Growing up, frugality always struck me as an inherently positive attribute. I come from a family of savers, not spenders, so our way seemed like the right way. My mother washed and reused ziplock bags; we bought clothes that were durable, functional, and affordable; somehow my dad convinced us that eating at Taco Bell was a privilege to be celebrated–propaganda that my younger sister still embraces. We lived well within our means, and I could not imagine thriftiness being in any way unhealthy.
That is, until I met John.
John was a pastor up a small holler where I lived in southern West Virginia. The man’s frugality was nothing short of epic. He travelled with my pastor to a conference and asked to sleep in the bathtub so he wouldn’t have to rent his own hotel room. I saw him in the grocery store once, and overheard his condescending lecture to his significant other about why one bag of cookies was more cost effective than another. Once I travelled with him to a meeting, and he described at length his game plan for getting the cheapest gas and free ice water–a plan that required multiple stops. Against John’s spending habits I was a shopaholic.
My encounter with John introduced a reality about thriftiness that I had not previously considered: the conservation of money actually consumes mental and emotional energy. Often this is a good trade-off, but not all the time.
This came very close to home a few days ago when I was contemplating a purchase of something in the significant-not-extravagant, helpful-not-essential categories. For me, that combination adds up to one thing: obsessing. I had the money saved up but did not know if I could justify spending it. Wanting to do the spiritual thing, I prayed, “Lord, please show me if this is a wise stewardship of your money.” The answer that came to my mind–not divinely inspired but certainly fitting–was this: “Better to risk wasting a few hundred bucks than to waste a week or more allowing this concern to occupy your emotional and mental space.”
Such an answer was a shock, to say the least. I had assigned so much spiritual freight to my frugality that I was blinded to the intangible cost of my should-I-shouldn’t-I obsession. Once I decided to make the purchase, my heart was wide open to give itself to more eternally significant thoughts.
The moral of the story is not to encourage foolish, impulsive purchases. I would be surprised if I ever sensed such a leading again. The point is that being money-wise or time-efficient or organized or any such thing is never an end in itself. The benefit of these good pursuits is a greater capacity to give ourselves sacrificially to others and speak to them the lasting wealth that Christ offers all who repent and trust in him. If this eternal work does not loom largest in our hearts, then good disciplines like frugality can become as obstructive to our mission as materialistic extravagance.
“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17–19).