What are the moral implications of spending?

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 a 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. (He loves those damn cars.) 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 this essay, philosopher Peter Singer discussed the magnitude of charitable donations from 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?

xkcd: Charity
xkcd tackles the morality of spending…

This goes beyond just the personal level, of course.

  • Today as I drove into downtown Portland, I passed the $37,000,000 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 $1500 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? $1500? 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 okay 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?

Note: Although this question is likely to stir more passionate debate than usual, let’s abide by the standard rules. You’re free to disagree with each other (and with me), but please do so respectfully. Keep things civil. As long as everyone’s polite, I think this could be a fine discussion.
More about...Giving

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