Is there morality in personal finance? By Kristin Wong
Published on - July 16th, 2013
This post is from Get Rich Slowly staff writer Kristin Wong.
A while back, my blogger friend and fellow GRS writer Holly Johnson wrote about a healthy dose of lifestyle inflation. In that article, someone made a side point that there shouldn’t be morality in personal finance — it should be about practicality.
Within the comments, there was a brief but interesting dialogue going on about this topic — morality and personal finance. I thought it was really interesting and worth expanding on more, as it prompted me to give this topic a lot of thought.
I agree that it helps to think of personal finance and frugality in practical, functional terms. What’s the investment of this purchase? How much is my time worth? What is the cost/benefit of something?
But I also think money matters have some place in morals. Benjamin Franklin listed frugality as a virtue, after all.
And I also came across this quote in a book:
“Advocacy in favor of thrift can be roughly divided into two types: traditional, religiously based appeals that classify consumption in terms of vice and virtue, and pragmatic appeals couched in the language of social mobility, budgeting, and financial management.” (Lauren Weber, “In Cheap We Trust”).
I really like this quote, but I’d like to think thrift can be a combination of both virtue and pragmatism. I view thrift as a practical way to manage finances, but at least for me, it’s also a concept based on something more virtuous than my budget.
Money teaches life lessons
A lot of financial lessons are life lessons, too. The very philosophy of this site a good example of that. We’re founded partly on the idea that there is no “get rich quick” scheme. Financial freedom takes hard work and patience, and I think that can be a useful lesson for other life goals.
Here’s another example of a money lesson I think could help with life in general. An acquaintance recently told me he’s almost free from six figures worth of debt. Of course, I asked him how he did it. “I stopped feeling sorry for myself,” he told me.
“I wanted to go out to eat, and I couldn’t. I took responsibility for my past actions and stopped pitying myself, because when I pitied myself, I’d give in and just get into more debt.”
Taking responsibility is the key lesson here, and it’s a virtuous one that can definitely be applied to other aspects of life.
We could go on, but the point is, there are lots of money lessons that are also moral lessons that help with life overall.
Frugality as a virtue
Ben Franklin really found the virtue in frugality. Take the concept of debt, for example. Practically, debt is just money or services you owe to a creditor. A negative balance. But Franklin put it this way:
“Think what you do when you run in debt; you give to another power over your liberty.”
In this way, debt is not just about money or goods; it’s about losing your freedom.
Franklin argued that frugality teaches self-discipline. In defining frugality, he made it less a practical application and more a way of life — a way to make the world a better place:
“Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
Taking only what you need
Recently, I took advantage of a free pair of movie tickets to see “The Lone Ranger,” a movie I really have no desire to see. But the tickets were free! And they were limited, so without giving it much thought, I nabbed them. I needed them; they were free.
Practically, this may have been a good decision. After all, it could be a fun, free date night idea. A good, cheap way to spend a Friday night with Brian.
But morally, this was kind of a crappy thing for me to do. Because maybe a hard-working mom saw the ‘Free Lone Ranger Ticket!’ link. And maybe she got excited because her daughter wanted to see it — but oops! Someone who doesn’t even appreciate the movie already got the last one because, “*shrug* It’s free.”
Part of being frugal, at least the moral part of it, is not taking more than what you need — not just because you can’t afford it, but because you want to leave more for everyone else. In this way, I think there is morality in thrift. What I did wasn’t frugal. It was cheap.
Cheap vs. frugal
To me, the ongoing cheap vs. frugal debate proves that there’s morality in frugality. When does your frugality negatively affect others? Just because it’s a practical, sound financial decision for your budget doesn’t mean it’s a good decision overall. There are ethical questions to consider, which makes it seem like there is indeed morality in personal finance.
Money-related issues go beyond a cost-benefit analysis. We have to ask ourselves, is this hurting anyone? Does it hurt the system when you choose not to pay off your credit cards or take on a loan you can’t afford? I think these are moral questions worth asking.
The virtue in how we spend
A while back, I wrote a story about poverty and learning financial independence. I want to spend money on my future kids, but I don’t want them to be spoiled. I considered how I’d do this, and someone left a really thoughtful comment:
“Spend money on your children if you have it, sure. But do it in a way that actually enriches their lives and helps them understand the world.”
In this way, the money would be spent in a virtuous way. Teaching my children that money can be used for meaningful things is, to me, further evidence that frugality is a moral concept.
The problem with morality in money
Of course, there’s the down side to including ethics, virtue and morality in personal finance. Holly’s commenter made the very sensible point that morality can replace math when it comes to your money decisions. I’ve seen this happen, particularly with my mom, who has gone back into a store after being overcharged a few cents.
“It’s the principle,” I remember her saying. And in that case, principle trumped math, and I still don’t think getting that change back was worth the time spent.
On a larger scale, I think the problem of morality trumping math emerges when we romanticize poverty and deny ourselves things we can afford simply because we feel there’s virtue in holding back.
‘The virtue is in the mean’
In our thread, another commenter made a good point. “The virtue is in the mean,” he or she suggested. In this argument, virtue is not about thrift or frugality but about finding a balance. Yes, I think there’s morality in thrift, and I think there’s virtue in frugality.
But yes, it can also get in the way and keep you from making practical decisions. At that point, I don’t think it’s morality that’s guiding thought — it’s guilt. Sure, morality may lead to guilt, but like many concepts, it’s all about finding a balance: deciding what’s best for yourself, financially, but making sure it doesn’t get in the way of being your best self.
These are just perspectives I’ve been considering lately; I still think the reader who inspired these thoughts had a good point. But what do you think? Is there morality in personal finance? Has including virtue in money-related matters helped or hurt you along your financial journey?