to give is the way to go for Christians who have more than enough to get by. A somewhat minor concern I have is the following: in an economic system based on growth linked to consumption and spendings, can spending less really lead to positive outcomes in the long-run? Would that mindset ultimately need to lead to a new economic system? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
    Again, many thanks for this article. Blessings,
    Elise

    • Corey 2 years ago

      Hi Elise
      My best guess is that when I save to donate to effective charities, I am actually (marginally) increasing long run economic growth, at least in developing countries. I like to think of saving to donate as spending differently, rather than spending less. For example, instead of spending money on a TV, I might spend it on deworming treatments. This means that fewer TVs get produced, but more deworming procedures occur. The money gets allocated differently, but I think the deworming procedures result in greater long-term economic growth. They keep kids in school, which increases their productivity over their lives. The TV might actually do the reverse for me.

      • Dominic 2 years ago

        Thanks for the thoughts, Elise. Thanks also to Corey — I think this is perfectly said.
        I agree that IF people were actually start to spend less money for their own consumption on a *very* widespread basis, then this would put the whole system into question. But I think we are very far from the point where people let go of their money to *such* an extent, that deep systemic change becomes a serious possibility. Thus, given how unrealistic such radical change currently seems, I worry that discussions about putting the whole system into question might ultimately be simple *distractions* (It is an unwelcome distraction because we can make such massive and positive steps forward *within* the current system that it would be a huge shame if we missed out on those steps because of speculations about the desirability of currently very unrealistic deep systemic change…)

  2. Alex Rattee 2 years ago

    Thanks for this Dominic, I wholeheartedly agree with what you write here. I have enjoyed trying to step into a more minimalist view of what I actually need over the last couple of years. I find it exciting both because I can be more generous as a result but also because it removes a layer of stress which used to flow from thinking about whether the stuff I owned was good enough.

    • Dominic 2 years ago

      This sure resonates with me. It is such a stress to walk through shops and constantly think about potential purchases, opportunities for bargains, etc. More relaxing to just think “Plan A is that I buy nothing new…”

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