When my wife and I moved from rural Ohio to suburban Chicago, we practically emptied our bank account. Our rent jumped a couple hundred dollars; moving costs were more than we expected; our car needed to be replaced and on top of that we still had school loans to pay off. Then we learned my wife's grad school tuition was higher than we had anticipated.
With debts and added expenses hanging over our heads, we appreciated in a new way the resources God had given us. He provided me with a better-paying job weeks before our car broke down; we wouldn't have been able to afford one otherwise. Buying the car doubled our debt, though, and our finances quickly become a complex burden. We decided we needed to plan more wisely. Besides, the financial stress was leading me to act bearish to my wife, Clarissa, who handles the bills.
In All Things Give Thanks In How Much Is Enough?, Arthur Simon writes, "When things are valued too much, they lose their value because they nourish a never-satisfied craving for more. Conversely, when things are received as gifts from God and used obediently in service to God, they are enriched with gratitude." My wife and I began our quest for financial responsibility by thanking God for everything we had: our apartment, car, clothes, even food in the refrigerator. Because everything we have is a gift from God, our job is to use it wisely and to his service. Instead of earning money to pay for things, we learned to see our paychecks and purchases as means to honor God.
Where Does It All Go? We looked at how we spent money by purchasing software that allowed us to set up a budget, enter our purchases, and categorize them. (For help setting up a budget, visit Crown Financial Ministries at www.cfcministry.org.)
After a couple months, we started documenting where our money went. It was a humbling experience to discover how much money we wasted. Money for miscellaneous things and unaccounted expenses was much higher than we anticipated. I was so used to buying a snack, newspaper, or used book that I had to work on bringing home receipts and keeping track of my purchases. And when I knew I would be accountable for a purchase, I thought twice before making it.
In some areas, our estimates were way off, and we had to adjust our budget to more accurately reflect our financial situation. Our rent was higher than the ideal 32 percent of a monthly budget (after giving), but we couldn't change it so we cut down on other kinds of spending. That meant waiting for sales, cutting coupons, and shopping at discount stores. We learned to wait until off seasons to buy clothes. You wouldn't believe the deals on shorts and t-shirts when everyone else is shopping for back-to-school clothes!
We were also embarrassed to learn how much we spent eating out. I loved the big portions and Clarissa loved not cooking. But we had to cut back if we were to meet our budget, so when we ate out we decided to eat a sandwich from a café instead of a full meal at a restaurant. By being a little creative, we slowly learned to keep our expenditures within budget.
Pay It Off Households are more in debt now than at any time in the past decade, mostly from credit cards. Because we did not keep track of our credit card purchases, a tank of gas here and a bag of groceries there quickly added up to a big surprise at the end of the month. We decided to keep our credit card at home and only use it for major purchases, which we would immediately pay off.
These days, savings accounts pay low interest rates, and over the last two years, the stock market hasn't paid near its long-term annual rate of 10 percent. Now, imagine if you could make as much as 18 percent on your investments! That's what credit card companies make. By first tackling our credit card debt we got to keep 14 percent more of our money than if we ran a balance on our credit card. Now we're working to get rid of our car loan, and in less than a year we've paid off half of our four-year loan.
Give Until You're Happy When you are out from under the burden of debt, you are free to enjoy God's gift of generosity. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches others to give of their wealth. He doesn't specify how much to give, but he did tell the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor. The point is that God doesn't own just 10 percent or any other amount of our resources; everything we have is his.
Joy comes from giving to God's work. When the Christians in Jerusalem suffered from a famine, Paul raised money from churches around the world to help their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. In 2 Corinthians 9:13 Paul encourages the Corinthians for this reason: "Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ."
For the past seven years, Clarissa and I have sponsored two needy children in Third World countries. When we receive letters from our sponsored children, we experience that joy. They write that they are praying for us, learning about Jesus Christ, and receiving an education, which would otherwise be impossible. With each letter, we remember the joy of giving.
Freedom in Christ We found that by taking steps to be thankful, reduce debt and give generously, we not only have a positive financial future, we are free to experience the many gifts God has given to us. Reducing our debt allows us to see our work as a calling from God, rather than a means to a paycheck. We are able to afford and plan for the calling to which we feel God is leading us. We have saved enough to assist us should we face unexpected financial problems, and thanks to God's provision, we do not need to worry about tomorrow. We enjoy being the sponsors of two beautiful children in Haiti and India who receive a Christian education. And we are free to experience the joys of marriage without the stress of making the budget balance each month. God has made us rich indeed.