A Talking Money footnote

These Talking Money posts are dedicated to the memory of Mary Hillas (1929-2005) and Barbara Potter (1928-2009), who so generously shared so much of their own work on this topic. May that energy and wisdom multiply!

Here is a partial bibliography of works related to the discussion. Much has been published since I worked closely on these papers. Please feel free to weigh in, in the comments/reply section, with works you find helpful and insightful.

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  • Adams (Marcia) Cooking From Quilt Country: Hearty Recipes From Amish and Mennonite Kitchens Charles N. Potter, New York 1989
  • Barry (Wendell) The Hidden Wound (with a new afterward) North Point Press, San Francisco 1989
  • Barry (Wendell) Home Economics North Point Press, San Francisco 1987
  • Barry (Wendell) Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community Pantheon, New York 1993
  • Baskin (John) New Burlington: The Life and Death of an American Village 1976
  • Bly (Robert) Iron John (Addison-Wesley, 1990).
  • Bowman (Carl F.) Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a “Peculiar People” 1995
  • Breathnach (Sarah Ban) Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy Warner, New York 1995
  • Buchanan (Mark) The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring the Sabbath W Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee 2006
  • Cilley (Marla “The Fly Lady”) Sink Reflections Bantam, New York 2002
  • Dacyczyn (Amy) Tightwad Gazette series published by Villiard Books
  • Day (Dorothy) Loaves and Fishes Harper & Row, 1963
  • Dominguez (Joe) and Vicki Robin Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence Penguin, New York 1992
  • Fischer (David Hackett) Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America Oxford University Press, 1989
  • Foster (Richard J.) Money, Sex & Power Harper & Row, New York 1985 (later republished as The Challenge of the Disciplined Life )
  • Foster (Richard J.) Freedom of Simplicity Harper & Row, New York 1981
  • Freed (Dolly) Possum Living: How To Live Well Without a Job and With Almost No Money Universe Books, New York 1978
  • Goldberg (Herb) The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege
  • Hall (Donald) Life Work Beacon Press, Boston 1993
  • Hays (Louise) Love Yourself, Heal Your Life Workbook
  • Hostetler (John A.) Amish Society Johns Hopkins, Baltimore
  • Haughey (John C.) The Holy Use of Money: Personal Finances in Light of Christian Faith Crossroad, New York 1986
  • Johnson (Lisa) How To Snare a Millionaire Northwest Publishing, New York 1995
  • Kline (David) Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer’s Journal 1990
  • Lerner (Michael) The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right HarperSanFrancisco 2006
  • Lesher (Emerson) The Muppie Manual: The Mennonite Urban Professional’s Handbook for Humility and Success Good Books, Lancaster, Pennsylvania 1985
  • Lieberman (Annette) and Vicki Lindner The Money Mirror: How Money Reflects Women’s Dreams, Fears and Desires Allworth Press, 1996
  • Lopez (Barry Holstun) Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter Andrews and McMeel, 1977
  • Mails (Thomas E.) Secret Native American Pathways: A Guide to Inner Peace (1988)
  • Moyers (Bill) Genesis: A Living Conversation Doubleday, New York 1996
  • Muller (Wayne) Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest Bantam Books, New York 1999
  • Needleman (Jacob) Money and the Meaning of Life Doubleday, New York 1991
  • Norris (Kathleen) Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith Riverhead, New York 1998
  • Norris (Kathleen) The Cloister Walk Riverhead, New York 1996
  • Norris (Kathleen) Dakota: A Spiritual Geography Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1993
  • O’Connor (Elizabeth) Eighth Day of Creation: Discovering Your Gifts and Using Them Word Books, Waco, Texas 1971
  • O’Connor (Elizabeth) Letters to Scattered Pilgrims
  • Perle (Liz) Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash Audio Renaissance, New York 2006
  • Pirsig (Robert M.) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values William Morrow, New York 1974
  • Rich (Tracey R.), an online description of Tzedakah
  • Rifkin (Jeremy) The End of Work
  • Sardello (Robert) Facing the World With Soul: The Reimagination of Modern Life Lindisfarne Press, Hudson, New York 1992
  • Sinetar (Marsha) Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow 1987
  • Slater (Phillip) Wealth Addiction 1983
  • Snyder (Gary) He Who Hunted Birds in His Fathers Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth Grey Fox, 1979
  • Snyder (Gary) The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964-1979 New Directions, New York 1980
  • Swenson (Richard A.) Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives Navpress, Colorado Springs 1992
  • Waskow (Arthur I.) Godwrestling Schocken, 1978
  • Weatherford (Jack) The History of Money
  • Whitcomb (Holly W.) Feasting With God: Adventures in Table Spirituality 1996
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Sharpening your focus

If you’ve kept a notebook by your side and jotted down your responses as you’ve been reading these Talking Money postings, you now have a rather intense Money Journal, which can help in the this exercise:

Write your own Money Autobiography, considering what you would do with your life – or have done differently, if money were no object. What might you do now?

As you review your spending, ask yourself:

Is my outlook on money and its uses changing? In what ways?

If you have been exploring these issues with a money-buddy or discussion circle, compare your responses.

Is your spending itself changing? Are you spending less but receiving more satisfaction? Have you found areas where you’ve chosen to spend more?

Now that you’ve considered ways that spiritual traditions can shape your use of wealth, reflect on your own faith community and ask: ”Would I now be comfortable having the equivalent of the historic Quaker overseers inspect my finances, especially if they could suggest ways to assist my budgeting and goal-setting?

At a basic level:

Are you more open to sharing your stories about money? Do you see possibilities of discussion that are neither “crass” nor “tasteless”?

As you continue to align your life, your spending, and your deepest values, you become freer to set long-term financial goals and monitor your progress. Areas to explore may include:

  • Consumer spending. How I express my values through my surroundings, home, clothing, car, and food?
  • Gifts and giving.
  • A legacy, to pass on.
  • Retirement and security.
  • Education and culture.
  • Entertainment and sports.
  • Pets.
  • Hobbies.
  • Travel.
  • Traditions and celebrations.
  • Empowering others.
  • Assisting family.
  • Collections and their care.
  • Toys for adults.

In Joel 2:28, the prophet foresees a time when “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” One interpretation of the passage emphasizes the different outlook we have when we start out in life, full of optimism, than when we near its end, scarred and worn by struggles and losses. Many of us lose our dreams as we age. Prophetic vision, on the other hand, is typically reserved as a gift to those who have distilled life’s lessons and learned the art of statesmanship. For many, vision typically narrows as we age. Eyeglasses become more common – bifocals, too. When we apply the lessons of our careers and economic life to this process, too often our viewpoint shrinks. But, in the eyes of Joel, that is not the divine ideal. May your meditations on money, wealth, and work spiritually empower you anew, making your dreams forever rich and young, while filling your hearts with wisdom.

Blessings, all.

Look for authentic value

Money may engender comfort, food and shelter, medical care, education, and opportunities for personal and community growth. But it cannot grant love, happiness, a sense of contentment, or a relationship with the Divine. In many ways it can entrap you, and divide you from a common humanity. In many impoverished parts of the world, joyful community exists, perplexing wealthier foreign visitors. As one Kenyan Quaker told American colleagues, “Because we have so little, we can be very generous.” As Jacob Needleman remarks: “Human beings are built to be in intentional relation with each other not only as biosocial mechanisms, but as creatures within whom there is the seed of an openness toward the source of all Being.” Rather than freeing you, a blind pursuit of affluence can close you off from such awareness and unfolding. Though currency can tempt you with the promise of many pleasures, it cannot buy you wisdom or the pleasures of reflection. It cannot buy you the Presence of God. It cannot buy you atonement or redemption. These are gifts to be enjoyed and shared in your spiritual fellowship. A cardinal sings at the window of our meetinghouse and then flies away. You repay in gratitude. I, too, see the smile on your face.

