Money is a hard thing for Quakers to talk about.
That’s my experience, at least—whether it be in conversations with individual Friends, or in corporate discernment. Ask us about sexual orientation, or about our spiritual journey, or about our politics. Most Friends I know are willing to navigate these conversationally tricky waters, sparing few details.
But talk of money brings up issues of privilege and self-restraint within ourselves, our meetings, and our Religious Society that seem to challenge us in a more direct and personal way. We may be more at ease talking about how we earn and invest our money than about our spending and giving, but I think we have more guilt and confusion than we admit about our own finances. We probably have more interior conversations about money than actual ones.
Are my finances in right relationship with my Quaker principles? Why isn’t it easier for me to figure out how to manage my money? Could I, should I, make different choices in my spending that would allow me to give more to alleviate suffering in the world, or to support my meeting financially? If I have enough resources to be comfortable, should I feel guilty about spending on some of the pleasures my life condition allows me to enjoy? Am I living too well? Can I speak without self-consciousness about my trip to Italy in the presence of a Friend who cannot afford to travel?
If I don’t have as much financial security as some in my meeting seem to have, am I resentful? Am I ashamed? Do I feel I should be asked to give nothing to support my meeting, since others have so much more?
Do I believe that thinking too much about money is somehow not spiritual? Do I feel judgmental about what others in my meeting consider the simple life?
At a table of Friends gathered for dinner to prepare for a State of Society report for my meeting recently, the topic came up of high-end stoves such as those made by Aga and Viking. “It’s not Quakerly to spend that kind of money on a stove,” one person said. “Yes it is,” another replied. “They’re expensive but well-made, and last a lifetime or more.” The conversation stopped there, as so many relating to money do in Friends’ gatherings. The heritage I was handed from my own generations of Quaker forbears would have sided with the “plain-but-well-made” party; you bought the most simple, functional, and well-made you could afford, and if you were well-fixed, that could be a pricey if aesthetically simple stove. But my point is, there isn’t even a shared understanding about the values underlying a decision as basic as the selection of one stove over another. Given this difficulty, how do we find the common ground to cover the elemental differences of view between Quakers who choose lucrative business and professional lives and those who try to live beneath the IRS radar?
In corporate discernment, financial discussions have a way of bringing up a great divide, between those who dare to take the leap of faith to trust that money will follow if the action is right, and those practical Friends who always need to know how a proposal will be financed. Everybody feels bad in these exchanges. Quakers who believe they are considering the lilies as Jesus asked them to do feel undercut, and those members hewing to what they believe is the prudent fiscal path of their Quaker forbears feel judged as being less spiritual. I’ve seen this kind of tension everywhere from my own meeting business sessions to the final dramatic minutes of the 2004 Friends World Committee for Consultation Triennial in New Zealand, when the body went forward with a decision to continue deficit spending rather than cut expenses, despite the passionate objections of some delegates who felt this action was a betrayal of Quaker principles.
Contemporary Friends may well wonder how distinctive we are now from the larger society in which we live. This is a valid question about liberal Quakers in general, but I believe particularly in the way many of us view our personal financial lives. Certainly many Friends feel overwhelmed by consumer debt, or are confused about when or how to say no to their children’s materialistic desires. As a religious group we are notably cheap in our faith giving.
It is also undeniable that earlier generations of Friends had a more unified, conservative philosophy about money. Frugality was once a well-known distinctive for our members. Thomas Clarkson’s examination of the Religious Society of Friends 200 years ago explains part of the financial success of its members by listing the areas of spending that were off-limits to them (gaming, drinking, expensive libraries, costly paintings, splendid dress and hair, elegant furniture, packs of hounds, theater, balls, music, etc.). This is not to say that we would want to step back to the expectation that we live this austerely, or that we disown members who declare bankruptcy, or send a team of elders to a Friend’s failing business to supervise the bookkeeping and schedule the repayment of debts. Nevertheless, I believe many Friends hunger for more guidance about what it means to live as a Quaker, including the practical management of their finances within a philosophical framework that is consistent with their faith and practice.
I don’t have a simple solution, and it would be disingenuous to propose one. In my personal experience, though, I’ve seen that Friends respond well when given the opportunity to practice aligning their spending with their values. I have also seen that when even a portion of a religious community works on personal finances in a spiritually grounded way, its voices begin to provide a new depth in corporate discernment about money.
To appeal to Quakers, an approach to personal finance (and there is a publishing boom in this subject right now) needs to offer guidance in examining spending, savings, and investing in a way that is in keeping with our testimonies on Simplicity and Integrity. An approach that has helped many Friends get to a place of deeper spiritual and practical discernment about their finances is the one based on Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence, the 1992 bestseller by Joe Dominguez and Vickie Robin that has become one of the required reading texts in the voluntary simplicity movement.
Penny Yunuba, a member of Beacon Hill Meeting in Boston who is cited as an example in this book, began hosting study groups and giving workshops on personal finance shortly after its publication. Many Friends signed up for these opportunities in the Boston area, and also at her popular offerings at Woolman Hill, Pendle Hill, and later the Friends General Conference Gathering, to name a few. I joined her in this work nine years ago and was a part of the oversight committee created by the meeting to uphold what it recognized as a ministry.
What I have found most impressive in this work is that Friends welcome the discipline of holding their finances in the same Light as they do the rest of their activity. Relief is the only way to describe the reaction of many of our workshop participants as they find clarity about this murky and often painful topic. Being able to share financial experiences and strategies with others has also been powerful for them. In Boston, Penny Yunuba has established a community of people who have been through the program. More than one Quaker says of this community that it provides the same kind support for living financially counterculturally as the meeting does in many other areas of life.
