Over the weekend I came across some video of America’s self-proclaimed cheapest family. They got me thinking about frugality, a topic that is all the rage in Christian circles today (or at least in some Christian circles). I have discussed this issue once or twice in the past but want to return to it today. Why? Because a lot of people put a lot of effort into frugality and I think many of them do so without thinking deeply whether what they are doing is right or wrong. They are saving money and this must be good, right? I’m not entirely convinced. So hear me out.
One reality about frugality is that it is contagious. I think it can be especially difficult issue for women. When one or two women in a church emphasize frugality and talk of all the amazing deals they’ve been able to find–how they managed to find a lifetime’s supply of Baby Aspirin for $4 or how they’ve gotten 180 rolls of toilet paper for the cost of 18 rolls–other women may feel like they are being spendthrifts for paying full price. It is difficult to say, or even to believe, that there may be no inherent virtue in frugality. And yet I want to suggest that very thing: there may be no inherent value in it.
What Is Frugality?
The Bible is clear that money issues are very closely connected to heart issues. Money has the ability to expose all kinds of idols of the heart. This is true whether a person is a miser or a spendthrift. Money can be an idol in want and in plenty; frugality can be done wrong and done right. When we discuss frugality, we must realize that we are talking about the heart more than the home.
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 buying them at regular stores.
Of course there is certainly nothing wrong with saving money on life’s necessities and if such a thing is possible, it is usually wise. The problem with this kind of frugality, though, is that a person can still have an irrational or unbiblical love of “stuff” while trying to be frugal. Saving money can be a good thing, but it doesn’t matter much if we are saving money in one area so we can just spend it in another. By saving money on groceries a person may then just use his savings to buy more of other things—more than is unnecessary. Is it really frugal to save fifteen cents on a box of macaroni but to have a house stuffed to the rafters with things purchased at the local Goodwill?
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. True frugality is not spending less but having less. A truly frugal person doesn’t buy just as much stuff at lower prices, but learns to live with less of it. If you find that your efforts in frugality help you spend less but leave you with a house that is equally filled with stuff, you are not being frugal. A kind of frugality that really hits 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.” Now we’re talking.
So in this article when I discuss frugality, I am talking about it as I believe many live it–involving a great emphasis on saving money, not necessarily on living with less stuff. It’s about the deals and bargains, about the thrill of saving a few pennies here and a few dollars there. It is something that can go from a minor distraction to a passion to a lifestyle and almost to a way people define themselves.
The Heart of Frugality
The first thing I want to point to is the heart. There are few more accurate barometers for our hearts than money. Whether you are spending too much or pinching every penny so hard that it bleeds, your actions and attitudes reflect something in your heart. If you spend more than you have, 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 control.
The fact is, 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 (and more). And this is really the main thing I want you to take away from this article. Frugal people can be every bit as worldly, as obsessed with money, as those who spend like it’s going out of style. Frugality is not inherently good. It is the kind of thing that can masquerade as good even while it is an idol.
Always we need to remember that it is God who provides for us and that he has promised us our daily bread. 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 too far—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.
We need to live in that spot somewhere between confidence in God’s provision and the need for financial self-control. We do not want to presume upon his provision and neither do we want to act as if we do not believe it is true. All the while we want to make sure that we do not make an idol out of stuff and that we do not make an idol out of frugality. We can take as much pride in what we save as what we spend. Both reflect a sinful heart.
A second issue relates to the necessity of frugality. Many people who emphasize frugality could doubtless get along just fine without being frugal. For such people the amount of time it takes to scour the racks of thrift stores, to clip coupons, to read the frugal blogs and to search for deals online could be better spent in other more significant pursuits. The fact is that frugality is a significant investment in time and effort. Many of the most frugal people make a hobby (or more!) out of it.
Here’s the thing. A man who brings in millions of dollars a year probably doesn’t need to have his wife work at the local donut store to bring in $300 a month; her time is doubtless better spent in some other pursuit. The same is true for those who don’t absolutely need to be frugal. If God has given great blessing, 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 share the gospel with them, it might 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 am concerned that those with lots of money make a mockery of God’s abundant provision when they pinch every penny. God doesn’t give us money so it can accumulate in bank accounts. He gives it to us so we can give it away and so we can use it to free ourselves up for other, better things.
God has graciously released some people from imminent concerns over finances. It makes little sense, then, for these people to act as if finances are still an pressing 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 substantially different from a person with no money using credit to purchase something frivolous and something that will sink him further into debt?
Frugality can have its place and for some people is good and necessary. But doing it well takes time and effort; it may be that for some people that time and effort is best used in other pursuits. Again, somewhere between financial self-control and trust in God’s sovereignty is a sweet spot where we spend not too much and not too little, always trusting in the Lord to care for us.
One more quick note. As I think about frugality I am always drawn to the biblical concept of gleaning. In the Old Testament God commanded that people who pick crops leave gleanings behind. Rather than picking the fields clean they were to leave portions that had fallen so the impoverished could 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 makes me think of wealthy people who often pick through thrift stores or who line up first for the big sales and I 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? I realize I am on slightly shaky ground with this one, but it probably bears thinking about. Somehow all of this frugality can become a form of greed if we are not careful.
I guess it comes down to this: 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 should 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.