One thing about any financial future is that it is full of uncertainties. Nobody can accurately predict the course of the marketplace – not for long. Paradoxically, the more you try to be economically independent, the more vulnerable you become: you lose the net of community that sustains you.

As you invest and spend, ask: “How can I make a difference with what I have?”

Labor, capital, and raw materials come together in many fashions. Are there processes of lending that would yield a higher return than banks would pay, while still allowing the borrower to access funds at a lower rate than the bank would charge?

What imaginative financial interactions can we create to assist one another in achieving our dreams?

Whatever your denomination, ask how the type of work you do influences the way you worship. Then ask how it becomes an obstacle.

While American society is overburdened by a high productivity that concentrates on the creation of consumerism, it also overlooks many simple things it could produce to enhance life throughout the Third World: water pumps, sanitation, and access to markets, for starters. How can we apply relatively simple technologies to improve common conditions, and how can everyone benefit? Solutions that have worked for the United States, Europe, and Japan may be inappropriate for much of the rest of the world; indeed, in seeking to modify economic goals in the Third World, we may also discover more efficient structures for the industrialized countries as well.

Wendell Berry, in a “New Afterward” to the revised edition of his The Hidden Wound, looks profoundly into issues that are not being addressed in our American political debates. He perceives that “the root of our racial problem in America is not racism. The root is in our inordinant desire to be superior – not to some inferior or subject people . . . but to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything – of ourselves, of each other, or of our country. We did not enslave African blacks because they were black, but because their labor promised to free us of the obligations of stewardship. . . . They were economically valuable and militarily weak.”

Widely regarded for his essays pleading for ecology and responsible agriculture, Berry finds that racial slavery imposed on a heavy price on his own white Kentucky ancestors as well. When we attempt to separate our mortal and spiritual sides, as we do when we attempt to be economically and socially superior, we return to our earlier “render unto Caesar” dilemmas.

“And it should not be necessary to point out the connection between the oppression of women and the general contempt for household work,” Berry observes. “It is well established among us that you may hold up your head in polite society with a public lie in your mouth or other people’s money in your pocket or innocent blood on your hands, but not with dishwater on your hands or mud on your shoes.”

Remarkably, Berry’s line of thought leads him into areas we, too, have already examined: the importance of quality work and meaningful community. Here, then, is another answer to the LIBERTY stamped on our American coins!

A microcosm of transformation

Those who have been using this Talking Money series as a guidebook for group discussion probably think they’re just about to wrap it up. But, folks, now you can see you’re just getting started.

Let’s consider two historic icons of financial success, Donald Trump and Howard Hughes. Despite his colossal bankruptcy and ego, many Americans and the popular press have held Trump in awe, bedazzled by his “Art of the Deal” frenetic game executed with no regard to ethical outcome. Nearby is the fiscal tightness of Hughes, the billionaire investor who wound up fearing everything.

I’ll throw another model into the mix, Lisa Johnson’s self-help book, How To Marry a Millionaire – complete, I’m not kidding, with dinner recipes.

In the upside-down realm of spiritual faith, however, stands Jim Corbett and his goatwalking times of sabbatical-reflection. There, too, are Malden Mills president Aaron Feuerstein, who kept employment in the community after his textiles mill burned, and developer Jim Rouse’s “moral leadership that swept traditional barriers aside,” as longtime neighbor Padriac Kennedy saw it.

To acknowledge money as part of our spiritual quest means having faith as weaddress seemingly impossible considerations in our use of the resources entrusted to us. We can now place our wealth in relation to:

  • Implications in regard to the Third World.
  • America’s own maturing, rather than expanding, economy.
  • The macro-economic/micro-economics dilemma, in which strategies that benefit you individually may short-change the commonwealth.
  • Poverty, both in our own localities and around the globe.
  • Children and their allowances.
  • Environmental impact.
  • Frugality and “living without a salary.”
  • Being bound up as a slave or as a slave-owner in a violent society.
  • Ways our possessions instigate repression of the have-nots.
  • Being free to maximize our potential as human beings.
  • Striking balances in which everyone – young and old, here and abroad – maximizes his or her potential.

When we step away from the assumptions of the society we live in, we can perceive many hidden costs to our existence. We detect how inextricably money is woven through the affairs of post-primitive or non-tribal society. Our civilization itself might be inconceivable without the extraordinary exchanges that currency facilitates. Our universities, laboratories, government, factories, agriculture, transportation, and health systems are all built on opportunities that money permits.

The more far-flung and less locally focused our economies become, the more likely we are to lose sight of mutuality: we become blinded at the bottom line. That’s why it remains crucial that we find ways to take a regular timeout from the demands of industrial civilization. A year or even a regular day of true sabbatical will release you from preoccupations and an encroaching bondage to consumerism; fasting, too, or journeys into wilderness can renew you in freedom and wonder. Rather than demanding a forfeiture of one’s wealth, as commonly perceived, the concept of sacrifice instead imposes an awareness that makes all the resources at our disposal holy and sacred; they are gifts worthy of thanksgiving and of being shared, “equipping God’s people for works of service” (Ephesians 4:12). This kind of sacrifice becomes an occasion of celebration.

Facing the future

When I was a child, some of our family trips took us down the Dixie Highway through the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee. We were always amused to view, from a hairpin turn high on one slope, a sign someone had suspended out over the chasm: “Prepare to meet thy God.” While those who posted the message no doubt meant it to bring people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, we always saw it as a warning of what would happen if the car failed to make the curve and instead flew off into the abyss. It seems like a good message for our money dealings, too.

While many of our economic activities respond to our day-to-day actions, many also involve a future. The mountain sign, of course, warned of eternity. In terms of finances, we’re more likely to think of more short-term futures: bills coming due, certificates of deposit, growth of our savings, paying off the mortgage, college tuition and board for our children, or even retirement – all topics you could place on the agenda of your money-discussion circle.

While my earlier postings examine interactions with money focused on our differing personal experiences, I’ve also wanted to keep us from becoming overwhelmed by forces beyond our control. Sooner or later, however, we do open out beyond our private enclave. We cannot become entrapped by despair as we look at the condition of the world – the poverty, physical suffering, health coverage, crime, warfare, pollution, global warming, racial and sexual inequalities, abuses of every stripe. We are in this world, and are called to respond, however feeble our efforts appear.

Our faith communities are one place we can do some broad-horizon thinking about coping together with the inevitable changes we’ll be facing. Our cherished values will be essential in addressing whatever lies ahead. For a number of years, midweek presentations in our meetinghouse considered the aspects of creating a more peaceful, more sustainable world and examined issues as far-ranging as energy use, water resources, banking and monetary policy, militarization and arms trade, theocracy and fundamentalism in public policy, minority rights, AIDS and other epidemics, and transportation. Sometimes, seemingly small responses, such as microlending or fair-trade coffee and tea purchases, have enormous impacts. The results of a small lasagna dinner our youth group put on – four or five pans cooked in our kitchen at home – wound up feeding 250 orphans in Kenya three meals a day for two weeks. Not a bad tradeoff.

In a series of lectures based on the New Testament epistles of Paul, Brian Drayton once argued that contemporary Christians need to develop a theology of, among other things, insurance; health care as a right, instead of a privilege or commodity; the private ownership of capital property, versus lifetime stewardship; television and other instruments of mass culture; telephones; statistically-based solutions to human needs and the use of economies-of-scale that economize only on money; a rejection of the commodification of children, and school systems that are based mostly on a factory or delivery-system model of learning, rather than on a vision of children as unfolding spiritual, emotional, and physical beings situated in their communities; the nature of work and labor; race and class relations. Updating his list, he would no doubt include computers, Internet, broadband and television cable access, online commerce, and cell-phones to the list.

