How to Spend and Save With a Good Conscience

by Tracy · 8 comments

A few years back, I tweeted about participating in a no-spend challenge. To my surprise, the owner of a coffee-shop in my area sent a tweet back berating me for encouraging others to do something that would hurt local businesses. While I firmly believe the shop owner was out of line it also illustrated how our spending (and saving) choices don’t take place in a vacuum. If you’re like me, you probably struggle on how to reconcile meeting our own personal needs and wants with how to support the local economy and our ideals.

Frugal living isn’t always about trade-offs, but you are often time making a choice, especially when it comes to spending your own money. For example, we could buy locally farmed beef and patronize the independent bookstore or save $100 month, not both. Unfortunately supporting businesses that are locally owned or that closely align with our values often costs a premium, either in cash or convenience. For busy people on a budget, this can lead to a lot of tough choices.

So, how do we stay true to our values, support our local economies and manage to save money for ourselves? I won’t say that it’s always easy and that you won’t have to compromise, but it can be done.

Take Care of Needs First

Everyone can agree that feeding and sheltering yourself and your family should be paramount. I’d add staying out of debt and saving for emergencies and the future to the list of needs that should be taken care of first, before attending to wants. There is nothing wrong with shopping at a big box store or using conventional products to make sure that your needs are taken care of. Once you are on firmer financial ground, then you can begin to help others.

To me, this also means taking advantage of public assistance programs like food stamps, WIC and Medicaid if you become eligible due to job loss or disability. I know of many people who have raided retirement accounts and ran up large credit card debts to avoid taking public assistance – only at the end to wind up having to accept aid and then start again with a huge debt and no retirement savings once they finally find employment.

Many people take great pride in doing for themselves, but I, for one, believe that you can use public assistance with your head held high if the need is there. This doesn’t absolve you of the need to save for your own emergencies, but I’m sure every one of us can think of a friend or family member who had an extraordinary string of bad luck. You don’t have to hit rock bottom before you ask for help. In fact, it’s probably better for everyone involved if you do what you can to stay stable as soon as the need arises.

Remember That You Are Ultimately Only Responsible for Yourself

Going back to the Twitter incident, it was unfair of the business owner to put responsibility for the success of his/her business on the customer’s shoulder. As cruel as this seems, if demand is not there, you can’t be expected to go against your own best interests to ensure that another person’s business succeeds.

In other words, while there are very good reasons to support local independent businesses over outside chains, the decision on how often and how much to patronize these businesses has to be made according to your needs and capabilities. So, if you want to make the decision to only go to a local coffee shop but can only work one visit a month into your budget, then that’s what you should do. Likewise, joining a CSA might be a great way to support your local community, but you shouldn’t blindly support the initiative if you are single who rarely cooks at home and the smallest portion they offer feeds a family of 4.

You also need to receive real value for your money. There is, no doubt, an intrinsic value to spending money that will stay in the local community and helping to support a thriving local economy, but if the product and or service is seriously sub-par, then there is no need to feel guilty about patronizing another business where all of your needs will be met.

It’s Not Always Black and White

Do you feel sheepish about buying books on Kindle from Amazon instead of your local independent bookstore? Would it make you feel better if you found out that authors usually receive much higher royalties from digital sales? Do you feel bad when you buy apples grown in New Zealand instead of locally grown? Would you feel better if you learned that sometimes food imported from far away have fewer “food miles” than produce grown in the region?

No doubt you can think of counters to my counters, but the point is that generally speaking most actions have a positive and negative impact. We can and should try to be as ethical and responsible with our financial decisions as possible, but at the same time we should understand that there are many incidences where no perfect solutions exist. Knowing that, we should be at peace with doing what we can, when we can and not beating ourselves up over the rest.

What are your priorities when it comes to saving and spending in an ethical manner?

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  • Liz says:

    I’m a frugal shopper, and I refuse to feel guilty for shopping at big box stores and chains. I’ve lived in enough small towns where the local businesses were terrible, and they were the only game in town.

    Independent retailers in my area offer limited selection and high prices. Why spend 3 times as much for the same groceries? How is that frugal? The local big box stores offer low pay and no benefits; so do the independent stores. At least Wal*Mart tells associates how to apply for government benefits.

  • Paul says:

    In my case, much of my recent effort to save money has cut out the big business in favor of the “smaller guy”. For example, instead of taking my cars to the dealer for routine maintenance, instead I go to a mechanic who moonlights out of his house. I found him on craigslist and his full-time job is a mechanic at a local dealership. I buy the parts online, and I pay him a fraction of what the dealer charges for labor. The savings is huge, and I’m helping someone who is actually doing the work instead of paying for a bunch of overhead at the dealership.

  • marisa says:

    Wow, quite unaware, and a bit heartless! I fully agree with your advice to take care of yourself first. But this post is full of circular reasoning to avoid box store guilt. Big business is what got us into this financial mess in the first place. My priority when it comes to saving and spending in an ethical manner is to not get ripped off by corporate greed any more than I have to. Remember, convenience comes at a cost.

    Joining a CSA can be done in tandem with friends, so you can all eat healthy and support local farmers. Or go to the farmers market to buy enough for one. In the end, you truly get what you pay for, and for the most part, box stores full of boxes don’t provide the best nutritional bang for your buck. Learning to cook is a MAJOR step towards trimming your budget, and eating local/in season, will also keep you healthier–again, trimming the budget through preventative medical upkeep.

    Make new habits for the new year: learn to cook, eat local, and make dinner with friends, hike, go to the library for free books/movies, volunteer, start a garden with cuttings, get together for board games, picnics, drinks on the patio, and YES, go to your local coffee shop, if only a few times a month. Watch your food and entertainment bills go down, while your knowledge, skills, friendships, and quality of life go up.

  • Michael says:

    Sometimes I find the local businesses I patronize can have better deals on individual items (like a small local grocery store that’s great about getting fresh meat) but if you would add everything up you would buy, it ends up being a bit more expensive. I think when you can, you should buy local but not at the expense of personal hardship.

  • Jean says:

    I often find myself pitying a struggling business and patronizing them instead of their more well-stocked (and probably having better deals) competitors but like you said, there is a point beyond which it is hard to justify sometimes.


  • Maggie@SquarePennies says:

    Most people don’t have the time to figure this all out. As you say, it’s difficult to know all the factors anyway. I do as I suspect most do; I spend in ways that make sense for my budget and then give to charities I believe in.

  • jack foley says:

    “Once you are on firmer financial ground, then you can begin to help others.”

    The above comment is so important. To Help the poor, make sure you dont become one of them..

    Take care of yourself , first with a mindset of helping when you will be able to – this is not selfish but generous as you are helping the world..

    Great post..!

    • Tracy O'Connor says:

      Hi Jack, thanks for the compliment! I did want to clarify that one can and should help others in non-financial ways no matter what your circumstances are. I think that as long as you are doing the best you can to be ethical and aware in your spending, there is no cause for guilt when you can’t abide by your ideals 100% of the time. It’s like if you were on the Titanic – by all means try to save others, but make sure your own family is safe on a lifeboat, first.

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