When Less Is...Less

If you’re not among the mommy set, you may not have heard about Hattie Garlick, the UK mom who has vowed not to spend a single pound on her two-year-old son for the next year. Hattie’s decision is part social rebellion, part necessity. She credits a growing distaste for “kiddy consumerism” and the fact that she was recently laid off (or as our British cousins say, “made redundant”). Ultimately, her decision is rooted in the ideas of minimalism and thrift—that we don’t need what everybody says we need and what we do need, we can find more cheaply.

I know a bit about this kind of counter-cultural lifestyle. I grew up in a family of seven with an extremely limited income. We gardened, canned, and wore hand-me-downs, not because my parents were making a public statement, but because they were trying to clothe and feed us. Even today with a smaller family and a decidedly larger income, I still buy most of our clothes at Goodwill, we hunt, garden, and can, and my idea of a good time is shopping at Aldi. And yet, even I am skeptical of frugality for frugality’s sake. (If I’m honest, I suppose I’m also a bit of a curmudgeon. Whenever being counter-cultural becomes trendy, I immediately get suspicious—I don’t make a very good hipster.)

Because even while those of us enmeshed in consumerism might need to cut of our hand to save our souls (Matt. 5:30), minimalism can have as many pitfalls as materialism. It’s entirely possible to trade consumerism for a Gnosticism that elevates efficiency and thrift above everything else. Just because we might be counter-cultural doesn’t mean that we don’t have our share of sub-cultural baggage. See if any of this luggage is yours:

  1. You don’t buy what you need. You skimp. Of course, the difficulty lies in determining the difference between a need and a want, but when thrift becomes your predominant value, it’s common to overreach on the definition of “want.” Toiletries are not wants, people.
  2. You get angry when the manager’s special corner is empty. Another pitfall is that you begin to feel entitled to a discount. You get addicted to “the deal” and refuse to pay full price for anything. You believe that the Sunday paper exists for the sole purpose of protecting your coupons and you feel cheated when there are none inside.
  3. You buy cheap instead of good. While the culture of advertising does ratchet up prices, a cheap price isn’t necessarily a bargain. Not all products are equal—there are reasons why the dollar store can sell dish detergent for a dollar. Any of which might be that it doesn’t work, it was produced with slave labor, or it includes toxic chemicals.
  4. You never throw anything away because “you never know.” Strict minimalists will have less of a struggle with this, but it is a significant problem for those of us devoted to thrift. I once had a great aunt who washed and dried paper towels. And Styrofoam meat trays. And plastic wrap. After all, you never know…
  5. You hear your children talking about life in terms of money. When you are uber-frugal, you begin to evaluate things by how much they don’t cost. Designer brands aren’t your status symbols; how cheaply you bought something is. When your children see this, you teach them that the value of something is directly related to its cost. This could come back to haunt you down the road—like when they’re choosing your nursing home.
  6. You become cheap with other people. Once you being to elevate thrift above your other values, it’s hard to contain it to your immediate family. While I love re-gifting as much as anyone, we must not forget that giving requires sacrifice—not on the part of the recipient but on the part of the giver.
  7. You judge other people who use money and space differently. For me this exhibits itself in suburbaphobia—the clinical fear of suburbia. I literally shut-down in malls and hate myself after eating at chain restaurants. And yet, I have to admit that this is simply another form of elitism; it’s the snobbery of thrift.

I wonder how we frugal-types will react when we finally reach heaven and God showers us with abundance. “I’m sorry, God, no mansion—I’ll just take that cottage over there. And I’m not sure if I can make it to that marriage-supper thingy…don’t want to have to buy a gift. But while you’re here, where can I get the Sunday paper?”

This is not a rant against thrift but a caution about not letting our thrift and minimalism become the defining factor of our lives. Because even as our budgets shrink, it’s entirely possible that our souls could shrink right along with them. Our thrift can quickly become parsimony and our frugality, stinginess. We must remember that the problem isn’t how much money we have; it’s how much we love the money (1 Tim. 6:10) we have. So that while we steward our blessings, we don’t for one minute believe that our stewardship provided them in the first place. Or that our stewardship could ensure that they will be there in the future.

