Can I tell you a story? My wife and I have had some bad financial habits. Our story is not one of risky real estate deals gone bad, gambling on the stock market, or excessive spending. Ours was more like death by a thousand paper cuts. The cumulative effect of our bad habits eventually caught up with us and we needed some help. We did some online research, we talked to friends, and we took Joanne Bell’s course on stewardship. By applying a number of principles and few little tricks, over the past 18 months, we now see the light at the end of the tunnel and this time it’s not a train.
Our financial turn around began by taking our finances seriously. Now this may sound obvious but for us it wasn’t. We just assumed that good intentions were enough to be good stewards. We didn’t go crazy on new cars and bass boats so we assumed if we could make ends meet at the end of the month that was good enough. We were wrong. By choosing not to plan our money was being wasted in all kinds of different ways. By choosing not to plan we were going backwards financially and we didn’t even notice. By choosing not to plan opportunities to be generous passed us by.
The first thing we needed to do to turn things around was to track what we spent and where we spent it. We tried a bunch of different methods (envelopes, software, etc..) until we found the right combination for us. We moved from cash to debit cards when we purchased things (that way we could track our expenses online). We opened up several accounts (one for day to day stuff, another for checking, another for saving for big bills, and another for longer term savings goals). Finally we used a simple spread sheet and planned our budget two weeks at a time.
With our system in place we worked to balance out our expenses. We made phone calls to move our payment dates around so that each pay period had a similar number of bills due. We also divided big bills like our utilities and made contributions to these bills every paycheck. It’s a lot easier to pay $50 every paycheck for 2 months than it is to come up with $200 in a single pay period. We hadn’t cut a single expense and already this was making a huge impact. Things were starting to feel more in control.
Once we got everything balanced out and stabilized we started looking for places to cut. This was tough; deciding honestly what was a want and what was a need. With some room now in our monthly budget we tried something we learned in Joanne Bell’s stewardship seminar. We did a debt “snowball”. The idea is to start with a small debt and pay it off as quickly as you can even if you are only adding $5 extra to the monthly payment. Once the debt is paid take that amount you spent on it and apply it to another debt. Once that debt is paid take the two amounts and apply it to another debt and so on. This little trick is what has really changed our financial picture. We are now working on paying down our third major debt and things are moving so much faster than we imagined.
The final stage of our plan, once we have our debt taken care of, is to fully live out the Wesleyan axiom of “make all you can, save all you can, give all you can”. We have been practicing this in part already, but once our finances are well in hand we can really put these ideas into practice. The trick with the axiom is the word “can”. “Can” in the case of personal finances can be both literal and relative. If you are swimming in debt “can” is a literal in the sense of ability. If you’re buried in debt there are some things that you are literally capable of and some things that you are literally not capable of. However, if you have your finances under control “can” becomes more relative and spiritual. Your abilities are not as controlled by hard numbers as they are by what you believe about things. In this final stage our understanding of “how much is enough?” is going to need more development. We will need to know enough in terms of spending. We will have to know enough in terms of savings. If we can come to terms with these then the giving away part will be an even greater joy than it is now. Increase in pay could mean so much more than merely an increase to our “standard of living,” it could also mean more radical acts of generosity. Our goal in all of this is not merely to become good stewards of what we have. It is not just to experience the blessing and contentment of having enough. Our goal is to experience the joy of God inspired generosity. It will be to live the blessing of being able to materially support and partner with the God-sized dreams of His people.