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Finding Balance: Thrift versus Consumption?

By Rosalyn Eves

I have a confession to make: I like shopping–even grocery shopping (if I can do it without kids). I enjoy browsing through merchandise displays; I get a real rush from finding a great deal. This hasn’t always been true of me—as a kid I remember being dragged reluctantly to clothing stores. Back then, I only really enjoyed shopping for books. Somehow this all changed when I was in graduate school (I’m not sure why, but I suspect it may have been because shopping was a nice outlet after all that studying.) But I’ve begun to suspect, recently, that my enjoyment is becoming a habit; that sometimes I buy things not because I need them but because of the sheer thrill of consuming.

Because of this realization, our recent 5th Sunday lesson—a lesson on provident living—seemed particularly timely to me. The lesson was organized around Elder Faust’s 1986 talk, “The Responsibility for Welfare Rests with Me and My Family.” In this talk, he offers the following five tips on living providently:
1. Practice thrift and frugality
2. Be independent
3. Be industrious
4. Be self-reliant
5. Have a year’s supply of food and clothes stored

However, as the lesson unfolded, I found myself reflecting not simply on the value of provident living, but reflecting that this principle (like so many in the gospel) is lived best when it’s lived in moderation and balance; I realized how easy it could be for any one of these points to be taken to an unhealthy extreme. Please let me be clear at the outset: I’m not trying to denigrate being self-sufficient or living frugally—I think these are important principles with both spiritual and practical implications. I’m simply trying to better understand how to apply this principle in my own life.

Thrift and frugality are of course important, both to avoid debt and to avoid getting too caught-up in consumerism. At the same time, I see a danger in extreme thriftiness that threatens the kind of creative culture the church also advocates. If we only buy things we need for physical survival, how do we justify supporting community culture? Are books, art, music and film luxuries or necessities? Perhaps more contentious–is a family vacation really a “necessity”? Beyond philosophical considerations of cultural support, there’s also the practical issue that if everyone stopped buying things that weren’t strictly necessary, our national economy would suffer considerably more than it currently is. In thinking about this, I don’t think there’s an easy answer to how to balance thrift against consumption, or an answer that applies to everyone. However, in a recent (2009) conference address, Elder Hales offered an insightful question that helps me find balance: “Whenever we want to experience or possess something that will impact us and our resources, we may want to ask ourselves, ‘Is the benefit temporary, or will it have eternal value and significance?’” Thus, while a family vacation may not be necessary for our physical survival, it can be money well spent if it brings us together as a family. This even means that sometimes, it’s okay to go shopping just for pleasure—for my mom and me, shopping means quality one-on-one time that we might not otherwise get

Independence and self-reliance, excellent virtues that they are, can also be taken to extreme. In the course of the lesson, one of the ward members shared a story about Brigham Young shortly after the saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. He chastised members because, in their efforts to exercise independence, they forgot that they were a community. For instance, one man’s crops suffered, because he refused to hire another man (newly arrived in the valley and in need of money) to build a fence for his livestock because that was work that he himself could do. To me, this story highlights the fine balance between community and individuality—if we rely too much on each other, we allow community to smother independence. But if we’re too independent, we don’t rely on each other enough. While salvation is admittedly an individual practice, one of the things I value most about the church is the strong sense of community—and a sense that we become saved in part in the process of helping one another draw closer to Christ. Sometimes, the most powerful service we can render is to let others serve us.

Even industry can be taken too far: we can become so busy that we forget to take time for quiet contemplation. Elder Maxwell once wrote a lovely piece called “Wisdom and Order,” in which he pointed out that even the Savior needed to take time out periodically.

None of these issues are particularly new ones. In the late nineteenth century, Eliza R. Snow and other church leaders advocated “retrenchment”—a movement towards self-reliance and “retrenching” from consuming the world’s goods (a move that was partly motivated by the fear that the members of the Church would be seduced by worldly culture if they relied too much on the world’s goods). In an 1874 address “To the Young Sisters in Provo” (published in the April 1874 Woman’s Exponent), Snow lauded the Retrenchment Society, “in which many earnest women are working in union for mutual improvement to the benefit of Zion, not only retrenching table extravagance, and what is ludicrous and disgusting in the fashion of dress, but, also retrenching ignorance, the spirit of the world, and everything else that is opposed to noble womanhood, and progress in the path to perfection.” While I am by no means perfect myself—or an expert in provident living—this is the kind of movement I can get behind: one that simultaneously encourages material restraint and spiritual growth.