Only God can do this. And He can do this precisely because He is a thrifty God—He doesn’t waste anything and has the power to make even our suffering work out for good (Rom. 8:28). And ultimately, He can do this because He is a generous God—He doesn’t spare expense and has bought us for Himself with nothing less than the precious blood of his Son. And if He didn’t spare Him, how shall he not with Him freely give us all things (Rom. 8:32)?

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There are 5 Comments

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Or that our stewardship could ensure that [our blessings] will be there in the future. Only God can do this.

This was my favorite thought in this outstanding piece. Thrift can easily become another form of self-reliance that makes us as much our own God as materialism does.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Jim's picture

Ephesians 4:28, "He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need."

Consume less .... more to give and save. 


GregH's picture

I want to write like Hannah when I grow up...

This is an interesting piece because it counters what you read on maybe 10,000,000 financially-related blogs. Maybe the pendulum is shifting to where there are a lot of people on this side rather than the other (materialism and irresponsible spending). It appears that people are far more financially frugal today than a few years ago for sure.

We have noticed at my company that there is a new breed of consumer that we don't like very much. They call and demand deep discounts and then want to stack promotions and coupons with no regard for fairness. When we tell them we don't allow some things, they nit-pick our fine print as if they could actually force us to sell things to them at the price they demand.

Or, there are those who you don't want to get behind at the grocery store. They haggle over elaborate coupon strategies with the cashiers without any regard for the people waiting on them. 

There is for sure a selfishness that can creep up with thriftiness. 

One additional piece of "luggage" I might add is that of undervaluing time to save money. Some people do not seem to get that. They spend hours to save pennies. I am always amazed at those who drive around to save a few pennies on gas.

Great article.

Susan R's picture


Great post, Hannah. Frugality can be another kind of greed, and most definitely a source of pride and snobbery. And so many thoughts went rambling through my brain as I read it...

I agree whole-heartedly about cheap not being better. When I buy cheap shoes, I'm lucky if they last a year. I buy a good pair for a few bucks more, and wear them for years. I bought what looked like a nice T-shirt once for about $3, and when I put it on at home, I realized it was so thin a mosquito could fly through it without breaking a wing. 

I remember once being a bit shocked that a friend had a very expensive purse, (Dooney & Burke, I think), because I knew that they were always down to their last nickel. And then I realized I was walking around wearing Liz Claiborne that I had purchased at Goodwill. I just had to shake my head at myself. 

It is important, IMO, to understand how our economy works. A friend was ranting this morning about Kroger not doubling coupons any more, and wanting to boycott them for being so greedy- but knowing how the economy and gas prices, not to mention the cost of complying with stringent FDA guidelines (not all of which are helpful) are going to affect the grocer, it shouldn't be surprising that the cost of doing business gets passed on to the consumer. IOW, we shouldn't get mad at businesses for protecting their bottom line. 


G. N. Barkman's picture

Having been reared in a family that operated very frugally out of necessity, it took me a while to find the balance.  (At least I hope I've found it.)  I am now ashamed at some of the unnecessary restraints I imposed upon my own family because I feared our resources would not be sufficient for the future.  It's difficult to get it right.  We observe those who seemingly throw caution to the wind, spending everything they have with no thought for the Winter, as well as those who pinch every nickel until the buffalo jumps off.

I had to come to terms with texts like "...God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy."  (I Timothy 6:17)  Some Christians never learn to enjoy the bountiful gifts of our exceedingly gracious God.  I had to learn to enjoy what God supplies without guilt.  Others may have to learn to manage more carefully so that they do not squander today what God has provided for future needs.

Thanks, Hannah, for a solid, thought-provoking article.

G. N. Barkman

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