Why has frugality become a modern Christian virtue? In recent years I have met so many Christians who act as though it is their primary goal to spend as little money as possible—like this is what the Bible expects of all believers. Somewhere in the past decade it became godly to shop only at thrift stores and second-hand boutiques. Somehow it became a sin to buy a new car, to buy your wife a piece of expensive jewelry, to spend $100 on a date night.
I have known Christians who felt the need to explain to me why they bought a new jacket: “And, by the way, it was on major clearance!” Why do you feel the need to justify purchasing a new jacket to me?
Allow me to point out three problems I see with this trend, then I will propose what I believe the Bible extends as the Christian alternative to frugality.
Problem 1: Frugality is Unsustainable.
What if everyone only bought from second-hand stores? In order for goods to become used goods, they must first be purchased when they are new. Take, for instance, bicycles. We would love to come across a high quality used bicycle at a thrift sale for a cheap price. However, in order for that high quality bike to be produced in the first place, there has to be someone willing to purchase it new at a much more expensive price. Without people willing to buy new goods, there would be no thrift shops or second-hand stores.
I’m not saying that a Christian’s primary goal is to keep companies afloat or to bolster the economy. Indeed, second-hand shopping is a great way to conserve resources and to reduce waste in our communities. However, as Christians, we ought to be setting an example that others can emulate. Should everyone begin to buy only second-hand? If every person became a Christian in the U.S.–which ought to be our desire (1 Timothy 2:4), would this kind of frugality build a sustainable and innovative society? I doubt it.
Problem 2: A Frugal Society is Undesirable.
In a frugal society, fine artistic expression falls on hard times. The arts are enriching, but they are expensive. Is the frugal Christian willing to spend $500 for a new painting? Is the frugal Christian willing to spend $1500 to buy season tickets to the symphony? Artists are dependent upon patrons. Those who bring beauty into this world require men and women with financial resources who are willing to spend money to support their endeavors. After a painter spends 100+ hours rendering a beautiful canvas, the frugal Christian says, “Ehh…I’ll give you $15 for it.” That’s just not sustainable. A painter can only continue to create masterpieces if someone is willing to pay for the value of the time he put into creating each canvas.
Often, the same Christian who speaks about frugality out one side of his mouth complains about the poor quality of Christian art out the other. Christian art will only improve if we Christians are willing to pay for it. Artists require time, money, and resources to develop, improve, and create beautiful pieces. If we are all frugal, then gifted fine artists would have to seek more practical employment.
In the business world, the drive for more “bang for the buck” inevitably plays into the hands of major corporations who can mass produce low quality products for next to nothing. Local artisans and small businesses lose when we insist on paying less.
Is that a desirable culture?
(Note: If you want to see a visible representation of the effects of frugality on architecture, just look at the church buildings being built today vs. those built several hundred years ago.)
Problem 3: Frugality can be Unchristian.
Pinching pennies can become an idol in itself. There is a certain rush involved in seeking to save a dollar here and there. If you’ve ever seen the show “Extreme Couponers”, you know what I’m talking about. Frugality can become a drug; it can become a game of ever increasing risk and adrenaline high.
A second problem is that frugality can blind us to unethical business practices. Sometimes there is a reason certain products are cheaper–they are produced by child laborers, made in unclean conditions, or with substandard materials. Sometimes products are more expensive for a good reason. We cannot allow our desire to save a buck blind us to this truth. Besides, what does it communicate to the world when all Christians prefer what is cheap and inexpensive to what is constructed with quality and attention to detail?
Ultimately, a Christian who makes frugality their financial foundation will feel the impulse to store up and keep. The Bible points out the futility of storing up for yourself when tomorrow is not even guaranteed (Ecc. 2:26; Luke 12:16-20). Would the extravagantly loving, overflowingly compassionate God we proclaim build a people who make it their primary aim to restrict all outflow of resources?
Some would argue that frugality is the opposite of the love of money. I disagree. Spending less of your money does not mean you love your money less. However, I will tell you what is the opposite of the love of money…
Set Aside Frugality, and Take Up Generosity.
As believers, we must choose to lay a foundation of generosity. In Acts 2, the picture is not of a group of people seeking to conserve resources: “They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.” Their impulse was to give away, not to store up and keep.
1 Peter is written to Christians about to undergo fiery trial and persecution. Yet, the atmosphere he encouraged was not one of stringent conservation, but of love, generosity, and hospitality: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Being a good steward, according to Peter, means using what you have to benefit others. We often assume that war-time mentality means frugality. Peter insists that a war-time mentality means sharing; it means taking our gifts and resources and putting them to work for others. War-time mentality means generosity; it means what is mine is yours.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul encourages the church with these words: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” And again in 1 Timothy, Paul instructs that Christians “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 6:18-19).
I would argue that God cares less about whether you buy a new expensive coat or an old used coat. He cares more about whether you will give that coat away when someone else needs it more than you. Our generous hearts reflects the glory of our generous Savior: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Frugality has its place in the Christian life. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and all believers should seek to be good and faithful stewards of what we have been given. However, our frugality must always take a back seat to our generosity. Turning perishable cash into imperishable Kingdom rewards is the best return you can ever get on an investment. Once we grasp Christ-like generosity, only then have we taken hold of that which is truly life (1 Timothy 6:18-19).
Caveats (for those who are still reading):
Obviously being wise with your money is necessary in order to be generous! If you are allowing bills to slip through every crack of your budget, you won’t be able to be as generous as you might like. The difference I am advocating is a foundational shift. We build our foundation of generosity, and being frugal might be a part of accomplishing that goal.
However, I think talking about self-control would be much more helpful than talking about frugality. It’s important for Christians to learn to live within their means. More than that, it is important for Christians to learn to control the self’s desires and to put the desires of others above our own. This is where self-control and frugality part ways. Self-control is willing to sacrifice and pinch pennies when caring for self, while it is willing to spend extravagantly on others. Frugality is looking to pinch pennies no matter what.
A self-controlled Christian chooses not to buy Starbucks for the month so that they can spend all $100 on buying something special for his wife. A self-controlled Christian may purchase a new amenity or product not because she wants it, but because she knows of four other moms who can’t afford it that she can share it with.
Ultimately, a healthy balance of Holy Spirit inspired generosity and self-control will always be more becoming of the believer than frugality.