Frugality and moderation are not the most popular virtues in the age of consumerism in which we live. Rabbi Mendel tells us, “Be careful with your money. Do not spend even a penny needlessly.” In the afterglow of the recent global economic meltdown, this looks like good advice. But it also has the potential to derail the global recovery, since today’s economy depends on the opposite of frugality, on free and ever-expanding spending. Contentment is hardly considered a virtue, but a sign of sloth and lack of imagination.
Rabbi Mendel captured the spirit of our day nearly 200 years in advance when he wrote about those who squander money, often borrowed money, to compete with their neighbors for prestige and superficial honor: “Every day they devise new ways to waste their money—on clothing or jewelry or giving larger sums to charity than others do—all to embarrass those who are without means and to gain prestige for themselves.”
Frugality, in contrast, devises ways to not spend and not waste. As with all the middot, however, frugality represents a balance through moderation; in this case, the balance between the conspicuous consumption that Mendel decries and stinginess or hoarding. Frugality does not mean that we begrudge every penny that we have to spend and never give of our means to help another. Rather, it means that we value money not for its own sake, as the miser does, but as a resource for good that needs to be wisely applied.
Frugality is an up-to-date virtue, then, because of the constant pressure of consumerism, and it’s also up-to-date because of the need for conservation. The resources of our planet are limited and must be valued and respected. When we reuse or recycle or, better yet, don’t use at all, we are practicing frugality on a level that benefits the earth that G-d provided for us to inhabit. Again, balance is the key. The Creator gave us as humans dominion over the planet, which means that we are supposed to be here, contrary to the opinion of some radical environmentalists, even if we take up increasingly limited space and resources. But dominion also means that we are responsible for how we manage the creation, and wasteful consumerism won’t pass muster with the Creator. Frugality doesn’t require us to live like our disadvantaged brethren in the third world, but it does require us to keep them in mind as we go about our daily routines.