The Math of a Mission Trip

In 2013, Neil traveled to India with three friends to witness India Gospel League’s (IGL) growing ministry. In addition to teaching at a Pastor’s Conference, they traveled up steep mountains roads to visit a village transformed by the Adopt-a-Village program. This holistic program provides clean water, schools, vocational training, medical camps, Bible teaching, and much more.

The trip cost approximately $3000 for each traveler, bringing the total trip costs to a hefty sum of $12,000. Many, including myself, would balk at that price. Wouldn’t that money be much better spent directly helping the people there? Couldn’t it go further there? Are these trips more for the travelers than those they’re supposedly serving? Are they financially inefficient?

These are important questions. It took a decade of interest in short-term missions for Neil to find a organization and type of trip that seemed like a sensible partnership.

Even still, it was hard to cough up $3,000 for travel expenses when many people lack basic needs. Should he skip the trip and give more? In the end we decided it was important to see the work firsthand, help with the organization’s need for Bible teachers, and meet and encourage our sponsored child.

Neil benefited personally from the trip in many ways. He learned new things about himself, God, and the work going on through IGL. He gained a new perspective on the world and our family. But the trip also started a chain reaction of financial giving and spiritual impact, and the cumulative effect far exceeds the $12,000 the team invested. From a mathematical standpoint, this trip was far more financially effective compared to if we’d gifted $3,000 to the organization.

The Chain Reaction

For starters, while Neil’s team was in India they used their limited wi-fi access to connect unsponsored children they met with sponsors from our church. At least 8 children were sponsored at $360 per year, a commitment the donor can continue until the child finishes high school.

When the team returned, they came with a huge ask: Could our church raise $75,000 over 5 years to sponsor a village in India through the Adopt-a-Village program?

Many individuals in our church said yes, and our church was matched with the most remote village in the program. Since then, the village and church there are growing spiritually and economically.

In the past year, a farmers group started meeting to help improve agricultural efforts. Eighty women attended a candle-making training to learn how to generate income for their families. Other women have been trained in tailoring, or making crafts or food to sell.

Adopt-a-Village staff and leaders also gathered for training on communicable diseases, pre- and postnatal care, accessing government subsidies, running Women’s Transformation Groups, and character development.

The people of this village have not been content to keep these benefits to themselves. Another important aspect of the ministry is outreach to other villages in the region. The pastor was walking up to 15 kilometers a day (over nine miles) through rough mountain terrain to share the gospel with neighboring communities. He was living the prophet Isaiah’s statement: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7).

When our church heard this we realized the pastor needed more than just his feet to carry the message—he needed some wheels. The church raised funds and bought him a motor bike.

Since then the pastor has started churches in six neighboring villages. With the help his motor bike, the pastor recently discovered an extremely remote, primitive tribe which is unreached by any government structure. No schools. No health care. No running water or electricity.

To address these urgent needs, our church is in the process of raising an additional $10,000. The gift will be used to provide educational materials for the school and daycare that IGL has started. The money will also provide skills training for villagers, and run medical camps since malaria is rampant.

The Bottom Line

Are mission trips a waste of money? In Neil’s case, his team’s $12,000 investment has yielded well over $90,000 for the ministry. This has directly benefited hundreds of people whom the government was likely unable to help.

Mission trips should not be a trap for endless fundraising. But done right, they can unlock support and action when others hear about an effective organization from a person they trust. In fact, all of our charitable giving has started as a result of hearing a friend speak about their firsthand experience with a particular ministry.

Many of the benefits of a missions trip are difficult to quantify, but there’s no doubt Neil’s trip was a great investment in financial and spiritual impact. Without seeing the Adopt-a-Village program there was little chance our church would’ve felt ready to commit. Our $3,000 was just a drop in the bucket, and we’re excited to hear how far the ripple spreads.

For more on short-term missions, read Are Short-term Mission Trips a Scam? and What Seeing Poverty Taught Me About Pretending to Be Poor.

Do you believe mission trips are financially inefficient? How have you seen the ripple effect of a trip?

The Most Important Factor in Your Finances

What would you say is the single most important aspect of your finances? Your net worth? Your income? Your budget? Your investments? Insurance? To find the answer, let’s consider a famous ancient story:

Then Jesus told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops.  He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’  Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods.  And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’

But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’

“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” (Luke 11:16-21)

In this parable (teaching story), the guy retired early, with plenty of savings to see him through a luxurious lifestyle for the rest of his life. The catch? His life ends just one day after he blows out the candles on the retirement cake.

Fortunately Jesus sums up the point of the story for us. It’s not that it’s wrong to be wealthy, save for retirement, or enjoy good food and drink. He says it’s foolish to prioritize getting rich while ignoring more important matters, namely, having a “rich relationship with God.”

Friends, you can have your finances in perfect order. You could be debt-free, with a solid income, and growing savings and investments, but still be headed toward disaster. Because the most critical factor in your finances is your heart.

Here’s why: your underlying goals drive your financial decisions. If your underlying goals are unwise and selfish, your money decisions will be unwise, too. Even if you follow the most conservative financial advice.

So what’s your goal? Do you want a super-successful career? Do you want to reach FIRE ASAP? Do you want a parent at home with young kids? Do you want to do full-time ministry or volunteering one day? Do you want to own a home? Just “be comfortable”? Impress others? Have nice things? Few of us would admit the latter goals, but I imagine they are latent in many of our hearts.

