How A Nun Does Money

And more info on what a “vow of poverty” entails.

Photo: Przemko Stachowski/Flickr

I’m a simplicity freak. I don’t need or want a lot of stuff. I’m leaving for a six-week trip — to Rome and then Ireland — and I’ve fit everything I need into one carry-on. I have a computer, of course, and it’s for my use, but it’s communally owned. I really don’t find myself wanting things. I mean, we do allow some personal expenses — like books or movies or chocolate. I guess if I have one thing I wish for, it’s plants. Sometimes I want ones that we can’t afford. But recently, I actually got a grant to purchase currant, blueberry, blackberry, and gooseberry plants. I mean, it would’ve taken me ten years of saving up to buy those!

Amy Hereford is a sister of St. Joseph, which means that she’s taken a vow of poverty. I will be the first to admit that I have no clue what a vow of poverty even means. According to this insanely interesting and very informative interview from Wealthsimple, a vow of poverty isn’t as simple as vowing to live in actual poverty: “It’s not a vow to be impoverished; it’s really a commitment to have each other’s back.” Simply put: the nuns don’t own anything themselves, but by design, no one ever wants for anything more.

A Nun Tells Us What It’s Like to Live With a Vow of Poverty

Nuns in this order live communally, sharing resources and helping each other out as needed. For money, many of the nuns in her order work paying jobs as nurses, administrators and even a dental hygenist. Amy is a lawyer and does work for nonprofits and religious communities, offering her services for their legal issues. The money that she does collect from her work goes right back into the church.

With the money we have, every year we each make out a budget for food, rent, and utilities, travel or education, and submit it. Those budgets are approved by a central committee, and money is disbursed into group accounts that are held by the Sisters of St. Joseph, but where we are signatories. Whatever we don’t use for our own needs, we turn back in to the ministry and funnel into projects we think are important. When younger sisters first come into the order, they’re committed to living this way, but I think that first time they hand their paycheck over can be a jolt — Oh, this is real.

What’s most interesting to me is how Amy paints her life in the ecovillage where she lives with the other sisters as a successful model for the sharing economy. All of the duties are shared across the board and she can always fall back on the strength of her community to help her through the hard times. When every party in a household or a family commits to really living equally, the benefits they reap are worth it.

If I lose a job, my community can tide me over until I get something else. I think there’s a real value in living this way as a model. To show people, you know what, it is possible to live in this kind of sharing economy, and it actually works quite well. In fact, it has worked for centuries, but it takes a commitment on everybody’s part to do that. Even in our ecovillage, there are some higher wage earners and lower wage earners, and you come to a potluck, and you get some really classy dishes and you get some, you know, hot dogs. Vegetarian hot dogs.

A vow of poverty doesn’t mean abstaining from material possessions and living like a true pauper — it’s really about changing the way you think about your possessions and your place in the world.

Being inside of it, you get used to it, but then you start to explain it to somebody, and you say, “This is crazy!” Maybe not crazy, but it’s so different from the dominant paradigm. It’s kind of like socialism on a small scale — everybody contributes what they can, everybody gets what they need.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.