Sometimes, as a Christian money columnist, I feel like I’m writing the equivalent of collard greens. The nutritional content may be great. But they don’t always leave a great taste in the mouth.
Hmmm…. Maybe it’s no coincidence that money is green, too.
So when I got an e-mail recently from a reader telling me that my articles depressed her, it got to me.
These articles always tend to depress me. Perhaps because my husband is still in school, maybe because her tone tends toward, “look at all that I’ve done right,” so it makes me feel bad about all that we haven’t done right.
Ouch. It took me half the afternoon and a Fudgesicle to recover.
At first, I felt defensive. Of course I’ve done some things right, I thought in righteous indignation. Would you want to take advice from someone who gave nothing to God and had more bankruptcies than Donald Trump?
But later, with the soothing effect of the chocolate, I found I could relate. Sometimes it’s just easier to learn from someone else’s mistakes than his successes.
I can definitely learn from Martha Stewart. But I always feel a little inferior and, frankly, exhausted to think of trying to maintain her lifestyle. Sometimes, I’d just much rather veg out in front of the SuperNanny. Then I can learn a few tricks and not feel bad about myself — all at the same time.
So, with thanks to the reader, I’d like to share a few of my financial mistakes. My husband and I learned from them. Hopefully, you can too.
Give Unto God …
When I first started getting paychecks, I did not tithe. I list this mistake first because I think it is the biggest.
It wasn’t that I didn’t give. I did. And so do most Christians I know. Giving doesn’t seem to be the issue. We understand, down there in our gut, that we’re supposed to be giving something. It’s the “how much” that gets us.
“What you give is between you and God,” a Sunday School acquaintance told me two weeks ago. “If that’s only 2 percent, that’s fine.”
And for the first years of my adult life, I agreed with him. It was between me and God. The notion that you had to “tithe” — to give ten percent of your gross income to your church — seemed Old Testament, old fashioned and downright legalistic.
After all, we don’t sacrifice doves anymore, do we? We eat pork, right?
But, rationalize as I may, I couldn’t get away from a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. Each month, when I would drop my check into the offering plate I felt the tiniest pang of guilt. Almost like I needed to apologize to God for something.
You know this is what I can afford, God, right? If I didn’t have student loans and rent and insurance and all of that … it’s not like I’m blowing my cash on Las Vegas weekends.
Fine, I thought. I’ll look it up. I’ll prove to myself that tithing isn’t required.
I found myself in Matthew 23. Here, Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for giving according to the law, but not according to its spirit: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faith.”
Aha! You see? I told myself. Justice, mercy and faith are important, not strict rules about tenths.
But then I read Jesus’ next statement: “These things should have been done without neglecting the others.”
Catch that? These things should be done, without neglecting the others. In other words, the Pharisees were right to tithe. But they needed to give not just their pocketbooks, but their hearts. In my case, I was willing to give my heart, but not my pocketbook.
So, at the age of 26, I took the plunge. I started giving back to the Lord 10 percent of my gross income — and sometimes more. My spices, I decided, could stay in the spice rack. (I didn’t even have any cumin of which to give a tenth.) But I tried to follow Proverbs 3 and give my “firstfruits” which, for me, was and is cash.
Not to say that it was easy. It wasn’t. But when I put God first, and gave to Him first, not only did I get my financial priorities straight, but I found that my finances did just fine.
Good Debt vs. Bad Debt
The second mistake has to do with debt. Listen to just about any money guru and you’ll hear the same thing — student loan debt is “good debt” and consumer debt (charging clothes, iPods, whatever) is “bad debt.” They make an excellent point. You shouldn’t go into debt on stuff.
But by convincing myself that school debt was “good,” I nearly landed in a pot of financial boiling water.
Because student loans were respectable, I ignored how they might affect my future. Even more, I felt no urgency to economize — find a cheaper university or a cheaper apartment or take off a year to work.
When I graduated, my debt was in the low five figures. Five years and a whole lot of hard work later, I finally had it paid off. But I was fortunate. Some of my friends are paying four figures a month for 30 years to pay off their school debt. It’s not looking so good to them now.
I realized, too late, that I came perilously close to letting debt rule my life instead of God. Proverbs 22:7 talks about this: “The borrower is a slave to the lender.” Rather than being free to follow God’s leading in where I lived, or what kind of jobs I took, or when I might have a family, I had to factor my debt into all of those decisions.
“Bad” debt, I knew, should be avoided at all costs. But I learned that I need to be wary of any debt — even if its object is “good.”
I still struggle with this. Three years ago, my husband and I purchased our current home. With real estate markets booming, a tidy profit from our previous home and a baby in the future, we plunked down 20 percent on our dream home. After all, we’d heard the standard financial wisdom. Houses are a great investment. Mortgages are “good” debt.
It’s not that those adages are inherently wrong. But I did find myself overlooking more modest options, justifying that whatever amount of debt I took on would be “good.”
Today, we still have two bedrooms that have never been used. Sometimes, we look at each other with little half smiles and acknowledge that we bit off quite a bit of real estate cake.
Was it “good” debt? Maybe. But what I’m learning once again, is that it’s still just debt.
The Stuff Wagon
Then, of course, there’s the purchasing mistakes that I’ve made. I’m just going to lump all these together in the “I’ve bought stupid stuff” category.
Even though I’m staunchly anti-credit card debt, there’s still stuff around my house that’s destined for a garage sale, never to have been used. My closet holds a denim jacket I thought I had to have last season. But it’s still hanging there with the tags on. Our DVD collection continues to grow, even though we mostly rent from Blockbuster.
Since we’re not going into debt over this stuff, it’s easy to say that there’s no harm done. But I need to acknowledge that this stupid spending keep us from fulfilling other goals.
When I grumble that I can’t save as much as I want for retirement, or pay off my mortgage early, or give more money to my church, it usually comes down to one word: Stuff. I can’t do those things because I’ve spent the money on stuff.
Christ said it. No one can serve two masters — God and money. Unfortunately, too often, I’ve let money be the master. I tried to keep it for myself, borrow too much of it and then spend it however I pleased.
But, as I learn to give my finances over to Him, God’s teaching me who the wiser and truer Master is.
Copyright © 2005 Heather D. Koerner. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.