Many goals aren’t right or wrong in and of themselves. Our motives, our underlying heart attitudes, are what determine whether our financial goals and choices will lead us toward a good life, or destruction.

We’ve made a lot of inefficient financial decisions that would be considered unwise by many. Working part-time, refusing to relocate for career, giving away money while in debt, and volunteering instead of side-hustling all come to mind. Yet we don’t regret any of it because it flowed from our values and priorities.

We also toss around a lot of tips, tricks, and advice on this site. Buy a used car. Consider a 15-year mortgage. Shop at ALDI. And while we only share what has been helpful to us, the details of how one does money matter a lot less than why ones does it.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

This well-known verse illustrates just how closely related our hearts and money are. It’s descriptive: where your money/stuff is reveals your true values, what you care about most. Maybe your treasure is a fancy car, beautiful clothes, the latest technology, or an impressive investment portfolio. Maybe it’s your savings account, your home, or travel. We all have “earthly” things we treasure a little too much. What does your treasure say about your heart?

Will we treasure more those things that will outlast us? These are what make us “rich toward God.” This could be supporting your local church, charities, or humanitarian causes. It could be investing in your family, friends, church, and the less fortunate in your community or around the world. It could be taking a family vacation, taking your spouse on a date, or taking your sick neighbor some soup.

Your net worth, the term of your mortgage, or your paycheck simply do not tell the whole story when it comes to your financial health. I’m all for financial education, but never underestimate the importance of setting your heart on what truly matters. Someone with a heart that loves God and cares for others, and that views money as a tool to use toward those ends, will tend to make better choices with money than someone with the best financial training.

What are your top values or goals? Has your heart ever led you astray with your finances?

The Secret to Financial Freedom

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What is the secret to true financial freedom?

I already said I don’t believe in financial freedom/independence. Most people define financial freedom as never having to worry about money again, living off investment income instead of work. For many the secret to achieving this means earning more; for a few it means living on less. For most it requires 40+ years of toil and fading faith in Social Security. But according to the Bible’s ancient insight the only real financial freedom comes from contentment.

Take it from a first-century Roman prisoner who wrote about financial freedom. I’ve visited the Mamertine prison and it’s just a dank, dark hole in the ground. So for the apostle Paul to write about contentment from there is shocking. He said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11b-13).

Paul describes real financial freedom as being content whether you are rich or poor, whether you have too much or not enough. So often we think the key to curbing our spending is a new detailed budget, a cash envelope system, or more self-discipline. Any of these approaches could help, but we have to be operating from a basic position of contentment rather than feeling deprived. Otherwise we’ll feel self-pity because we’re constantly denying ourselves of good things. Contemporary marketing has done much to catalyze this false belief the human heart is already predisposed to.

If you’ve started implementing some of the practical ideas on this blog maybe you’re starting to feel deprived. Or maybe it doesn’t seem to make a big difference since skipping Starbucks isn’t paying dividends just yet. But feelings of self-pity, denial, or deprivation don’t make for good long-term motivation. Maybe you’ve experienced this with dieting. When it comes to money, marketing teaches that when you feel bad about yourself, you should buy something. “Treat yourself! You deserve it!” is the message of modern advertising, a marked change from “you need this” or “this will improve your life” techniques of yesteryear. The latter messages are now considered insulting to today’s consumer who is supposed to have achieved a fulfilled and happy life through materialism already.

When people today talk about financial freedom they mean you don’t need to earn money ever again. But countless celebrity stories have proven there’s never enough money to make you happy—because money isn’t what brings real satisfaction. Fulfillment in the richest sense come from following God by loving others. Because Paul was serving others even in prison, he could honestly say he was content, regardless of his financial circumstances. True financial freedom is trusting God to meet your needs, material or otherwise, as you work hard as a good manager of His resources.

Should we be content to stay in our current financial and work situation all our lives? By contentment I don’t mean complacent. The same author addressed this question in his historical context: “Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Corinthians 6:21, 23, emphasis added). No, the Bible does not support slavery, but we can’t get into that right now.

Today, we could apply this to employees. If your current work situation works, don’t worry about it. If work feels like soul-sucking slavery to The Man (and you don’t just have a bad attitude), then why not “become free”? Free means flexing that financial flexibility. Why not put yourself in a position where you can be content with lower expenses so you can consider doing work you’re more passionate about, or even just hate slightly less?

The average American sees 5 gazillion ads per day and this is a huge challenge to contentment. But you already know the secret–that material things will never make us truly happy and we need a lot less than we think we do. It’s actually quite fun to “pretend to be poor.” It’s fun to fix things up instead of buying new ones, which will probably crap out sooner because new stuff is poorly made. It’s fun to rock old clothes that you’ve kept so long they are finally back in style, and brag about how you’ve had them since high school. It’s fun to drive an older car and perform the lost art of cranking windows. “Pretending to be poor” is a whole lot more fun than pretending to be rich, with all the heartache and bank-ache that comes with debt.