In the Your Money or Your Life program, participants face their spending, earning, and savings realities directly. They are asked to collect historical data about their lifetime earnings to date, to do an inventory of their material possessions with encouragement to declutter, and to calculate what they really earn after job-related expenses and hours are taken into account (including hours in therapy talking about job stress and those spent decompressing and complaining with spouses and friends).
Money is not seen as distinct from life, because the precious, limited hours of our life go into earning it—what the authors call life energy. Another assumption is that the value of our lives is not primarily defined by our getting and spending, but by purpose. Why are we here? What is our money for? If I weren’t working, how would my life contribution be different?
Participants go on to track their spending in detail and begin to calculate how their savings rate will build towards eventual financial independence, with the expectation that this release from the need to work for money will be used to carry out with less hindrance our life’s purpose on Earth. Though not Friends themselves, the authors of Your Money or Your Life echo a financial philosophy from an earlier period of Quaker history, when there was an expectation that you would live well beneath your means and retire, or develop what was called a competency—work that would allow income and time to pursue your ministry. John Woolman’s self-limited tailoring business is a familiar example of this practice.
Another attraction to YMOYL (its shorthand name) is that it promotes simplicity without austerity. It recognizes that life needs to include some comforts and even luxuries. We live in a culture that makes this belief easy to hold, probably too easy. What our larger culture does not do is help us distinguish between spending that brings joy and purpose, and spending that we end up resenting or regretting. And it certainly does not encourage us to discern about the question that is at the heart of the program: what is enough? The people I have known over the past decade who have used the YMOYL approach, Friends and non-Friends alike, have found the fulfillment curve, the tool used to answer this question, one of the most valuable pieces of wisdom in the book.
The investing step of the program is often not used in these workshops, since its recommended investment strategy is confined to federal treasuries, which is too limited a choice for most people’s taste (though interestingly, at least one Quaker historian has written about the bond-based retirement funding of the early Pennsylvania Valley Quakers.)
There is, however, no shortage of excellent advice on how to invest savings diversely and wisely. What is harder to find, and what this program or similar ones can provide, is a strategy for analyzing spending in light of our ultimate values. Saving for more than ever-more-consumption gives a different focus and purpose to saving—to learn what our money (and our life) is really for.
A central step of the program is a set of queries, which is probably another reason Quakers often feel at home in the program. Every month you ask three questions about each category of your spending, or, in some cases, about individual purchases: Did I receive fulfillment, satisfaction, and value in proportion to life energy spent? Is this expenditure of life energy in alignment with my values and life purpose? How might this expenditure change if I didn’t have to work for a living?
After nearly a decade of working with both Friends and non-Friends in the capacity as workshop or study group leader, I have yet to see a consistent difference between Friends’ financial attitudes and the attitudes of others, when compared with peers of their generational or social background. As a group, Friends seem about as confused about how to set fiscal priorities, how to resist overspending, how to manage debt, or how to decide how much money to give away as anyone else in similar financial circumstances, and probably as many Quakers drop the practice, and for the same reasons when they do. Friends do have the experience of taking discernment seriously, however, and that can sustain them when others weary of tracking and querying.
When you have your financial life in order, many wonderful things can follow. Seeing discernment about how we get and spend our money as part of our spiritual journey leads to a more completely integrated path. Living within one’s means is nearly as radical in our consumerist 21st-century culture as refusing to take up arms was in an earlier one. I’ve seen people retire debt, choose work that is closer to their life’s purpose, plan for retirement without stress, get their work and leisure more in balance, leave working for money on their own schedule, and figure out that they have more resources—time and money—to give away. In my own life, I have found relief from the cloudy uncertainty that comes from not looking at finances in a direct and clear-eyed way. I’ve learned that sometimes I need to spend more money, not less, in order to live in alignment with what I deeply value—a place of growth for a natural saver like me. Especially with the help of a women’s finance support group, I’ve begun to lose my fear of major fiscal decision-making. I still have trouble figuring out how much to pledge to my monthly meeting or to other Friends’ groups whose work is important to me.
I’m not proposing that every meeting take up Your Money or Your Life. No one approach is perfect, and in fact Penny and I have found resources from other churches valuable for our work, from the Mennonites to the Church of the Savior’s Ministry of Money program. Friends wouldn’t react well to having one imposed on them, even if that were possible. I am, though, willing to say, based on my experience, that we would be strengthened as individuals and as a Religious Society if we offered more corporate help to our membership in thinking about our financial lives.
When I look in my grandfather’s copy of Rules of Discipline and Advices, I find not only guidance about right livelihood, but directives to keep clear accounts and inspect them frequently so as to “live within the bounds of your circumstances”; to write a will and leave financial matters in good order; and to seek advice from “judicious Friends” if you find you can’t pay your debts. My own Faith and Practice, written less than a century later, also gives ethical guidance about occupational choice, but has little else to say on money or finance beyond a job description for finance committees and generalities about stewardship and moderation. It’s hard to know where to begin when looking ahead. This year the development committee of our yearly meeting is working on money and spirit queries and quotations to propose for the upcoming revision of Faith and Practice. We know that some Friends would find such contributions challenging (“uncomfortable”), but see it as our responsibility to offer suggestions that support responsible behavior in our homes, and to encourage the support of Quaker organizations and efforts.
There will never be a return to the days when anyone could assume to know someone’s fiscal philosophy based simply on the fact that he or she is a Quaker. But I think any meeting that finds ways to work on personal finance in its community will find that modern Friends are more eager and willing to examine their fiscal lives through a spirit-centered and yet practical discipline than you might guess by seeing their checkbook records or their credit card bills.
Most of us go to the mall. But most of us are also seeking a way to align even our shopping with the principles of our faith. Quakers before us have struggled with the same question. Even if their solution isn’t ours, we will be the richer for the search.