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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

jail

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?

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?

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?

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?

“Please Un-entitle Me”

Writing a letter to my parents. What should I say?

Dear Mom & Dad,

I know you want what is best for me. You want to read to me as much as possible, take me on as many cool adventures as you can, and help me become the most successful, well-rounded individual I can be.

I know you want to race against the clock to find freedom before I’m too old to want to hang out with you. Before I’m too big to think you’re cool. Or maybe that’s not an option, but you want to make sure you’re as involved as possible. I think it’s pretty cool that you want that.

I know you want to teach me to work hard, to be resourceful and creative. You want me to learn things they don’t teach at school, like entrepreneurship and investing and how to DIY anything. And I’m sure I’ll thank you later for that.

You are saving for my college because you don’t want me to be stuck with the same debt you graduated with. You’re priming my resume by funding any extracurricular I choose. Okay, you drew the line at ice hockey. But you’re doing all you can to make sure I get good grades and good test scores, in hopes of stretching the college fund a little further.

Even if you didn’t have the money to do all this, it’d still be tempting to over-praise, over-purchase, and be overly-involved for me. I can make my own lunch and do my own laundry, okay?

You love me and you’re doing all you can for me. But please, watch out. As one of the wealthiest kids on the planet, I am at high risk for entitlement. In fact, it’s already happening. Between the participation prizes, the endless affirmation, the constant access to my grades, and all the attention you’re encouraged to give me, it’s almost inevitable.

I know, you’re frugal. You’ve told me no countless times when it comes to spending. You’ve taught me that money comes from hard work, and not to fritter it away. You didn’t do the epic themed birthday parties or annual Disney vacations or buy me designer clothing.

But you’ve also shown me that money is a Big Deal. Without it we couldn’t do all the awesome trips and adventures. Without it you’d have to be at work more, rather than with me. Which I love, but…

Please un-entitle me.

Let me manage my own schoolwork, forget my gym shoes, and not make the varsity team.

Take me to serve a meal at the homeless shelter. Encourage me to volunteer at the food bank. Have me visit handicapped adults.  Show me how good I have it, and that I am not the center of the world. Nor the center of your world.

I can’t be the center of your world. That’s too much pressure. I could never live up.

Model to me that success is not what matters most in life—at least if success means promotions or net worth growth. Show me how to succeed at truly loving other people. Teach me that money should facilitate that end.

Teach me how to be a good friend. One who is loyal and sacrificial. One who can help in practical ways, but emotionally as well. Raise me in community.

Don’t just teach me frugality, or how to earn a lot of money. Teach me how to give generously.

Don’t just teach me how to sell, teach me how to care. I need to see people not as obstacles or tools, but with compassion and empathy.

Don’t just teach me how to be happy, teach me how to be content. Every problem I’ve ever encountered has been so first-world, I have little tolerance for suffering. Don’t be afraid to let me suffer a little. Let me fail.

Don’t just teach me how to be polite, teach me gratitude. Not just the pleasantries of saying please and thank you, but a deep attitude of realizing I deserve very little, and have very much.

You can read me all the books, take me to all the countries, play all the sports with me, and still miss the most important part of me: my heart.

It would be such a shame if you tried so hard to raise a productive, well-rounded human, and I still turned out self-centered and entitled. The odds are against you. The culture unwittingly supports this most dangerous outcome.

But you know how to go against the tide. You don’t like to fit the mold. You wouldn’t be where you are if you didn’t have a counter-cultural streak. I know you can do it. Please un-entitle me.

Love,

Your kid

How have you combated entitlement in your family? 

 

For more on fighting entitlement, please see my friend’s blog, Entitlement Monster, and the book The Me, Me, Me Epidemic.

 

Just Pretending

If you grew up in the 90s, “poser” was the ultimate insult. Posing meant faking, pretending to be something you weren’t. I don’t want to be a poser.

So all pretending aside, let me be clear: I live in a 1400 sq ft home and own two cars, a dishwasher, a Kitchenaid mixer, and more computers and televisions than I care to admit. Actually, it’s hard to tally the latter when married to an engineer with lots of Projects. Though he just did some major decluttering–yay!

