Purity Finance — Millennial Money with Katie

Federally funded abstinence-only messaging and the “true love waits” movement began infiltrating even secular high schools in 1996, but we got the radioactive version in Catholic school. It’s well-documented now that purity culture—the religious emphasis on a woman’s virginity as part of her value and sanctity—creates a psychological minefield. (I asked my husband, who went to an Episcopalian all-boy school, if he received any such education around his sexual purity, and he stared back at me, blinking slowly, before replying, “No…?”)

We know that teaching adolescent women that sexuality is shameful and dirty makes it physiologically challenging for them to suddenly embrace the thing that supposedly defiles their virtue, even within the context where it’s permissible (i.e., marriage).

I’ve been thinking recently about the way mainstream personal finance approaches spending money in a parallel way—purity finance, if you will. Spending is something you should only enjoy once you’re already wealthy, and until then, it’s the enemy of financial prudence. Perhaps the most famous personal finance educator in the world, Dave Ramsey, is quoted saying, “If you’re having financial issues, the only time you should see the inside of a restaurant is if you’re working there.” His radio show reportedly has 14 million listeners each week.

Most of our perceptions around being “good” with money involve a moralized framework that positions saving as virtuous (and, by extension, spending as something to do as infrequently, minimally, and attentively as possible). Overpaying for something is heresy. Debt is the gravest sin.

I can’t even count the number of conversations I’ve had in recent years with very wealthy individuals—those with net worths in the multi-millions—who now struggle to spend money on anything because they’ve adopted ultra-frugal saving as a core tenet of what it means to be “good,” or at the very least, “good with money.” 

We’re accustomed to denigrating those who blow through every cent that enters their checking account, but we rarely pathologize the person who’s worth $5 million and still comparison-shops for strawberries.

When you believe for your entire working life that saving money is “good” and spending money is “bad,” the idea that you’ll be able to abruptly throw it in reverse and spend freely upon entering retirement is not a realistic expectation. Even though you now occupy the context in which spending is sanctioned in this framework (the very thing you’ve been saving for!), the connection between spending and irresponsibility is often too entrenched.