Just because we might be frugal doesn’t mean we are living the way we should.
Frugality is usually thought of as a disposition toward minimizing expenses and living on less. The dictionary often connects frugal living to reducing waste or being thrifty in making day-to-day spending decisions. Looking for bargains, using coupons, being careful with energy consumption, and not eating out might be part of being frugal.
Frugality is a priorities decision
What’s often missed, however, is the why of it all. Being frugality doesn’t happen in a vacuum – there’s always a reason. We minimize expenses in one area so that more money can be allocated to another. Just like almost everything we do, financial frugality (or not) is part of our priority structure. While some are forced into this because there is barely enough money to meet the critical expenses like modest housing, food, transportation, medical expenses, etc., that’s often not the case.
An example of wasted frugality
Some time ago, while conducting a Money and the Gospel class in a wonderful church, I had an encounter that I thought was interesting and sad. I was speaking about the many benefits of living as a minimalist and being frugal, like:
- Spending less is an aspect of good stewardship because our money is really God’s money
- Frugality makes it easier to give more because we’re consuming less
- Frugality can “create” time and mental space to focus on Kingdom priorities because we’re not chasing things we don’t need
- Minimizing the cost of living means that it takes less to fund retirement
After I was done with the session a man – I’ll call him John – came up to me and wanted to talk further because it thrilled him that someone else thought frugality was a good idea. However, as the conversation developed it became increasingly awkward. We were coming to frugality from two very different angles.
John was faithful in his church attendance, had a good job, and had also received a sizable (whatever that means) inheritance from his mother. He loved being frugal with his spending because it helped him build his bank account. When I brought up robust, regular giving as a reason for frugality, he informed me that he had a different view on this. He said that the more he accumulated, the better he felt about giving as he saw individual needs. I’ve been around long enough to know that that is usually code language for accumulation is the priority and I give just enough (often very little) from my surplus to feel good about myself.
As I pressed John on issues like generosity and his capacity to fund Kingdom work, we discovered that we had very little in common, and he walked away. John’s frugality only served to help him accumulate more and he didn’t seem to have much interest in anything else.
This was one of those encounters that set me back some. He sat in on the whole session and thought we were aligned because I think frugality is important. He heard what he wanted to hear.
Being frugal while serving money
While the why of frugality isn’t always so that we can put more money in the bank, the why is critically important. Sometimes it’s so we can pay for the lake home or the toys that make life so much fun or the college costs or a luxury vehicle. Sometimes it’s so we can give more or support biblical goals. Being mindful of our spending in one general area of the budget doesn’t mean we’re on the right path. We can easily give the appearance of faithfulness while being unfaithful. In Matthew 15:8 we see how Jesus observed the religious leaders and said, this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They appeared to be on the right path but they were not.
The story of the rich ruler also comes to mind here (Luke 18:18-25). Even though this guy lived an exemplary life, it was not God who owned his allegiance, it was money. When Jesus confronted the issue by telling the man to sell everything and follow him, he couldn’t/wouldn’t do it. He was lost even as he appeared to be on the right path.
When we think about money, everything we do should be for God’s glory and our stewardship is more than simply being frugal. It should serve a Kingdom purpose.
Three things to remember:
First – Jesus should be the treasure that is worth more than everything else.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. – Matthew 13:44
One of the most important aspects of this is Jesus’ words, in his joy. Because of his joy the man sells everything he owns to gain the treasure. When we treasure Jesus the way we should, we let go of other things – like the love of money – because we want as much of the Kingdom as we can get. Our frugality will serve to move us closer to our treasure.
If Jesus is truly our treasure, idols will fall away because there is nothing else that compares. So, struggling with money priorities is a call to get closer to Jesus.
Second – The Bible must be our authority. We can’t/won’t sort this out on our own. We must have access to God’s instruction if we are to move forward. Reading Scripture with open eyes will make it difficult to avoid the truth. And in the face of God’s truth we can confess and repent and change. Without the Bible we have no hope of getting it right.
Three – While it’s important for us to watch our spending (it’s not our money) we must not let frugality move us away from ministry. Saving money is not the end of it – the glory of Jesus is. We are here to further the Kingdom. For example, it’s important to spend time with other people in order to love them as we should. Because this can and will involve our money we need to make sure frugality doesn’t get in the way of mission but is a pathway to mission.
In the end, my encounter with John made me ask myself a question: Where might I be missing the mark while thinking that I’m on target? Or, how am I letting my natural inclinations and preferences (like John’s desire to accumulate) fool me into believing that my thinking/actions are right when they’re not? How might being frugal actually fund the wrong priorities?
Money is a powerful tempter. Without an increased love for Jesus or actions – like frugality – can look right but be wasted.
[The rich] are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share – 1 Timothy 6:18