UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds
iStock.com/selensergen

How much is enough?

Author Heather King says Christians should earn a sum that allows them to enjoy life and share generously. Figuring out how is another matter.

By Pieta Woolley


As you wade through your 2015 tax paperwork this spring, you can pat yourself on the back if you made about $75,000 last year. It’s the magic number, according to Princeton professor of economics and international affairs Angus Deaton, who earned the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2015. “More money does not necessarily buy more happiness,” he quips, “but less money is associated with emotional pain.”

In his influential 2010 scholarly article, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-Being,” co-authored with Daniel Kahneman, he explains: “Perhaps $75,000 is a threshold beyond which further increases in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure.” Most Canadians are nowhere near that mark: median individual incomes are just $32,020.

But happiness — or Deaton’s definition of it — is only one consideration when trying to answer: how much is enough? The American Catholic writer Heather King examines that question in her new book Loaded: Money and the Spirituality of Enough. She, too, assesses the question of enough based on happiness. However, she offers a more nuanced discussion of what that means. She introduces the book with the highly inspirational story of two members of the  Catholic Worker Movement, a couple whose life of service to California’s farm labourers and their radical trust in God has always provided — precariously and humbly — enough for them and their children. They seem genuinely happy, dedicated to community and family. But then it gets really interesting.

King uses their story to call out Christians who lionize poverty for the sake of poverty. It’s a kind of sickness, she claims, that can lead to chronic underearning and debt. Ultimately, it undermines living in trust and abundance. “Poverty can become an idol just as much as wealth.” To illustrate that, she uses her own story, which includes a short stint as a lawyer, followed by years of gruelling near-poverty as a freelance writer. “I’m willing to live close to the bone to do what I love, I kept telling myself. I don’t work for The Man.” She never sold out, until she realized that indeed she had. She sold out, she writes, to fear and poverty. To the idea that money is “antithetical to spirituality.” She goes on to describe the costs of underearning: failed careers and relationships. “Underearning is perverse and it’s progressive and it kills: dreams, spirits, lives.”

In the church circles I know, this stuff will cut deep. Precarious contracts, inner city outreach, pensionless camp jobs and part-time ministry positions are superb at delivering the glamorous idea that money is antithetical to spirituality. King’s solution is simply to earn enough. How much is enough? The Gospel calls Christians to trust God, enjoy their abundance and share it generously. If you’re not able to do that, King says, you need to get clear about how much money you need. Make a realistic budget, and then earn that amount.

Underearning, of course, isn’t limited to church circles. Canadians are mired in debt. In 2015, for example, we owed $3,725 on credit cards, on average. This is entertaining stuff, as evidenced by the popularity of Canadian personal finance guru Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s TV empire, which includes Til Debt Do Us Part and Princess (a show dedicated to young women’s overspending). In Princess, Vaz-Oxlade promises to transform the subject from “spender to saver” in just four weeks, with an up-to $5,000 prize to help pay down debts. In one episode, a 30-year-old travel agent named Lasia overspends on clothes, travel and expensive nightclubs. “People like to party with me,” she says. Her brother clarifies, “When Lasia has money to spend, she’s got 25 best friends.”

The first step, in Vaz-Oxlade’s formula, is to get clear on the numbers — the same advice King offers. Lasia owes $31,000, and needs to double her income to $70,000, to afford her current life. Or, dramatically reduce her expenses. Lasia rises to Vaz-Oxlade’s challenges,  overhauling her budget, career and lifestyle. She wins the $5,000. How much is enough, according to the show? Enough to cover basics, save, pay off debts and still enjoy life. And that will be a different amount for every person. 

The show offers a heady dose of self-righteousness to the watcher. Princess features extreme examples and self-inflicted situations. But the show is popular, presumably, because debt is a constant companion in Canada. We’re all in this together. Average household debt hit $92,699 in 2015. Some blame silly spending, such as Lasia’s shopping obsession. Given the frighteningly evolving costs of 21st-century urban Canada, however, I’m not satisfied that it’s so simple. I once calculated that to buy a modest house in my hometown of Vancouver, pay for childcare, reasonable transportation, insurance, dental care, food, taxes, utilities, decent clothes and shoes, a two-week vacation per year and put 10 percent of earnings into savings, we’d need a family income of nearly $200,000 a year. That’s nearly three times the median household income in Vancouver (Vaz-Oxlade would high-five me: I left town).

For many young people especially, those old post-war touchstones — owned houses, family vacations — have become 21st century luxuries. Economically, Canada is changing quickly. A Vancouver tear-down that sold for $650,000 in 2005 is lighting up social media with its new outrageous listing price of $2.4 million. Oil workers are fleeing Alberta. The affordability of the clothes ‘n’ clubs lifestyle for worker bees like Lasia ended within two decades of Saturday Night Fever.

With Canada’s swiftly shifting economic reality, what money should afford — happiness, abundance, sharing — requires swift mindset shifting too. Get clear on your numbers and don’t overspend. Do you really need a house? A car? Meat every day? Piano lessons for your kids? Cauliflower? Given the enormity of Canada’s personal debt crisis, it’s safe to say that we don’t seem to be adjusting swiftly enough. How to do it with grace and sharing and a sense of abundance? That’s the challenge.

Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.


Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image

Editorials

David Wilson%

Observations

by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image

Society

July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots

World

June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.

Justice

June 2017

Undocumented

by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.

World

June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.

Society

April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart

Society

March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image