But back to my point: I am rich. Filthy rich, by any standard outside the time & space in which I live.

Lucky, fortunate, blessed, spoiled…you name it, I’ll claim it. I am the global 1%.

When I say pretend to be poor, I don’t mean it literally. Not even a little literally. I think the fact that it’s the title of a web page should give that away. (Think computer, Internet, leisure time when I’m not scavenging for my next meal or side hustling to pay the electric.)

I’d never want to insult the truly poor, or equate my truly lavish lifestyle with an impoverished one. So I’m just putting it out there, loud and clear, that I know I’m rich. And I believe wealth is a huge responsibility that should be used to help others.

In my mind, pretending to be poor represents the only attractive alternative to pretending to be rich. I suppose there’s a third option of breaking even, but that’s hard to pull off with precision and undesirable since it means you have nothing to share or save for the future.

So that leaves only two feasible options: live on more than you make, or live on less. And if you choose to live on less, why not live on a lot less, if possible? That could free up so many resources–both time and money–for doing what really matters.

The 1.74 trillion dollars in American consumer debt (credit & auto) indicates a startling pattern of living on more than you make, i.e. pretending to be rich.

By “pretend” I also hope to evoke not taking yourself too seriously. Sure, we’re trying to live on less, but we’re not claiming to be the most hardcore frugal freaks out there. I buy crazy indulgences like chocolate, alcohol, makeup, and pants without holes in them regularly. I break stuff, lose stuff, and buy stuff that doesn’t work out not infrequently. And each year we burn syrup, lose a chicken, and leave some garden tomatoes on the vine too long, all without causing our family financial duress.

We are not the most wealthy, successful, organized, creative, or generous people out there. We are not the best at life. We’re okay with faking it will we make it, and that’s very much what I mean by pretending.

The truth is, we’re all posers on some level. Now it’s been termed Impostor Syndrome; we’re all  a bit insecure as we strive to become something we’re not yet. The important question isn’t whether you’re pretending, but what will you pretend to be? 

I’ll strive to live on less, so I can be more useful.

I’ll strive to give more, to help those who have less.

I’ll “pretend to be poor” because I don’t want to pretend to be rich.

I’ll “pretend to be poor” so I can build wealth. Wealth that can help others become “rich in every way.”

Do you ever feel like a “poser”? What are you striving for this year? 

The Danger of Christmas

meeting-santa

I love Christmas, but I’m also afraid of it.

I’m afraid our kids will feel entitled by all the gifts they receive. I’m afraid they will lose sight of the true meaning of Jesus’ birth. I fear it will reinforce their tendency to believe life’s all about them. I’m concerned they’ll turn into greedy over-consumers.

We’re committed to not over-doing the gifts, but we do enjoy making Christmas morning magical for our kids. Surely that will look different as they grow up, but at their ages, this doesn’t cost a lot.

We’re grateful to have relatives who are generous but reasonable (not over-gifters). But even one or two reasonable presents from a number of relatives, plus “Santa,” adds up to a fair amount of stuff. (I do see the toys as a resource to survive the long winter months ahead!)

I’m also tempted to fill the precious days off of school and work with fun holiday activities. There are more special events than we can possibly attend, plus simple pleasures like sledding, baking cookies, and watching Christmas movies. I want to be sure that helping others is prioritized in the midst of seasonal entertainment, and that will mean passing on some fun activities, even if they’re free.

We want to celebrate Christmas with special treats, gifts, and family activities. We also want our kids to learn generosity, empathy, and service. Here’s how we’re trying to combat the greedy, entitled, all-about-me mentality that kids (and all of us, if we’re honest) are naturally prone to.

“It is better to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

We first introduced this verse to my son when he was three. He replied, “That’s not true,” and refused to memorize it. We didn’t force the issue. Two years later he’s voluntarily quoting it (sometimes to his sister) and trying to understand it. He asked if getting presents on Christmas morning is bad. I explained that both giving and receiving are good and fun, but giving is special because it helps others and can bring them happiness.

