Opportunities to spend less money and get good bargains are a big deal in my family. I vividly recall the day about twenty-five years ago when my mom found a pair of dress shoes on clearance at Marshalls for a quarter. From the excitement she displayed entering our suburban home, the neighbors might have thought she just hit the Pennsylvania Lottery jackpot. And there were the countless times that my grand-mom shared in detail how much she saved using coupons on her last grocery run, always adding that the brands she purchased were high quality. Perhaps most impressive is my dad, the garage sale extraordinaire. While golf clubs and equipment are his specialty, he’s known to scout out some of the best second-hand furniture on the market.
The shopping mindset of my mom, grand-mom and dad rigorously trained me and my two older brothers in the art of saving money, and the effects of this training remain with me today. Each Sunday, I excitedly flip through the coupon section of the Enquirer looking for a dollar-off coupon for almond milk. Furthermore, I readily admit that I have often been the beneficiary of the thriftiness of my parents. Last year, my dad found an old Bianchi hybrid bike at a garage sale and paid $20 for it. I love this bike, and it is my main form of transportation in Cincinnati. However, over the last 10 years, my understanding of the value of spending less money changed significantly. This realization is most apparent to me during the Advent season when consumerism reaches its peak.
At this point in my life, saving money is not critical. As a single, middle-class, full-time employed, adult male, I have more than enough money to pay rent, purchase healthy food, own a car and engage in recreation. What increased in importance during the last ten years is what I choose to buy.* After learning more about the severe injustices that plague various industries in the U.S. and around the world, I regularly face a moral dilemma: should I focus on saving money or should I focus on selecting items that will do the least harm to persons who are materially poor and items that will have a limited negative impact on the environment?** For example, healthy food that is grown locally and in an environmentally conscious manner usually costs more money. (Concerning clothes, I recommend thrift stores. Save money and reuse quality materials — a win- win situation.)
While I attempt to spend more money on items I consider to be created in an ethical manner, this is by no means a perfect process for me. For instance, I frequently am tempted to save a dollar or two even though I know that a purchase does not sit well with my conscience. Moreover, since I live in the U.S., it is very difficult to not purchase at least some items that play a role in the exploitation and suffering of people I will never meet.
So, what to do? And how does this connect to Advent?
In the Christian tradition, Advent is described as a period of waiting for the birth and life of Jesus — a person who chose a way of life that intentionally subverted societal, religious and political norms with the hope that it would have a positive effect on all people. I encourage us to make intentional choices and to challenge the culture of consumerism and the perceived value of saving money. I also encourage us to challenge ourselves. Let us wrestle with the moral dilemmas of buying and permit ourselves to feel the tension that comes with making choices as a consumer that fall in line with our values rather than pad our wallets.***
*I recommend the following to further investigate the power we possess as consumers.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
- The Better World Shopping Guide by Ellis Jones
- Food, Inc.
- “The Story of Stuff” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GorqroigqM
**I actually spend close to the same amount of money when making conscious food purchases. Buying local and organic products in bulk and simply purchasing simply what I need for a healthy diet are great ways to save.
***It is important to note that the moral dilemma mentioned above is one that I am capable of encountering because I have lived an economically privileged life. I represent a small fraction of the earth’s human population who is in a position to make these choices.
Greg Mellor is in his first year as Assistant Director, Faith and Ministry in the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice. When not at Xavier, he is probably lost somewhere running or riding his bike in Cincinnati.