Wealth is a moral conundrum for many if not most people. For instance, in the best-selling book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, author Robert T. Kiyosaki argues that people engage in frantic activity to avoid working on more important problems, a phenomenon he calls “laziness by staying busy.” Then Kiyosaki proposes, “So what is the cure for laziness? The answer is — a little greed” (p. 216). People use the sin of Avarice, Kiyosaki contends, to rationalize not prudently managing their finances. I can agree with this because I’ve done it myself. That’s only one of the reasons I’m poor.
However, Kiyosaki mistakenly equates greed with desire. This is sloppy thinking. The object of the desire may be inappropriate. The manner, degree, or end to which you desire it may be wrongful or inordinate. Desire in itself, though, isn’t sinful or evil. In fact, Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy holds that all desire is directed toward that which is — or is perceived to be — good (see Summa Theologiae II-I, Q. 8, A. 1 resp.). “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10); but desire and love aren’t the same things, whatever pop-song writers say.
To say Avarice is an “inordinate love of riches,” as the old Catholic Encyclopedia put it (emphasis mine), is to indirectly admit that you can have an ordinate (i.e., just and appropriate) desire. Otherwise, the adjective would be unnecessary. You don’t have to compulsively hoard cash or possessions, putting your soul at risk, in order to have a dignified life, pay your bills, and provide for retirement — our working definition of sufficient wealth. Indeed, in our economy, prudent financial management demands wealth-building activity. And, in a seeming paradox, it also requires the Christian virtue of detachment.
What’s Really an Asset?
First, let’s define wealth by talking about assets, liabilities, and equity. From an accounting standpoint, assets include money, financial instruments, and anything else that can be converted into cash or its equivalent, whether it’s your house, your old coin collection, or your bookshelf full of used paperbacks. By contrast, a liability is anything that represents a claim on your assets — your mortgage, your car loan, your outstanding credit-card balances, etc. The difference between the gross worth of your assets and the gross value of your liabilities is your equity.
For most people, wealth consists of assets considered from the accountant’s perspective. So long as you can liquidate everything you own, pay off your debts, and have some left over, you’re good, right? Except that, from the accountant’s view, you don’t really know what an asset is worth until you sell it. Appraisals and depreciation rules are educated guesses. Most of your personal possessions will never recover their historical cost when sold, let alone bring you a profit. And some, even many of your personal possessions, especially your house and your car, require additional maintenance and use expenses.
From the financial perspective, a possession that doesn’t generate more revenue than expenses, or which loses value, isn’t an asset — it’s a liability. In this light, the average passbook savings account isn’t a real asset nowadays because it won’t earn enough interest to offset the inflation rate. Good debt is on financial assets and investments, while bad debt is generated solely by consumption (car loans, credit-card balances, etc.). Wealth consists only of assets that either generate positive cash flow or which appreciate in value over time.
Now, look around your house and check your portfolio. How many assets do you really own? “The rich buy assets. The poor only have expenses. The middle class [buys] liabilities they think are assets” (Kiyosaki, p. 92; emphasis mine).
Detachment and Wealth
Many of us (yes, I include myself) get trapped into destitution or “middle-class poverty” — living paycheck-to-paycheck, even with a high-dollar paycheck — through buying things we desire and want but don’t need, or through buying more than we need. We buy stuff we “have to have” but don’t use, stuff that loses monetary value and contributes nothing to our spiritual well-being. We fill our too-big houses with cluttering liabilities, false wealth, instead of building real material and spiritual wealth through investments, enriching experiences, and charitable works.
This is where Christian detachment contributes to financial prudence. Christian detachment, like secular minimalism, doesn’t buy things just to own them. What the detached person buys serves an authentic need, whether the need is material or spiritual. In this, the financial perspective agrees with the Christian that mindless consumption leads to false wealth. It may be good for the economy, but it’s not good for your balance sheet or your cash flow. More to our purpose, mindless consumption displays the hoarding behavior of the “scarcity mindset” behind Avarice.