To involve our kids in giving, I encourage them to buy or make something for each other and their dad. With their closest friends they might swap toys they already have or chip in toward a small gift.

“If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord—and he will repay you!” (Proverbs 19:17)

Our kids live a strange existence in which all their needs are abundantly met. Without scaring them, we try to explain that not everyone lives this way. Some kids don’t get toys for Christmas; others don’t have enough food or even clean water. (Compassion International’s Explorer magazine was helpful for this.) We can’t solve all those problems, but we can share some of what we have with others. We use Dave Ramsey’s suggestion for give, save, and spend jars, and set a deadline this week for choosing a charitable destination for their money.

This year I also took my son to help out with a “Christmas with Dignity” store through a local ministry in a low-income neighborhood that’s home to many refugee families. The children work throughout the year to earn digital “dollars” by attending after school tutoring, completing homework, and participating in programs. With these funds they can shop at a Christmas store featuring a large variety of new, donated items. We volunteered with the set-up, which involved carrying lots of items down lots of stairs.

The store featured toys, but also many practical household items ranging from coffee makers to diapers to toilet paper. Friends who volunteer at the store noted how many of these items the kids choose over the toys.

Once we got through the explanations and he got to carry stuff around he got increasingly excited. He talked about the kids choosing from the different items. He was also bragging about how strong his muscles were getting from all the hard work. Maybe he still thinks it’s all about him (& his muscles), but I was grateful he had a chance to help others in some way. He left in an exceptionally good mood because he got to experience firsthand the joy of giving rather than receiving.

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress…”(James 1:27)

A friend suggested that the kids from our church visit nursing home residents and hand out cookies. Yesterday we did just that. Yes, visiting people you don’t know feels awkward. And children aged three to eight are hardly stellar conversationalists. But I think the cookies, smiles, and a few rounds of “Jingle Bells” went a long way toward brightening the residents’ day, and showing our kids that they’re not the center of universe.

The book The Me, Me, Me Epidemic  includes some more great ideas for involved kids in both planned and random acts of service.

I don’t share these experiences because I have it all figured out, but because I don’t. My kids are more entitled and self-centered than I want them to be. So am I. The path to financial success is fraught with danger for the soul, unless we take care to share, help the poor, and care for those often forgotten by society. 

I’d love to hear more ideas for promoting a giving attitude in kids at Christmas.What are some practical ways you’ve tried to teach generosity and service, especially during the holidays? How have you seen your children’s attitude toward giving change over the years? Or perhaps you remember how your own perspective changed?

The Personal Finance Topic No One Talks About

Image result for scrooge jumping into money pool

Copyright Disney

There is one word that is noticeably absent from personal finance content. I’m sure someone’s written about it, but I can’t remember reading a post on it in the two years I’ve been blogging. We hear the buzzwords repeatedly: side hustling, decluttering,  values-based spending, travel hacking, card churning, zero sum budgeting, and more. But what about the real root that gets so many of us into trouble when it comes to money?

I mentioned it in “5 Money Euphemisms to Avoid.” Interestingly, it was the one term that no one commented on. It’s almost a dirty word. Yet it’s something we’re all prone to.

Greed.

I hardly expect greed will ever become a buzzword. It can’t be good for SEO. But I think it’s important to broach this taboo that can seriously stymie our financial progress, or limit our happiness even if we are swimming in money.

Admitting the Scrooge in All of Us

The Greek philosophers’  concept for greed was pleonexia, an over-desire. Inordinate desire. A wish or drive out of proportion with what the thing can deliver. An unhealthy appetite. We think that car purchase, sleek device, or rising stocks will make us happy, but these things disappoint. It’s not because those things are inherently wrong, but because we’re wrong for placing our trust in them. Can so much metal, silicon, or stock value change our well-being for the long-term? That’s simply asking too much of too little.

I’m a naturally frugal person, but greed still finds its way into my heart regularly. Sometimes I wish for a more beautiful home even though we have a nice place with more space than we need. Sometimes I dream of new clothes or furniture even though what I have is perfectly passable. Sometimes I desire more savings although we’re filthy rich by global standards. And I know my generous, thrifty husband at times longs to own more land, a nicer car, or a bigger nest egg.