A friend described the perspective change from deprivation to contentment this way: “I walk into Target and think, ‘I can have anything I want. I could buy whatever I wanted.’ And then I realize I don’t want any of that crap. Thinking this way takes the power [of discontentment] away.” Part of fostering this attitude is realizing how little value “that crap” adds to your life. The principle of diminishing returns is acutely applicable to material possessions. While our lifestyle is far from ascetic, it’s slightly less extravagant than average. This actually makes us more content and useful, as well as more flexible.

So what could you do with this flexibility? How about:

  • Get out of debt.
  • Have one parent stay at home with young children.
  • Work for a church or non-profit for half your current salary.
  • Volunteer full time to help those in need.
  • Take your children on a short-term mission trip.
  • Become a missionary.
  • Substantially fund causes you care about.
  • Choose a job based on your priorities rather than just the paycheck.

How do you combat the feelings of self-denial that come with spending less? What do you think of our definition of financial freedom?

Sugar, Fire, and Love: Winter on the Burbstead

A local winter sunrise.

As the season comes to a close, it’s time reflect on this winter on our burbstead. Winter is our least “stead” and most “burb” season, but we make the most of our .3 acre plot by splitting wood, making fires, and tapping our maple trees. And we get to enjoy the fruits of last season’s harvest with our own chickens, canned salsa, and pickled jalapenos. Our maple syrup also lasts the year and pancakes are a Saturday morning tradition here.

Maple Sugaring

Why do we tap our trees? Because they are there. One of our two maples was afflicted by ants while the ants were also eating our house. We stopped tapping it since it isn’t healthy. Fortunately our wonderful next door neighbors let us tap their maple tree. Of course we give them syrup in exchange.

The weather this winter made for a strange sugaring season. We must have tapped at the right time because I’ve never seen the sap flow like it did those first couple of days. After a good first week, the temperature was all over the place. For a while it was in the 60s by day and not dropping below freezing at night, which is necessary for sap flow. Then it was too cold for a stretch—it has to go above freezing during the day.

Liquid gold.

We just kept our taps in and waited it out. Sap can be refrigerated or frozen while we’re waiting for a full pan for boiling, or if our schedule requires us to prioritize suburban activities over homesteading ones.

This was the first year we did not lose any syrup to mishaps like burning or spilling. We’re bad burbsteaders 🙁 But that’s the beauty of burbsteading—we’re not actually living off the land, so there’s no pressure while we figure out things like how quickly syrup cooks at the end. We learned to bring it in from the outside to our stove at the end for close monitoring.

All told our yield was over a gallon. For more on making syrup, check out our creatively titled post, Maple Sugaring.

Wood

Our wood pile is getting low, meaning we’ve enjoyed lots of lovely fires in our fireplace. It has a heat exchanger insert which greatly increases the fireplace’s efficiency. Neil did some tests this year to measure the heat output for different amounts of wood burning in the fireplace. Conclusion: we’ve been wasting a lot of wood by stacking it high in there. The “smaller” fires are more efficient. Again, all part of the burbsteading learning curve!

Our five-year-old often alerts us when the fire needs a log—and he really knows whether it needs one or not. It’s quite helpful and adorable.

Neil splits the wood himself and gets it for free from tree lawns, the city leaf and wood pile, and has been known to knock on doors when someone is clearly having a tree cut down. For more on getting free firewood and fireplace efficiency, check out Fuel Your Way to FIRE with Free Firewood. Neil also received a nice kindling hatchet as a gift for being in a wedding. Which brings us to…

Weddings

Since fall, Neil was the best man in two weddings, and we attended a third one as well. This means wedding festivities—showers, bachelor parties, rehearsal dinners, and of course the big day—were a common calendar items for us this past season. Neil’s bachelor parties and toasts were a hit, and I believe his days as a best man (these were not the first) are over as all his dearest friends are now married.

Most people go through a season of life when they’ve invited to lots of weddings. Then the majority of their friends are married off, and they might just go to the occasional cousin’s wedding. Not so for us. Though the wedding frenzy has slowed some (one summer in college we went to seven!) we spent several years in youth ministry and those kiddos are now grown up and getting married. Add in the cousin weddings, and some friends who found love after the post-college wedding peak, and we’re still in this space. Let’s just say our annual budget’s “gift” line item accounts for this and always gets put to good use.

Another wedding happened to be on St. Patrick’s Day, and the bride and groom asked if I would lead an Irish dance. I sometimes plan “flash mob” type dances, and I took a whole nine months of Irish dance during high school. My credentials were satisfactory for this carefree couple, and I rounded up a troupe of about 10 to perform a simple reel to a Riverdance tune. I was just impressed I found any willing participants.

Our peas are planted so it’s officially spring. I’ll keep you posted on our garden, bee-baiting ventures, and baby chicks in the next burbstead update!

The Hidden Luxuries of Camping

We’re gearing up for our annual camping trip to Florida. Many people view camping as “not a vacation,” worse than a last resort when it comes to travel. Us, we’d rather travel more often in less style, than vice versa. Camping allows our family to take more trips while sticking to our annual vacation budget. Between now and the end of summer, we have five camping trips planned, with talk of a couple more one-nighters in the works.

