Can I Be Frugal AND Generous?

:: Post submitted by Daishin Smith ::

So I had the bright idea a few years ago to quit a frustrating but comfortably-paying job. Part of it had to do with a commitment to the eightfold path and helpful livelihood. I was unhappily giving a lot of time and energy to something I didn’t value. It occurred to me that if I needed less money, I’d have more freedom for a career change, so I pared down my expenses and replaced that job with one that pays far less but is far more meaningful to me. It was a good decision, and I’m still really glad I made it. But the shift also means there’s not much money to give away. Uh-oh.

It’s almost time for the spring appeal at Clouds, when we spotlight the gifts of generosity and invite everyone to participate in making the mission of Clouds possible, specifically in the area of financial generosity. To honor teachers and staff for their time. To care for our building so we can spend time together as a sangha. But because money is a difficult necessity, it can make for some awkward questions. And I haven’t wanted to be the one asking people those questions, since I’m still asking them for myself.

Because what I’ve been wondering is this—how do I live simply, do good work, care for myself, and still support other things I value? Can I be frugal and generous? 

This seems like some sort of koan or paradox, which probably means the answer is somehow “Yes.” And the possibility of being “both” has me feeling hopeful but still full of questions. 

About 20 years ago, I read a book called Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, who wrote that, “Money is something we choose to trade our life energy for.” The book contains exercises that helped me identify my life values and examine if I was earning and spending according to those values. I don’t know how relevant the entire book still is, but I’m really grateful for how it helped me see and understand money in a new light.

Right now, a lot of my gifts to Clouds are in the form of time—volunteering and serving in various ways. When the seasonal appeals ask for financial generosity, of course there’s a voice in my head that nudges me about the possibility of giving more. But if I can remember to look at my income through the lens of my values, that voice doesn’t sound like scolding, just an opportunity for a check-up. I can look at the money I earn and how I use it. I can respect that using it to take care of myself is part of right livelihood too. And also, that contributing a few dollars more every month is something I can do responsibly right now—so I did that. 

I like the word “responsible.” When used with warmth, it has a maturity and an agency to it that includes thoughtfulness, intention, and care. And I think that’s the best we can do, even with money. To thoughtfully and intentionally align our resources with our values, what we care for. Maybe that’s what “both/and” might look like? Since everything changes, what I have will change, and what I have to give will change, I get to keep asking these questions.

Daishin Smith began practicing Zen in 2012, was ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in 2016, and is a student of Sosan Flynn. While exploring Buddha’s eightfold path for becoming a healthy human being, she enjoys finding wisdom everywhere, whether it’s called secular or sacred. She loves her work (and play) as a reading tutor. Her favorite word is ineffable.

Clouds in Water Zen Center is a vibrant urban community in the heart of Saint Paul, Minnesota. We practice in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition, dedicated to awakening the heart of great wisdom and compassion. We welcome people of all backgrounds and faiths.

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