I must confess a certain amusement when I read hand-wringing articles like this New York magazine clickbait on the poor savings habits of the moderately wealthy. Only about half of those making low six figures, it turns out, have more than $1,000 reserved in a savings account.
My reaction isn’t a kind of schadenfreude directed at the upper middle class. While seeing five zeroes on my employment contract does sound enticing, in truth the cost of living in many desirable regions—not to mention student debt loads—makes a hundred grand not go as far as you’d think. I can understand how saving for the long (or even medium) haul might not be all that simple, even for the comparatively affluent.
No, my moderately smug disdain is directed at the writers and “experts” who breathlessly report and analyze these trends—especially when, as is the case in the New York magazine piece, consumerism is highlighted as a contributing vice. “Ours is a spendy culture,” one subheading announces with vague judgmentalism while surrounded by ads for Tiffany and Burberry. “It’s expected that as you earn more, your lifestyle should swell accordingly . . . . If you can’t Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat your material progress, it might as well not exist.”
My question is: Why on earth would we expect anything different? Our culture gives us no compelling reason to resist the allure of conspicuous consumption. We have gutted society of any institutional recognition of, let alone support for, traditional virtues, and yet we vainly expect people to live virtuously. It may be impossible to improve on C.S. Lewis’s concision: “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Now, the virtue I’m thinking of here is not the old-timey Puritan concept of thrift. Thrift can certainly be virtuous, but it can also emerge just as much from a preoccupation with wealth as conspicuous consumption does—a preoccupation with economic status in the future rather than the present. It’s an idea that is easily co-opted by a secular culture where class is considered a reasonable proxy for moral worthiness.
I’m thinking instead of the relatively unknown and little understood virtue of detachment. We shouldn’t be too surprised that detachment has been largely forgotten; more than almost any other virtue, it relies for its coherence on the public recognition of the divine that secularism has systematically purged from our society. Detachment from worldly goods and concerns only makes sense if there’s another world to which we owe our loyalty.
Perhaps the most well-known description of detachment comes from Jesus himself in the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Secularism solves this dilemma elegantly by erasing God. Only mammon remains.
In fairness, our culture does recognize a certain kind of detachment in the ubiquitous trope that relationships are more meaningful than riches. (Think Clarence Odbody’s parting lesson for George Bailey: “No man is a failure who has friends!”) And we shouldn’t gainsay this! It’s a good and true teaching. But it isn’t a replacement for Christian detachment so much as a reflection of it.
What makes human relationships more meaningful than the accumulation of goods is precisely the image of God in every person. Love should draw us out of ourselves and our worldly preoccupations and toward God. Lacking this concept of the imago Dei, however, secular platitudes can only say that love draws us out of ourselves to . . . well, something . . . “bigger than ourselves.” Whatever the hell that is.
Against the attraction of spending for status, these vague platitudes are powerless. Worse, friends, lovers, and children, stripped of their divine dignity, can quickly become symbols of prestige just as much as any other consumer item. Without God everything—and everyone—starts to look like mammon.
So I hope you’ll forgive me if I can’t take tut-tutting about savings habits terribly seriously. We’ve gutted all the social and spiritual foundations of a healthy relationship with worldly goods, and there’s nothing our hordes of life coaches and inspiration mongers and financial therapists can do to replace them. It’s foolish and even a little cruel to expect a society of slaves to mammon to resist their master.