a better pie, not a bigger one

 A part of Treasure & Ash, a series of short essays about money.

Give 10%, Save 10%, and live on the rest.

Money teaches us that we’re always behind the ball. We never quite make enough; we haven’t saved enough, we don’t have enough to live the life we deserve.  It seems not to matter which income bracket we’re in: the universal lesson of money is that there is never enough to go around.

A wise priest once taught though that money is surprisingly simple: give 10%, save 10% and live on the rest. Simple, I thought, but unrealistic. How on earth could I retrofit my budget to carve out 20% for savings & giving, pay my bills and still have some left over for the nicer things in life?

The counter-argument is that money simply doesn’t work that way.  When we add up our needs and wants and the interest-encumbered loans that put them within reach we quickly realize that the pie we imagine doesn’t seem big enough for a couple of ten-point slices.

Curiously, this pattern tends to hold regardless of how much we actually have. Yet the wise among us can somehow focus their energy in a different direction, away from the reverse-gravitational pull of upward mobility and towards a richer appreciation of the things in life that matter most.

The church, of course, teaches that giving proportionally will deepen our faith and make our lives better. We might say cynically that this enriches the church, but as a priest and husband/father I find that giving substantially really does make my approach to money and my relationships with others healthier, and that understanding often helps to unravel other knots in my life. Money may or may not be the root of all evil, but it tends to affix itself to any pathology it can find. Putting money in its place can help to get at the root of other tricky places in our lives.

Then there’s the 10% savings. This is where the financial planners and our parents (hopefully) speak with one accord: pay yourself first, plan for tomorrow, let your money grow and work for you.  Sound advice, although I’m not sure that those who teach 10% savings will always assume the kind of generosity that is also important.

Money’s dirty trick here is to convince us that 80% of what we think we deserve is just not going to cut it. This handcuffs us to the treadmill of never-enough. Challenged to give or save more, our wallets cry out with any number of leathery laments: “We’re barely making it as it is! But we pay so much in taxes ! And we deserve top-quality stuff, don’t we?”

What if instead we could learn, as early as possible, the beauty of living with just a little bit less? Of taking on just a bit less debt (or maybe a lot less)? Of making decisions about housing and transportation and consumption that don’t assume a lifetime of being behind the ball? What decisions would we make differently…at age 18, 40, or even 60?

Here’s where my imagination lights up: what would our communities look like if this pairing of generosity & frugality was a shared value, taught alike in schools & churches? What if our civic leaders actually used these words from time to time?

The answer, I think, is that the value of our communities would increase greatly. As our generosity strengthened the universities, churches, basketball leagues and symphonies in our cities (think about how compounding interest works over time) and as savings made our households more sound and stable over time, we would simply find the allure of consume-and-acquire less compelling.

There are probably things that we wouldn’t do as much if lived within the 80. And the world wouldn’t end. We might rethink the kind or the cost of the cars we drive…or just keep them 25% longer. We might have 4 blazers instead of 5. We’d almost certainly think twice about the cost of our homes (and of outfitting and maintaining them) and that would lead to some pretty major readjustment of how our communities are shaped.

Would we be worse off materially? Our money anxiety would have us believe so. But this would be such a fundamentally different way of living our financial lives that there’s no reason to assume that. I tend to believe that we’d be much better off,  less beholden to debt and less driven to lavish money on foolish things that will eventually just ballast a landfill.

As I’ve grown older I’ve come to see the incredible wisdom of that priest. Giving 10, saving 10 and living on the rest doesn’t just mean tightening a belt, as I first heard it. It’s a way of living that increases the value of what we have exponentially. It’s a perspective that allows us to live free of much of the anxiety that seems to be a requirement of modern life, but isn’t actually necessary. It’s a way of life that in fact makes us far richer.

It would probably disrupt our lives a lot more than we’d expect.









About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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