How Much Money is Sufficient For Your Needs?

I am interested in the various ways that money gets moralized in Mormonism. While certain aspects of Mormonism moralize money in such a way as to symbolize God’s favor, other sets of Mormons value frugality and even poverty as more moral. Added to this complex dynamic are various scriptures in the Book of Mormon as well as the temple. I wonder what most people consider “sufficient” for their needs. How much is too much?

One of the problems with money is that no one really thinks they have enough, no matter how much they have. There is always something out there that they can’t afford, like a bigger boat, a faster plane, or ritzier vacation. We can all agree that these people who worry about such things have more than they “need,” but where is that threshold? Is it the same in Ft. Lauderdale as it is in Spanish Fork?

Should the question of sufficiency be determined by annual income or by net worth? If it is annual income, how does one determine the morality of that? Should the Mormon CEO who earns a lot more simply only accept a certain amount? Or, is it simply the net worth at which one can retire without needing to work again (approx $1 million for every 10 years of life)?

11 Replies to “How Much Money is Sufficient For Your Needs?”

  1. Of course, the church has no official metric for sufficiency, or even specific counsel for those who feel they have enough. There is general counsel (be generous with offerings, etc.), but no real doctrine of sufficiency. I find this disappointing, as you apparently do, but I think it’s rooted in the fact that modern capitalism and entrepreneurialism, and the unrestrained consumerism that characterizes them, are de facto church doctrines. In odd contrast to early consecration doctrine (or maybe in response to it), the contemporary church rarely protests against the unequal or unfair distribution of wealth or against conspicuous and wasteful consumption. Beyond required tithes and offerings, how much one makes and how one disposes of it is apparently thought to fall squarely in the realm of personal agency. The only prohibition on consumption seems to be that one should not contract debt to indulge in it. Can someone (I hope) dispute my assessment of this?As far as how we rationalize excess consumption, think most consumption is rationalized as need-based. And this is easily done, since as (I think) Nietzsche said: “Necessity is not a fact, but an interpretation.” I once had a stake pres justify to me in a recommend interview why he drove a Mercedes (“it’s used, and very reliable, sensible transportation, really”). I was confused why he even brought it up, though obviously he was wrestling with guilt about owning it. My own father, when called as a bishop, stopped driving a Firebird he owned. I personally LIKE seeing Mormons conflicted about indulging in luxury. But I think I’ve just recounted two of the only times I’ve seen it.

  2. bodhi,I think that you have illustrated the tensions about wealth in Mormonism well. I am especially interested in the Nietzsche quote that you provide. I want to know where most Mormons draw the line of excess. I am not really sure that it is a Mercedes.I am also interested in your critique of consumerism. I think that there are definitely things about this that are problematic, but if people really lived more restrained lives, then how would the business which depend on consumption (well, basically every business) pay its employees?

  3. When John Rockefeller was asked how much money was enough, his response could answer for all of us: “Just a little bit more.”

  4. I’m speaking of conspicuous and wasteful consumption, not survival or even modest material prosperity. But it’s true that if we all stopped buying Mercedes, Mercedes salesmen would all be put out of jobs. But then they could retrain as teachers and healthcare workers, whom we could employ in the third world with the money we’ve saved on Mercedes. I’m sure we as a society could find something more useful for them to do than sell luxury cars, the value of any one of which could lift an entire African village out of poverty with microloans.Anyway, I’m sure all of us could come up with better ways to use excess wealth. No disrespect meant, but I am a little surprised at your question. It may reveal precisely what I complained of, an assumption in the church that modern American capitalism is the best economic model, either naturally or by divine design. Most Mormons give no thought whatever to sustainable living or economic justice, which capitalism precludes. I won’t start an essay here (where I spend too much time lately!), but for a personal eye-opener, read something like Your Money or Your Life. Even without a general social revolution, there are better, more pleasurable, and most importantly, more sustainable ways to live as individual consumers. And if we don’t come alive to that, and James Howard Kunstler proves to be right, we or our children may eventually find out what a world is like where sustainable living isn’t liberal hogwash, but rather the only option. In gospel terms, I would simply advocate, as an alternative ideal, the law of consecration. Nobody gets a Mercedes until everyone can get a Mercedes. But I think we as a church are long past the day when that doctrine can be anything more than a theological curiosity.

