When Less Is... Less


961465270If you’re not among the mommy set, you may not have heard about Hattie Garlick, the UK mom who has vowed not to spend a single pound on her two-year-old son for the next year. Hattie's decision is part social rebellion, part necessity. She credits a growing distaste for “kiddy consumerism” and the fact that she was recently laid off (or as our British cousins say, “made redundant”). Ultimately, her decision is rooted in the ideas of minimalism and thrift--that we don’t need what everybody says we need and what we do need, we can find more cheaply.I know a bit about this kind of counter-cultural lifestyle. I grew up in a family of seven with an extremely limited income. We gardened, canned, and wore hand-me-downs, not because my parents were making a public statement, but because they were trying to clothe and feed us. Even today with a smaller family and a decidedly larger income, I still buy most of our clothes at Goodwill, we hunt, garden, and can, and my idea of a good time is shopping at Aldi. And yet, even I am skeptical of  frugality for frugality’s sake. (If I’m honest, I suppose I’m also a bit of a curmudgeon. Whenever being counter-cultural becomes trendy, I immediately get suspicious--I don’t make a very good hipster.) 

Because even while those of us enmeshed in consumerism might need to cut of our hand to save our soulsminimalism can have as many pitfalls as materialism. It’s entirely possible to trade consumerism for a Gnosticism that elevates efficiency and thrift above everything else. Just because we might be counter-cultural doesn’t mean that we don’t have our share of sub-cultural baggage. See if any of this luggage is yours:

  1. You don’t buy what you need. You skimp. Of course, the difficulty lies in determining the difference between a need and a want, but when thrift becomes your predominant value, it’s common to overreach on the definition of “want.” Toiletries are not wants, people.
  2. You get angry when the manager’s special corner is empty. Another pitfall is that you begin to feel entitled to a discount. You get addicted to “the deal” and refuse to pay full price for anything. You believe that the Sunday paper exists for the sole purpose of protecting your coupons and you feel cheated when there are none inside.
  3. You buy cheap instead of good. While the culture of advertising does ratchet up prices, a cheap price isn’t necessarily a bargain. Not all products are equal--there are reasons why the dollar store can sell dish detergent for a dollar. Any of which might be that it doesn’t work, it was produced with slave labor, or it includes toxic chemicals.
  4. You never throw anything away because “you never know.” Strict minimalists will have less of a struggle with this, but it is a significant problem for those of us devoted to thrift. I once had a great aunt who washed and dried paper towels. And Styrofoam meat trays. And plastic wrap. After all, you never know…
  5. You hear your children talking about life in terms of money. When you are uber-frugal, you begin to evaluate things by how much they don’t cost. Designer brands aren’t your status symbols; how cheaply you bought something is. When your children see this, you teach them that the value of something is directly related to its cost. This could come back to haunt you down the road--like when they’re choosing your nursing home.
  6. You become cheap with other people. Once you being to elevate thrift above your other values, it’s hard to contain it to your immediate family. While I love re-gifting as much as anyone, we must not forget that giving requires sacrifice—not on the part of the recipient but on the part of the giver.
  7. You judge other people who use money and space differently.  For me this exhibits itself in suburbaphobia—the clinical fear of suburbia. I literally shut-down in malls and hate myself after eating at chain restaurants. And yet, I have to admit that this is simply another form of elitism; it’s the snobbery of thrift.

I wonder how we frugal-types will react when we finally reach heaven and God showers us with abundance. “I’m sorry, God, no mansion-- I’ll just take that cottage over there. And I’m not sure if I can make it to that marriage-supper thingy…don’t want to have to buy a gift. But while you’re here, where can I get the Sunday paper?”

This is not a rant against thrift but a caution about not letting our thrift and minimalism become the defining factor of our lives. Because even as our budgets shrink, it’s entirely possible that our souls could shrink right along with them.  Our thrift can quickly become parsimony and our frugality, stinginess. We must remember that the problem isn’t how much money we have; it’s how much we love the money we have. So that while we steward our blessings, we don’t for one minute believe that our stewardship provided them in the first place. Or that our stewardship could ensure that they will be there in the future.

Only God can do this. And He can do this precisely because He is a thrifty God—He doesn’t waste anything and has the power to make even our suffering work out for good. And ultimately, He can do this because He is a generous God—He doesn’t spare expense and has bought us for Himself with nothing less than the precious blood of his Son. And if He didn't spare Him, how shall he not with Him freely give us all things?