“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'” asked Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957. Is it just me, or does it seems like people’s most persistent and urgent question now is, “What am I doing for myself?”
What am I doing to grow my career?
What am I doing to improve myself and my life?
What am I doing to fulfill my dreams?
While these questions could intersect with King’s foundational query, they often fall short. Statistically, younger generations (i.e., my age & younger) of Americans are demonstrating less generosity and volunteering less than previous generations did at the same age. The ideal of activism often translates into a Facebook posts rather than real-world application.
Personal finance blogs offer many useful tools and advice for improving one’s finances. But why—what’s your why? Is it comfort, security, freedom, flexibility? It’s all still as meaningless as the 9 to 5 we want to escape, if we don’t have a more compelling purpose.
You don’t have to work out that purpose perfectly right away. It doesn’t have to look like a detailed five- or ten-year plan of how you’ll do good in the world. I think it should look like asking MLK’s question of ourselves on a regular basis, though, because we can’t afford to let it go unanswered.
Thankfully, there are many people of all ages who are activists, advocates, volunteers, and philanthropists. But we all know there aren’t enough. Martin Luther King Jr.’s contribution to our society was immeasurable. Yet so much more work remains.
No, you can’t save the world. But you can change the life of one person. Maybe two. Maybe five. Maybe more. The tragedy isn’t that you don’t pull off saving the world. The tragedy is when you don’t even try. It’s not just the people you would’ve helped who miss out; it’s you. You’re missing out on your best possible life, the fulfillment of the most worthwhile dreams.
This past weekend, I was involved with a volunteer appreciation dinner for the adults in our church. We have about 25 people involved in 5 different organizations, serving a range of people in need:
- Visiting incarcerated youth at detention centers and holding a Bible study.
- Visiting with and/or mentoring sex-trafficked young women, or those at high risk of being trafficked.
- Teaching preschool, an after school program, or providing childcare for refugee children.
- Teaching Bible studies at a nursing home. One group is dedicated entirely to those suffering from dementia.
- Helping refugees get settled—giving them rides to the SS office or other appointments, helping with paperwork, supplying household items, helping them move, and more.
At the dinner it was beautiful to hear from the volunteers, both about the very valuable, needed work they are doing, and about what they are learning and how they’re growing from it.
I know everyone is busy. We work a lot. We have children in many activities. We have hobbies and side hustles, and television shows to watch and blogs to read. We need to exercise, read, and relax. But what is the goal of all our self-improvement and self-care? At some point we must ask ourselves, for what purpose am I trying to become the best version of myself?
Or, as King put it: “What are you doing for others?”
Jesus also chimed in on this topic: “It is more blessed to give than receive.” (Acts 20:35).
How do you think your life might look different if you asked this question regularly? Have you volunteered? How has it impacted you, and those you helped?
Hey all, here’s what we’ve been up to the last month. Let’s just say travel has eclipsed blogging.
We drove about eight hours south to see the eclipse. It was awesome. Traffic getting home was not awesome. We were only about halfway home by 10 pm and decided to stop at a hotel. Those Marriott rewards sure came in handy, because others we knew traveling back from the vicinity did not get home until 6:30 am!
Neil found a great place to view the eclipse– a library next to a splash pad. It was perfect for entertaining the kids leading up to totality.
It’s also why Neil is wearing his swim trunks while photographing the eclipse.
On the way to totality, we camped at Mammoth Caves.
We didn’t realize you need to book tickets ahead of time, so Neil waited in line for over an hour and scored us a tour. Our son squeaked by in the free age category by just two days. There’s the personal finance tie-in: late summer birthdays are good for tourist attraction admission.
I was a little nervous about descending into the cave, but our daughter was more than comfy. She fell asleep near the end.
A couple weeks before our eclipse adventure, we headed to a beautiful campground in Michigan. If only our station wagon had wood paneling!
Things we did: camped with friends, picked the biggest blueberries I’ve ever seen, swam, kayaked, biked to town, got ice cream, played Uno, toured the light house, hiked in pouring rain, made s’mores over the fire.
Things we didn’t do, but probably could have: contracted lice from a family of nine, been eaten by bears, gotten lost in a National Forest, and blown away in 18-20 mph winds (we only lost our tent’s door mat).
Light house tour was fun. We all made it to the top.
The light house’s Fresnel lens. In tact ones are apparently rare.
View of the bay next to our camp site.
The “lunkers,” as my son calls them.
Beautiful little beach a minute’s walk from our camp site. The kids would swim during sunset.
After camping, we took a steamship ferry across Lake Michigan since Neil had a meeting for work in Green Bay.
We stayed at a tundra-themed waterpark hotel in Green Bay. I took the kids down the slides. So. Many. Times.
The National Train Museum in Green Bay was free with our reciprocal membership benefits. There were lots of old trains you could go in. My favorite was the mail train on the left.
It’s been a whirlwind. During our few stints home we were busy preparing Bible teachings, making garden-fresh salsa, and having play dates before school starts. Neil also had a men’s retreat, and is getting ready for a short-term mission trip to India. I’m both soaking in the last days of summer and longing for the structure of the school year.
How has your summer wrapped up? What did you think of the eclipse?
Does the seven year itch apply to home ownership? Because seven years in, renting is sounding pretty good. I’m very grateful for my home. It serves our family well. We love having a yard, storage space, and a garage. We also enjoy having space to share with others. There are advantages to home ownership, but there are also real drawbacks.
Let’s look at some common reasons for wanting to purchase a home.
