Simplifying one’s life need not mean eliminating all luxuries but it might be a helpful practice to ask ourselves whether a contemplated purchase or possession is a necessity or a luxury. This can focus our decisions about how we spend our money and time.

For example, during this cold winter I thought about those who don’t have a warm place to live or warm clothes. I had an extra winter coat, a scarf, and ear muffs. Clearly these would be necessities for a person in need so I took them to the local Cold Shelter and felt virtuous.

At the same time, I found 8 thin dressy leather gloves plus a dozen very elegant napkins that I inherited from a rich relative. These were not gloves that would keep anyone warm and the napkins were beautiful but not functional since they were made of a thin, transparent material. Both items clearly fit the luxury category and might best be used walking on the red carpet at the Oscars or hosting a tea for a dignitary. I decided to take them to a nearby antique dealer.

This got me thinking about what really is a necessity and what is nice, perhaps even beautiful, but more of a luxury if one is trying to live simply. Sometimes the decision is clear and easy like the above, but often it’s muddied by lifestyle, stage of life, who I compare myself with, and how extreme I want this “simplicity” thing to be in my life. Is there no room for treats or simply living a middle class lifestyle?

OBVIOUS NECESSITIES: Food, Clothing, Shelter, Health Care, Education.

Of course there’s lots of wriggle room in the above categories. Clean water is a necessity, but what about soft drinks or wine? Clothing is a necessity but how stylish need it be and how many slacks are reasonable? Shelter is a given, but last week I spent 10 January days in a convent in India with no heat. I wasn’t always comfortable but it increased my empathy for those who are cold by necessity not choice. Education is a necessity but does that include private schooling or a doctorate?

Realizing that this is a subjective subject, I propose the following Guide for the Sincere Seeker (or guilt driven purchaser or purger). Consider the following questions when the distinction between a need and a treat are murkier:

  1. Who do I compare myself to? If my frame of reference are millionaires then I can cut myself a lot more slack than if I compare myself to an unemployed single parent. Action step: Rub shoulders with some folk who have less material goods than yourself. This might mean taking the bus, serving meals in a soup kitchen, walking a poor neighborhood, tutoring an indigent child… Knowing the poor can keep us more honest about our real needs.
  2. Is it necessary for the health and well-being of my family? Think household supplies and tools.
  3. Is it necessary for my job? This includes professional looking clothes and tools.
  4. Will buying _____ help me serve others better? Thus, I can justify having internet and other technology that helps me do my work, keep connected to our out of town family and friends. Having unused bedrooms allows me to host out of town family, guests, and sometimes people in need of a temporary home.
  5. Will this purchase deepen my spiritual life? This applies to books, movies, music, retreats…
  6. Will spending money on _____ help create community? Offering hospitality, helping someone take advantage of an opportunity to grow, donating to worthy causes, etc.
  7. Do I already have a serviceable version of ______? Is a new one going to make my life easier so that I have more time to serve, or is it simply a shiny thing to boost my pride?
  8. Is it a quality product that will last? Sometimes, it’s worth paying more for something even though it may look like a luxury to others. Consider such things as a fuel efficient car or solar panels.
  9. Is it fair that I have ______, when others cannot afford it? If it’s a necessity; Yes. If it’s optional; Maybe not.
  10. Can I do without it and not suffer undo harm?

TREATS: And then there is the question of treating oneself or others. I’m not opposed to an occasional treat. Heck, a dinner out can be both convenient, relationship building, and at times a necessity. A massage may be a luxury but call it that and count it as reinvigorating your body and spirit. We needn’t be misers with ourselves, but that’s where rubbing shoulders with those who have less can keep us honest. It can keep our treats and luxuries in bounds.

Stay tuned for my February 14, 2018 Lenten practice. It will have to do with being kind.