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April 30, 2007
Today I want to discuss frugality. I raise this issue because I have seen it appear as a topic many people, and women in particular, discuss on their blogs. Now the Bible makes it clear that money issues are often very closely connected to heart issues, and whether a person spends money freely or whether he spends money only with great reluctance, it is wise to look always to the heart. Money can be an idol both in want and in plenty. So I think this is an issue that is well worth discussing.
The actual definition of frugality can differ from person-to-person. Some see it as meaning little more than economical so that a frugal person is a person who buys things at lower prices than another person might. I think this is what most people mean by the term and how most people live out their attempts at frugality. They feel they are being frugal when they buy things using coupons rather than paying full price and when they purchase clothes or other necessities at thrift stores instead of paying full price. There is certainly nothing wrong with saving money on life’s necessities and this is usually wise. The problem with this definition, though, is that a person can still have an irrational or unbiblical love of “stuff” while trying to be frugal. By saving money on groceries a person can then buy more of other things—more that is unnecessary. Is it really frugal to save fifteen cents on a box of macaroni but still to have a house filled with things bought at Salvation Army stores?
I think the greater ideal with frugality, and something a lot of people miss, is the ideal of not just paying less, but buying less and thus avoiding waste and avoiding becoming captive to “stuff.” To me frugality is not spending less but in having less. So a frugal person doesn’t buy as much “stuff” (or more) at lower prices, but just learns to live with less “stuff.” If you find that your efforts in frugality help you spend less but to have a house that is equally filled with “stuff,” I’m not sure that you’re really being frugal. A definition I felt hit the mark is this one: “It’s about a simpler, less complicated lifestyle, not about being cheap. While those who put a frugal lifestyle into practice do tend to be thrifty, there is a method to their madness” (source). It goes on to say “People who practice frugal living tend to look for ways to save time as well as money, and generally prefer a slower, more laid back pace instead of the hectic ‘rat race’ life so many others lead.”
This is not going to be a systematic theology of frugality. Rather, I just want to share a few thoughts that my wife and I have come up with as we’ve pondered it. When Aileen and I got married we had no money and this actually continued for the first five or six years of our marriage. It is only in the past few years that we’ve had any kind of disposable income, though the government seems to be finding ways of cutting into this with great zeal. This fact, coupled with my wife’s Scottish heritage, meant that we spent very little money in the early years of a marriage. But lately, as we’ve had just a bit more money, we’ve begun to wonder just how free we should be with it. We’ve begun to ask whether frugality is a biblical concept or command. So this article shares just a few of our thoughts under some convenient headings.
The heart - I mentioned this already, but wanted to discuss it just a bit more as I think it is very important. I don’t know that there are many better barometers for our hearts than money. Whether you are spending too much or pinching every penny so hard that it bleeds, I think your attitude reflects something in your heart. If you spend too much perhaps you are reflecting greed or a bravado that rejects the fact that God expects us to be in control of our spending. If you pinch every penny, perhaps it shows that you live in fear or that you somehow think God will provide only through what may be excessive frugality. There is no guarantee that a frugal person is less addicted to money and less under the control of money than a person who spends all he has. Always we need to remember that it is God who provides for us and that He has promised never to forsake us. He will provide what we need and our confidence must be in Him, not in our own efforts. This is true of the great issues like salvation and sanctification, but also of the smaller issues like finances. So always look to the heart! If you find that your frugality has extended to life’s necessities—that you do not buy what you need even if you have the money, or if you find that you are reluctant or stingy in giving money to the church or to others in need, you can be certain that your frugality has taken you captive.
Necessity - Many people who attempt to be frugal could probably get along just fine without being frugal. Thus I wonder if the amount of time it takes to scour the racks of thrift stores, clip coupons, search for deals online, and so on could be better spent in another enterprise. A man who brings in millions of dollars a year probably doesn’t need to have his wife work at McDonald’s to bring in $300/month and her time is doubtless better spent in some other way. I wonder if the same may be true for those who don’t absolutely need to be frugal. If God has given great blessing, maybe the time it takes to be very frugal can be spent doing something else. Instead of spending days hunting for the perfect and perfectly cheap cake pan so you can bake a cake and have people over to evangelize to them, perhaps it would be best to just buy it for full price and have the people over a couple of weeks earlier. The finances of some families dictate that great time and care must be given to each dollar, but I wonder if those with lots of money make a mockery of God’s abundant provision when they act this way.
It seems to me that God has released some of us from worries that may concern others. For example, not every man can have the confidence I do that his wife will be faithful to him. I never worry that my wife will one day pack up and leave me for another guy. Yet for other men this may be a legitimate concern. It would be irrational for me to worry if my wife is ten minutes late arriving home from an appointment, but for other men this may be something they can legitimately worry about. Similarly, God has released some people from imminent concerns over finances. It makes no sense, then, for these people to act as if finances are still a huge concern and that they must be frugal with each and every dollar. I have known people who, though so rich they could not possibly come to the end of their finances, worry about the expenditure of a single dollar on something that is good and necessary. Surely there is no good reason for a person with such money to be too concerned about one dollar. Is this any different from a person with no money using credit to purchase something frivolous and something that will sink him further into debt?
Gleaning - As I thought about frugality I was drawn to the biblical concept of gleaning. In the Old Testament God commands that people who pick crops leave gleanings behind. Rather than picking the fields clean they are to leave portions that have fallen so the poor can follow behind and gather them. Of course the wealthy landowners would have wanted to pick these up and increase their profits, but God used gleaning as a way to provide for the poor. This made me think of wealthy people who often pick through thrift stores or who line up first for the big sales and wonder if the gleaning principles has something to say to us here. If we can easily afford $10 for a t-shirt, should we really take the last marked-down one on the rack when for another person this might make the difference between being able to afford it and not being able to?
Teach a man to fish - It has been my experience (and I say this carefully because I know this is certainly not always the case) that many people who are impoverished are this way because of poor financial decisions they have made or because they simply do not know how to take proper care of their finances. In the same way many wealthy people are wealthy because they have made wise financial decisions or because they really do know the best way to care for their money. Many people may be in a good financial position precisely because they have mastered the art of frugality. Where this is the case, it would surely be beneficial for these people to mentor others who are in financial difficult. It goes back to the old proverb of “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.” Rather than heading to the thrift stores for your own benefit, perhaps it would be wise and godly to take a friend who is in need and teach that person how to shop wisely, all the while ensuring that her heart is right before God.
I guess the long and short is that money can be as big an idol when you seek not to spend it as it can when you do nothing but spend it. Frugality in and of itself must not be an end in itself but must be a means to a greater end of bringing glory to God and of serving others. Ever and always it is a matter of the heart.