Some camping trips are more “glamping” than others. To me the difference is all in the bathroom facilities, proximity to water, and electricity hookup. Other have preferences about the foliage, campground amenities, nearby attractions, or the size of the sites. Our Florida trip is definitely our most glamping trip—it runs us around $700 including a rental car. Here’s why I consider this camping trip luxurious:

  1. A room with a view. Camping is the ultimate room with a view. Rather than paying $150+ per night for a beachfront hotel, I pay $100 for the week and open my tent door to beautiful Florida foliage and sunshine–most days at least! Just a couple miles away, within the campground, is a gorgeous, expansive beach.
  2. We eat food I didn’t prepare. Between a couple inevitable (and budgeted for!) Bojangles stops on the way down and back, and the meal rotation we participate in with friends, I get to enjoy a few meals I didn’t cook myself. That’s a relative rarity and one I thoroughly appreciate. We also eat more processed foods, which is simultaneously gross and glorious, and makes my life so much easier for that week.
  3. We will rent a car. As part of our overall car cost strategy, we rent a car for this annual 2000 mile trek. Renting allows us to avoid putting undue wear and tear on our already-older vehicles. It costs us around $200 and sometimes we are able to use coupons. Though the main reason is to be kind to our vehicles, it’s an added perk that should something go wrong, we won’t have to halt our trip to personally fix it—a not unlikely scenario in the cars we own. And of course, driving a newer rental vehicle is quite lavish compared to our 14- and 15-year old rides.
  4. I will shower without my children in the same building. I’m really excited about this one! At home, I’m liable to be interrupted when someone has to use the toilet (we have two, people!), beg to join me (the toddler), or just ask me random questions about Star Wars plot points. In the camp ground’s remarkably nice shower house, the water temperature and pressure might not be ideal, but at least I am alone.
  5. We use paper products. Disposable napkins, cups, plates, forks…the irony of depleting earth’s resources while enjoying her beauty is not lost on me. Some friends wash reusable camp dishes, but I soak in the glory of simplied meal clean-up.
  6. We have instant entertainment. The campground contains a beautiful ocean beach, kayaking, nature trails, and a turtle pond. Then there is biking, the playground right next to our site, and the fact that over 100 of our friends are there with us. Not only are we in good company, our kids have a dozen of their pals right there to play with. No need to break out the calendar to schedule play dates. We just mosey on down the road and see who’s out. It’s a child’s dream—being outside all day with your friends, riding bikes, going to the beach, and best of all, being dirty.
  7. Speaking of which, I can look a mess. I’m not one for fussing over hair and makeup, but in normal life I feel compelled to at least look presentable, and maybe like I’m even trying a little. At camping, I refuse to straighten my hair, put on mascara, or anything of the sort. Ponytail and sunscreen is the extent of my beauty routine there. I always find it a bit comical to see the young ones getting done up in the bathroom. I’m sure they find the sight of me comical, or perhaps horrifying. Maybe I’m the reason they’re in there with their makeup bags!
  8. I don’t have to clean my house. In essence there is less cleaning because dirt is just part of the experience. No vacuuming, dusting (not that I actually dust), less dishes and laundry. Yay! I always pack too many clothes for the boys, forgetting they don’t change often while camping. I’m also secretly looking forward to using the dryer instead of my laundry lines at home.
  9. My husband will be there. One of the best parts of camping trips is having Neil with us all week. I suppose this goes for every vacation, but it’s more noticeable there because camping with kids absolutely requires us to work as a team. I always leave feeling closer to him and more cohesive as a family.
  10. I take a break from technology. My phone, my laptop, and Internet connection are all wonderful luxuries I wouldn’t want to live without. They’re also conveniences I didn’t miss one bit last year. I was completely offline all week last year and didn’t even notice until we were on the way home. It was a much-needed break from status updates, the blogosphere, and all the random distractions of the Internet. It was awesome to just enjoy the moment with my family, friends, and nature.

Perspective is everything. I could think about the drive, the dirt, the bugs, the kids getting off their schedules…or I could think about just how refreshing it is to camp in a warm, beautiful place with my family and over 100 friends. Not to mention the savings. An affordable spring break beach vacation? Yes, please.

More on camping, if you’re interested:

Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings

How We’ll Save $500 on Our Next Vacation

10 Fun Facts From Our Camping Vacation

Have you ever reframed a frugal choice as luxurious? Have you/would you consider camping as a way to vacation more often?

Review: $30 Verizon Wi-Fi Smart Phone Plan

Big news: I got a smart phone.

I know, I just extolled my dumb phone in In Praise of Old Technology. But when Neil got a mobile upgrade at work and got to keep his iPhone 5s, it seemed like the right time to make the switch.

I knew it was inevitable. I was having problems receiving texts that contained emoticons—which comprised a lot of texts from a lot of my friends :). It rendered the whole message unreadable :(. I also couldn’t respond to group texts.  And I got lost on the way to basically anywhere off the beaten path.

There were other things I LOVED about having a dumb phone: no temptation to waste time online, my kids couldn’t ask me for constant entertainment, and my battery life was amazing. Once after a vacation I didn’t unpack my phone charger until 5 days had passed!

Anyway, my time had come. Now what phone plan to get? I’ve had Verizon for 10 years. Don’t judge me. Every time I start thinking about switching to a less expensive provider I hear awful things about it from a friend. Since Neil’s always had his phone paid for by his employer, who also discounted my dumb phone plan for a while, I’ve never been motivated to change.

