A rachet wrench is a tool that only turns in one direction.  When we say racheting consumption, that direction is assumed to be up.  As we grow older, we tend to advance in our jobs and make more money. For most people, making more money means spending more money.  We get used to more privacy, more space, more comfort and luxuries.  And it is *hard* to go the other way — our internal sense of entitlement rails against any drop in living conditions.  We might see our friends spending more and implicitly encouraging us to do the same.  Or we might move into a neighborhood where others are spending more, and it’s easy to compare ourselves with our neighbors and increase our spending to match.  Believe it or not, studies have shown that what makes us happy is not how much we have, but rather knowing we have more than our peers.

I see strong a strong parallel between racheting spending consumption and racheting eating consumption.  As we grow older, we also tend to eat better — no more cereal or Ramen noodles for dinner.  Coupled with a more sedentary lifestyle, the end result is a slowly racheting weight.  I’m not sure if there is a clear spiritual analogy for high spending consumption, but it makes me think of Ezekiel 16:49 :

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.

It’s getting close to the end of the year, and many of us will think about New Years resolutions.  Here are a few suggestions for fighting the racheting effect:

  1. Knowledge is power. You can’t combat racheting without knowing how much you truly spend.  In the past, June and I tracked our spending in an Excel spreadsheet; we have 5 years worth of data now.  But that is a real discipline to sit down a few times a year and categorize / balance everything.  This year we’re trying mint.com to see if that makes it easier.  Do other people have systems they use and recommend?
  2. Set goals. Each person’s financial situation is different, so it’s hard to find a one-size-fits-all solution.  Maybe your goal is to get out of credit-card debt.  Or to increase your giving by a set percentage from last year.  Gary’s recommendation is to limit your spending to the living wage for your area.  Any billionaires reading this blog might consider joining Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in signing the Giving Pledge to give away the majority of your wealth in your lifetime.
  3. Do it together. Like exercise, financial discipline is easier to stick to with a partner or group.  Join us in starting a new group in your area, and tell us how you’re doing!

6 thoughts on “Racheting

  1. Man where has blog been all my life?

    Great post again. Ezekial 16:49 is one of those flagship versus for me. InterVarsity’s Citylights urban project has really reshaped a lot of my beliefs and values and has pretty much changed my entire spiritual walk. But life just has a way of undoing a lot of those good changes in your life when you’re removed from the setting that initially sparked the change for a long time.

    I definitely have a spending problem. It’s a problem I keep falling back into but I looked at your “Join us” section briefly and it sounds really interesting. Will look into that once finals is over and done with.

    I think I read this in “A Hole in our Gospel”… maybe not.. but it talked about tithes and how it’s kind of like a vaccine for the consumerism disease. By tithing say 10 percent every week, you are reminding yourself that your money was never really yours in the first place and a way of keeping money from becoming what controls you. I didn’t do a very good job of explaining that… but hopefully you get what I mean.

    But for sure, I’ll be looking further into the join us section soon. Look forward to it!

    • Thanks, Vicky. I agree that it’s hard to live counter-cultural values in isolation, so we encourage people to join giving groups. If you can’t find local people to form a group, at least you can participate in the online community at this blog. Good luck!

  2. This is kind of un-related but I wanted to promote my suggestion for where I think the Just Giving Challenge money should go towards. As I mentioned in a previous comment, many policymakers and economists have documented the enormous lifetime returns (returns meaning the gain to the individual + society minus the cost of the program) of investing in early childhood education, early childhood health, and in general fostering good, supportive early childhood environments…. *especially among the minority and disadvantaged population*.

    Here’s a nice slideshow summary of the concepts behind this:


    And a promotional website for his research agenda can be found here: http://www.heckmanequation.org/

    Full disclosure: I don’t work for or with Professor Heckman, but I’ve been to enough of his seminars and classes to become strongly convinced that not enough money is being invested into early childhood programs.

    Some specifics recommendations:

    1) I really like the early childhood program Tools of the Mind (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/magazine/27tools-t.html) based on pilot studies of their program results. I’ve also met and spoken with the co-founder, I understand their philosophy and have seen their methods in action. Short of amazing. They work efficiently — their per classroom cost is only about $10,000 and they don’t fire existing public school teachers; rather they send trainers and coaches to retrain existing teachers to their new methods. Their preliminary results have been so encouraging (i.e. gains above Head Start and other control curricula) they are being rolled out in New York City Public Schools and Chicago Public Schools.

    2) Nurse Family Partnership: The model is to hire trained nurses to visit and teach impoverished mothers about how to care for their child starting from their pregnancy into the first several years of the child’s life. The results have been short of amazing.

    There are a lot of evaluations of the nurse family partnership floating around in scholar.google.com

    Here’s one link:

    3) Any program that delivers fresh, nutritious food to young children and schoolchildren in an efficient manner. I know less about specific organizations, but things like food service organizations that serve organic/nutritious lunch food to children rather than the stuff (I can’t call it food) that the National School Lunch Program delivers to under-privileged children would be a start. I have a mini-bibliography of some research behind nutrition, behavior, and academic outcomes if anyone is interested.

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