Editors’ note: 

For church leaders to be more effective in seeking the “welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7), we should know what economic concepts mean, how they should be applied, and how they affect the local church. The purpose of the Economics for Church Leaders series is not to present a theology of economics, but rather to provide a basic level of understanding that will help church leaders think more clearly about how to apply their faith commitments to economics and public policy. See the Economics for Church Leaders page for other articles.

The Term: Consumption

What It Means: Consumption is the use of goods and services by households.

Why It Matters: Consumption is an ugly word for a beautiful concept.

Since the Middle Ages, consumption has referred to wasting diseases, such as tuberculosis, which consume the body. More recently, consumption has often been confused with consumerism, a useful and related term that has taken on a wholly pejorative connotation.

But in its most basic economic sense, consumption is a purely neutral term that refers to the use of goods and services by households. If you arrange for a babysitter to watch your toddler so that you can eat a steak dinner with your spouse, you are consuming both goods (the steak) and services (the babysitter’s time and attention). While you likely pay for these goods and services using money (from income or savings), it’s merely their use that marks them as consumption. (We’ll return to that point in a moment.)

Consumption is arguably the first (or maybe second) economic concept mentioned in the Bible. After creating Adam and Eve and giving them the cultural mandate (“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”), God says to the first couple: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Gen. 1:29).

Notice that Adam and Eve were required to work and allowed to consume even before they had an income. This is the way most of us start out in life. As toddlers and children we may have been required to perform work (clean your room, mow the lawn), but our work was unlikely to be tied directly to our ability to consume. A 10-year-old boy may earn only a few dollars from his paper route but consume food, housing, and transportation that cost hundreds of dollars a month.

This is why consumption is a better indicator of well-being and human flourishing than income, or even wealth. A good example of this is found in the movie The Martian (2015). While stranded on Mars, astronaut Mark Watney is technically still earning an income from NASA. But that money doesn’t do him much good when he is stuck on a planet without supermarkets. What matters most for Watney’s life is his ability to consume goods and services necessary for survival, not how much he has in his checking account.

This is also why Christians should be aware of the importance of consumption as an indicator of well-being. Consumption levels can often tell us much more about the welfare of our neighbors than other relevant factors, such as income or expenditures. For instance, a poor farmer who owns his home and has a reliable garden and access to livestock may have almost no income, little expenditure, and yet be able to consume adequate levels of both food and housing.

A poor person in the city, however, may consume food by receiving foodstuffs for free through a soup kitchen, and yet may be homeless and unable to consume adequate housing. Keeping an eye on consumption—and how the goods and services are obtained—helps us to better determine the type and level of need our neighbors may have.

Other Stuff You Should Know: 

  • The importance of consumption to human flourishing is the primary reason many economists argue that, though both groups are essential, consumers should take priority over producers. As the 18th-century moral philosopher Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations:

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it.

  • Many other important economic concepts are directly connected to consumption. For instance, a primary reason for savings is to set aside a portion of our current income, and forego consumption today, so that we can consume more in the future (see Prov. 6:6–8).
  • Decisions about consumption have a profound effect on our choices about work, income, savings, investment, and so on. Generally speaking, people prefer a relatively stable path of consumption and tend to make decisions based on that preference. For instance, a newly married couple may go into debt to purchase housing and furniture, on the assumption that they’ll be able to pay it off later as their incomes increase. Similarly, in order to maintain a similarity of lifestyle in their later years, people contribute to retirement accounts. This process is known as “consumption smoothing.” Whether going into debt or saving, the intention is to maintain a minimal standard of consumption over the course of one’s lifetime. We do this by “smoothing out” both the highs and lows of our lifetime consumption patterns. (A future article in the series will cover consumption smoothing in more detail.)