I’m definitely not one to scoff at small savings that add up in perpetuity. But this is one area I’ve been willing to pay $5-10 more per month to avoid 1.) the cost of purchasing a phone and 2.) the hassle of changing phone plans. Because let’s face it, dealing with phone companies is a hassle.

While we’re on that point, let me clarify: I’m not in any way affiliated with Verizon. My recent experience with them has been a hassle. But I do think this little-known plan I’ve stumbled upon is pretty sweet—too good to keep to myself.

The plan is a $30 per month, prepaid Wi-Fi only smart phone plan. Talk and text are unlimited, of course.

This plan is not clearly visible on their web site. To find it, you have to begin the process of signing up for a different prepaid plan, and then go to the  shopping cart page where  you can downgrade to the $30 Wi-Fi plan.

Why it’s awesome: Almost everywhere has Wi-Fi now. It automatically connects to my home network. If I’m somewhere without Wi-Fi and really need it, there’s probably a McDonald’s or somewhere nearby where I can get it.

Thirty dollars per month is the same price I paid for my very first cell phone plan when I went off to college 14 years ago. I realize the market has changed a lot, but the fact that I haven’t increased this expense is nice!

I’m also not tempted to be browsing the Internet needlessly while out and about. I won’t bother getting on Wi-Fi unless I actually “need” to. Hey, price-checking is necessary! Plus, I’m usually surrounded by people (including my husband) who have data plans so I can just be that annoying person who asks questions and lets someone else look up the answer. (I consider this a great way to serve my husband since he loves looking at his phone!)

For directions I use the GPS on the Google Maps. I downloaded a map of my area—and it’s a big map. While offline, it can search nearby for open-ended destinations like “library” or “Indian restaurant” (both important!) and find it without an address. Then it offers offline directions, map, and navigation just like an old school GPS.

Having those maps downloaded is actually better than using Verizon’s network because it’s not dependent on signal strength. Just last month, we were driving back from a church retreat in the middle of nowhere and Neil’s phone service wasn’t working as we left. Because I had the map saved, Google maps app navigated us without a problem.

Drawbacks: sometimes there is no Wi-Fi available. This requires more planning ahead, including downloading maps, coupons, and other information ahead of time. You could probably get something similar for $5-10 less with a different provider.

I recommend this plan for anyone:

  • Interested in switching from a dumb phone to a smart phone
  • Who is home a lot and is paying for Wifi there, or has access to free Wifi most of the time.
  • Values having very reliable phone service.
  • Who (like me) reguarly gets lost in the middle of nowhere and doesn’t have a GPS.
  • Who comes by a good free smart phone and is ready to make the change.

Someday I may want data, at which point it’ll be time to shop around. For now, I’m happy with my Wi-Fi only plan, great service, and being able to keep my phone.

Would you ever consider a Wi-Fi only plan? Any recommendations for data plans with reliable service? 

10 Reasons to Give Away 10 Percent of Your Income

I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe in “tithing”–a religious requirement to give away 10% of your income. However, I think it’s a darn good idea for a host of non-religious reasons.

1. Ten percent is enough to make a difference. I’m sorry, but tossing a couple bucks in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas isn’t going to change anyone’s life. Neither is the random $20 tip. Ten percent of your income can’t save the world, but it can truly inflate the lifestyle of someone who needs it. For example, 10 percent of a median $50000 salary is $5000—enough to sponsor about 14 impoverished children for one year. Or fund 50 micro-loans to help end the poverty cycle in one family.  Multiply those effects over years of giving and you’ve made a significant impact.

2. Giving ten percent motivates financial responsibility. Learning to practice giving has helped us figure out both the how and why of managing our money well. It’s led us to practical steps like getting financially educated, annual budgeting, and living like college students while we paid of our school loans. It’s also motivated us to make responsible choices, because “having something to share” (Ephesians 4:28) is one of the most convincing reasons to say no to yourself.

3. Giving ten percent can make you cheerful. A famous Bible verse says “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6). Interestingly, secular research shows giving can actually help make you cheerful. The Paradox of Generosity, based on the most comprehensive study of American giving habits ever done, reports generosity causes—not just correlates—with happiness. The study found lower depression rates among Americans who donate more than ten percent of their income, along with many other positive outcomes. It pointed out that those who experienced happiness practiced generosity consistently over time.

4. Giving ten percent is not irresponsible. A concern is that people will give to the point of financial irresponsibility. To be honest, I don’t think most of us are in danger of this. But ten percent is a very reasonable guideline that will not endanger you financially. After all, it’s in proportion with your income. If you can live on $50,000, you can almost certainly make it on $45,000–though perhaps not without some sacrifice.

5. Giving away ten percent teaches you how to live on less than you make. Ten percent is enough to inflate your lifestyle, too. Giving away a tenth means you’ll choose a slightly simpler life with lower expenses. This can come in handy in lots of scenarios, like if your income decreases due to a job layoff, career change, retirement, or one parent staying at home with kids.

6. Giving ten percent helps you spend on what you value. We talk a lot about values-based spending, and then go to Target and buy diapers and Lysol. It hardly feels like values-driven budgeting. I guess I value containing bodily fluids and slaying germs. But if I care about the homeless, the hungry, and the hurting, I will spend money on them, too.

