The True Cost of Cheapness

I remember the first time I was handed a budget of more than 4 figures. It was 7 figures, and all I could think of was, “Really?!?! You really think I can manage this?”

In the years since then, effectively managing budgets of varying sizes, I’ve learned one very important lesson that is essential for ministry leaders to know. “Cheap” and “frugal” are two different things.

“Frugal” is about getting the best return on investment — the key word being “investment.” Let me give you 2 examples from my work on the Mid-Atlantic Congress (MAC).

  1. The wonderful volunteer who took complete responsibility for all of the name badges including the printing, sorting, and distribution grew increasingly frustrated with me and my cheap system the first year of the MAC. It came to a head onsite when I ended up spending the entire 3 days basically behind a computer, creating name badges and wasting scads of name badge template sheets because I only needed one badge at a time (not 6.) After the post-mortem, it was very clear that we needed a different approach and the equipment that accompanied it. So, I bought it. Second best purchase I ever made.
  2. Then there are the amazing Baltimore volunteers who spend an entire day at the O’Dwyer Retreat House sorting materials and stuffing the registration bags. First few years, we used boxes to collect the completed bags — which caused endless headaches because we didn’t have enough and they were really hard to transport. Best $1,000+ I ever spent was for 4 huge, wheeled tubs that magically hold every one of those registration bags. Not only were those volunteers happy, but the onsite registration folks were thrilled!

“Cheap” is a completely other thing.

Cheap is our usual default when budgets are small, and we try to get the most out of them. And that can work for a while — in the short-term. Like hiring a recent college graduate as the parish liturgy coordinator or youth minister. While it’s a budget-friendly move, it’s can be a very staff-unfriendly move for the person who has been hired.

Recently, I did some consulting with someone in this situation. He didn’t have many complaints because he didn’t know better, but I did. The pastor turned a full-time position into part-time, still expected the same or better results, and wasn’t paying any benefits. As a good mentor should, I pointed that out, and in the long-term, he ended up leaving the job because of the “cheapness” of the parish.

Cheap is also the line we cross sometimes in an effort to maintain quality programs. How many times have you duplicated a chapter or a published article or a handout (like “Catholic Update”) without permission or paying to do so? That’s when we cross the line of our own beliefs in social justice — the rights of workers to earn a living. That’s what “cheap” sometimes means, compromising our beliefs.

In the long-term, what does being cheap get us? Lots of staff turnover. Less experienced staff. Less impactful ministry because of the less experience. More limited relationships and higher levels of stress because of the less exp . . .  You can see where this is going.

In ministry, it rarely pays to be cheap. That’s one of the takeaways from the parable of the vinekeeper who hires workers throughout the day, then pays them the same amount. He knows what he is doing as he hires the workers, and he knows what he is getting. His “return on investment” was as he intended.

In what areas do you need to move from being cheap to being frugal, and make the longer term investment to see the return you really want?

2 thoughts on “The True Cost of Cheapness

    1. Post author

      Thanks, Roberto. I’ve noticed a number of parishes making big investment in their renewal using tools like Amazing Parish, Rebuilt, or Divine Renovation. They seem to have realized and owned the fact that they need to invest in the future of their parish and community. But this still does not represent the majority of parishes yet. Need to keep striving.


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