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Spending is not patriotic

Chris Farrell Dec 10, 2010

Question: I am a loyal MPR listener and while I feel I know/understand little about money, I am always fascinated by MP/MP Money. I’m one of those people who doesn’t read the statements from my retirement accounts (403B) and while I am fastidious about our budget and finances, I’m a big picture girl.

I work part-time by choice and stay home with our two children the rest of the time. I work in health care and I have (knock on wood) reasonable job security. I have multiple family members who are unemployed, one for almost 2 years. I want to support the economy and recovery but I am honestly disgusted and perplexed about the measures that receive so much attention. I am not going to shop on Black Friday. In fact, the likelihood of me doing any significant shopping at Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, etc, is low. Since the down turn in the economy we have focused our dollars on local products and services. I get the trickle down/up effect, but what about focusing on another measure. In the past, we heard more about saving and giving to charity – is it unreasonable to think we can somehow help the economy in other ways than consuming? Really, am I nuts? We give more to charity than ever. It’s not that we make more. My husband was laid off and then after getting a job, he had to take a pay cut. We have little in savings and we live within a tight budget.

I guess I want to be patriotic and support the economy. I want my brother in law to have a steady job. I want to feel secure and know we’re being “smart.” But I do not want to believe the only way to do this is by consuming. Sarah, Minneapolis, MN

Answer: You’re not nuts. Not in the least. You’re spot on. Spending and consuming has nothing to do with patriotism. Never has. Never will.

You are supporting the economy and society living a considered life, living your values. For too long we’ve equated living better with owning lots of stuff, most of it bought on credit. We always realized that wasn’t quite right, especially as we became a wealthier society. What gave us real joy were experiences, learning, creativity, spirituality, trying to make the world a better place in small ways at home and at work, in neighborhoods and as citizens. It’s going to take time to work down the huge debts we’ve run up. Habits don’t change overnight, either. But we’re on the path of saving more and borrowing less. Even more important, people are asking, What really matters? The economic and social landscape is changing. I wrote a book that supports your perspective, The New Frugality: How to Consume Less, Save More and Live Better .

But I want to emphasize one strand of your thinking: Giving. After all, December is a traditional time for thinking about our giving. It mostly reflects the good cheer and warmth of the holiday spirit and celebrations. There is also the incentive of the tax calendar. There is no shortage of worthy causes.

Here’s the thing: Giving should be the core of any personal financial plan. It’s central to managing our money well. Saving for emergencies, regularly putting money into a retirement savings plan, and owning a home are also important, of course. The dollars that go into our charitable giving is typically much smaller than those activities, too, But the impact on our attitude toward money can be disproportionately large.

The mindfulness of giving forges connections with community and strangers. It reminds us what really matters most in our everyday lives, why we work, and what we are to truly accomplish. Giving sustains community and lets us know that we aren’t alone. The thoughtfulness of giving can spill over and affect all our spending and saving decisions.

There is another important advantage from emphasizing giving. You can’t control the business cycle, the ups and downs of the economy. You can’t predict the timing of the next bear and bull market. But you can control your giving, your volunteering and service to others.

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