7. Giving ten percent acknowledges God’s provision. Even if you don’t believe in God, it’s healthy to recognize that certain circumstances outside your control, such as your intelligence, personality traits, or opportunities, contributed to your current income. Of course that doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard, hone skills, or grow your career. Both are true.

If you can believe God or the universe has smiled on you at least a little, giving acknowledges that. “What do you have, that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). If we believe we’ve been given to, we are so much more likely to give to others. And giving ten percent is a tipping point where you’re parting with a substantial portion of your pay. You’re actively agreeing that 1. God gave me this and 2. He will continue to meet my needs. I don’t need to hoard it all for myself if God is a good provide

8. Giving ten percent helps protect against greed. It’s easy to say, I’ll give when I make more, or when I reach financial independence, or when I have XYZ in place. There are seasons where more or less giving is appropriate, to be sure. But the only way of being fairly certain that you really will give when X, Y, and Z happen is to give all along the way. Greed is not reserved for those with an affinity for nice, new things. It can also corrupt those like me who love to save. Generosity guards your heart by keeping you compassionate toward others

9. Giving ten percent allows charitable organizations to plan for consistent impact. Giving consistently over time makes you a dream donor–even if you aren’t giving away millions. We split our giving between several destinations, but deciding ahead of time how much to give, and making the commitment over several years allows the organizations you support to keep their efforts afloat.

10. You will feel it if you give away ten percent. Generosity has an opportunity cost. It’s helpful to realize the trade off and affirm how worthwhile it is. Choosing to forego a few wants in favor of supporting important causes is a beautiful way to practice mindful, sacrificial philanthropy.

Lest anyone to feel guilty, judged, or pressured about their giving habits, I leave you with this gracious verse:

“You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. ‘For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.’ And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others” (2 Corinthians 9:7-9).

What benefits have you experienced from practicing generosity? What causes do you value?

Are You Ready to Buy a Home? The Non-Financial Checklist

If you passed our homebuying readiness checklist, it’s now time to think about your wishlist. Here are some important questions to consider to help lead you to home, sweet home.

When we started looking for a home, we didn’t know exactly where we wanted to live or what we wanted in a home. We saw fixer-uppers, turnkey homes, old homes, new homes, big homes, small homes…probably 100 homes before we finally settled on one three years later.

Our poor realtor.

She isn’t a realtor anymore. She claims that isn’t related to us.

More important than sparing your realtor’s time is protecting your own time and money. Here are some important questions to consider in your home purchase, beyond what you can afford.

Where do you want to live?

There are so many possible good reasons for choosing a location, but if you don’t prioritize you may have a hard time honing in on a search range. Do you want to live in the suburbs, the city, or a rural area? Will you base your choice based on proximity to your job, family, friends, quality of schools, how hot the real estate market is, home prices, proximity to shopping, walkability, or neighborhood type?

These are just a few of the many factors you may consider. It’s possible to satisfy more than one, but you may not hit all in one property. Prioritize to narrow your search and save yourself time. Or if you’re flexible on all of these you may be able to prioritize price over other factors.

How long do you want to live there?

What first-time homebuyers don’t see is how much it costs to sell a home. Realtor fees cost 6-7% of the home’s value. So for a $150,000 home you’re looking at $10,500. This is in addition to extra repairs and upgrades you’ll make to help it sell. The point: it pays to stay in your home for long enough to gain equity to compensate for the cost of selling.

Buy with a view to sell. We’ve talked about the fallacy of depending on your residence as an investment, but do keep future marketability in mind. Chances are you will not live there forever. Properties in obviously bad neighborhoods, with very strange floor plans, or with major foundation or structural problems are not just drawbacks for your time there. They’ll also deter future sellers.

What type of home do you want?

Are you looking for something move-in ready, or are you willing to build sweat equity on a lower-price property? It’s so important to know thyself here. Don’t buy a fixer-upper if you don’t like to fix things. Don’t count on sweat equity if you don’t like to sweat. Unless, of course, you’re happy to pay someone else and have the savings to do so.

Maybe you’re very handy but are short on time. Again, be cautious about getting in over your head. And just because a home price is low doesn’t mean it’s affordable. For example, if the property needs to be gutted, make sure you have the cash on hand or can responsibly finance the project.

Do you want a starter home or somewhere you could stay indefinitely? Keep in mind how long you want to stay and whether the home could accommodate children, a home office, or anything else you might have in mind for the future.

Do you want an older home with more character, or a modern home that may be more “cookie-cutter”? Older homes may be an affordable way to score beautiful features, but they can come with a lot of maintenance requirements as well. If you’re not interested in taking care of an older home, don’t buy one!

We also discovered that the newest homes we looked at (1980s) were also the most run-down. In our price range, these newer homes were just old enough that nothing had ever been replaced. That meant we were looking at 30-year old furnaces, hot water tanks, and roofs. (Not to mention lots of outdated wallpaper and fixtures.) Read: lots of expenses on the horizon. We opted for a late 70s home that had updated these major items within the past 5-10 years.

What features do you want in a home?

When we started house-hunting, we were interested in having a large room that could hold up to 30 people for church meetings. As time wore on we realized this would be hard to find in our location and price range. We didn’t want to get into a situation that required major remodeling right away. Eventually we dropped this from our list. Thankfully we’ve still been able to host lots of other types of events.