The real question I want to raise is one of balance: How do we practice thrift without becoming cheap or miserly? How do we seek after industry without becoming so busy we lose sight of the value of quiet? How can we practice self-sufficiency that balances individual needs with communal ones? Mostly, how do we practice this principle as a physical and spiritual principle, one that ideally makes us more like Christ?

About Rosalyn Eves

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework. Her first novel comes out Spring 2017 from Knopf.

26 thoughts on “Finding Balance: Thrift versus Consumption?”

  1. Even industry can be taken too far: we can become so busy that we forget to take time for quiet contemplation.

    This is something I have been dealing with and it's beginning to snowball. No matter what high-priority item on my to-do list I am doing, I'm fretting and feeling guilty about the ones I am not doing (but can't possibly be doing because I'm only one person). That can't be good…

  2. I achieve balance by shopping for my year's supply of food and clothing–and a few other essentials. Nothing makes me feel more virtuous than filling my grocery cart full of huge boxes of toilet paper, soap,oatmeal and other items at Costco.

  3. Thank you for a fantastic post, Rosalyn. I agree with all of your points. In fact, I'm going to feel much better about our Christmas trip and that lovely red coat I plan on buying this month.

  4. And yet Eliza herself was a fashionista, which caused problems given what she said was different from what she did, as far as retrenchment goes.

  5. I have struggled with this issue as well. I learned an important lesson when we were students and I was nine months' pregnant in Utah the heat of summer and we had no air conditioner. We finally went out and bought a window unit for a couple hundred dollars (with cash) and then I proceeded to fret and feel guilty because after all, the pioneers didn't have air conditioning so why did I need it? Then I had a dream in which the Lord basically let me know that He doesn't care if I have an air conditioner but He does care if I keep His commandments. That helped me a lot. Since then I've still struggled from time to time (I can totally relate to what Moriah wrote above)–do I spend a little more money on an item because it is better made/I like it more or do I go cheap? I have come to rely a little more on what Elder Ashton said in the beginning of the pamphlet "One for the Money" that buying cheap stuff usually ends up being more expensive in the long run (but sometimes cheap stuff is fine because it does the job). I have found that keeping it all in balance and perspective is a constant struggle and not letting this struggle overwhelm other important areas of life is part of it. Sometimes it is better to just buy the darn thing and be done with it (but not always.) 🙂

  6. I love this post. I think the answer is awareness. As we become aware of the fact that all these concepts are good but can be taken to the extreme, we can find the balance that is right for us and our family. Sometimes we'd rather have it spelled out exactly, but the beauty is in discovering the balance for ourselves.

  7. @Ana

    do I spend a little more money on an item because it is better made/I like it more or do I go cheap? I have come to rely a little more on what Elder Ashton said in the beginning of the pamphlet “One for the Money” that buying cheap stuff usually ends up being more expensive in the long run (but sometimes cheap stuff is fine because it does the job).[…]Sometimes it is better to just buy the darn thing and be done with it (but not always.)


    I had this lifechanging epiphany back in May (I'm linking to it, but I SWEAR I'm not a spammer!).

    Since then I've really had to reassess how I spend money versus how I spend time, and I decided to CALCULATE how much I could've made doing money work versus how much money I "saved" trying to DIY something. You know what? I could've made more money simply going to Wal-Mart and buying it (whatever "it" was) because I could've spent that time doing money work.

    Then we went to NY and had the means to PAY people to a) do things we'd always done ourselves (bellhop-type stuff) and b) take us where we wanted to go. It was CHEAPER and less frustrating and more efficient and made life a whole lot easier.

    So now what I have to do is calculate the ROI of time versus money to determine whether or not I should buy or make. (And that's not even up a level to buy cheap versus buy expensive.) I have to sort out which parts of a project I SHOULDN'T do, and which I can and should do.

  8. Love this, Rosalyn! A couple of thoughts about the whole consumerism thing, from the perspective of an environmental scientist (and self-confessed pseudo-hippie granola girl): Frankly, I think a lot of the real costs of our consumerism–to other people, to the environment–are hidden. Clothing should just not be as cheap as it is at Target or Wal-Mart or Old Navy… but it's that cheap because it's poor quality, and therefore "disposable" (which means the environmental impacts of its fabrication are now multiplied by two or three or four, for however many cheap shirts you went through that would have equated to one higher-quality shirt), and sometimes made by people being paid very low wages for work in less than ideal conditions. Most of our textiles are now produced abroad, which can be great if it means providing good jobs in regions where that is lacking. But, that also means we've exported our industrial pollution to some other country where regulations are likely more lax. Americans, on average, are among the wealthiest in the world, and to know that our consumption of random stuff inflicts environmental damage (and possibly human damage) in remote countries where we don't see it really does pain me. The moderation thing comes into play here: I wouldn't advocate a spartan lifestyle in the name of environmentalism, but I think it's smart to be aware of the hidden costs, and factor that into the "what does this really cost" equation. Something that's likely to be more durable not only saves the consumer money, it saves environmentally.

