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Why Normal Isn’t Working

The 'normal' way American young adults spend money is a problem. Learn how to live within your means with these three practical steps.

The line in the coffee shop had just begun to thin out when Jake stumbled in from the cold. His black leather messenger bag hiding his brand new MacBook Pro and a fresh black Moleskine was slung over his left shoulder. He placed his order for his second Pumpkin Spice Latte tailored to his exact specifications of the day with the precision of a New York chef, while simultaneously checking his Tweets on his new iPhone. He popped out his credit card and swiped his way to caffeinated bliss. Jake is normal.

Sarah had been running behind when she got the call that she was going to have to push it even harder if she wanted to make her deadline. The pace was relentless, and she was drowning. Between the long hours, blustering editor, paltry pay and hounding creditors, Sarah was hanging by a thread that had begun to seriously fray. With the deadline looming and time running out, she didn’t have time cook dinner. She rounded up menus from the usual culinary suspects and called in her order. It was Chinese take-out from the corner bistro for the fourth time this week. But you’ve got to eat, right? Sarah is normal.

Bill and Molly are the life of the party. Always fashionably late in their shiny, new SUV, they always seem to show up looking like the latest “it” couple on the cover of Us Weekly. They wow the crowd with their perfect smiles, well-timed jokes and their stories of weekends on the lake in their new boat they just financed to go in their driveway at their new house by the lake. Though they would never admit it, every couple in their circle would kill to be in their shoes. The dirty little secret is that Bill and Molly are most often about to kill one another in the midst of their financial situation. Bill and Molly are normal.

Though they are from different walks of life, Jake, Sarah, and Bill and Molly all have plenty in common. They are bright, upwardly mobile, young adults stretching themselves to the max, living lives that they can’t afford and charging themselves into oblivion on credit cards.

Sadly, they are “normal.”

The numbers tell us they are not alone.

Consider these statistics from the United States Federal Reserve.

Total U.S. credit card debt

$793.1 Billion

Average credit card debt per household


Percent of consumers that carried an unpaid balance in the past 12 months


Percent who said their debt had gotten “higher” in the past 12 months


Percent of disposable income that went to service credit card debt


These are staggering statistics. Frightening even. And the news gets worse before it gets better.

In addition to these nightmarish numbers, let’s add to the mix a huge, multi-billion dollar marketing machine that encourages the kind of behavior that produces those numbers in the first place. Throw in some peer pressure and the complexity of living in a culture that has lost nearly all of its self-control. Top it all off with the fact that living beyond one’s means is now considered, well … normal, and you have a good, old-fashioned recipe for disaster. As if the stress, drama and pressure of getting through each month financially isn’t enough, the “price” of this “normal” isn’t just one we pay today, but also well into the future as well. Consider this.

Let’s say you have a $1000 balance on your credit card that has an Annualized Percentage Rate (APR) of 18 percent. If you assume the minimum payment is calculated at 2.5 percent and break the 18 percent APR into 12 monthly installments, you end up with a 1.5 percent finance charge each month. Your first minimum payment will be $25. Seems pretty painless, right? Wrong.

Since you pay 1.5 percent in interest each month, only $10 of your $25 went toward your balance, leaving your second month balance as $990. Since the same rule applies in your second month, once you sent in that check, you will have made $50 in payments and only reduced your balance by $19.90. Ouch.

Now, here’s the real kicker.

If all of the features of the card remained unchanged (which is unlikely), and you only continued to make the minimum payments, it would take 153 months (that’s almost 13 years!) to pay off that initial $1000 balance. And by the time you are finished, you will have paid $1115.41 in interest alone making your $1000 purchase actually cost you more than double what you paid for it — $2115.41.

Again, we aren’t just paying to be “normal” today. We are paying for it tomorrow and for years to come as well.

The Why Behind the What

I would imagine that most all of us could agree that this precarious situation many of us find ourselves in is both unwise and untenable. But simply agreeing that there is a problem doesn’t solve it. If we want to see true and lasting change, we have to search for the “why behind the what.” We can accomplish this by asking the right kinds of questions. Questions like:

  • Why do I feel like I need to buy this in the first place? Is this a need or a want?
  • Am I trying to impress anyone with what I am about to buy? If so, why does that matter so much to me?
  • Am I looking for my identity in what I wear, drive, where I live or what I own?
  • Am I looking to this “thing” to “save me” in some way that only Jesus can?

These are the kind of deep, unsettling, but necessary questions we need to ask if we want to avoid the “normal” behavior of swiping our way into trouble. When we do, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit so He can do what He does so well — lead us to repentance and point us to Jesus. As He uncovers what is in our hearts that ultimately drives our behavior, we can begin to pursue real and lasting change in this and other areas of our lives. As we repent of our sin and seek Jesus’ help, we can then begin to take some realistic action.

Consider these practical steps.

1. Face the facts.

Here I’m talking about the nasty but necessary process of getting your financial situation on paper. Not how you think or feel things are going, but how they are actually going. You may be surprised there is often a big difference between these two realities. Track down your bills and pull them all together in one place. Make a list of who you owe, what you owe them and what your interest rates are on the cards you carry. Difficult as it may be, this first step is a vital part of the process toward financial balance and management that honors Jesus. It will also illuminate which areas need the most immediate attention.

2. Commit to live on less than you make.

Though this may seem obvious to most of us, it is obviously not happening in the lives of most Americans. In fact, I believe most of us get into financial trouble because we violate this simple principle. Granted, there will always be those rare cases that may require us to dip into our emergency funds or even go into debt, but these need to be the exception and not the rule. You can do this. You and all those you influence will be glad you did.

3. Make a plan and work your plan.

Here I’m talking about the “B” word so many fear unnecessarily: budget. In its truest form, a budget is simply a financial roadmap. It is a pre-made set of decisions. And it can be a lifesaver. I use the free tools at to help me keep my personal finances in line. I would also recommend checking out Crown Mvelopes, available through Focus on the Family with Crown Financial Ministries and Finicity. This online system helps you keep track of where your money’s going and see how you can pay off your debt and better save for the future. If you’ve used envelopes in the past, you might find this online Mvelope system to be really helpful in your budgeting process.

So, I saw Jake again in the coffees hop just the other day. He was still getting his coffee, but apparently he had read my article. It was his only one for the day, and this time he paid with cash. He told me Sarah still gets her Chinese takeout, too, just not four times a week. And Bill and Molly? They had to sell the boat, but they got to keep their house, and they fight a lot less now that they have a good financial plan.

That’s what they did.

What will you do?

Copyright 2012 Dustin Neeley. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Dustin Neeley

Dustin Neeley is a pastor, church planter, author and ministry coach. He lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and five children — one of whom was recently adopted from Ghana, West Africa. He has written curriculum for Lifeway, and his content has been featured regularly at The Gospel Coalition, The Resurgence, Between Two Worlds,, and Catalyst Space.


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