Some people really want a master bath, a two-car garage, a dishwasher (or room for one), or a formal dining room. We knew we wanted a yard—it didn’t have to be big, but we saw many homes with postage-stamp size yards, some of which were completely paved. We knew we need a little grassy space to garden. Thank goodness we realized this. Now our .3 acre plot is a burbstead where we raise chickens, garden, and tap our maple trees.

There’s no right or wrong to your home-buying wish list, but you may have to hone your non-negotiables. And those may change over time as you see what’s available. Update your priorities as they change and communicate this with your realtor.

And hopefully she won’t quit.

Further reading:

Are You Ready to Buy a House? The Ultimate Checklist

So You Want to Buy a House?

Who Wants a Death Pledge?

Mortgage Myths

Homebuyers, what’s on your wishlist? Homeowners, what else should prospective homebuyers think about? What do you wish you would’ve considered while house hunting?

Conveniencing Ourselves to Death

This weekend Neil had a man cold. And a rusted out brake line. This didn’t make for a very fun weekend for him. Spending an afternoon under a rusty, 15-year-old car tracing brake lines instead of watching sports (what sport season is it? I have no idea) is a sacrifice. However, we might be sacrificing much more if we value convenience too much.

How much do you spend on conveniences each year?

Add up those Keurig pods.

The paper towels, napkins, plates, and cups for parties.

The baby wipes. And boogie wipes. And make-up removal wipes. And disposable diapers.

How about single-serving snacks, like granola bars, yogurt cups, chips, etc.?

Now add in frozen meals, prepared foods, fast food, and take-out.

And subscription services like Netflix or Kindle Unlimited.

Do you pay someone to mow your lawn? Clean your home? Wash your car? Fix your car?

How much might you pay to have a new car so it “won’t break”?

What does your convenient technology run you? Your data plan? Your eReader? Your computing needs? Your FitBit?

 

If anyone is still calculating, you’re a better person than me. I admit I spend a countless amount on conveniences each year.

To be clear, I am NOT saying there is anything wrong with buying any of the items or services mentioned above. I choose to buy many of those items regularly or occasionally. But let’s just all be honest about the fact that we spend a lot to avoid inconvenience.

Now, it’s absolutely glorious that I can throw my clothes into a washing machine and have them come out clean. No hauling them down a creek. No heating up buckets of wash water over a woodstove. I also love my microwave, my Kitchenaid mixer, my laptop, my cell phone, my dishwasher, and toilet paper. The list could go on, but the point is, we have to the draw the line somewhere.

I draw the line after toilet paper and washing machines.

I draw the line before Keurigs and a new car.

But that’s just me. Where will you draw your line? I can’t tell you where that line is, but I can tell you need to draw it somewhere.

This ain’t Little House on the Prairie, but it ain’t Downton Abbey, either. You gotta do stuff for yourself sometimes,

There is a reason we aren’t all still growing our own wheat, grinding it into flour, and making bread. There’s a reason I don’t have any sheep in my yard to make clothes out of. Industrialization is awesome.

There’s a good reason modern conveniences have become standard in homes. They free up time for people to pursue innovative careers and hobbies. They improve our quality of life, without a doubt. But at some point, if I’m too busy or lazy to do basic human tasks like cook food, clean, or fix things, maybe I need to re-evaluate.

Perhaps your life is filled with conveniences because it’s over-filled with commitments, hobbies, or entertainment. Maybe you’re spending more money than you’d like on conveniences because you haven’t taken control of your time. Learning to say no is crucial.

So is accepting that avoiding inconvenience is impossible, anyway. Things will break. Plans will fall through. You will get sick. There’s no way around some suffering in this life, but making it our purpose to avoid inconvenience means we won’t have the endurance needed when the inevitable comes.

The High Price of Convenience—It’s About More Than Money

Ultimately, the price of convenience items can be much higher than meets the eye. For example, we all know eating restaurant food or prepackaged foods is less nutritious than most home-cooked meals. We also know that being glued to technology can inhibit our relationships, health, attention and reasoning skills, and productivity in the real world.

Letting machines do everything for us isn’t great for our physical health, either. Most of already work sedentary jobs, now referred to as the smoking of our generation. Add to that the fact that we drive everywhere rather than walking or biking, and pay others to do our housework, yardwork, and car repairs, and we can easily end up couch potatoes with catheters a la Mr. Money Moustache ‘s article “Is It Convenient? Would I Enjoy It? Wrong Question.” (or Idiocracy). 

Unfortunately, kids are also spending way too much time on screens. As a parent, I can see why. It’s so much easier to turn on Youtube than to get everyone into their clothes, shoes, and coats to go play outside. But kids and grownups alike are much better off when we move our bodies and spend time outdoors.

Paying for convenience can also rob of us of the satisfaction of a job well done, learning new skills, and challenging ourselves. When I attempt a new recipe, I feel accomplished and satisfied while I eat the work of my hands. Neil still speaks proudly of the time he replaced the head gasket on his 1990 Dodge Shadow (my brother still drives it—it’s older than him!).