    Food is another area where I feel like there are a lot of hidden costs that we might not be willing to pay if we really knew. Food grown on large-scale industrial farms is much cheaper than food grown on local, sustainable farms–but industrial farms are often guilty of environmentally questionable practices and serious labor rights violations for their workers. There's evidence the food itself is less nutritious, even before you think of all the toxic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer residues. I gladly pay extra for produce at the farmer's market, and free-range chicken and eggs and the local co-op, because I'm happy to pay for the health of land, and for the lack of toxic pesticide residues. Americans spend a really ridiculously small percentage of their incomes for food–smaller than ever before in history, and less than any other country. But is it worth all the extra disposable income if it means more air and water pollution, and possibly your own health?

    And now, I'll step off my soap box…. 😉

  9. I'm totally dying at the quote by Eliza Snow about clothing in 1874 being "ludicrous and disgusting". If only it were so ludicrous and disgusting now!

    I love to shop. Love it! But I love a good deal more. Although I still buy things, I'm an an ace at finding items as cheap as possible. Plus I know how to sew. Plus I don't shop at Walmart on principle. Those three things make me feel pretty good about my thrift vs. consumption quotient.

    If I might recommend an excellent documentary about the crazy need people have to buy things called "What Would Jesus Buy" (it takes place during Christmas, and the main guy in the film is just horrified by all the consumer excess at Christmas.) It's really made me think.

  10. I think about this topic all the time. I am a frugal person by nature married to a man who loves to spend and loves nice things. This has created no end of conflict in our relationship and I have had to learn that being frugal is not always the better option. (I still think it is MOST of the time, though…)

    We have been taught that we are on earth not to suffer and be miserable, but to have sometimes painful experiences mixed with happiness and joy. Granted, overconsumption doesn't lead to joy, but being thoughtful and prayerful about our finances has sometimes led us to make decisions that seem anything but frugal. These have included going on a cruise, joining a tennis and swimming club, and buying a grand piano, all of which seemed like luxuries that we shouldn't even consider. I fought against each of these decisions initially, but when I prayed about them, I was shocked to find out that the Lord WANTED us to do these things. Sometimes I'm surprised by how much the Lord wants us to be happy.

  11. Thank you all for your comments! It's always refreshing to be reminded here that I'm not the only person who worries (sometimes obsesses) about philosophical/moral questions like this.

    @ Marintha–I'd forgotten that about ERS. Although I have to say, that fact rather endears her to me–she can come across as somewhat forbidding sometimes; it's nice to know that she wasn't exempt from frivolous temptations herself.

    @Ana–I agree, we can sometimes overthink this issue! And cheaper is not always better. I read somewhere (but didn't include it because my post was already long enough, plus I'm not sure where the original reference was) that God doesn't care as much if we have a fine house as he cares about our willingness to give that house up if he asks us. I've tried to think about that as I try to balance questions of want v. needs.

    @ Moriah–I think you're absolutely right about including time as a hidden factor of what things cost.

    @ Laura–thanks for adding your perspective! You had some wonderful things to say about the hidden environmental costs that many of us (unfortunately) don't think nearly enough about. Since your perspective is one I'm not as knowledgeable about, I'm glad you got on your soapbox! Clearly, price isn't the only factor we need to consider when we purchase things (just in these comments you've all raised the issue of quality, time, and environmental costs–not to mention mental and emotional costs of trying to do too much ourselves.)

  12. These are issues for me as well. All those things swirl around my brain and many more along the lines of Laura's comment. It swirls so much that it becomes difficult to make a simple decision like where to shop for groceries. I used to buy from a local/organic co-op but their business practices make it complicated and I just don't have time for complicated. Not to mention that half the food went to waste because it wasn't good quality or my kids wouldn't eat it. At the same time I worry that the money I spend on better food could go towards good causes(fast offerings).

    Justifying expensive things just because they feel good and "bring our family closer" is short sighted. You can do many things to bring your family closer that don't cost thousands of dollars, in fact many cost nothing.

    There is a fine line between patting ourselves on the back for using our wealth to satisfy our selfish whims and truly viewing the world as a whole and our place in it as brothers and sisters. If I were to use the justifications here for a vacation I would never be able to afford to be a stay at home mom or a foster parent. (Not trying to put myself on a pedestal, it's just the best example I have because I don't know others' financial situations)

    I was humbled to read about the heifer program that some families participate in as part of their Christmas celebrations instead of buying each other gifts that could be considered "bringing the family closer". What is the greatest good for all involved?