Every dollar you don’t spend on acquiring the appearance of wealth is a dollar you can spend on building the substance of wealth. You will also have it available to perform corporal works of mercy or to enrich your personal life through experiences shared with others. Practicing mindful spending, carefully discerning between real needs and “do-withouts,” is not only “choosing quality of life over quantity of stuff” but also necessary for minimizing expenses. In other words, it’s financial prudence. Christian detachment doesn’t contradict building wealth but rather assists it.
Trusting in God and Tying Our Camels
Nevertheless, actively building wealth and providing for the future may strike some people as awfully worldly. When you consider the “Lilies of the Field” Discourse (Matthew 6:25-34) or the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21), it appears Jesus is counseling us to pay no attention to the future. Christian financial planning sounds as paradoxical as the Middle Eastern saying, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.” Surely, if we put our trust in God, He will take care of our future needs, correct? Why plan for the future when the future isn’t predictable, when tomorrow isn’t a given?
However, Jesus used hyperbole in a common teaching technique known as “rabbinical exaggeration.” For instance, we know he didn’t literally expect us to maim ourselves in order to avoid sin (Matthew 5:29-30). Otherwise, there would be an astonishingly large percentage of Christian eunuchs. We could as easily over-interpret the “Lilies of the Field” Discourse into an “eat, drink, and be merry” ethos. The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), in contrast, counsels prudence and forethought. We shouldn’t borrow tomorrow’s troubles and scarcity, but neither should we borrow tomorrow’s pleasures and abundance.
There are things in our lives we can control and things we can’t control. Sooner or later, even the most powerful people run up against persons or situations or events about which they can do nothing. We trust in God concerning the things we can’t change, the things that are out of our control. But we remain responsible for the things we can do something about. Christianity has never taught anything different. Financial prudence is responsible stewardship of the gifts God has given us, just as healthy eating habits are responsible stewardship of food.
Sufficient Wealth and Detachment
Keep in mind, I’m not Joel Osteen and I’m not pushing the “health and wealth” gospel. God doesn’t want you to be rich; He wants you to be saints. While building wealth can lead to getting rich, it doesn’t always do so, and it needn’t do so. Sufficient wealth is a lower, more practical bar to reach. It merely involves developing enough passive income that you can live a decent life without a paycheck. Or at least, decent enough that you’re not eking out your Social Security benefit by working as a greeter at Walmart.
This comes back to detachment. People with mindless spending habits tend to think getting rich will solve their problems. However, as income increases, so does mindless consumption. Many lottery winners have found themselves bankrupt in a relatively short time because they hadn’t developed the discipline needed to control their spending. Widows and divorcées of big spenders have found that, after the party was over, they had little left to live on by themselves. By contrast, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have been able to give billions of dollars to charity because they never spent much on themselves.
As a Catholic Christian, what are your true riches? God, family, friends, and neighbors — especially neighbors in the “Good Samaritan” sense. You don’t need Buffett-scale wealth to have loved ones or to do good for others. Contrapositively, getting rich won’t solve all your problems and may create new ones; it may change you in ways you won’t like. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Build wealth, by all means, but give first priority to your relationships.
I’m a poor man myself. So I gladly leave articles on ethical investment behavior and strategies to others more knowledgeable and credible than I. I merely point out that the mere building of wealth doesn’t make you greedy. What drives the hoarding behavior of Avarice is the “scarcity mindset” that also drives Gluttony, Lust, and Envy — the subconscious fear that, no matter how much you have or get, it isn’t enough. Investing wisely is no more evidence of Avarice than buying food is proof of Gluttony or having children demonstrates Lust.
With prudence and knowledge, you can provide for the future and still be “rich toward God.” At the end of the day, though, money is only a tool (and a fictional one at that). It exists by government fiat and common convention to help you get the goods and services you need. If you learn nothing else about finance, learn enough to buy only what really contributes to your well-being. Build your wealth, but be grateful for what you have now. Whatever concerns you have for the future, don’t sacrifice love for others on the altar of Mammon.