Dealing with money is ultimately an act of trust, having as much value as we, as a society, put into it – like our government itself. If there is a social contract of government, as our nation’s founders believed, then what is the unwritten contract of wealth? What are its responsibilities? Am I my brother’s or my sister’s keeper?

The answers have been there all along, even though most people have tried to ignore them. But there have always been a few prophetic voices, standing to the side of the mainstream. They have been urging us, in the fullest sense, of finding ways to best apply our available resources – love and compassion, as well as our cash and our possessions.

Focusing largely on personal fronts of money-related issues, as I approach it, eventually broadens into ways these impact daily encounters and then seeks recover wisdom available through the “cloud of witnesses” in our various faith traditions. Bit by bit, this close look enlarges your priorities from self and family, first, then outward through your neighborhood, schools, nation, and finally the world. Maybe you’ll even reach for the heavens.

How can our awareness of the many energies of money help us transform the groups we have joined and the communities where we live?

What small-scale decisions can we make for the betterment of society?

My wife and I prefer to work with small-scale, decentralized enterprises, whenever possible. We like to support greater individual responsibility and opportunity. For example, my family banks at a locally owned savings institution three blocks up the street and at a credit union. Not only are the interest rates higher and the fees lower than those at larger commercial banks, the officers are more involved in our communities. They have a president here, rather than a general manager who reports to an assistant vice president whose president reports to a vice president somewhere else in the world. When we could no longer put off remodeling the kitchen any longer, we found a local building supplier was not only far more helpful and responsive than the highly advertised “big box” operator, but also more economical. Stopping at roadside stands keeps more of the money on the farm, as well as providing fresher produce and face-to-face conversation.

Furthering “high-touch” personal interaction within our increasingly high-tech society is one way of reducing hierarchies, rather than adding to them. Concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, accompanied by corporate merger fever, endangers the very independence and democratic decision-making we cherish.

One of the challenges facing contemporary American society is in creating opportunities for meaningful work for everyone, including youth who too often are excluded from activity that contributes to the common good. How much seemingly senseless violence today arises from a disconnection with a meaningful place in society and from an outlook that overvalues possession, especially status symbols, at the expense of integrity and mutuality?

To survive as a society, we need opportunities for each person to build equity in the system itself, in owning “a piece of the pie,” where everyone can share responsibility and accountability in the good of all. In addition, the workplace itself must be ennobled, from a “rivothead hell” where the reward is “only” a wage into a laboratory or a kitchen where every human being is appreciated and helpful. With our money-buddies, we can examine our own experiences within this structure – and on possible small-scale responses. Once again, the discussion group can ponder new avenues of action, suitable for our era.

In mid-nineteenth century London, Friends upheld the value of individual labor by subsidizing the income of seamstresses and other poverty-level workers, so that they might continue their craft in independence and dignity. Similar lessons and challenges remain. Can we respond?

Again, the rubber hits the road.

“Self-reliant communities are the basic units of a peace system,” Arjun Makhijani insists: “The difficulty is that “community” today does not exist in the sense of a non-exploitative, non-violent, nurturing unit. As we look at violence in the home or in the streets and between religious groups, races, and landlords and landless workers in villages, it is evident that today communities do not exist in the sense to which we aspire in a peace system. From wife-beating and dowry murders to closure of factories by corporations seeking only to move to areas with cheaper labor, to city governments so helpless they compete with others for these corporations to come in even though that means the loss of jobs in other areas, we do not have the communities upon which to build self-reliance.”

Who would have ever thought of the family as a unit of economic guerrilla resistance? Or of a local congregation as a center of labor reform? And yet these are within our realm of possibilities. Again, we are reminded of the ways these issues interconnect, and of importance of talking to one another, to encourage each other to the highest goals with the resources at our disposal.

Achieving group clarity

Money-issue awareness can help us evaluate our meetings for business, whether it’s within our congregations or not-for-profit organizations or even our workplaces:

To what extent do personal failure to budget and an individual lack of clarity regarding wealth itself erupt in conflict when we come together? How often do unresolved feelings and values surface in subtle ways during our business and committee sessions – sometimes at the expense of employees we have hired to do our confused collective will? When is this last time you experienced this happening?

When we come together, can we ask hard questions when we contemplate projects requiring financing, without becoming tense or even angry? Do we feel peace among ourselves when we shape the budgets for our group projects?

If you find yourself criticizing another member’s lavish spending, turn your vision a bit; pay attention in your next committee meeting to things that could be done if your group had a bit more money at hand.

Are you engaging the world in your witness, rather than denying it? Are you in some way denying the goodness of creation?

Name one religious, social, or personal issue that you carry close to your heart. Identify three ways money impinges on that concern. Would more resources for your concern help alleviate the predicament? What emotions do you feel as you ruminate on this pursuit in relationship to money?

What if your faith community or nonprofit organization had an additional $100,000 a year? Could you come to unity on its use? How would this fit into your group’s purpose? What would it say about your values? Care to up the figure, say, to $1 million – or even $10 million – a year?

Occasionally, a daring congregation will reverse the Sunday morning collection plate routine: instead of asking its parishioners to put money into the offering plate, they are told instead to withdraw a given amount – $10 or $15, for example. The amount is to be “invested in the Lord’s work.” Later, reporting on their applications, the participants tell of activities ranging from feeding the homeless to using the amount to fund a letter-writing campaign that raised even far more money.

Is there a place in your congregation’s budget for an experiment like this? What would it reveal about your members?

In some circles, “The Lord will provide” is a popular phrase. Do you see this as an expression of genuine faith – or of naivete?

What will God provide – food, shelter, clothing, gold? Or is it a transcendental comfort to endure difficulties?

In this view, do you see the individual’s role as passive or active?

Have you ever found yourself in seemingly hopeless situations where you would say that God did, indeed, provide? How does this fit in with the original passage, in Genesis 22:8, where God provides a sacrificial lamb to be a burnt offering in place of Isaac? Or does it better fit in with the manna provided to the Israelites, in Exodus 16?

Again, dealing with money is a matter of trust. Part of that involves learning to trust each other, even when there’s an element of Coyote.

While we’re at it, let me suggest another reading that heads off in what initially appears to be a non-monetary direction: Kathy Neustadt’s Clambake: A History and Celebration of an American Tradition. She studied a fundraiser conducted by Quakers of Allen’s Neck, Massachusetts, each year since 1888 to serve their community, and all the traditions that go with it. Clams, of course, has long been a slang term for coins, and so the concept of the traditional New England clambake as a way of raising “clams” for their Meeting becomes especially intriguing. Behind it all, however, are service and neighborhood, with many facets outside of the monetary system. If you still think this reading is a long stretch from our topic, remember that in this same countryside, wampum was once the unit of exchange – beads made of polished shells strung together into strands or belts used by Native Americans as money or jewelry.

Clams, by the way, also take me back to the chowder house, where some of us once discussed the animal nature of that “filthy lucre.” By the way, the one we visited that week also serves up excellent steamers, cheap.

