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Lavish Frugality

The secret to an abundant life

“I wish he’d get rid of all that junk!” my mom often said of my dad when I was growing up.

Dad was both frugal and a packrat. He collected pieces of wood and all sorts of other things that he found at auctions (garage sales having not yet been invented). “These just might come in handy,” he’d say.

I remember well one of his purchases back in the 1950s. He was acting as a clerk for a local auctioneer. (They needed someone who could write, so they chose the schoolteacher—Dad.) He came home with a small wood-stave bucket, maybe one gallon in volume, filled with bent nails. I got the job of straightening all the nails and placing them in piles according to their types and sizes. I believe the bucket of nails cost a dime—though the bucket itself would likely be worth a lot more on Antiques Roadshow today.

Another time Dad acquired a bunch of plaster laths from a neighbor who was remodeling his home. All we boys had to do was chip the plaster off each lath, cut the broken ends square, then bundle them according to length.

Those rough cedar laths did come in handy. We used them as pieces of trim, stakes to hold up muskrat traps, and bars across the open end of pigeon and chicken nest boxes to keep the bedding and eggs from falling out.

Packrats like Dad can be explained by history. Just about anyone who lived through the Great Depression (or post-war immigration) knows what it’s like to go without. They have an understandable appreciation for possessions—in part an expression of thankfulness for God’s blessings.

When you’re poor, you don’t have much choice but to live frugally. But in my part of Canada today—and in much of North America and Europe—we have the luxury of choosing a frugal lifestyle, at least to some degree.

Yet today frugality seems to mean “getting the biggest bang for the buck,” rather than “conspicuous thrift.” A pox on both, I say. Perhaps both are too concerned with possessions.

Frugality, after all, can become simply a means of achieving a continually consumptive way of life. By being a better bargain hunter than you, I am able to maintain a seeming economic conservativism while worshiping Mammon. (Sure, we recycle. But we use more too.)

Frugality, of course, involves the wise use of the limited resources lent to us by God. It’s related to another word many of us are well-acquainted with: stewardship.  

Lavish Thinking

Being frugal means making judgments and clarifying values— keeping in mind our own tendency toward self-absorption and God’s demands for justice.

For example, is it really wise to spend money for bent nails? Or for a new truck when the tires alone cost $2,000? Is it wise to remodel the kitchen just to make it look better? Must I own every power tool made by Makita, or can I borrow them from my neighbors? Should I buy a $9 pair of running shoes at Walmart, or would it be better to buy a domestically-produced but more expensive pair? Does “Buy American” (or “Buy Canadian”) show sensitive biblical wisdom, or is it a form of selfishness? Should I boycott T-shirts made in Bangladesh because I’ve read about poor working conditions and wages in the factories there?

Perhaps. However, it would help us to approach this discernment another way: instead of being frugal, let us be lavish. After all, shouldn’t the goal of our frugality be charity and generosity, lavished upon others with no thought of savings? As the apostle Paul wrote, “Those who are rich in this world [ought to] do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (1 Tim. 6:18).

Think about it.

If God had been frugal with colors, we wouldn’t have rainbows, or pheasants, or mandarin ducks. Our Lord’s first miracle was making water into fine wine (John 2:1-11), not Mogen David diluted with 7-Up. Ultimately, God showed profligate love for prodigal children by becoming flesh and living among us.

Sometimes a frugal choice may indeed seem profligate, even foolish—like throwing money away for no gain at all.

There are only a few absolutes here: The world and everything therein belongs to God (Psalm 24:1). Second, I am responsible to God for my decisions about how I live in his world (Matt. 25).

From British Columbia to Manhattan

If we understand frugality in view of generosity, there’s plenty of room for unique responses to our individual situations.

For example, not everyone would find it possible (or desirable) to adopt the lifestyle my wife and I share in central British Columbia. We get meat directly from a farmer or by hunting; fish from nearby rivers and lakes. Our garden produces enough for several families. Our heat comes from wood that we cut, split, and stack ourselves (sometimes with help from our church’s deacons). Our eggs come directly from chickens. Our cars usually rust out before they stop running; the last one—a Toyota—is “going the way of all metal” with an engine that has 365,000 kilometers (227,000 miles) on it and is still going strong.

People living in Manhattan may have quite a different set of circumstances than we do. You might use the subway and bus because it is more responsible (and cheaper) than buying a car and paying for space in a parking garage. You might support your (often immigrant) neighbors by buying produce from a small local grocery. You might help out homeless people and actually get to know them. You might pass by Starbucks in favor of a no-name cup of coffee, which you slurp while reading the paper and waiting for your fresh bread from a Jewish or Syrian bakery.

“Why live frugally?” asks one writer. “First, because it allows you to spend less than you earn, and use the difference to pay off debt, save or invest. Or all three. Second, because the less you spend, the less you need to earn. . . . You have more options with a frugal lifestyle” (“The Cheapskate Guide: 50 Habits for Frugal Living,” Frugality is the companion of generosity.

My dad’s wooden bucket finally wore out and was discarded. The bent nails are long gone, but the story lives on.

Not long ago, my father and mother gave my wife and me a substantial financial gift. We promptly invested it in a hole in the ground.

It is rather a nice hole, dug by our neighbors Geoff and Rick. This hole will fill up with rainwater and snowmelt and provide a home for wildlife of all sorts: ducks and muskrats, frogs and toads. It will become a watering hole for moose, deer, bear, and other mammals. And it will bring us absolutely no profit.

A waste, some would say.

But to Betsey and me that hole (actually, it’s a pretty nice hole, complete with a peninsula and a tiny island) is another way of practicing lavish stewardship.

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