What the modern woman needs to know about wealth and poverty

Poverty. It is one of the three vows consecrated religious commonly make, and in a world fueled by financial success, it seems irrelevant to the life of an average layperson.

Not so, says the Catechism! “Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 915, emphasis added).

Clearly, poverty is a virtue and spirit to be embraced by all. But how am I supposed to practice poverty? Does this mean I can only own one dress? Do I survive on rice and beans? Do I resign myself to walking barefoot to church in rain, snow or shine?

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I found my answers in a surprising source: a 19th century housekeeping book.

Lydia Maria Child, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, authored “The American Frugal Housewife” in 1823. In her book, she presents recipes and cleaning tips, as well as an overall philosophy one should adapt to practice “good economy.”

While not a Catholic herself, Child presents wisdom that can guide us toward living Christian poverty as laywomen. Though a couple hundred years old, her personal philosophies ring true in today’s modern world.

Poverty should be accompanied by prudence

“No false pride, or foolish ambition to appear as well as others, should ever induce a person to live one cent beyond the income of which he is certain.”

In short, don’t let pride or laziness lead you to live beyond your means. Though it may sound on the surface to be only a budgetary tip, it evokes practice of another virtue: “Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; ‘the prudent man looks where he is going’” (CCC 1806). Looking ahead allows us to prudently plan what we ought to be spending our money on.

Certainly, it’s not a sin to treat oneself now and again. But if you’re in the constant habit of impulse buying, perhaps it’s time to do an examination and create a path to prudence and humility.

Poverty leads to generosity

“The man who is economical is laying up for himself the permanent power of being useful and generous.”

Poverty isn’t merely being frugal. Counterintuitively, it should lead to generosity.

By living below one’s means, it is presumed we will eventually save a surplus. Yet, however tempting, Jesus did not call me to be another Ebenezer Scrooge, hoarding it all away. Rather, if I am blessed with abundance as a result of practicing poverty, I ought to remember Jesus’ words: “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Lk 3:11). Through simple living, I am in a better place to be of service to those in need.

I also found that housekeeping skills like the ones Child prescribes allow me to be more generous with my time and talent. By making my meals instead of eating out, I often find myself inviting friends to partake in my dishes. In learning how to do basic sewing, I was able to help salvage a housemate’s sweater. By saying “no” to buying luxuries or conveniences, I am better able to put myself at the service of others.

Poverty teaches virtues to children

“In early childhood, you lay the foundation of poverty or riches, in the habits you give your children.”

Once, when visiting my sister, I was astonished when my little nieces thanked their mom for making dinner, completely unprompted. Upon further observation, I realized it was because their parents would thank each other for little things throughout the day, surely making an impression on their daughters.

Many of us will be (or are already) mothers and will naturally evangelize our children. As we practice poverty and the other virtues that follow it, they, too, will learn how to become virtuous. As with the other evangelical counsels, poverty “characterizes the life consecrated to God.” Saying “no” when your child asks for a treat at the grocery store isn’t cruelty. Instead, it is laying the groundwork for this child to understand the greater meaning of sacrifice when they’re older. Christ tells us all that to reach heaven, we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. By denying ourselves little by little, we become saints. And, hopefully, our children will follow close behind.

Poverty doesn’t have to mean destitution. In fact, it’s often just saying yes or no to little decisions each day. May we have the moral courage to choose that which will sanctify us, and those around us, a little bit more each day.

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