My own space.
The dream: Before you buy a place, you scheme about what colors you’ll paint the walls, the sleek interior decorating you’ll do, and the spare room where you’ll finally have space for your hobbies, or guests.
The reality: Houses are huge boxes made of things that break and wear out, full of items that break and wear out. And fixing and replacing all this stuff isn’t easy, or cheap.
Lots of stuff has been breaking, wearing out, or needing to be upgraded around here. That’s just routine. And then there’s the time ants ate the studs of our house two years ago. You really can’t quite appreciate what “maintenance and repairs” will involve until you’re several years into home ownership. It’s not merely cosmetic. Homes have to be maintained, sooner or later, and we’d rather keep up with it along the way than wait until it falls into real disrepair.
I’d love to have a yard.
The dream: I’ll read out on the back deck while drinking coffee every morning. The kids will play out back while I clean the house. We’ll host fabulous neighborhood barbeques and everyone will like us. I’ll also raise a vegetable garden and can the fruits of my labor.
The reality: The yard you’re longing for? Has to be mowed. The garden you want to keep? Is a ton of work. The flower beds you dream of? Good freaking luck. Maybe I’ll plant flowers when my kids go to college.
That said, we love our .3 acre (.1 acre “farmable”) burbstead. Right now we have chickens, bees, a garden, a woodpile, and a years’ worth of sap from our maple trees.
I want a garage.
The dream: I will never have to scrape a windshield before work again. I’ll have a place to put my bike and tools. I’m going to do projects and make awesomeness out there.
The reality: I don’t miss scraping my car windshield in the winter. But you know what I do miss? Not having to be responsible to fix every single thing that breaks. So next time you’re scraping your windshield, think about all the time and trouble you’re saving by not having to fix stuff.
If you really want a garage, rent a place with a garage. Then you get to not spend all your money fixing your house, and you don’t have to scrape your car, either. Best of both worlds!
I want more space.
The dream: You’ll have room to move, host, do hobbies, store stuff out of sight, and have kids.
The reality: Having more space is nice, and there are some perks to that especially once you have kids or for people who want to host big groups. More space also means more to clean and maintain, and it makes it easy to accumulate excess stuff.
I would ask: could you get some of that space in a rental? We had some decent-sized parties in our one-bedroom apartment. We fit about 10 girls for a youth ministry sleepover once. And our Bible study used to meet weekly in the basement “party room” of an apartment complex.
I want to gain equity.
The dream: I will sell my house for way more money on day, making it a great investment.
The reality: That “equity” is often purchased with your interest payments and the cost of maintenance. Why do you think it’s called a mortgage–French for death pledge? Read a breakdown in Millennial Revolution’s “Why Renting Will Make You Rich.”
Why let someone else build the equity by renting? Because we don’t have to do the work. We don’t have the risk—of what will break, and when, and what the market will yield if/when we ever want to sell. Plus taking a mortgage is a lot like renting from the bank.
If we could go back we might buy a duplex, live in one half, and rent the other. We could save the money we made for a down payment in the future. Then, when needed more space and were ready to move, we could potentially cover most of both mortgages by renting out the two apartments in the duplex. In this scenario, there would be more to maintain, but at least it would be for an actual investment (here’s why I don’t think most residences are investments).
I don’t mean to discourage prospective home buyers, but to say: enjoy renting as long as you do. If there’s no rush to get a place, take your time. Because a few years later, you just might find yourself missing the old apartment.
Renters–what are you longing for in a home? Home owners–do you ever miss renting?
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?
“Side hustling”—the trending slang for working a second job—is a hot personal finance topic covered in a new book, Hustle Away Debt, by David Carlson. His personal finance blog, Young Adult Money, focuses on ways for millennials to increase their income and manage money wisely.
Side hustles are great ways to increase the flexibility of how much you make. This is an important option for the many millennials who are drowning in student loans, or anyone struggling with debt. But side work is, well, more work. Carlson does a good job mentioning the pros and cons in his book, and offers realistic advice about how to choose the type of side work that will fit with your lifestyle.
We did some side hustling before we had kids, and even when we had one kid. This included photography (wedding, portrait, etc.), tutoring, coaching, babysitting, and writing. Now that we have two kids and a number of volunteer commitments, we aren’t focusing on this type of income, but it is a great option for tackling debt.
I like that Hustle Away Debt suggests side hustling for a purpose—to get out of debt. I’ve known a lot of people who felt overwhelmed and defeated about their debt, especially if they felt their income was out of proportion to their debt. Side work offers a way to take the reins and make a dent in debt when you might not otherwise be able to. If you are living off your current income, side hustle becomes “extra” that can all go straight toward repayment.
I believe any personal finance advice is best served with attention to motivation. Our motivation is what will carry us through all the extra hours of hard work and effort required when taking side work or changing financial habits.
Hustle Away Debt is short and sweet. It reads like a series of blogs, with bite-size, easy to read sections. The pictures and type spacing are even formatted like a blog. What’s better than a blog is that the material is one place, laid out in an organized fashion. I’m a linear thinker and don’t like clicking all over the internet (or even one site) in search of comprehensive information on a particular topic. I enjoyed the straightforward, logical flow of the book.
If you’re interested in tackling debt and willing to pick up a side hustle, this book will help you consider the options and pick the right approach for you. Hustle Away Debt: Eliminate Your Debt By Making More Money will be released on May 5, but is already available for pre-order on Amazon.
Has side hustling helped you reach financial goals? What type of work have you done?