How much money is enough money?
If there was only some kind of criterion or rule by which we could work out the answer. Alas, without some “guiding star,” it seems our only alternative is to accumulate as much money as possible.
After all, who can anticipate life’s “curve balls.” No one can predict the future, so why not take thought for a rainy day?
What’s more, what about the people who are dependent upon us? Surely, justice demands we tuck away some cash for them as well. Again, no one knows what life may bring.
Where Do We Begin?
At the very outset of our discussion, I want to allay any fears that this post will recommend one to, “sell all that you have and distribute to the poor”…(Lk. 18:22). Yet, at the same time, I do hope this discussion will be uncomfortable enough to elicit a desire for Christian simplicity as well as almsgiving.
So let us begin at the end; what is the end or goal of money? It goes without saying that money is not an end in itself; this is the case because if tomorrow the nation declared that dollar bills were void of purchase value, we would care very little about them.
If money is not an end in itself, then it must be a means; and therefore, a means to something else. To this question, Aristotle gives us a piercing distinction within wealth. He divides wealth into two kinds: natural and unnatural wealth.
Natural wealth, according to him is:
…such things necessary to life, and useful for the community of the family or state…(Politics, 1, 8).
St. Thomas further explains, commenting on Aristotle:
Natural wealth is that which serves man as a remedy for his natural wants: such as food, drink, clothing, travel, dwellings, and such…(ST., I-II, Q.2, A.1).
On the other hand, unnatural wealth, according to both Aristotle and St. Thomas, is wealth that we exchange for natural wealth. Currency is an example. They conclude, as seems inevitable from the definitions, that unnatural wealth is then to be considered a means to natural wealth.
In summary, money is for the sake of food, shelter, health, education, and all other necessities; and if money is a means to these necessities, then if one can determine his needs, then one ought to be able to determine how much money he ought to have.
Needless to say, this is not going to be an exact science. But the effort isn’t hopeless. To help us out is the Dominican, Girolamo Savanarola, who in his work, On the Simplicity of Christian Life, gives some guiding principles.
Suitability of State
For Savonarola, the key to having neither too little nor too much money is contained in the phrase “suitability of state.” Suitability of state entails identifying one’s state; for example, the married state, single state, priestly state, monastic state, and so forth; as well as, taking into account one’s role in society, such as being a governor or senator.
Then, after identifying one’s state, Savanarola recommends taking inventory of what is truly necessary for simple living. But living in Christian simplicity, he points out, must not be overly impoverished, relative to one’s state, lest it seem vainglorious. Here are his words:
Indeed, one acts rather inordinately, if he does not live according to the suitability of his status, both because he will appear a boaster of sanctity or rather a hypocrite as opposed to a true Christian, and so shall offend many souls rather than edify them, and also because he will show himself useless to the community (Simp., Bk. IV, C.V).
On the other hand, in order to not have a miserly amount of money, Savanarola recommends not hiding away more cash than one’s state requires.
And it’s hard to underestimate how important this step is because without a voluntary limit on one’s wealth, accumulating money becomes an incompletable task. And an unending, incompletable task brings with it unending restlessness and dissatisfaction.
In contrast, by knowing how much money one actually needs and placing a limit on one’s bank account, one can truly have enough, and the peace that comes with it. But, having enough, presupposes knowing what enough is.
Further, knowing how much money is enough allows for knowledge of what’s extra. Why would someone want to know what he has extra? In order, for the love of Christ, to assist the poor, as the Gospel commands:
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise (Lk. 3:10-11).
Moreover, if God loves all, and provides for all, yet some do not have all that they need, what does this prove but that God intends to sustain the poor through the generosity of others? Here are the words of St. Basil:
If you confess to yourself that the divine is most provident, namely in temporal goods, or is God unjust in distributing things unequally to us? Why then your abundance, when truly one begs, unless in order that you by compensating goods shall obtain merit, and he indeed be adorned with the crown of patience? Is it not the bread of the starving, which you hold; the tunic of the naked, which you conserve in your chamber; the shoe of the shoeless, which you enfeeble in your possession; the silver of the poor, which you possess inhumanely? Around you is as much injustice as you were able to give (Simp., Bk. IV, C. VI).
Next, when it comes to laying up cash for the future, Savanarola gives the following counsel: one ought to make provision for the future (in things predictable), but not for absolutely anything which may possibly happen. This would entail another “endless” task.
On predictable, future expenses, he writes (using an example from his time):
…if one should have many daughters, it is necessary to obtain dowries and to think of the future, in order that the daughters are handed over competently to husbands (Simp., Bk. IV., VIII).
On unpredictable expenses, he writes:
And because it is possible for someone to say that “not to provide necessities for oneself is foolish, and one must possess even more things than necessary on account of future events,” consequently it says: ‘and he reveals himself to them that have faith in him’ (Wis. 1:2)…Consequently, those who are solicitous about tomorrow can not fail to be lacking in faith themselves, since to such men our Savior expressly says in the same place: And if the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith? (Mt. 6:30).
Remember, one of the blessings Savanarola endeavors to give us, is the real ability to have enough money, and what can be more detrimental to having enough money, than trying to have enough to meet every and any possible future expense? The answer, as Savanarola suggests, is not more money, but faith.
Superfluous or not?
Another guideline Savanarola gives for identifying what we have extra, besides looking at one’s state, is the judgment of holy people.
Who is the holiest person I know? If he or she were to come into my home and look through my garage, closet, or checkbook would he or she take me to be a follower of Christ—an imitator of Christ? Savanarola, using clothes as an example, says:
And therefore in any grade of dignity it is necessary to repute those vestments expensive and to prohibit those, which in the presence of men commonly take away the opinion of sanctity.
Besides that, how much stuff do I have that I simply never use, or will never use again? How much extra money do I have hidden away simply for the sake of feeling secure? In a world in which a child, under 5, dies from hunger every ten seconds (theworldcounts.com), what does Jesus say?
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me (Mt. 15:41-45).
Let us, then, for the love of interior peace, peace of conscience, and eternal peace take a look at our wealth and see if we can’t discover just a little bit more than enough.