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The moral implications of spending

Every time we choose to buy a comfort or a luxury, we're also making the choice not to use the money to help somebody else.

By MSN Money Partner May 16, 2011 1:24PM

This post comes from J.D. Roth at partner blog Get Rich Slowly.


Most reader questions I share at Get Rich Slowly are meant to solve a problem -- somebody has a financial dilemma they're hoping you folks can help them fix. But Rita sent a different kind of question. She doesn't want to solve a problem -- she wants to stir debate. Rita writes:

I ask myself "How much is enough?" several times daily. My husband and I make good money -- over $100,000 in combined income -- own a home in an expensive city, have two large dogs, and are able to buy most of what we want. I don't have a problem with normal spending, but I often feel bad when I purchase something really nice (such as a nice purse, a collectible book, etc).
On one hand, I can afford these things. But on the other hand, I still feel that it's somehow wrong that I continue to buy this stuff while many people in the world cannot afford clean water and food.
Just yesterday, I read an article on an entertainment site about Steven Spielberg's $200 million personal yacht. I think that this is a crazy, immoral waste of money. He could make a HUGE difference by using that $200 million for charity.
I guess my point is: Am I really any better? No, I'm not buying a yacht anytime soon, but I do buy luxury items. And someday I'd like the satisfaction of being able to buy my husband a Range Rover. ... My husband doesn't feel guilt for having these things, but (if I'm being completely honest with myself) I do. Oddly enough, I majored in finance in college and am currently studying for the CFA exam, so the topic of "efficiency and equity" is really on my mind.

Four years ago, prompted by this thoughtful essay in The New York Times, I asked: What should a billionaire give, and what should you?


In that essay, philosopher Peter Singer discussed the magnitude of charitable donations by the two richest men in the world: Warren Buffett contributed $37 billion to charitable foundations, and Bill and Melinda Gates gave $30 billion. Singer wrote:

Philanthropy on this scale raises many ethical questions: Why are the people who are giving doing so? Does it do any good? Should we praise them for giving so much or criticize them for not giving still more? Is it troubling that such momentous decisions are made by a few extremely wealthy individuals? And how do our judgments about them reflect on our own way of living?

Singer's article discusses the ethics of giving, and tries to establish some guidelines. (It's a fascinating read but it's long, so budget half an hour or so.)


After years of dithering, I'm finally moving forward with philanthropy in my own life. I've been researching (and finding!) causes to support. I've been exploring the possibility of volunteer tourism. And one of my goals for Awesome People is to donate all profits to charity. (I'll share more about my forays into philanthropy in coming months.)

But Rita's question is about more than just giving. It's also about consumption. When we buy things, there are ramifications across a vast economic web. This is why some people are willing to pay a premium to buy local or to buy organic. It's also why some people insist on buying American and others boycott specific items. (Some people refuse to buy diamonds; my high school social studies teacher refused to buy bananas.)


On a basic level, every time we choose to buy a comfort or a luxury, we're also making the choice not to use the money to help somebody else -- whether in our own community or in the world at large. To what degree is this acceptable? To what degree is this reprehensible?


This goes beyond just the personal level, of course.

  • Recently as I drove into downtown Portland, Ore., I passed the $37 million Mercy Corps building. I winced when I saw it. Mercy Corps does great work, but how much more great work could it have done with the money it spent for its new headquarters?
  • Or what about the humble country church my family attended when I was in high school? About a decade ago, the congregation spent tens of thousands of dollars to pave the parking lot and to build a new kitchen, gymnasium and office. Is this what Jesus would have done? Or would he have used the money to help the poor?

I used to think there were clear answers to questions like these. Now I'm not so sure. What is right and what is wrong? What are the moral implications of spending, especially on wants? (I doubt anyone would argue that we shouldn't spend on our own needs.) If I spend $1,500 for a pair of season tickets to the Portland Timbers, is this immoral? What if I also contribute $15 to a charity to make amends -- $150, $1,500? And at what point am I just "buying" a mental pardon?


Some of you will argue loud and long that there aren't any moral implications to spending. Others will argue just as loudly (and just as long) that every economic act carries a moral and ethical component, that our financial decisions have meaning. I can see both sides.


What do you think? What are the moral implications of spending? When is it OK to buy a $200 million yacht? Is such a decision ever justifiable? Always justifiable? If Steven Spielberg also donates $200 million to charity, does that ameliorate this obscene expense? And what about on a more mundane scale? Are there any absolutes? How do you decide?


More on Get Rich Slowly and MSN Money:

May 16, 2011 4:24PM

Is there a finite amount of money in the world?  The gold standard seems to have gone out of fashion except with a vocal minority...


It's not villainous to want to have decent facilities -- heck, even nice facilities -- that enable these organizations and the people in them to function better.  The people who donated to those projects evidently thought they were worthy ones.  Perhaps now no one will mess up a tire on the unpaved parking lot, or the neighborhood kids will have a safer place to play.  Do you really know?


The items you buy may be luxuries, but somebody somewhere probably has a job they might not otherwise have because of it.  Who says it doesn't help?  Are you really being that productive by beating yourself up over every purchase?  Serve the poor cheerfully, but remember they can't eat your guilt.

May 17, 2011 11:29AM

Some people were raised to see more meaning in life than things and money.


Some people come to question their lifestyle, existence and purpose later in life.


It's always possible to change if you are pondering the old question, 'Is this all there is to life?' This question, especially if it presents itself repeatedly, would indicate a desire for change.


When surrounded by 'fake' people one finds the difference in making a difference. Meeting new people across all socio-economic levels will wake you up. This can be done anonymously for someone who was raised to believe in 'give an inch and they will take a mile'.


My preferred projects involve the local elementary school. My area is very affordable but not to someone who is under employed with a bunch of children to raise. I put my extra money into school supplies and cold weather gear to help children out of poverty through education. I also donate my time around Christmas to helping to organize the Angel Tree donations which help 5,000 families locally. My xmas donation is in memory of a friend with whom I spent many a Christmas. She was a woman who stayed in an abusive family situation. I give a donation to the shelter for abused women and Court Appointed Special Advocates. This is to assist the women who left an abusive situation, not drug other people into it to make it easier on themselves. I survived, I help others too as well.  

May 17, 2011 12:26AM
There is no such thing as a completely selfish purchase. Every time you buy something, no matter what it is, other people benefit - the people who helped to create the something and the people who work in the store where you buy the something. I am living more simply than I used to, and am conscious of spending more on experiences (such as a coffee and pastry in a coffee shop) than on things - but I don't feel guilty about spending like this.
May 16, 2011 11:31PM

Is it obscene to spend $1000 on my injured dog, when people are going without health care?

Guess what - I don't care. My dog is my best friend.

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