Our bonus pays dividends, too

It has been long known that the first markets were sacred markets, the first banks were temples, the first to issue money were priests or priest-kings. . . . If we recognize the essentially sacred character of archaic money, we shall be in position to recognize the essentially sacred character of certain specific features of modern money … – Norman O. Brown, “Life Against Death”

We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933 Inaugural Address

Like a flip of the coin, we can go from the intensely private exercise of household accounting and, from that, crafting a personal spending plan to a much broader personal vision. The earlier postings in our Talking Money category focus on our individual encounters with money issues – the ways we earn our incomes, cover our purchases, care for our possessions, expend our waking hours, respond to others. Along the way, we see ways our down-to-the-penny calculations impact our families, our neighborhoods, and our world. “Money is central to our attempts to live a communal life,” Thomas Moore observes. Whatever we believe in the abstract becomes tested in the mundane encounters as we deal with money. In our age in history, the rubber hits the road, whatever our destination. In our use of money, we play out timeless decisions through which we either flee from or find harmony with the universe. Either way, we express our values and dreams. From a spiritual perspective, we can say one route runs through darkness, while the other turns toward the Light. Common expressions such as “It’s my money,” “Shop till you drop,” or “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” are credos – statements of belief that may be more honest than words read from a prayer book. Sometimes we coat the message with humor, probably because we sense, however vaguely, something bitter in the unresolved conflict between our ideals and our daily actions.

One of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s daily reflections in Simple Abundance presents Quakers, or the Society of Friends, as “individuals who manage the delicate balance of living in the world but not belonging to it. This is because they refuse to segment their lives into the sacred and the secular. Instead, Quakers believe that all of life’s daily experiences are spiritual in nature, from preparing a family meal to protesting public policy. The British writer George Gorman has observed that ‘the essence of Quaker spirituality is the certainty that everything we do has religious significance. It is not cutting ourselves off from life but entering deeply and fully into it.’”

As I Friend, I can reply, “Well, we try,” though I doubt we succeed nearly as consciously or often as she claims. This time, looking at the concept of “being in the world but not of it” (based on John 17:14-16 and passages in the New Testament epistles), I am struck by a reading that suggests being in the world but not being owned by it.  When I began this project, money was indeed compartmentalized in my life, away from spirituality. Money presented a struggle in which I felt inadequate to the callings I sensed for my life’s direction. My handling of money was poisoned by feelings of impoverishment, inadequacy, and resentment. I was in self-denial, especially in regard to the fears and anger money issues stirred within me. Not only was I not seeing both sides of the coin, and harmonizing their innate tensions, I wasn’t even seeing the coin. Spiritually, this could be seen as a refusal to even admit being in the world, much less having God’s kingdom come, “on Earth as it is in heaven.” In terms of religious practice, ignorance typically presents itself as superstition rather than wisdom, and magic rather than mystery.

What I have found since is that money issues are very much a part of our spiritual discipline. The classic seven deadly sins articulated by Pope Gregory the Great and articulated during the Middle Ages all address money issues: avarice or greed, anger or wrath, lust, envy, gluttony, pride, sadness or sloth. Indeed, greed is considered the mother of all sins. By definition, sin is an action or thought that separates us from God. Sin clouds our vision and our hearts. Sin, as Jewish teaching insists, means missing the mark.

Once again, I hear Friends Barbara Potter and Mary Hollis urging us to bring our money dealings into the Light, rather than covering them in secrecy. I keep hearing the reminder to turn our money itself from a noun into a verb – from something hoarded into something that facilitates transformations. The concept of “liquidity,” after all, recognizes the power of wealth when it is free to flow.

I think, too, of the motto on our currency, “In God we trust.” It bothers me, because I find it dishonest; too often, the nation ignores or even defies God’s directives. I think the title of a story about Ithaca HOURS, a local currency in New York’s Finger Lakes region, with its more accurate expression of the ideal: “In Each Other We Trust” (Whole Earth, Spring 1998). Remember, too, that “trust” is another word for “faith.” Our dealings with money are ultimately acts of faith.

A healthy money awareness would have us see that everything exists in relationship with everything else. How we handle our possessions and time has an impact, for good or for bad. We are drawn together in communities of faith and into various not-for-profit enterprises because we know that in the pursuit of goodness, the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. Religious disciplines, at their best, direct actions toward virtuous outcomes and encourage us to ask tough questions. We’ve already examined many ways these affect us individually. Now we may also consider how they affect us when we work together in a common purpose.

If you see money as corrupt and corrupting, how do you then handle it as a community? Can you do without it in working toward our goals? Can you sanitize it through mutual oversight?

If you see it as empowering and transforming, what is the best use of what you are entrusted to handle?

If you have a building or grounds, what are their best use? Do you see yourselves as stewards of these resources? Do you see yourselves as investors in these resources?

Do you hire people, either full-time or part-time? What selection process is used? How clear are you in your expectations from the outset? Do your standards differ from other employers? Would you hire a person with need from within your group, knowing the productivity might be lower or the going rate (say for a builder caught in a slow season) might be higher than other available candidates? Are you in full legal compliance? How do you terminate employees?

Has your group ever been audited for its taxes? What advice or preparation do you turn to?

Is your group “waging peace,” locally, regionally, or internationally, through its wealth? Are you nurturing healing? How are you investing in the future, seven generations ahead?

Because nonprofit organizations, by definition, are viewed as a kind of business, we may expect them to be more savvy in their handling of money than many faith communities are. The long-term viability of nonprofits rests heavily on the chemistry of those who serve on the board of trustees – their commitment, skills, financial resources, and vision. Since many nonprofits are somewhat insulated from direct competitive measures applied to for-profit enterprises, and since the trustees are often a self-selected body, their faithfulness to their stated mission can vary widely. Some prove to be highly flexible, quick-thinking, and responsive; others turn clubby, enjoy perks, or land summer jobs for their children or nephews and nieces.

From experience, I can say that within a congregation or nonprofit organization, money issues are not something to be shunted aside to the Treasurer and Finance Committee, so our attention can turn to “more important matters.” To participate in the “priesthood of all believers,” as the apostle Paul envisioned spiritual fellowship, means everyone has joint stewardship of our commonwealth in faith. The Treasurer and Finance Committee shoulder important ministries having their place alongside Ministry and Counsel, Peace and Social Concerns, Religious Education, or Building and Grounds. We are accountable to one another within our congregations and our public service as we attempt to be both responsible and responsive.

Employment decisions can illustrate how good intentions lacking sufficient definition and direction break down in day-to-day encounters. Our congregation, for example, once decided to hire a part-time caretaker for the meetinghouse. What seemed like a mutually beneficial arrangement soon mushroomed into a nightmare as various constituents began piling on expectations of what needed doing. The caretaker was being paid for 20 hours of work a week, and expected to do 60. Bitter feelings were left behind, all the way around. Just whom did he report to, anyway? Who ultimately decided which task took precedence?

Whenever the topic of “intentional community” came up, Dover Friend Silas Weeks liked to take this a step further and remind us of what it was like to grow up in the ”unintentional communities that existed before the rise of automotive mobility: the milkman brought milk, the breadman brought bread, the coalman brought coal, and they were your neighbors – you had to get along with them, whether you liked them or not.” Perhaps that was another way of remaining aware of the shadow side of money or of Coyote’s full nature. Quakers have long recognized the importance of “speaking truth to power.” Let us not overlook the power of money, as we apply it in our own lives and communal endeavors.

Love

 

Count your clams

There is no girdle budgeting aspect to this. I never feel deprived. Rather I buy myself and my freedom many times a day. – Penny Yunuba

In these Talking Money posts, my goal has been to spur you to openly discuss money issues. But now we need to turn to some essentially private work, done in several stages. This is where the action really begins. As you get your act together, it’s also where the fun really begins. Seriously. It’s where all of our earlier considerations come down to the bottom line. It’s the recipe where all of our ingredients become a dinner or a dessert. It’s where we get ahead of the bills.

