Monday, February 24, 2014

What are some practical ways that we can live simply and fight against materialism?

Q:  I think it's time you write a blog entry about materialism.  I am really struggling with finding a balance in my life which I know you have wrestled with on a much larger scale.

A: I actually did write a lengthy blog entry about this some time ago, at What is our responsibility to the Poor? In that entry I look specifically at what the Church teaches and why we should live simply.  Simplicity is a virtue, so we could always just live it for it's own sake, but as St Paul wrote "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing."  (1 Corinthians 13:3).  Suffice it to say, Church teaching has been consistently that we ought to "Live simply so others might simply live." (Mother Teresa)   And I cannot think of a moral principal more clearly and repeatedly insisted upon in scripture than that.  It is certainly more clear than sexual ethics, which is everybody's favourite topic when discussing Catholic morality.

So, motivated to live according to these principals, what are some practical things that we can do?  I'm no financial genius, and I don't know where the balance lies between paying off a mortgage and investing and giving to the poor and saving for retirement. Although for the latter this parable always comes to mind;

“The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.19And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’
20“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

What I would suggest however is that we discipline the way we spend our money, with a mind towards giving more to the poor. (I'm going to discuss here my personal finances, opening me to all kinds of criticism, but I think talking about real life helps when addressing practical matters.)  

I have essentially 2 ideas on how to live simply.  I tried to think of a third one, because that's a preacher and memory thing to do, but I only have 2. 

1.  Budget.  This is good financial advice anyway, because it will prevent you from impulse buys.  But decide ahead of time how much you should spend on groceries/month, how big a house you need, if you really need 2 cars, etc, set a budget, and live by it.  The real kicker for me was when we decided to budget luxury items.  Catherine and I set our budget at $100/month each.  Please note that this is $100 we spend on things we don't need, but want, despite the fact that $100 would feed, school, clothe and house a kid in Africa for 3 months. So I am well aware that this is an extremely selfish standard.  None the less, it has proven effective.

The reason is that so much of what we would spend our money on is luxuries!  Not just entertainment and restaurant food-  but a second vehicle, vacations, home theatre, cable fees, internet charges, renovations, furniture, etc.  We recently bought a new van, and realized we can't plug my iphone (work phone, so hold the accusations)  into the new car stereo.  We really like listening to podcasts on road trips-  especially Paws n' Tails for the kids. So, we decided to buy a new car stereo.  Yup, it came out of luxury budget.  And because of that, we can't afford the cross country skis we wanted. Or the roof rack so I can bring my bike camping.

You see, as soon as you budget how much you will spend on luxuries, you start thinking about all of your purchases.  Catherine and I do allow a little flex here and there, and are not scrupulous about it. But it makes a huge difference!  Fr Scott McCaig CC always says "Exterior discipline leads to interior conversion."  I absolutely believe this is true, and it has become for me a guiding principal.    

2. "Thou shalt not covet..."  It's funny that the way Catholics break down the commandments, the last 2 are both about coveting.  Because, our whole economic system, and indeed our culture is built on coveting.  Coveting just means wanting stuff.  How often do we see an ad for something and suddenly decide that we want it?  Take a drive and look at houses from the 50's.  How can they have been satisfied with so little back then?  Now we "need" so much!  Partly, it's because we compare our standard of living with those of everyone around us, and are not happy unless we have "as much as".

I work in a school, and all of my co-workers (teachers mostly) have much nicer houses than I do.  Naturally, since they all have better paying jobs.  But this creates a false standard for me, makes me wish I had a bigger house, and a nicer yard, and a play structure for the kids, and a hot tub, and a second car....  and could go on vacations where they vacation... you get the idea.  We covet because we compare, and Pride is in there.

At some point living simply reversed my pride on me.  (If I sound self righteous, it's cause I am, though I'm working on that!)  At some point I started being proud to live cheaply.  "Everything you see in this room I aquired for free!"  I would brag while sitting in my living room with a friend.  And it's true-  it is extremely easy to get everything for free if you just have standards lower than everyone else's!  Electronics, toys, furniture... Even most of our clothes have been free or 'nearly free'.  (There's a second hand store in town where nice jeans will go for a buck.)

I suspect that the biggest source of our coveting though is advertising. It is so obvious that advertising makes you want things you otherwise wouldn't want, it almost doesn't bear saying.  You can't entirely avoid advertising-  but you can give it a good run!  Catherine and I happen to not like TV, so that part was easy.  We also don't think a cable or internet subscription are a worthwhile expense on our luxury budgets.  Especially when you can go to the library, ask for any movie you want, and they bring it in for free. We have Brave right now, and are waiting for Despicable Me 2.

So I guess my second word of advice is stop watching so much advertising, and stop the culture of flattering and congratulating everybody for making big purchases!  

Frankly, who cares if your clothes are second hand and your house is out of date?  People all over the world are starving to death!!!  We need to break this culture of coveting!

So, those are my 2 practical suggestions.  I have found that by trying to live simply, we keep finding more ways to simplify our lives.  We just put in an offer on a mobile home.  A lot of people are going to think we're stupid for that, and it's not a good investment, and we have to sell a lot of stuff to fit into it.  But out mortgage costs will be less than our present rent, and our mortgage will be paid off in 5 years, and you know what?  That means in 5 years we will have about $1000/month freed up to give to the poor.  By my logic, built on 'seek first the kingdom of heaven'  and 'store up treasures for yourself in heaven' and 'look at the birds... they know their heavenly father will look after them.  You are worth much more'.... I could go on... by my logic, based in my faith and a desire to love, this is a good choice.     

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