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Frugality For the Sake of True Generosity

As the Spirit of Christmases Yet to Come begins to haunt our social media feeds with promises of good deals, full Christmas trees, and high credit card bills in the New Year, you might find yourself, like me, hyperventilating a little. What will I buy so-and-so this year?! Are we doing the gift exchange or not? What is the spending limit?

Take a second with me now, and breathe. You’ve forgotten to breathe, haven’t you, ever since you started planning the menu for Thanksgiving and adding the kids’ Christmas concerts and parties to the December calendar. Inhale, The Spirit of Christmas is joy, exhale, The Spirit of Christmas is peace.

There. Feel better?

Before you set your alarm and stomp off to stand in line outside of a department store in the chilly, pre-dawn hours, evaluate your spirit. What motivates you to shop for people? Is it an obligation? Is it tradition? Is it the thrill of the hunt for the best deal? Or is it out of a spirit of generosity?

The three spirits that visit Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol, showcase the past, present, and bleak future if Scrooge doesn’t change his ways. 

It doesn’t take a Christmas Eve haunting for us to transform from the curmudgeonly Scrooge at the beginning of the tale to the (spoiler alert!) joyful, loving Ebenezer you encounter at the end. You don’t have to be a millionaire (or even very well off) to have a generous heart. No matter how much money we make, we can learn to live generously and give joyfully (2 Corinthians 9:7). Here’s how: 

Spend Frugally

The exercise routine that gets you spiritually fit for generosity is the spiritual discipline of frugality. Doesn’t that sound boring, like something you say your grandparents and great-grandparents were, back during the Depression, after the War, etc.? Back then, frugality was something you practiced because you had to. But there’s something about this particular discipline that has an effect on our wellbeing.

There’s a caveat here about this spiritual discipline, though. Practiced without love, frugality’s fruit is stinginess, the exact opposite of generosity. The Oxford dictionary actually offers “Scroogelike” as a synonym for stinginess, along with miserly, close-fisted, penny-pinching, close, mean, and tight. 

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” Charles Dickens wrote.

Frugality with love looks far different. Spending frugally shifts our focus away from defining our lives by what we can produce and buy. Instead, frugality frees us to work to meet our needs. Anything extra is a gift, blessing, and abundance. Our labor still has its day, but our lives are defined instead by a Sabbath spirit of rest. 

Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “Times were tough, but we were happy, you know?” So what is it about frugality that is so good for the soul?

Frugality empowers you to live simply.

Live Simply

Image: Duncan Kidd

Part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples petitions God to “give us this day our daily bread.” It is an echo of the Israelites’ wilderness season, when God gave them just what they needed for each day. The discipline of frugality weighs each object to determine whether it is a want or a need, which helps us remember that our joy and satisfaction in life is not in things, but in time, time spent in relationship, time spent in rest, time spent connecting with God, with nature, and with others.

Frugality invites us into a simpler life, a more content life. Simplicity’s synonyms are clarity, intelligibility, lucidity, coherence, directness, integrity, modesty, purity, restraint, and candor. Frugality makes the space for us to have time to think and to process, rather than rush into decisions, make rash choices, indulge in our desires and temptations, or respond to others without processing our thoughts first.

This is why Jesus encourages his disciples to quit worrying. “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:31-34 NIV).

When we are motivated by love to spend frugally, we’re empowered to live simply, which gives us more than enough to be able to give generously.

Give Generously

If you’ve ever put together a budget or spent any time analyzing your spending habits, you’re likely to discover hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of dollars you’ve spent without knowing where it actually went. We’ve gone through several major career changes that have forced us to be more cognizant of our spending habits. As I looked at our budget, I was able to come up with about $1,500 a month we could cut just by making fewer coffee dates and dinners out. This is amazing to me, and also a little shameful. Before now, we were spending frivolously $1,500 a month to satisfy our appetites.

By practicing the spiritual discipline of frugality, we are set free. We are free to cherish the right things (people, space, time, rest, relationships, nature) and to be able to give when needs arise, and give joyfully. How amazing it would be to have $1,500 a month to give to people, instead of to our stomachs! How amazing it would be to arrive at this holiday, defined by generosity, joy, and peace, and to be able to enter it with delight instead of obligation, to give with gladness! How amazing it would be to choose gifts that can empower others to be able to also live simply and give generously, experiencing the fullness of their lives, not necessarily with things but with the gifts of time, space, and experiences that build deeper connections and greater love between us.

The Spirit of Counter-Cultural Christmas Is Here, Now

It isn’t too late to put the spiritual discipline of frugality into practice this Christmas. Take a moment to sit down with your budget—if you don’t have one, many banks already offer a spending analysis online—and get a better sense of where your money goes each month. What do you need to spend money on in December? What are ways you could be more disciplined about filling your appetite? And what’s left over—how can what you have left be used to bless others, filling your own heart with gladness and theirs too?

Refocus your Christmas around the heart of Christ, who invites us into this counter-cultural life of abundance.

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