It’s what is usually called budgeting, although holistic CPA Lu Bauer likes to give it a more positive spin, referring to it as a Spending Plan. Either way, the gold-standard guideline for this is set up in Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly.

If you’ve been using the tiny spiral notebook I suggested to record all of your expenditures, down to the penny, you’re getting a good picture of where your cash goes: vending machines, coffee, parking meters, breath mints . . . the whole shebang. Pull out your checkbook and your credit card statements, put all the figures together with your notebook’s, and you’ll have a decent snapshot.

(And what’s a major credit card, you ask? Any one that most stores accept, naturally.)

As you tally how some of those little items become expensive over time, you may well need to apply the emotion-related insights you now possess – to say nothing of a moment or two for prayer.

For the record, I’ve never been as religious about this step as others insist on, but then I’ve usually had a pretty clear picture of where my change was going. And I’m quite aware how easily we can be “nickel and dimed” out of our cash.

Either way, the next step is to closely examine your monthly income and spending. Break it out by categories – housing, utilities, transportation, food, clothing, and so on. Within each one, what is essential and what is discretionary? (In my old yoga circles, this was seen as “needs” versus “desires.”)

Usually, when we think of budgeting, it’s along the lines of dieting. What do I have to give up to lose weight or reduce expenses? Joe and Vicki have a nifty series of steps around this; they have us look at each purchase and then ask about our satisfaction level with it: can we enjoy as much pleasure by spending less on that item (buying a less expensive bottle of wine, for instance) or, if we spent more, would our pleasure rise correspondingly? They also introduce a concept they call “gazingus pins” – pet expenditures we indulge in, for our own pleasure; we’ll look at these and other “toys for adults” in a bit.

Joe and Vicki also reintroduce the element of time to the equation: how long did I have to work to earn what this costs? That is, money is no longer an abstract figure in the exchange. And there’s more than a flat hourly rate, as they demonstrate.

Their other major contribution to the process is their insistence on having life-mission goals that your budgeting will advance.

Their original premise, incidentally, had people work intensely for five years and then essentially retire, living on their nest-egg investment. Underlying conditions for that plan have changed, but what I found in our discussion groups was that most people – especially those with children – have other dreams and priorities. When we focus on these, rather than trying to “have it all,” some miracles occur.

That is, once you’ve determined where your income is going, you can begin to decide where you really want it to go. Here, your reflections on personal values become crucial. The more focused your life, the more likely your success in fulfilling your ambitions.

When I first sat down to run the calculations, I was skeptical. I was barely scraping by as it was, and the amount to set aside was nearly my entire income over the five-year period. As the numbers came together, though, I discovered the goal was not nearly as impossible as I’d originally deemed. By working one overtime shift each week, taking in a housemate, getting by without an automobile, reducing my spending to a bare minimum, and investing my savings shrewdly, it could be done.

As you will find, “running the numbers” is crucial. Question every expenditure. Is it necessary? Is it worth the extra cost?

How many times a week do you eat out? Why? Why not? How much are you spending?

Do you buy your lunch at work? How much is this costing? Could you pack a lunch at home beforehand? How much would you save? Why don’t you?

How much are you spending on coffee, sodas, candy, and other snacks? Could you carry a Thermos instead or buy in bulk at the grocery? How much would you save? Do the national name brands taste that much better than the knockoffs?

The lunchtime routine can easily add up. Even at $50 a week comes out to $2,500 a year. The vending machine snacks add up quickly, too. At $5 a day, that comes to another $1,250 a year without even thinking. Now look at the alternatives. Good leftovers basically cost nothing! Over a five-year period, however, this can even add up to the price of a new car. Economy model, of course.

Still, it’s one less debt you’d be facing.

As you shape a spending plan, the first goal should be to get out of debt. Finance charges and interest are simply extra expenses that get you nowhere. They add up. The second goal should be imposing focus and limits that will keep you out of debt. The third goal should be building up your savings, which can then be converted to more lucrative investments.

The savings also become the cushion for unanticipated large expenses – the big auto repair, the leaky roof replacement, your share of the bill when your kid’s wisdom teeth have to come out. It provides the satisfaction of knowing you’re covered, rather than panicked.

The usual recommended amount of liquidity, by the way, is the figure you’d need to cover six months of joblessness. In the newspaper business, it used to be called the “go-to-hell” account – for those times when you and your boss had a big blowout. The beauty of reducing your basic expenses, incidentally, is that you can divert more of the savings into investments.

You give every cent you spend the third degree. Just because everybody else seems to be buying it is no excuse. If everybody else jumped off a roof – well, you could probably have your choice of nice, affordable high-rise apartments and high-paying jobs, but only if you didn’t follow the crowd. Ahem!

What about cable television and broadband access? Telephone, both landline and cellular? If you use air conditioning, can you find ways to use it less often? Can you wait longer in the autumn to turn on the thermostat – and ways to turn it off earlier in the springtime? Or the reverse, for the air conditioning?

What about your auto insurance? Is it time to switch agents or raise your deductible?

And so on. There are also questions about the way you pay at the cash register:

Do you prefer to purchase most items with a credit card? By check? Or with cash? Which method gives you the biggest sense of awareness of where your money’s going? Which gives you the biggest feeling of control? Do you carry a credit card only for emergencies? Or do you open your monthly statement with no idea of how much to expect? (Surprise me!) Do you ever put something “on plastic” to overcome a dry spell in your cash flow?

Hmm, I don’t think there are a lot of cash transactions at the cash register these days, are there? Are George and Abe and Tom and Alex and Andy and Ulysses and Ben facing obsolescence? I don’t think so.

As you review your spending, also look for underlying reasons you do or don’t do something. Time considerations may be keeping you from packing a lunch, and the snacks may be prompted by a need to get away from your desk or computer for a breather. Once more, you may see something other than straight dollars and cents involved.

In looking closely at our spending, what we actually want to do is bring the heads and tails side of our money back into harmony. When the heads side runs rampant, with uncontrolled spending, we soon get kicked by the tails side, when the bills come due. What happens, in effect, is that we have a tiger by the tail – if you’ll pardon the string of cliches and mixed metaphors. It ain’t pretty, all the same.

The point of getting our spending under control is simply to allow us to redirect our efforts to ends we dream of achieving.

List your top five life goals and rank them by importance.

(You may, like me, find it a little easier to list your top five ongoing life projects and list them – family, church, and so on.) As you arrange them by priority, be honest; don’t go by what others would say. Now list them by what you’re spending on each. Do they match? Do they differ? Why or why not? (It may be that some cost very little. If you’re really lucky, you may even be getting paid for some, rather than spending.)

As you review your spending, reflect on how your expenditures advance or divert your goals. Are there ways to adjust spending patterns to further them?

Regardless of your income, a spending plan is crucial in coming face-to-face with your resources. Although the spending plan is something you’ll have to do alone or with your spouse, your discussion circle can still help with some of the bigger issues. For instance, you can compare the kinds of categories you’re using. You may even wind up modifying yours in response.

Penny Yunuba, who used Joe and Vicki’s plan to achieve her own financial independence, pointed me to a Mennonite accounting model in which the first 10 percent goes straight to the church, as does anything that’s left over; since the Mennonites rely heavily, and in the past totally, on a lay ministry, this model encourages additional contributions for educational assistance, care of the elderly and orphans, disaster relief, missions work, and similar forms of community nurture. Some people might consider a basic modification that would keep the first 10 percent for the church and place whatever’s left over in a “donations and gifts” category. Others might put the first 10 percent straight into donations and gifts. Penny’s own form divides Clothing into “necessary” and “feel better” columns, and her Recreation cluster has “eating out,” “vacations,” “movies-videos,” “other”. Other quirks can be instructive: she places “vitamins” under Health, rather than Food – possibly because she buys hers at a pharmacy or health food store, rather than the grocery. At the top of her page are two quotes from George Fox, one of the early Quaker leaders: “Walk in the Truth and the love of it up to God,” and “Wear it as long as thou canst,” which supposedly was the advice he gave William Penn about a ceremonial sword. Penny’s application, of course, is to getting maximum use of the clothing itself.

