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Is there morality in personal finance?

By Kirstin Wong

Get Rich Slowly

Published: Monday, July 22 2013 10:32 a.m. MDT

I think money matters have some place in morals. Benjamin Franklin listed frugality as a virtue, after all.

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Editor's note: This article by Kristin Wong originally appeared on the personal finance blog, Get Rich Slowly. It has been reprinted here with permission.

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.

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