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Question 94: May a retiree accept a job to get extra money for optional expenditures?

I have no immediate family. My husband was killed in an accident a few months after our wedding, and I never remarried. My parents, brothers, and a sister also have died. Four years ago I retired from my lifelong work as a public high school teacher. Though not covered by social security, I do receive a teacher’s pension from the state. It is not indexed, but so far it has been enough to cover all the necessities—rent, utilities, food, clothing, transportation, health care, insurance, incidentals—with a fair amount left over to donate to the Church and various charities.

I enjoy a variety of free or inexpensive activities, such as visiting with friends, and using public libraries and museums. I also do volunteer work here and there, and write letters to editors, government officials, managers of businesses, and so on, calling their attention to situations I consider unjust or otherwise wrong. Still, having done some traveling and photography before I retired, I’d very much like to do more of those things now. For financing, I could go to work part time, editing and desktop publishing an in-house newsletter for a nearby hospital. I sometimes have helped the hospital administrator’s secretary with the work on a volunteer basis, but it has been taking too much of her time, and now they are offering to pay me to do the whole job. I would enjoy the work, and the income would not affect my pension.

However, having thought long and hard about Jesus’ teaching on our duties toward people in need—“When I was hungry” and so forth—I wonder whether I may take this job and use the extra money as I would like. I would no longer have the time and energy to do volunteer work, which is one way I can help people less fortunate than I am. And I would be filling a job that could be done during school hours by some working mother who needs income for family necessities. Finally, I would be using this extra income for luxuries, while many people in the world are starving. All these things lead me to ask whether I may take this job. Of course, if I do, I could give part of the extra income to the poor and use only part of it for travel and photography. In that case, what would the right division be?

I also have U.S. government savings bonds, now worth about one hundred thousand dollars, that I bought over the years. I could cash some of them, both to finance travel and photography and to help the poor. However, I have been keeping the bonds in case inflation reduces the buying power of my pension so much that it no longer will cover all the necessities, and I am reluctant to give up this safety net. Am I being miserly?


This questioner’s problem is partly one of justice in the use of resources and partly one of vocation: to discover the way God wishes her to use her gifts in serving others and fulfilling herself. She might be able to combine activities in such a way as to satisfy all her concerns and objectives. Not all recreation is a luxury; travel and photography can serve genuine human goods. In judging how much one may spend on recreational activities, one must consider others’ needs as well as one’s own, and apply the Golden Rule.

The reply could be along the following lines:

People all too often regard retirement as an endless vacation that frees them of any further responsibility to serve others. Accepting this view, many retirees take it for granted that they have the right to work for extra income to spend on recreation or any other extras they choose. You do well to continue listening for God’s call during your retirement years, as every Christian should, so that you can continue finding and following your vocation as it unfolds. Moreover, the concerns you express manifest a spirit of loving service and a Christian attitude toward money. You also are following the norms for discovering moral truth by treating your options as a matter for moral inquiry, though none of the options is in itself morally evil.

I do not think you are miserly in keeping your savings. Like other financially independent members of society, you have the duty to try to provide for your own continuing needs, and it would be wrong to take a great risk, without any morally compelling reason, of shifting that burden to others. Most advisers on retirement planning recommend taking inflation into account, and, living as you do on a fixed pension, you do need a hedge against future inflation. In my judgment, moreover, your savings are not excessive for that purpose. However, if you have not already done so, I suggest you consider bequeathing anything that might remain of your savings when you die to a worthy cause. Assuming you have no obligation to provide for anyone else, such a bequest, it seems to me, would fully meet your responsibility to put your savings to good use.

Part of your concern about accepting the offer of part-time work for the hospital is that it might deprive a mother of needed work. That concern is laudable, but your not taking the job would not ensure that such a person would get it. Perhaps it would go to someone similar to you, who planned to use the income less responsibly. Your concern about forgoing the volunteer work that you have been doing is more substantial, since working for the hospital will require much of your time and energy, and will displace volunteer work.

Perhaps you could meet both concerns effectively as follows. You would do the editing and desktop publishing of the hospital’s newsletter by yourself until you fully mastered the work. Then, without additional cost to the hospital, you would search for and select a suitable person, such as a mother who needed the income but could work only during school hours, and teach her to do the work. When she proved herself capable and was doing a significant part of the work, you would let her take over the job, but continue advising and assisting her until she mastered it. The cooperation involved in helping someone in this way might well also initiate a good friendship.

So, rather than contributing part of the income from your work, you would be giving up the job itself. Having thus achieved your purpose of making the job available for someone who needed it and having contributed some volunteer work to that cause, you could use the extra money you had earned for travel and photography. Of course, if the project succeeded, you could look for other, somewhat similar, part-time jobs and do the same thing repeatedly.294

There remains your concern about spending money on luxuries while people are starving. It seems to me that this concern results, in part, from a mistaken assumption that all recreational activity is a luxury. Actually, while people often indulge themselves in luxurious recreation, everyone needs some recreation, and activities that really serve that purpose also serve other interests, such as gaining knowledge, having experiences valuable for their own sake, and exercising various skills. You might even be able to put your travel and photography to work in serving the poor. For example, you might visit places in this country and abroad where you could gain firsthand experience of human misery, capture its images on film, and thus gather material to enclose in your letters or illustrate talks and/or articles intended to raise others’ social consciousness. Dollars spent traveling in less prosperous places also constitute earnings for the local economy and so, in a small way, help to alleviate poverty, especially if one patronizes locally owned and operated businesses.

To judge whether a recreational activity is justified, considering that many people in the world are starving, you must reflect on two things: how it would benefit you and others—that is, enable you and them to participate in the various basic human goods, which really fulfill persons—and how forgoing it would enable you to mitigate the evils from which other people are suffering and, at the same time, fulfill yourself by serving others. Then, considering your lifestyle as a whole, rather than one or another activity in isolation, you must apply the Golden Rule (see LCL, 282–86). When you have done this, I believe you will be able to judge in good conscience that you may spend at least some of the extra money you earn for some reasonably priced travel and photography—forms of recreation that can embody genuine human goods and that, as I have suggested, you also might use as means of working for social justice.295

294. This suggestion might not apply in countries other than the U.S.; in most parts of the world, even skilled and able elderly persons cannot easily find jobs. In such a case, the questioner and the person she trained might share the job on an ongoing basis.

295. The ideas underlying the preceding suggestions for solving this problem can be applied to many other cases. When confronting options none of which is in itself morally evil, one should reflect in the perspective of vocation, and the question is how best to use one’s gifts and resources. The particular goals that arouse one’s desire often are too limited and exclude richer possibilities. Yet many people focus on a few definite goals that they happen to have in mind and regard everything else as mere means to obtaining them. Instead, one should focus on possible benefits to people—others and oneself—and try to discover goals that will bring about those benefits as fully and richly as possible. In the face of what appear to be alternatives for serving various goods and persons, a bit of ingenuity often enables one to find some way of combining activities into an integrated whole, so that everyone concerned and all the relevant goods can be served simultaneously.