Spoiler alert: I don’t have the answer. This is a question that I grapple with constantly, and it’s one that we’re probably meant to ask ourselves time and time again throughout our lives.
The thing is, it’s easy to justify virtually any and every expense. The lines between “necessity” and “excess” are blurred to the extent that it’s often difficult to sort out our wants from our needs— especially when we’re always just a few clicks away from any purchase we could possibly want to make. One could easily declare their absolute need for a $300 jacket— “it’s made to the highest quality standards”, “it’s warmer”, “I’d use it all the time”— but is it possible that a $50 jacket could suffice? Or one that you already own?
This time of year especially, with all of the deals and sales and ridiculous advertising campaigns proclaiming things like “happy thanksGETTING” (since when did gift-giving become a front for shopping for ourselves?!) It’s worth thinking more deeply about.
I’ll be the first person to tell you that there are times when a higher price tag is worth the quality or more ethical work practices that come with an item. I’d rather have fewer possessions that are higher quality than more possessions of lessor quality any day. There are instances where spending more will save you in the long run, or where you’re putting your spending power into a company you believe in, or where spending more means you’re happier with a product and get more use out of it. Great!
But am I alone, or does it seem like we as a society are gravitating more and more to the mentality of justifying costly things?
The car that costs tens of thousands of dollars because it’s “safer” and “more reliable” even when there are cheaper options available; the dress that we’re going to wear once but is “much higher quality” than the alternative; the couch that could pay a year’s tuition at university that will “last for years and years”— we can make any purchase, no matter how obscenely expensive or blatantly excessive, seem like a practical one.
Owning any of these things in-and-of-itself is not a definitively bad thing. Owning all of these things is not definitively bad. Some of the time spending more is a sensible decision, and any of the purchases I mentioned could be reasonable given the right circumstances and motives. The question is, are we examining ourselves before we go ahead with a purchase that we could probably do without? Or are we consistently caving into our desires for more and better without consideration for what is driving us and how else we could be spending our resources?
Part of the problem is that we’re not just doing this to ourselves— we’re doing it to each other. We blindly accept questionably lines of reasoning regarding spending. At times, we even actively encourage one another to spend more.
We are sharing with one another a mentality that having that perfect wardrobe or beautiful home or sleek car will actually fulfill us in some way.
Before you write me off as a judgmental killjoy, know that I’m a gal who often struggles with materialism. It’s a constant battle to make sure that my love for things does not override my decision-making. More importantly, it’s a battle to make sure that my love of things doesn’t overtake my heart.
This is part of the reason I’d love to see more of a dialogue surrounding excess— I don’t need a permissive culture. I’m permissive enough with myself! I need to be challenged and questioned and held to a higher standard.
I don’t think there’s one catchall approach to spending— nor do I think that everyone (even every Christian) should walk around in tattered clothing and live in a tiny house with the barest minimum of essentials (although that picture sounds a lot closer to the example Jesus set for us than how most of us are currently living… it’s worth a thought). The Bible has something like 2,000+ verses about money, but almost none of them give us concrete rules for how to use money— rather, they address the heart of the issue. For instance, “it is better to give than to receive” (see Acts 20:35) doesn’t spell out what percentage of our income should be given away or to whom. It does address the attitude we should have when we are giving.
Perhaps this is so that we’ll accept the challenge of responsible stewardship. Maybe it’s a better way to develop a mentality of gratitude.
But while I don’t necessarily think there are a lot of hard and fast rules about how and when to spend, I do think that there are a number of questions we could get better at asking ourselves and each other before we decide to go ahead and buy… whatever it is that we want to buy;
- am I allowing my things to define me?
- am I living within my means?
- am I trying to contribute to an image with my possessions?
- am I habitually making purchases that are borderline excessive?
- would denying myself this item— or making do with a cheaper alternative— challenge me in a positive way?
- am I allowing enough room in my finances to give generously? Could I be allowing for more?
- am I living sacrificially?
Perhaps pausing to ask these questions won’t resolve the issue of excess, but for me at least, it’s a good starting place to determine where my heart lies. It’s a good measurement of how impacted I am by factors that shouldn’t have anything to do with my spending habits or my joy. Maybe we can even begin to have healthier dialogue surrounding finances!
Do you ever feel conflicted over whether or not you’re living simply? Have you found any guidelines or practices that help you to ensure you’re leaving behind excess? I’d love to hear what you have to say!