The Tao of Cheap: What Taoism Teaches about Money

Discovering the Tao of Cheap

I recently came across the concept of the three jewels of Taoism accidentally.  The monk training “Grasshopper” in season 1, episode 8 of Kung-Fu (1973) refers to the three jewels, the second of which is “…frugality, that I might show generosity to others.”  This allusion encouraged me to investigate Taoism as I consider my own Tao of cheap.
teaching the tao

I had a vague concept of Taoism as a sort of minimalist, ascetic, transcendental philosophy, but I had never taken the time to investigate further.  After reading the Tao Te Ching, “The Way of Virtue Book” written by the sage Loazi in the 6th century BCE and visiting some helpful websitesI realized that the text offers great insights on the philosophy of being cheap.

It is true, as “Grasshopper’s” master teaches, that frugality enables generosity, but the value of the Tao Te Ching regarding simplicity, avoiding materialism, and seeking contentedness goes beyond this principle.

What is Taoism, and what does it have to do with getting me what I want?

The Tao Te Ching has been translated into a gobzillian languages and has influenced artists, scholars, and leaders for millennia.  Although Taoism is considered a religion as well as a philosophy, the Tao Te Ching barely refers to matters of faith or the supernatural.  It is more of a playbook for a life of contentedness.

the birth of loazi
A painting in the Green Goat Temple in Chengdu depicts the birth of Loazi

It is kind of like the opposite of The Secret endorsed by Oprah, Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, and others. The Secret is basically the concept of bringing your desires into reality through visualization and positive vibes.  The Tao, on the other hand, suggests that you eliminate desires to reach a state of naturalness that enables true contentedness (and, ironically, leads to what you might have desired in the first place).

The Tao teaches that striving not to strive will deliver that for which you would have been striving. (Say what now?)

The Tao and frugality

Since we are striving not to strive, what will we attain?  The idea is that attaining respect, money, happiness, etc., comes from not seeking respect, money, happiness, etc.  It is an appealing contradiction.

So if I want to be rich, all I have to do is strive not to be rich? Exactly.  Eliminating the desire to “be rich” ultimately facilitates the accumulation of wealth.  I would argue that possessing means is not exactly what our society means by “being rich.”  For many of us, “being rich” is more about image, materialism, and lifestyle than net worth.

Relate post: Reducing the Costs of Fun

Quotes from the Tao Te Ching regarding money

tao te ching calligraphy

The Tao of cheap and materialism

“Not to desire material things is to know the freedom of spirituality; and to desire them is to suffer the limitations of matter.”

If you are always looking for the better car, clothes, house, etc., when will you find contentment?  You are training yourself to be in a state of perpetual want. Practice taking joy in what you have rather than focusing on what you lack.  If you practice seeking the attainment of joy rather than practicing the experience of joy, you will rarely find it.

“Here are the four fundamentals of true spirituality: recognize simplicity, cherish purity, reduce your possessions, diminish your desires.”

Enjoy the simple pleasures of life.  Spend your life enjoying what you have rather than focusing on what you desire.  You may find that your desires diminish, or even realize that your desires were misplaced from the start.

Related link: Living well, spending less

“Trifles and dainties attract the passing people, while the Tao goes unnoticed.

When looked at, it is not much to see; when listened for, it can scarcely be heard; but when put into practice, it is inexhaustible.

The world will go to those who seek the Tao; they will find contentment, peace, and rest.”

“The way of Tao is simple – stop striving, defeat desire.  In the absence of striving, there is peace; in the absence of desire, there is satisfaction.”

Contentment, unlike material possession, is limitless. You can easily spend your life lusting for material possessions or luxurious experiences.  If you do so, you will experience a life of want rather than a life of plenty.  Not only will you misplace your focus on passing fancies, you may ultimately lead to your own anxiety and deprivation.

tao of cheap camping
A picture I took recently on a camping trip.  The view was the same from my modest tent as it was for my neighbors in expensive RVs.

Imagine a man who always seeks the best for himself.  He finances the best car, gadgets, house, and vacations.  He works at a job he hates in order to attain fleeting moments of satisfaction.  He ends up paying a great monetary and emotional cost.  Not only must he live with the anxiety of his debts, he fails to fully experience the luxury of his life as he continually turns his mind to what is next.

“Overindulgence creates waste. Hoarding invites loss.

The man who is content with what he has is not in danger of loss.

The great Way is very plain, so the proud prefer the bypaths.

When the palace is splendid, the fields are likely to be weedy and the granaries empty.

To wear jewels and silks, to flash your weapons, to eat and drink excessively, to store up wealth and treasure – this is the way of robbers.

Pomp is contrary to the Tao.”

As the Notorious B.I.G said, “More money, more problems.”  As Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.”  Once you have the biggest house, sweetest ride, and freshest threads, they bring you anxiety.  You must protect what you have or compete for whatever is next.

Our society does not celebrate modesty. You must decide for yourself that modesty and frugality (being cheap) are virtues. Modesty is not a crime. Your worth is not defined by what you have or what others think of you. Concentrate on doing what you love and enjoying what you have, especially the joys of life that are available to all.

taoism and frugality yacht
“Sure, this yacht is nice, but what I really need to feel good about myself is an island.”

Taoism and generosity

“The Tao has three treasures which the wise guard and cherish; The first is compassion, the second is economy, and the third is humility.

…if you are economical, you can be truly generous…”

When people think of those who are economical, cheap, or frugal they imagine miserly (from the same root at miserable) figures like Scrooge McDuck, Shylock, or Silas Marner, but being cheap, as the Tao suggests, is not in opposition to generosity.

In what ways can economy (being cheap and not having much) lead to generosity?

If you have spent less on yourself, you can spend more on others.  Will it bring you more joy to have the most luxurious car on the block or to show generosity and charity?

If you spend less time and energy striving, you have the time and energy to be generous with your time and care.  For example, the parent who spends less time at work can spend more time with their children.  Is the money or the time the greater gift?  Is it your concern for your child or your own ego that is really motivating you?

taoism and frugality

Related post: Best Homemade Gifts for Adults

“This is the Tao – it diminishes those who have abundance, and nourishes those who lack.

The human way is just the opposite – creditors take from those who lack and lavishes those who already abound!

Where are the wealthy who will use their riches to save the world?

The wise earn much, but claim it not for themselves. They accomplish much, but are not attached to their accomplishments.

They succeed abundantly, yet make no show of their success.”

The Tao is the great equalizer.  The Tao Te Ching suggests that you can feel rich without having to attain wealth or deal with its complications. Would you rather live a cheap lifestyle and be happy or live in luxury and be miserable? One who relishes in the simple joys of life has more than that rich person doggedly striving in opulence.

Applying the Tao of Cheap

I am not some kind of contended Buddha sitting in a pile of cherry blossoms writing haiku (although I do look the part).  I love stuff.  I love luxurious foods, neat experiences, tools, gadgets, and modern conveniences.  This is why I think Taoism is important for me to remember as I explore the Tao of Cheap.

Greed and materialism are innate.  I am no exception, but keeping these desires in check is healthy for my state of mind. We could all benefit from learning to be happier with less, striving for simplicity, and limiting our materialism.

The irony of the Tao of Cheap is that by striving not to strive and practicing frugality you find abundance.  You find abundance not only in the spiritual or mental sense but in the very real material sense.  You spend less on stuff and realize over time that you can buy whatever you want.  Further, your practice has diminished your desires to the point where what you want is quite minimal.

By combating your material desires and developing your Tao of Cheap, you have effectively increased your spending power in two directions.  You have more to spend but have less that you want to buy. The Tao of cheap creates an affluence of frugality.

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