Showing posts with label Money. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Money. Show all posts

Monday, November 15, 2010

Debt and Dogged Discipline

Over the course of college, I racked up a total of $16,500 in scholastic debt—not much by comparison to many of my peers, but still far more than I wanted. God willing, that will finally be paid off next month. I can hardly wait to click the button that will confirm the final electronic payment and free me once and for all from this chain.

Make no mistake: it is a chain, with a heavy ball at the end, and it can pull you down to the depths and drown you if you are not careful and disciplined in the way you handle it. I had little choice: my scholarships (the reason I have much less debt than I would have otherwise) required me to be a full-time student, and they fully covered only four years. A mistake with some paperwork one semester—unnoticed and unreported until it was too late—left me needing a loan to cover the remainder, and of course loans from the federal government never come in custom sizes, so I ended up with substantially more than I needed.

When Jaimie and I married last summer and I started my job, we resolved to pay down my debts as quickly as possible. When we finish my car next spring, God willing, we will have zero outstanding debts. That will be a wonderful thing; I can hardly wait. The path has been somewhat longer than we initially hoped, because sometimes life happens: a computer needs replacing, the car needs repairs, a friend has a financial need that we can help meet, etc. Even with all of that, we will still have paid down about $25,000 in loans in 22 months. On the one hand, that's a testament to the generosity of our God and the provision He has given us. On the other, it has happened because we have been disciplined with his gifts.

More on that in a moment, but first, you must understand that while I am pleased at how well we have done, it is deeply frustrating that we will have essentially lost that money. $25,000 would pay for seminary, or be a substantial down payment on a house, or open the door for us to adopt a child. It would be wonderful to have that money, instead of having it go to debts. So I strongly encourage anyone reading this post to consider before you go into debt. Sometimes it is unavoidable. For all other times, avoid debt like the plague. That includes college, especially if your degree will not land you a job that will let you pay the debt off quickly. It especially includes everything else but houses—don't ever buy a television on credit. It's not worth it (not least since, with a little discipline, you could save the same amount of money you would pay each month for 2/3 the time and buy a better TV at the end).

Now, how exactly did Jaimie and I manage to do so well? Even with a good job, it hasn't been easy. It has required us to sacrifice—not terribly painful sacrifices, but sacrifices nonetheless. We have made precisely two major purchases (over $100) since we got married: a new television, bought entirely with gift money, and a new computer for Jaimie when her old one died. The first was pleasure, but not something we took out of our budget; the second was a necessity for Jaimie's schoolwork. By contrast, a coworker hired at the same time as me bought a motorcycle and a new truck in the same period of time. (I intend no criticism: he's debt free and single; those were perfectly responsible decisions on his part. My point is simply that the money I make could readily be spent instead of applied to the debt.)

In addition, we kept a close eye on our budget. Initially I did that mentally, with fairly good results—but I soon realized that using a formal budget and tracking our expenses closely would allow us to be even more diligent about paying down these debts. So, at the beginning of this past year, we decided exactly how much we would put toward the debt every paycheck. With the exception of a few unavoidable pauses (like the month we bought Jaimie's computer), we have kept on that track. We have kept our other costs down by simply deciding how much we were willing to spend—whether on gas, on entertainment, or on groceries. If we don't have the money budgeted, we don't spend it. It's that simple.

Second, we have used a "snowball" approach to eliminating debt. This simple technique is recommended by most financial experts. You pay the minimum payment on all but one of your existing loans—the one with the lowest balance (or, if two have similar balances, the one of those two with a higher interest rate). You pay as much as you can afford on that one every month. (If, like us, you can afford to pay on it twice a month instead of just once, do it: you'll pay less interest.) Once you finish paying that loan off, you take all of the money you were putting into that loan and add it to your minimum payment on the next larger loan, and repeat until you're done. Each debt you pay off allows you to pay off the next debt even more quickly—it snowballs. Counterintuitive though it initially appears, paying off the smaller debts first allows you to pay down the larger debts much more quickly.

Again, that requires diligence. We didn't allow ourselves to spend more money entertainment after we paid off the first student loan (other than a celebratory pause—which is a good idea). We held our lifestyle constant (and we made wise decisions about that lifestyle from the getgo, choosing to live in a comfortable but inexpensive apartment rather than a more lavish one, and so on). We will do the same when we finish this second loan, and the same when we finish the car payment—so in another two years, we will have saved as much or more than we have paid on debts, God willing. And why should we up our standard of living? We have everything we actually need; we, like Paul, have learned to be content with what we have—all of which is more than nice enough for us.

Avoid debt. If you're in debt, be disciplined and get out. Is it hard? Yes, it is. It takes time. As my dad once commented about getting physically fit, it's a marathon, not a sprint. If you work at it faithfully and regularly, you'll get there, just as steady effort in the gym over a course of months will get you in shape. Little bursts of exercise never made anyone a successful athlete, and little bursts of financial wisdom will never get you out of debt. Work hard, be disciplined, thank God for his good gifts, and escape the slavery of debt. You will never regret it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Letter to a Homeless Man

Dear sir,

I apologize: I do not know your name, or almost anything else about you. I know you were walking. I know you were tired, hot, and alone. I know you were hungry, that you wanted money for food, not beer. I know you were homeless.

I got you a meal, tried to point your thanks to where they belong, to the one who gave everything for me, gave everything I have to me. I am glad I fed you lunch today. But I wanted to do more. I wanted then and I wish now that there was more I could have done—that somehow I could have been more a debit card swipe, more than some well-made rice and shrimp. (I hope that plate was as good as it looked.)

