Winter isn't too far away. My wife and I laugh over the disagreements we have had over the thermostat setting in our home in past winters. Our current house is much harder to heat than the highly efficient, passive-solar home we sold last year. In response, I vied for warmer clothes and a low setting on the thermostat. Cyndi fought for moderation. Both of us took secret missions to change the thermostat back toward our own preference. One time when she caught me at it, she complained: “You’re not really trying to save the Earth—you’re just a cheapskate!”
Ouch. In light of that comment, I’ve done some soul-searching about my relationship with money and the environment, and it has led me to think about three basic approaches in dealing with both personal and planetary goods. One way is like the prodigal son of Jesus’ parable: we squander what we have, ignoring what would be best for ourselves and future generations. This is the way to financial and environmental ruin.
The other extreme is my own bugaboo: being miserly. Misers see the world through a zero-sum lens, fearful that there will never be enough, so we hold tight to resources—natural or monetary. This may feel responsible and reduce our environmental impact, but it can also suck the joy out of living.
A third way runs between those of the prodigal son and the cheapskate: being frugal. Frugality recognizes that the Earth’s resources, and our own personal resources can be limited if we waste them. But they can be abundant if we tend them carefully and share them generously and justly. Frugality means living on a reasonable budget, but also not being afraid to enjoy life and the occasional splurge.
Preaching about frugality, whether from priests, presidents, climate scientists, or financial advisors, rarely works. A serious personal or global crisis can be effective; so can exploring what in our shadow side leads us to be wasteful or miserly, with money and with the Earth’s goods. But we also have to find a way to make frugality attractive and inviting, like sobriety compared to addiction.
As a miser-in-recovery, I don’t honestly know how to do this yet, but I do imagine that the path of frugality, like any virtue, leads to freedom and gratitude and joy, which are the hallmarks of grace. I also suspect we can’t walk this path only on our own strength. Fortunately, we don’t have to.