    We sometimes consider luxury a necessity.We justify "deserving" it. If any of us got what we deserved we'd all be headed for hell.

    What's that saying President Hinckley used to say? 'Use it up, wear it out, make do, or go without'?

  13. My feelings on this matter have changed in the last couple of years. I say if you want to take your family to Disneyland or Chicago or Greece, DO IT! Of course don't be stupid with your money, but there are experiences we've had traveling with our children that I just don't know if we would have had were we at home.

    I think I disagree with you on this jendoop. For me, this is my answer, and I am completely at peace with it. Thankfully though, we are all entitled to receive our own personal revelation, so your answers and my answers can look differently.

    And as to shopping, I think that if you are spending in relatively moderate ways, we've got to stop making each other feel guilty for buying a new sweater or whatever. The question for me is, would I have a hard time giving it all away if the Lord asked me to? Are these 'things' my god? For me, that's the more salient question in my life. We make plenty of things do until they're worn out, but it's also ok to want to have something pretty and new. I know some remarkably wealthy people that are far more generous in spirit than I am, and while many of them live in nice homes with lots of nice things, I consider many of them to be among the very best people I know.

    I don't think there's anything about me being self-congratulatory if I want a pair of shoes that isn't from the Goodwill. Maybe I'm vain though, it's entirely possible.

  14. @Jendoop. I'm also grateful that most of us don't get what we "deserve." But one of the things I'm grateful for in the church is our belief in personal revelation–that each one of us is entitled to inspiration to make important decisions (and this can include how we spend our money). Although I'm certain that there are people who justify spending money on luxuries for frivolous reasons (and I'm also certain that I've fallen in that camp on occasion), I'm also pretty certain that I can't be certain who those people are in any given situation. That is, the only situation I can reliably comment on is my own–which could certainly be better.

    The challenge, for me, is in finding balance (thus the title of the post). I'm aware of the issues that you and Laura raise–but I'm also aware that I don't have the time, energy, or resources to respond to all the different causes that my heart impels me toward. I find that if I start to itemize all the things I *should* be doing better, I get paralyzed and instead do nothing. So I'm trying to focus on manageable goals. For now, that means trying to cut back on our Christmas spending on ourselves, and trying to more conscientiously think about where that discretionary money could go instead (and yes, being grateful that I have that money. I know it could so easily be different!). Other issues–important though they are–will have to wait for now.

  15. My daughter and I have started to enjoy shopping together–though the shopping very rarely leads to *buying* anything. 🙂 We stroll and chat and look and dream and discuss, and that's the best part, so actually taking home anything is entirely secondary, and most often, we don't buy.

    Every family has a different balance point. Our family has had experiences that led to a "stripping away" of material things, and have come through it with a better appreciation for a sufficient array of very good quality items, which totally changes our perspective on buying new things. I don't think there is any one "right" set of practices, other than the very obvious basics:

    * Live within your means
    * Avoid debt
    * Plan expenditures as far as possible
    * Save for the future
    * Dedicate some portion of your resources (time, money, talent) in service and compassion.

    There's a LOT of flexibility within those basics!

    About a year and a half ago, we had a house fire, and ended up living in a 400 square foot hotel room (thankfully, a "long term stay" hotel with a miniature kitchen and Very Large Desk/Table) with six people. For six weeks, my children had basic art supplies, one baby doll, one tea set, one dress-up skirt, one small tote of legos, and a chess set. Against all expectations, we were happy. It's been nice to get many of our things back, but it proved to us that home can be anywhere the family is, and that we don't *really* need that much, and it's been freeing for all of us!

    I do think we (the generic Mormon Woman) spend too much time agonizing over legalistic quantification; Christ's desires for us are so much more than a checklist of "how to do it right"…

  16. Christ’s desires for us are so much more than a checklist of “how to do it right”…


    I believe that how I spend my money reveals much about who I am. I believe my response to how others spend their money reveals even more.

  17. I guess I should explain that comment.

    When I read the comments on Segullah they sometimes tend to be one sided. I felt that way with this thread. I think about the people who are reading, but not commenting, who may let that line of comments influence their decisions. Should they have a one-sided discussion influencing them?

    Speaking both sides of an issue has value and encourages critical thinking. It would be great if we could encourage that critical thinking and honest exchange of ideas without jumping into thoughts of judgement aka condemnation. Yes, it is judgmental – of ideas, concepts and how to apply them. But not of a person, I believe I'd be booted from the discussion if I attacked a person.