Group discussion of the various categories can unearth successful strategies. Under “Savings and Investments,” someone may mention how effective she’s found having a percentage of her paycheck deposited directly into her credit union savings account each week. “The best part is, you never even miss it,” she’ll assert. “Food” may lead to a local co-op or farmers’ market, where freshness becomes an advantage. “Clothing” may lead you to a consignment shop filled with barely used designer labels at bargain prices.

Gaining control over your expenditures is crucial. Be realistic. If your spending plan fails to fit your reality or if you fail to stick to your guidelines, then the bills and debt will still control your life, rather than the other way around. Paradoxically, self-imposed limits can be liberating. Zen Buddhist teachers can explain how strict discipline can lead to freedom. So can the old Quaker.

But remember, living within your spending plan does not have to be ascetic or Spartan. Ask yourself about your favorite “toy for adults” – the category that accords you a special delight, such as art supplies, computer goodies, camping gear, books or recordings, chocolate; then plan a little something extra accordingly. In fact, try this in your discussion group:

Around the circle, have each participant confess his or her favorite “gazingus pin” or “toy for adults.”

I’ve found this exercise always stimulates lively, joyous sharing. Theater tickets? Dining out? Travel? An addition to a collection? One fine cup of coffee? Presents to slide under the doors of senior citizen housing neighbors? This exercise demonstrates the positive energy money releases when kept in the Light.

To be honest, Lu Bauer and I differed in our interpretation of Joe and Vicki’s “gazingus pins.” I see them as permission for some simple self-indulgence, admitting the passions that give our lives pleasure and depth. Lu, on the other hand, wondered if they might be addictions we need to avoid. What do you say?

I might also add:

Name one “status item” in your possession.

Perhaps it would be a clue to what you most value.

At one point, wondering whether food ought to be part of these money discussions, I asked Lu what she thought. In reply, she pointed out that the first question raised by many couples who came to her in financial straits was whether they’d have to change how they ate. (Maybe we’re back to the “tails” side of money all over again!) Not whether they’d have to sell the house or move to cheaper rentals, or even get cheaper wheels. The food on the table becomes the defining characteristic of our economic condition.

Well, why not? One of the things many scholars love about the New Testament is that food is always present. Jesus does some of his biggest miracles and delivers some of his most powerful messages when food’s in the picture. Changes wine into water. Multiplies bread and fish. It all goes with Feasting and Fasting, which we touch on in the Religion to the Rescue post of May 21. But maybe food says just as much now when we consider our spending – and our eating – literally, “consumption.”

For that matter, look back at the slang terms for money and how many of them have food connotations. “Smackers,” “clams,” “dough,” “folding lettuce,” “hardtack,” “mint,” “peanuts,” “cookies,” ”sugar,” “candy, “small potatoes,” “the mother’s milk of politics,” each with a different association.

Clams

*   *   *

In my case, running the numbers had some unanticipated consequences. While it led me to decide not to hunker down to amass that nest egg, I realized I had been living like a student long enough. I resolved it was time to upgrade my wardrobe and furnishings, however modestly. The decision also allowed a decent stereo and switching over to CDs, in addition to my beloved vinyl albums. (All of this, of course, puts the awareness in a historic context.) I even subscribed to the symphony season and finally bought a pair of cross-country skis. Keeping the car meant I could remain active in Quaker meeting and get out to New England contradances in neighboring villages. But I also initiated a direct-deposit savings plan at the credit union, which soon freed me from many of my old financial worries. I wasn’t necessarily spending more; I was just enjoying it more. Crucially, I now felt empowered in my spending decisions, rather than victimized by forces beyond my control.

Reviewing my goals and values, I realized what I wanted most from financial independence was time to pursue my literary projects. I decided to take the eight-hour overtime shift I would have needed to fund the nest egg, and instead “give” it to myself for a shift of personal writing. No need to feel any guilt that I wasn’t using it for public service or catching up on other demands. One day out of seven wasn’t a full workweek, but it would be enough for now. My “dedicated laborious quest” could still move forward, rather than be placed on hold.

*   *   *

This points to two other kinds of budgets to consider: one for our time, and another for our giving.

Fundraising consultant and author Tracy Gary notes, “Somebody giving $1,000 to $2,000 a year can give away $100,000 in a lifetime. Your money and your time can make a huge difference in your community.” Her advice is to develop a giving plan that reflects your values and vision, instead of writing checks in response to every appeal you get in the mail.

One Friend, for instance, rarely gives to causes where the recipients earn significantly more than he does. He looks at the work he does, without compensation, and what he earns at the office, and figures maybe they should be giving to advance his free endeavors. It’s just a guideline that leads him to contribute, all the same, to some very efficient organizations.

Budgeting for time, meanwhile, includes family and friends, recreation, participation in valued activities, even “simmering” abed in the morning and evening.

If a giving plan returns us to religious concepts such as Tzedakah and tithing, and budgeting our time revisits the ideals of Sabbath, margins, and feasting, our spending brings us back to the counsel of Plainness, simplicity, frugality, and stewardship. How we spend our dollars, then, can be seen as planting seeds that will become blades and then harvest. Did you expect your spending would become a spiritual practice? Here’s where your values take root and bear fruit or grain.

Ask yourself: Just how much of my income stream is for me alone?

What are your top five charitable donations? How do they express your values? Would you like to increase your level of giving?

Do you prefer to concentrate your giving on a few causes or scatter it among many? Do you respond more to local appeals or to national and international groups? Do you divide your giving between “big” donations and amounts for face-to-face requests?

Do you support your causes in other ways, such as serving on a board, spending time at the office, or working with clients?

Where do you volunteer? And why? Do you also benefit in this giving?

*   *   *

Before I leave you with an impression that I have my own fiscal house in order, let me confess, I don’t. At least, not to the degree I desire. This is an ongoing project, and our situations are constantly evolving. In my case, I got married, with two daughters thrown into the bargain. All of the money considerations I’d worked through were instantly turned upside down; my orderly ways were buffeted by chaos, and yet all the previous money exercises served well. We were able to afford a house in a rising market (just in time, as it turned out), and then make some major, unexpected repairs and renovations. It’s an old house, which is a whole other money story, somewhat akin to buying a boat (a hole in the water into which you pour endless amounts of money) – but it’s ours. As I wrote this, one kid had just finished college; the other was about to start. All on a modest income. It feels pretty jerry-rigged, to be honest, but I’m keeping my sanity, most of the time. Not to say the negative emotions don’t kick in, when least expected, or that it’s always an easy ride. At least now I have a strong mirror to remind me more often than I’d like when I’m forgetting these lessons.

As my wife has also observed, the successful ones are single or childless couples. Kids throw everything into chaos. Just consider the time budgeting:

How many hours do you spend “chauffeuring” kids from one activity to another? How often do you drop what you’re doing to meet their needs and demands? Are there ways to simplify this? How many of their expenses are unbudgeted? How many are emergencies?

It’s not just the kids, either. If you’ve kept a small time-use notebook, you can now look for ways to consolidate and economize. For instance:

How often each week do you shop for food? Could you go less? Do you stick to a shopping list? Or do you set an amount, and stop when you reach it? How long does it take you to get to the store and back?

