Last week as I went to sign out Saving Money with the Tightwad Twins: Practical Tips for Women on a Budget, the librarian said I had a $9 fine. I went home and thought a bit about money.
I grew up Dutch-Canadian and Christian Reformed, and “thou shalt save money” was the unspoken 11th commandment. We bought groceries in bulk and considered clothes at Goodwill a bit pricey.
After getting married, it didn’t take me long to adjust from the habitual frugality of a university student to the shoestring budget of a single-income family. Now, as a stay-at-home mom, it seems natural to compare notes with women in the church nursery about the cheapest brand of diapers or to exchange tips on homemade stain removers. And it’s hard for me to shake the sense that thriftiness is virtuous.
Christians are called to be set apart from the world, but is penny-pinching really countercultural—the opposite of North American materialism? I’m not so sure. A frugal consumer is still a consumer, and an obsession with saving money has its own dangers.
For example, though I wouldn’t pay $350 at Toys “R” Us for a swing set, I might brag if I found one at a yard sale for $10. I don’t buy clothes from the Gap or Old Navy, but I will snatch them up secondhand. Even as I imagine I’m being countercultural by shopping for deals, if I’m doing it to fulfill my idea of what the average North American family needs, it’s consumerism. If I think my 2-year-old needs a riding toy, I’ve been convinced by the commercials whether or not I buy such items new.
Another danger is that it’s easy to become enamored, even obsessed, with economy. But it’s no coincidence that almost every money-saving technique is the exact opposite of a time-saving technique. If I focus too much on money—whether making it or saving it—I have less time to volunteer at a crisis center or to write letters to someone in prison. As Phil Callaway points out, “Even a penny, if held close enough to the eye, can block our view of [God]” (Making Life Rich Without Any Money, Harvest House, 1998, 2002).
Frugality can limit my perspective so that I see only coupons and yard-sale signs and not the loneliness of my neighbor. Frugality can convince me to try every money-saving tip I come across (cut the elastics on your broccoli in half to make two! Use old toast to make croutons!) rather than to play with my girls. Frugality can reassure me I’m not materialistic because I didn’t pay as much for our dining-room set as most people do.
When Jesus tells us we “cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24), he’s not just talking to wealthy people (Callaway, 129). It’s a warning for my single-income household too—a reminder that saving money can become just as much of a passion as accumulating it.