  5. bodhi,Thanks for your enthusiasm on this topic. I am a former socialist, so I am certainly not by nature sympathetic to many forms of capitalism, especially not the way that it is moralized in the gospel. You seem to agree. At the same time, I am not all that convinced by much of the economic politics on the left. I think your Mercedes-salesmen-to-Third-World-teacher idea is terrible (though it is better than “everyone gets a Mercedes”). I haven’t really looked closely at the idea of “sustainable consumption” that you put forth, so I would be pleased to hear more about it. That said, I tend to think that American consumerism is really the primary solution to development in the Third World (along with serious regulations of MNCs). I think that these points really are getting at the primary issue here, which is about both sustainability and sufficiency, as well as growth and their relationship to ethics in the gospel.

  6. Ok, I was being a bit glib. Sorry. This subject can make me snarky (conservations get smug, liberals get snarky). I’m glad we’re on the same page. I do see capitalism’s strengths, and I’m certainly no Nibley agrarianist, but it’s weaknesses must be addressed. I used the term “modern American captitalism” since I expect there are forms of capitalism that can address the issues of sustainability and economic justice. European capitalist societies occasionally do better than we have in these areas, I think, but in all cases it is imposed from outside the economy proper. Capitalism itself lacks the mechanisms. Per consumerism, I use the term in the common negative sense of, “people purchasing goods or consuming materials in excess of their basic needs,” and usually without regard for the environment or the needs of others (see wiki). See also the wiki on sustainable living. It’s green speak. Also google “voluntary simplicity.” That’s where I’m coming from.

  7. That should have been, “conservatives get smug, liberals get snarky.” Tired liberals get fingertied. I really am signing off now . . .

  8. bodhi,You speak of “sustainable” being in opposition to “consumption.” Having just finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’m not sure that that’s a viable distinction. He points out that, currently, eating industrially-farmed food is much less expensive (leaving out externalities and the potential that it could all collapse). He points out a small, local, sustainable farm in Southern Virginia as a good, if not universal, model for sustainable eating. BUT . . . it costs more than McNuggets. He points out that maybe we shouldn’t be looking for bargain prices on our food. And maybe not on our clothes either–This American Life had a show where they dealt with (IIRC) Cambodian garment makers. Cambodia agreed to reforms that cause their garment workers to be paid a liveable wage, have health care, child labor laws, and have maternity leave (or some other basic stuff like that). They got a tariff break for a while, but it’s over now, so Cambodian garments cost more than garments made in, say, Vietnam (note that I don’t remember exactly the countries, so if I’m wrong with the specifics, the generalities are still rights).I don’t know exactly where to draw the line, but, by paying more, sometimes I’m propogating a better model that I would by underconsuming. Does that mean I should only shop at the Gap and eat $50/person meals at good local restaurants? I don’t know. But doing both of those things make the world better than eating a $2.50 meal at McDonald’s and buying clothes from . . . I don’t know, somewhere that uses cheap child labor.