When I was employed “on the road,” I found that getting off the interstate highway to make a phone call took 15 minutes, rather than the five I would have answered. (This was back before cell phones hit the market.) If you’re running on a tight schedule, a miscalculation like this can snowball through the rest of the day. Again, it’s important to look honestly, rather than continue with pollyannaish bungling.

When you find yourself wondering “where the time went,” was this a result of inefficiency doing required tasks? Or was it a consequence of being fully engrossed in an activity you value?

Are there ways to put blocks of time to multiple activities? (I hate the term “multi-tasking” – too often it’s an excuse for inattention.) But folding laundry while watching a television show might be a positive example.

For me, listening to books on CD, an opera, or even the Sox game on my long commute permits me to engage in something I probably wouldn’t get to at home, given the activities awaiting me there. Sometimes I prefer to use the drive as “simmering” time, to collect my thoughts or observe the passing seasons. It’s my choice. Allowing a little longer for the travel leaves me feeling richer. I can stop off somewhere or explore a side road, to see how it connects. My commute is best when I’m not just rushing through on my way to somewhere else, but rather more fully right where I am.

The idea of degrees of satisfaction can also come into play here. With a family, I have less control over our aggregate consumption. You think I’m going to tell my mother-in-law to use less electricity in her adjacent apartment? For that matter, you think the kids listen when I urge them to turn off the lights when they leave a room or that they don’t need to have every bulb in the house blazing when they’re home alone at night? Even I’m learning. Other values and emotional needs come into play in these considerations.

What I do sense is zones of control. I don’t try to micromanage the grocery budget or garden expenses or Saturday morning yard sales – my wife does quite well there, thank you. I couldn’t oversee my elder daughter’s expenditures during her semester in Italy, either. When educational opportunities popped up for our younger daughter, we tried to accommodate. None of this means we have to be extravagant or tolerate waste. But it does mean allowing flexibility, to seize the moment while we’re altogether. These days, when it comes to our household spending plan, we generally work within guidelines, and readjust as needed.

It works for us because my wife is frugal – in many ways, more than I am, though I see myself as more tight-fisted. She, too, has run the numbers in Your Money or Your Life. That’s not to say we don’t have differences. I prefer to have more in our savings. I’d also prefer to dine out more often; she, on the other hand, thinks that when you do eat out, you should go for the whole works – appetizer through desert, while I’d argue that’s overdoing it. You get the picture; it’s a normal marriage, though hardly typical.

Yes, I’ve wound up usually brown-bagging my lunch, thanks to my wife’s and kids’ attention. (The time element reappears.) And my “leftovers” have some of my coworkers drooling. (Even my younger one is an excellent cook. Although I developed some fine kitchen skills during my years of being single, I’m merrily the least accomplished chef in this household.)

No wonder many of the money-discussion participants were so skeptical when it came to considering financial independence. Life with children is a complicated affair – and highly unpredictable. Like marriage itself, it’s an act of faith, a commitment to an unknown future. How do you plan for the unexpected? In this case, maybe it’s more a matter of preparing than planning, per se. Making course corrections as you steer toward a desired destination. Yes, priorities are essential. Otherwise, you just float around in circles – and wonder where all the money and time went.

There are useful solutions. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s important to talk about money. It also explains the enduring popularity of the Hints From Heloise newspaper column.

When my wife led a workshop on Feasting and Fasting, our friend Randy remarked how much his family had saved by purchasing a used freezer. When they cooked in quantity, they would freeze extra portions. They purchased large quantities of items on sale, or preserved much from the garden. Soon afterward, we bought a freezer of our own, had an electrical line put in to power it, and continue the thrifty practices he mentioned.

Now, on a snowy day in January, when Rachel goes to the freezer to pull out a plastic bag of our own tomatoes she reduced to a soup and then serves it to us at our table, I’m the richest man on earth. Hallelujah.

Doesn’t sound like pinching pennies, either, does it?

Suggested further reading

  • Joseph R. Dominguez and Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life (Penguin, 1992), contains a nuts-and-bolts approach to budgeting and planning – or, as they put it, to achieving the American Dream on a shoestring. His Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (1986),  an amplified version, with audio cassettes and a workbook, is available from the New Road Map Foundation, Post Office Box 15981, Seattle 98115. Their system of bringing satisfaction indicators and even pleasurable spending categories to the personal budgeting ledger remains revolutionary and extraordinarily helpful.

Stop and smell the roses

Satisfaction can be found as we recognize the good things already present in our lives. Usually, we’re so busy desiring what we don’t have that we fail to appreciate what we already possess. Sometimes it takes someone else to remind us of just what special gifts we possess.

This can lead into praise and thanksgiving. Once you see your present income and possessions as blessings, you can really consider their best use. Remember, too, that a “blessing” and “happiness” are often synonyms. Individuals who have very little in material wealth but who sense contentment in their life itself are already prosperous in many ways; you may have already learned to delight in “little luxuries,” low-cost and even no-cost splurges that brighten your life or those of your friends and loved ones. Such pleasures allow you to enjoy the splendor of God’s creation. Too much deferred gratification can prevent you from living in “the holy now,” appreciating the moment at hand. Denial of genuine enjoyment can lead into a dour religion or a gloomy existence where you’re blind to the splendor of the lilies of the field.

Lately, I’ve found myself telling my wife, “It’s not a bad life, is it” – despite the latest disasters and confrontations. We look at something that’s gone right. Sit down together. See that the goldfinches have returned to the sunflowers or the red wiggler worms to the compost. The house needs painting, we’re rich in weeds (some of which will flower), we have four cords of firewood seasoning, the lawn’s newly mowed, one daughter just graduated from college, the other’s starting another year of high school. It’s a balancing act, after all.

When one friend asked her grown children to join her in examining the question, “How much is enough,” they decided to establish a small foundation. Its mission is to provide grants that enable individuals to pursue a spiritual action – periods of travel, teaching, study, documentary-making are among the varied pursuits it has supported. While she could have simply handed out the money to those who asked, the decision to work through the foundation, I think, liberates both the donor and the applicant. The transaction is more equal. She’s freed from arbitrary choices, from a fear of slighting or offending people, from establishing an amount. The applicant gains footing by having to draft a proposal, present it to a board, and express how this will benefit not just the applicant but others as well. The process has resulted in a high level of satisfaction, all the way around.

William Blake, in his Proverbs of Hell, poses this question: “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” Composer Eve Beglarian, in a recent musical setting of the text, answers with a Bach chorale of thanksgiving and praise, in German.

In their workshops, Barbara and Mary sometimes divided participants into three smaller discussion circles, based on individual responses to the query, “Do I have enough money for my needs and desires?” The first circle was for those who felt they didn’t have enough. In the second, those who were satisfied. In the third, those who had more than enough. Once again, shared discussion becomes empowering. You’re not alone in your what are ultimately holy – and holistic – confrontations.

Now ask yourself:

Do I deserve to have enough money in my life?

Let me suggest it’s like asking, “Do I deserve to smell the roses?”

If you don’t feel you deserve blessings – another word for happiness – you have some healing to do. Your work is valuable. You should be compensated accordingly. Children will rarely thank you for all that you’ve done, and may jobs won’t pay what you deserve, no matter how self-effacing you are. Still, you’ve identified values you want to extend to make the world a better place. Why shouldn’t you have resources to do it? You want to help others. You can’t do it alone. There’s no shame in honest wealth.

