by Dominic Roser
Living frugally has two benefits: it’s good for me and it’s good for others. It’s good for me because it’s liberating — greedy materialism is an obstacle for a happy and spiritually deep life. And it’s good for others because frugality frees up resources for donations. Frugality thus has a double dividend.
I think two groups of people haven’t grasped just how strong this win-win really is. First, secular effective altruists underemphasize the first win. Second, Christians underemphasize the second win.
Effective altruists often point out that donating money instead of maximizing expenditures on oneself is not only beneficial for the recipient of donations, but also for those who donate the money (thus turning effective altruism into excited altruism). The evidence they give for this is empirical happiness studies.
In addition to this psychological research, Christians have a further piece of evidence for the claim that donating money benefits the donor: the Bible. It warns repeatedly that a desire for wealth is a spiritual danger (and it does so apart from the fact that greed prevents us from sharing wealth with the poor). One famous warning is 1 Tim 6:10: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (But there are numerous others: for example, Luke 12,15; Proverbs 23,4; and Matthew 6,24; though admittedly the Bible also exhibits relaxedness about wealth in other passages). Thus, striving to increase our own wealth is likely to be detrimental not only to our earthly happiness but also for our relationship with God and – by potentially undermining our faith – to the salvation of our own souls.
There are a lot of Christian resources on managing one’s finances in a biblical way. I have the impression (and I admit that this is merely a subjective impression) that this literature puts too much emphasis on the benefits for oneself: The authors go on at length about the harmfulness of debts, the importance of accountability, the spiritual dangers of greed, the liberation provided by simple living, etc. It’s all about how good financial stewardship helps me and my relationship with God. This observation applies to both advice from conservative Christians (which has more an emphasis on tithing, living debt-free, etc.) and to advice from more progressive Christians (which has more an emphasis on simple living, anti-consumerism, etc.). Both are often quite self-centred.
Often, it is a mere afterthought that managing my finances well frees up resources for donating to people in poverty. Yet this should be at the centre. Of course, the benefits for myself matter, too, but a biblical approach to finances should primarily be shaped by how our resistance to consumerism, our simple living, our debt-free living, our tithing, etc. can benefit others. I think we should focus less on bringing down our own consumption levels and more on bringing up the consumption levels of others. In other words: we should focus more on the second half of the slogan “Living simply so that others may simply live”. (Ideally, of course, we should do both).
What does such an other-centred focus mean in practice? Here’s one example of a crucial difference: If managing my finances biblically is primarily about making myself and my relationship to God whole, and if donations are thus rather a side-effect of liberating myself from money, then the effectiveness of donations wouldn’t seem to matter much. (In fact, it might be better to burn the money instead of donating it, in order to disengange from it as thoroughly as possible!). If, however, people in poverty are the primary concern, I will care about the effectiveness of my donations much more than about which style of frugality is most spiritually rewarding for myself.
In conclusion, taking personal finances seriously is more win-win than many realize. The benefits for myself are deeper than many EAs realize, and the benefits for others are more important than many Christians realize.