  9. I agree with all this. I’ve heard of that book and mean to pick it up. Anyway, as I said, I was speaking of conspicuous and wasteful consumption, but we are all consumers. Our goal should simply be to do so in a sustainable way. I think economies of scale are vital to this, but current economies of scale (generally speaking) require such vast expenditures of energy that they are not sustainable. Again, see James Howard Kunstler, both the article I linked (a book excerpt) and others by him floating around the web. He is both humorous and profane, but those are established and effective tools of protest. His subjects are serious enough.Anyway, per your point, Kunstler notes precisely this paradox, that cheap, mass-produced goods regularly require a greater consumption of resources than more expensive, local, small-scale production goods, when energy costs and other wastages are factored in. Sustainable living requires costs to go up and choices to go down. Likewise, per your Cambodian example, economic justice costs consumers. Sustainability doesn’t require spending less money per se, but it does mean you may pay more for less. Likewise, consumption (as I use it) means in the first place resources consumed, not money spent. It’s expensive to reduce consumption, which is why we consume so much. We always want more for less, and will exploit the poor and use up our planet to do it.Why this generally does not bother Mormons, I have no clue. The Lord has mandated economic justice, and specified how to do accomplish it among his saints: “behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low” (D&C 104:16). But as I said, that whole idea has been lost to the church today. As far as the environment, I’ve heard it speculated that our millenarianism is a foil for environmental concern; i.e., go ahead and use up the earth–the Lord will come again before any global environmental catastrophe will occur. I think it more likely that future global environmental catastrophes will instead be seen as signs of the times, punishment for the earth’s wickedness. That will be true enough, but we will certainly be, collectively, reckoned among the wicked. We do, after all, have a stewardship over the Lord’s creation. It was our very first stewardship. I’ve almost never heard discussion of what that means to us today.

  10. I think where one’s heart is is a big deal in this whole thing. I don’t think drawing the line in the sand is necessarily about the number of dollars one makes, or the size of one’s house. I think it’s about intent, motives, desires, and charity. I think this may be why we don’t have more specifics in the church. This is an example of a principle on which we need not be commanded in all things, and where we are supposed to exercise agency in a way that causes us to seek the Spirit’s direction in our temporal affairs. I also disagree that environmentalism should be our first concern; otherwise, I think we would be hearing that more from our prophets directly. I’m all for doing our part (again, not being commanded in all things), but we don’t hear them really mentioning this at all. If we all lived the gospel in the world, the Lord’s craetion would be taken care of in a better way. But we don’t. I think we might be missing the boat if we think saving the earth is solely about emissions and recycling and such. My opinion is that none of that will help us if the gospel isn’t spread and lived. I also believe this would be the solution to poverty, too…if the world really were covered by the gospel, there would be a whole lot less suffering. But we aren’t there yet.

  11. I also disagree that environmentalism should be our first concern; otherwise, I think we would be hearing that more from our prophets directly. …I also believe this would be the solution to poverty, too…if the world really were covered by the gospel, there would be a whole lot less suffering. But we aren’t there yet. I don’t mean to be rude, and I think in all practicality we may disagree less than my response implies, but this line of thinking leads to nothing more than a narrow-minded parochialism that ultimately stops our church from achieving the size of growth you’d actually like to see.I think an easy angle to pursue this from is to create a distinction between the “gospel” and the “church”. While the gospel may have all the answers, the church certainly doesn’t. I don’t think the church, as it now stands, has an answer to world poverty or evironmental concerns. And I don’t think spreading the church as it now stands would solve those problems. I think one could even take the stance that it would exaserbate the problems–imagine more SUVs on the road. To state it frankly, if you’ve ever been to a place like China, you’d know that there are some serious environmental issues that need to be resolved now, and the church is in no position to solve them (the largest problem, of course, is that we don’t even talk about the problems).I think one question at the root of this issue is, what shapes church concerns, the environment the church is in, or revelation from God? I think most members would say that there’s probably a little of both going on–the revelation that Joseph Smith received was often in response to questions that arose in his historical circumstance, but at the same time he was able to innovate in a sense streching the situatedness of his historical moment.To tie these thoughts back into the beginning of my post, the over concern within the church of things American (and in many respects, things tied to Anglo-American life in the Mountain West) is the greatest stumbling block to its growth in areas outside of its concern. This is not to say that we haven’t made progress in understanding the circumstances of the areas, but we’re still too prone to use our own narrowly focused lens to read their concerns.

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