I wish I could have helped you more.

Jesus told us that if anyone asked something of us, we should give it. I have wondered, over the last few years, what that looks like—whether I should keep cash with me to give to people who ask, or whether I should buy them what they claim they need, or whether I should stop at all. You made it easy: you just wanted some food. I could give you that.

But I wondered as I sat down to eat my own meal with family a few minutes later: will you have food to eat tonight? Or will you be trying to use your two dollars—those meager two dollars, too little for a meal—to buy some more sustenance on your trek to somewhere unknown? Do you know where you are going? Do you have any hope at all, or are you just trying to survive another day?

I wish I could have helped you more.

But I don't know you, I don't have your name, you don't have my number, and even as I sat with those unshed tears in my eyes, you walked out of the restaurant and out of my reach. I moved on, ate my meal, laughed at my father-in-law's jokes, and could not forget the sorrow in your eyes or the depths of your gratitude for a meal that cost $7.05. Less than an hour at minimum wage. But I spoke with you, and I think I understand. What jobs can you get? Where will take you, and more than that: where will keep you?

We have left you alone, wandering through this life like you are wandering through Fort Worth, on your own.

Do you know that there is hope beyond the prison bars of this life? Do you know that there is one who can help you more than I ever could, who loves you, who died to take your sins and give you life? Do you know him?

Should I have somehow told you more? Should I have sat with you as you ate? Should I have found you a way to where you were going? Should I have done more?

I don't have the answers. But I know yours is the face I will remember as I keep chewing on this thorny problem in front of all of us. Yours is the face I will see when I hear politicians use the homeless as a talking point, when people talk about poverty in America, when discussion flares about starvation. You are a person, not a statistic, talking point, or problem. Yours is the face of the downtrodden and lonely ones that Jesus came to save.

However poorly I showed it, I saw for just a moment His love for you (and even, a little, his love for me: as poor compared to Him as you are). The feeling will fade, but I will remember.

I hope you get where you were going, and I pray that someone feeds you more along the way.

I wish I could have helped you more.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mutual funds: Sermon thoughts, 11/22/09

November 22, 2009—Bruce Hess, "Right Choices: Choose to Invest in the Kingdom"

Sermon text:
Philippians 4:14-19
Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction. You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account. But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Bruce preached this week on money: a topic to send shivers through the soul of any evangelical preacher worth his salt. Perhaps I exaggerate, but given the history of the evangelical movement over the last twenty years, it's hardly surprising that money is a touchy subject. Since Bruce has been moving through the book of Philippians verse by verse, however, he could hardly ignore the subject. I think he did an excellent job in his treatment of these verse and the topic in general.

Bruce began by noting the context of Paul's discussion of giving: his own bold statement that he could be content no matter what the circumstances. (For a discussion of that passage, see my notes on that sermon, one of Bruce's best that I've heard.) Keeping that in mind helps us understand that Paul is not getting at his own gain in the passage; he earnestly desires the good of the Philippians.

The first point in the text is that Paul applauds the generosity of the Philippians (verses 14-16). Bruce noted that Paul boasts about the Philippians to other churches (see 2 Corinthians 11:9), and that they were one of the only churches to support him financially. Moreover, he observed, they didn't have an abundance of wealth from which to give. They gave despite being in "deep poverty" (see 2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Their resources were not the issue; God could and did use even their relatively small gift. Their hearts were the issue.

Bruce's second observation was that the Philippians embraced the principle of eternal investment (Matthew 6:19-21). He illustrated this point by noting that we're like a northerner living in the South near the end of the American Civil War. Even if rich in Confederate money, the best plan would not be to try and gain more Confederate money, but to use only enough to live on and turn the rest into gold useable elsewhere after the war. We are temporary citizens here, and we should turn as much of our wealth in this age, which perishes, into eternal reward. Where you put your treasure determines whether you are moving toward or away from it as you approach death.

"The only money we're ever going to see again," Bruce commented, "is the money that's invested in the kingdom of God."

The second point Bruce drew out of the text is that Paul assures the blessing of the Philippians (verses 17-19). His joy was not in what the Philippians had given for its own sake, but because it yielded a reward for them. It was a good investment. The "pleasing aroma" referenced in the text looks back to the old covenant practice of offering sacrifices to God—not for sin, but simply to show love for him. Our giving today does not earn salvation; it is a picture of our love for God, and only one of many such sacrifices in the new covenant (see Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 13:5,16).

Bruce noted that Paul's closing promise that God would supply all the Philippians' needs is often memorized and used without the supporting context. God's supply was not a blank check, but assurance that he would provide for the Philippians' daily needs even as they had given beyond their means. As Bruce put it, God provides "for our needs, not our greed."

Bruce then explained Jesus' words, quoted in Acts 20:35, that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Recipients are blessed, God is blessed (because he delights in our generosity), the giver is blessed now (by the joy of giving) and the giver is blessed in the future (with reward in heaven). "Too often we're just tipping God rather than investing spiritually," Bruce finished. We can't out-give God.

Bruce's closing questions for application were solid:
  • How much of your money is going to gospel causes?
  • Is He your God?

This last question was particularly fitting in context, and while I wish he'd dwelt on it even more, I'm so glad he touched it. The ultimate supply for our needs is not financial, but spiritual—because our deepest needs are spiritual. We have a need for rescue and restoration that cannot be met without God being our God.