Many convenience items also represent a high environmental cost. Keirig is the ultimate example—the inventor claims he now regrets creating such a wasteful product. Maybe that’s just because he sold it for a meager $50,000 before it got hot!  Don’t feel too bad if you own one of these nifty contraptions. We’re all guilty. Think of all the paper products we consume, the handy pre-moistened cleaning wipes, food packaging, flash fashion, not to mention the amount of technological waste we create with constant upgrades…it all adds up to a lot resources depleted to create it, and a lot of junk sitting in landfills when we’re done with it.

Last but not least is the financial opportunity cost of what we spend on convenience. Perhaps a few minutes here and there could add up to a small fortune when we consider what our savings could earn if invested over time. Just reducing restaurant eating and prepackaged foods alone could free up hundreds of dollars each month.

I love convenience. It’s hard to put a price on it, but we all need to draw the line somewhere. Otherwise the price could be your health, your sense of satisfaction, your productivity, your family, your money, and your world.

What conveniences are worth it to you? Where do you draw the line? What other non-financial tolls might conveniences take on us?

Are You Ready to Buy a Home? The Ultimate Checklist

The English language borrowed the word mortgage from French, in which it literally means “death pledge,” alluding to the long-term nature of such a commitment. Not to mention if you get in over your head, your home loan will surely feel like death.

A mortgage is also a place where you can royally mess up your finances for the long haul. You can clip coupons, shop at ALDI, do a shopping ban, and drive an old car, but if you over-do it on the house, it’s hard to ever get ahead. This is one of the big areas to get right as it’s likely going to be your top living expense.

Fortunately there is a way to buy a home without killing your financial future. It’s all about going in financially prepared. Use the checklist to determine if you’re ready to take a mortgage, rather than a death pledge.

I know how much money I spent last year. You must know where your money is going, or you don’t know whether you can afford a house. If you base mortgage affordability solely off what you pay in rent, you may be unprepared for the extra costs of home maintenance and repairs and increased utilities.

I’ve recorded a budget for this year. You must know where you want your money to go in order to save a down payment, cover closing costs, and be sure you know what you can afford to buy.

I have no credit card debt. Ideally, you’d want to go into buying a home with no debt, since a mortgage is the largest debt most people will take on. At the very least, you wouldn’t want to be paying high interest on credit card debt. That’s a financial emergency you must get out of before you start saving for a house down payment or getting into another loan commitment.

What about car loans? It doesn’t make much sense to keep an auto loan around (and paying interest on a rapidly depreciating liability) while trying to purchase a home, either. It would be wise to pay it off ASAP, thus minimizing the interest.

What about student loans? In a perfect scenario, you’d want to have student loan debt out of the way. Especially if you have a mortgage-size student debt, why not wait? You don’t need two death pledges! But as long as you have a plan to pay off student debt and factor this into your budget for a home, you should be fine. We had a modest amount student loan debt remaining when we purchased our home, but purchasing an affordable home and having a plan to pay off the debt meant it wasn’t a big burden.

I have six month’s living expenses saved.  That’s nice you’ve saved $20,000. But what is it for? Emergencies such as job loss or illness? A down payment? Closing costs? Incidentals and furnishings? You need to separate these categories, at least mentally. Write it all down, total it up, and save that much, not a random round number that sounds good. What if you buy your house and unexpectedly get laid off? Having a cushion to fall back on is more than ever once you have the major financial commitment of a mortgage.

I have determined a budget for the price of my home, and the mortgage, taxes, and insurance will not exceed 25% of my monthly take-home pay. As mentioned before, please base your budget on the lowest income you expect to earn while paying off that house. If you’d like on parent to stay home with future kids, base it off of one income rather than two. You can always save, invest, or pay down debt with the other spouses’ pay while you’re still a dual income household.

I have saved a 20% down payment. Again, this is in addition to my emergency fund (6 months’ expenses). Putting 20% down will:

  1. Avoid PMI which is money down the drain for a homeowner with insufficient equity to secure the property.
  2. Ensure some equity when you need/want to sell. Early mortgage payments are almost entirely interest meaning you don’t gain much equity in the first few years.
  3. Make your mortgage smaller and monthly payments more affordable.
  4. Indicate you have the financial discipline to handle a mortgage.

I’ve saved an additional 5-7% for closing costs, inspections, appraisal, and setting up the home. For a $100,000 loan, you’ll spend around $5,000 or more just on the home-buying process. Additionally, you may need a lawnmower, furniture, appliances, and other tools to set up your new pad. The cost can add up even if you purchase secondhand. If you buy below your budget, the difference from your down payment savings can cover this. If you buy at the top of your budget you’ll need some extra cash on hand.

I am saving for retirement. At the very minimum you should be earning your employer 401k match. If not you’re essentially allowing your employer to keep part of your paycheck. But investing 6% is only going to inch you toward solid retirement savings. Dave Ramsey recommends investing 15% to build a solid nest egg for the future. Don’t ignore your future in order to purchase a home.

The difference between a death pledge and a mortgage lies in your financial readiness for home ownership. If you’re free of high-interest consumer debt, have sufficient savings, and live in area where home prices are reasonable, home ownership can be a solid choice. Just don’t sacrifice other goals like retirement, staying home with kids, or paying off other debt to do so. It’s worth the wait to avoid the death pledge.

Homeowners, what would you add to this list? What do you wish you’d done to prepare for buying a home?