Some evangelical Christians who have looked intently at money issues find that writing a small “thank you” on every check can be liberating. It expresses gratitude for the exchange that has taken place, and for the very fact of having an income to use. This small touch can become an empowering habit, expressing the concept of stewardship and blessing. We’re not being victimized when we pay our bills. Some even see this as a second time of appreciating the purchase or service. “Oh, yes, I remember dining there,” or, “I’m sure glad we the repairman could come then.”

Others have even transformed the way they pray. Instead of requesting a change, they thank God that it’s already happening in their lives. Rather than asking for a life’s partner, for example, they might express gratitude for the companion who’s already on the way to meet them. Others have spoken of praying for God to provide the gift itself – asking that the $100 appear for a certain donation, for instance, and then unexpectedly opening a dividend check from the insurance company covering the requested amount. Wouldn’t that alter your outlook!

After leading the first series of workshops, I received a note: “My thoughts on money are simple. … As long as I can provide a roof over my head, food on the table, and a new pair of jeans every three years for dress-up, I never give money a thought. If everyone gave more of their love, they wouldn’t have time to think if they should think about money.” Before you dismiss this as superficial or irresponsible, let me add that when it comes to the details of handling money, this woman is one of the savviest and most detail-oriented people I know – and one of the most generous. The more I look at it, the more I see she’s right.

Suggested further reading

  • Louise Hay’s Love Yourself, Heal Your Life Workbook has checklists, exercises, affirmations, and power points for many different aspects of our lives, such as money and prosperity, health, work, fears, and intimacy.

By degrees

So if sufficiency isn’t so much a figure as an attitude, where do we find it?

I think of my dentist, who once admitted, “I don’t do this for the money. I do it because I love what I’m doing.” It’s skillful work, after all. His wife runs the office cheerfully and efficiently, and has seen no need to go computerized, either. (Talk about impressive!) Everyone, coming and going, seems to love Marj, especially.

They’ve found an enjoyable balance in their lives. Their house overlooks the “big lake” but isn’t on the waterfront. They have a fun sports car. His photographs adorn the office. And even in the city, an impressive array of birds comes to the feeders outside his office windows.

So it’s not necessarily getting away from the workplace that defines satisfaction.

Security, however, is a big factor. Our dentist and his wife aren’t worried about being fired. Likewise, college tenure allows many professors the satisfaction of pursuing their research and teaching without fear of dismissal.

Let me suggest that satisfaction requires a suitable tension. This is a paradox, of course, as the two sides of the coin reappear. It requires limits and focus, as well as sufficient resources. It’s a comfort zone, not a pyramid.

Marla Cilley, the Fly Lady, touches on this when she proclaims, “Tomorrow is my weekly cleaning hour. Yes, I only spend one hour blessing our home. If truth be told, I only spend 10 minutes a chore. When the timer goes off, I stop what I’m doing and go on to the next chore.” She has a list and sticks to the plan. “The beauty of this system is that it gets done and it does not have to be done perfectly.” Baby steps, she insists, are just as good as mastery. “Housework done incorrectly still blesses your family.”

I hear in this the potential for degrees of satisfaction. That is, maybe we’ve been looking at “enough” through the wrong lenses. Freedom would be nice, of course. Taking steps to improve our financial security, meanwhile, can be seen like Fly Lady’s weekly cleaning – even baby steps help.

Jesus reminds us to ask for daily bread – enough for our needs now – rather than the whole shebang at once. In a way, this reintroduces us to the idea of the seed leading slowly to harvest. The bread also represents seed someone else planted and harvested, and our place in this exchange.

Degrees of satisfaction also suggests an awareness of economic tradeoffs. No matter how many shoes you own, you can wear only one pair at a time. You can’t have it all. On a day off, I have to decide – am I going to the beach or the mountains? They’re in opposite directions. In marriage, you promise to “forsake all others” and thus find satisfaction in wedded bliss.

Satisfaction now becomes seen as:

  • Engaging in an ongoing process, rather than a finished – and static – product.
  • Having the tools and resources to engage in the work at hand. (Not more than you can handle or need.)
  • Moving toward your own goals and values – not the neighbors’.
  • Enhancing personal safety and security. Providing sufficient comfort.
  • Knowing your limits and focus.
  • Learning to live below your income. Becoming debt free.
  • Balancing … including your time. And appreciation for the blessings already extended to you.
  • Recognizing clutter as a symptom of overabundance and imbalance. Maybe even as a consequence of a cluttered schedule.
  • Seeing ways you are financially empowered, rather than victimized.
  • Shopping in locally owned enterprises, when feasible. Knowing your merchants and growers.
  • Leaving a place better than you found it.
  • Remembering to play.
  • Enjoying your body. Exercise. Dance. Swim. Infinitum.
  • Giving joyfully.
  • Realizing that no matter how wealthy you are, there’s always somebody richer out there. (And for the one person this does not apply to, there’s no harm in coming down a few notices in the next listing of the world’s richest people.)

*   *   *

“Enough,” we are seeing, is a matter of something other than money. That’s not to deny money’s function in empowering the conditions. “The rich man,” according to the Talmud, “is the man who is satisfied with what he has.” (And if you’re not satisfied with what you have? Maybe it’s time to clear it away and be rid of the annoyance.)

From this perspective, satisfaction can be a result of simplifying – taking a moment to acknowledge the treasures in our presence.

Paul Hawken advises, “Always leave enough time in your life to do something that makes you happy, satisfied, or even joyous. That has more of an effect on economic well-being than any other single factor.” Again, we’re reminded of the importance of margins in our lives – spaces for breathing and imagination.

Small, unadorned moments are priceless. In the wintertime, I’ve loved coming home from the office in the wee hours (I worked the second shift) and settling in on the kitchen floor, my back against the refrigerator, to watch the flames in our wood stove. This is no ornamental showpiece – the firewood heats about a third of our house – and part of my activity is to make sure the fire will continue until my wife wakes up in the morning. Maybe I’ll even have a glass of wine, to wind down. Let my thoughts wander. Be grateful. In the summer, this might happen more as a matter of taking my lunch outside before dashing away. View the changes in the garden. Look up into the trees. Observe the birds and parade of flowers. Listen to my wife, if she takes a break to sit with me. The commute itself is better if I can allow an extra five or 10 minutes, and then stop off somewhere. Once, for instance, it was to detect moose tracks between deer tracks in the snow. One week, I finally stopped to nose around two graveyards and learned there had been a Colonial ironworks in the neighborhood.

For Mary Clark, this is a matter of maintaining “Simplicity of Focus” (Quaker Life magazine, June 1998). “Maintaining equilibrium in the midst of a whirlwind requires constant vigilance. We are at our simplest, yet our greatest complexity, when we are able to clearly discern the difference between who we are and who we are not. Each new occasion presents us with opportunities to practice and perfect the simplicity of our discernment.” Through spiritual clarity, we are enriched and blessed.

Diane Pasta, in “Thrifty and Rich: Quaker Paradox” (FGConnections, Summer 1999), expresses her awareness of satisfaction: “I own a home; I must be rich. Still, I am a frugal Quaker woman. My furniture comes ‘as is.’ My favorite store is a thrift store, and they know me when I go to buy clothes or household items. I mend clothes. … This frugality takes place in my spacious home, agreeably situated in Seattle. When I throw a baby shower, friends have plenty of room to celebrate the new life … and I am profusely rich in community life.” She continues with the refrain, “I own a home; I must be rich,” each time rolling through the balance of living simply and carefully within a sense of abundance, building down to the conclusion: “None of my tangible wealth is permanent in this world, and its immediate (relative) scarcity reminds me of this. It is the intangible wealth that I value the most: the copious community sharing, ample access to knowledge, and plentiful empowerment. I am lavishly, abundantly rich.”