  18. I agree that discussing both or all sides to an issue is important, jendoop. But I think a number of different views have been expressed here, did you not feel that way? And while differences in these issues or politics or in how to bake bread can become divisive, I will continue to assert that there doesn't have to be one right answer for every issue.

    The variety of life's experiences are all so varied, that sometimes sharing and understanding are more important, IMO, than debating the merits of each side. You and I disagree on this spending money issue, and I completely respect your viewpoint. I don't really think we're that far afield of each other. And I think sharing those viewpoints makes all of us stronger. I don't feel that KLS reminding us to not be judgemental in any way hinders an honest sharing of differing opinions. But there isn't always one right and one wrong viewpoint on SO many topics.

  19. Justine I think we are understanding each other. No one side is right, maybe I assert my opinion too strongly at times, making it seem that I don't leave room for anything on the other side.

    I'm thinking about this, "Sharing and understanding are more important, IMO, than debating the merits of each side." I push back sometimes because I want true understanding, each person in the dialog thinking deeply about what they think/do and why. For instance, instead of a person saying "I like black, so I buy black shirts," I want to know why the person likes black, not just that it is the reason they make wardrobe choices.

    What I'm saying is that I don't push back just to create tension or conflict, I don't want that. True understanding is what I'm after – for myself with my fellow man and with the doctrines.

  20. Jendoop–thanks for clarifying your position. I think it's sometimes hard to tell, in a strictly written forum, where something is a push for understanding (as you say) or a more personal attack. I'm glad to know you're coming from a position of seeking more understanding.

    I agree with Justine's idea that understanding can sometimes be the most important aim. My background is in rhetoric, and I think that one of the most important contributions that feminists have made to the study of rhetoric is the idea arguments do NOT always have to be antagonistic (the classical model for argument is a very "masculine" model, in the sense that it pits opponents against each other, and the most skilled speaker "wins"). These feminist rhetoricians argued for something called "invitational rhetoric," where the aim is achieved if both sides come away from the argument simply understanding one another better (not seeking to persuade). I'd like to think that something like that can happen in this forum as well.

  21. This is a great topic that has been an important part of my growth over the last decade.

    I grew up in a very wealthy stake and now I live again in one of the wealthiest stakes in the church. But myslef come from more more modest and frugal background. My husband's family from a lower income than mine.

    One eye-opening thing I've learned from a friend from Ghana was that in Africa if you have the means to hire help, but choose to do it yourself, you are not giving someone a job that they need. It is considered a good deed to have a housekeeper or gardener because you are employing someone! That idea was revolutionary in my mind (although obvious in many ways!)

    So when went on a cruise I didn't see it as frivolous (although I had to fight my natural inclination to eschew luxury) but saw how many people my money supported in jobs.

    I still think I should be careful with my money–but agree that it is more about my attitude toward it than exactly where each dollar goes.

    And I know the Lord wants me to be happy and feel good about myself. He let me have a new house (remodeled) how I wanted it! But I will leave it tomorrow if He wants me to.

    I used to harbor resentment toward some of the extremely wealthy members of the church and judge them for how they spent their money.

    I'm grateful I have learned not to anymore. For me that is a great accomplishment (not prize winning, but heart changing!)

  22. This is a topic that really gets me.

    My husband and I have chosen a simple life. We drive a fifteen-year-old, rusty mini van. We live in an old, not-very-attractive house, and yes, we're renting. My kids wear hand-me-down clothing.

    We saved up for 3 years following my husband's graduation from his Master's program. With that money, we adopted our two Ethiopian daughters.

    Now, we're saving up for the downpayment on a house.

    I'm 30. My husband is 36. We have six children age 8 and under, and we are renting, and basically living in some ways like we're starving college students… and it was our choice, to do so, so that we could bring home our daughters without any debt to our name.

    What do we do now? When we buy a house… will whole bunch of complicated consuming follow?

    And yet… it will be nice to live in a house that's ours.

    That doesn't mean I resent those who spend more money than we choose to, or resent people who have more. Not at all. The only time resentment starts is when I feel like people judge me and feel like they can tell me what to do, because I live a sort-of-humbler-existence than they do. But that doesn't happen very often, either.

    I really appreciated this post. Thanks for it.

  23. Oh, and to add: What we DO spend money on is exactly what you mention in this post: art and culture. For instance, all four of my girls take ballet and music lessons.

    While we're driving our 16 year old rusty car and renting our house, buying thrift-store clothes for our kids to wear and saving up for a house downpayment.

    Yeah, it's a little wierd. But that's where our priorities have fallen.


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