Sometimes yearning for more is a healthy impetus to work hard and live wisely. I’m not talking about such a contented quest to do the next step well. Greed is by definition discontent. Let explore a few examples.

My kids always want more. They have more toys than they have time to play with, but they want everything they see in the store. I know that’s “how kids are.” But isn’t “how kids are” a glimpse into raw human nature?

Credit card debt is often the result of greed, though there can be other factors. I can have something I can’t afford, and I can have it now.

Or take car loans. Unfortunately, they’ve been normalized to the point that people cannot see this. Taking a car loan is saying, I want a nicer car than I can purchase in cash. So I’m just going to get it. For an alternative approach, check out How I Spent $8000 on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.

Mortgages a.k.a. death pledges are a bit different, since homes are an appreciating asset. Still, it’s all too easy to get greedy with the mortgage, especially when you’re offered loans much bigger than you need or can comfortably afford. Surely the housing market crash of 2008 demonstrated how pervasive greed can be in this arena. During our house hunt we almost purchased a home which would’ve made things tight. It all looked fine on paper but in retrospect I’m glad we went with something less expensive.

Greed is also the stuff Black Friday is made of. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Black Friday, and I know lots of people purchase only gifts or items they’ve planned for. But Black Friday would not be nearly as lucrative if it were not fueled by both consumer and corporate greed.

Responding to Greed

Greed could be for more savings, more travel, more experiences, perhaps even for more “freedom.” Again, it’s not the object of desire that’s a problem. It’s our attitude toward that thing. This attitude is uniquely hard to decipher in a society where greed has become normalized, institutionalized, and celebrated at nearly every level.

Where’s the line between normal desire and greed? That may look different for everyone, but it certainly crosses the line when we start acting on it, practically putting our faith in those things which cannot ultimately deliver.

It’s okay to admit you fall prey to greed. It may just be in your thoughts, or it may limit itself to insignificant purchases that don’t do much harm. It may be a gray area, but it’s there. And I think we’d experience more freedom from it if we could just admit it.

I know it’s scary, but think about the possibility of greed next time you:

  1. Think about charging something you can’t afford.
  2. Consider taking a car loan.
  3. Spend on “wants” while living in debt.
  4. Put off giving until you’re “comfortable” or “better off.”
  5. Check your investments constantly.

We can guard ourselves against acting on greed with the following measures:

  1. Giving consistently and sacrificially.
  2. Setting a budget and sticking to it.
  3. Paying off debt as quickly as reasonable.
  4. Avoiding new consumer debt.

Anyone brave enough to admit how greed affects you? What do you do to combat it? If I’ve missed any good posts on greed, please share them!

Maximize Your Minimalism

Fall visit to a local farm.

To minimize or not to minimize? That’s not really the question. The crux lies in why you’re minimizing.

Like frugality, simple living, or values-based spending, minimalism must be viewed as a tool in order to be effective. Owning less stuff is hardly a worthy life direction. Getting rid of clutter cannot make your life meaningful. Meaning makes life meaningful.

Meaning means you’re doing something significant on this planet. Something worthwhile. It means having a purpose. But figuring out your purpose is whole lot harder than cleaning out your closet, and I suspect this is why many more articles are written on the latter.

I won’t pretend I can tell you what your purpose should be, though you can check out some overarching principles in the post “How to Pursue Happiness” (hint: pursue purpose instead). I will share that our purpose is very much related to living out our Christian faith. This means we value involvement in our church, hospitality, and poverty relief.

Let me illustrate how your purpose might shape how you practice minimalism. If you want to be a minimalist so you can be generous, maybe you won’t be the type of minimalist who spends $300 on the perfect bag to end all bags. You’ll keep your three bags, while spending minimally in order to help the poor.

If you are the type of minimalist who has downsized forever, you probably need to buy that $300 bag because you don’t have room for three bags. And you’ll save much more than $300 by downsizing.

But if you’re the minimalist who highly values hospitality, you may not downsize. And you’ll keep more furniture and more toys or kitchen appliances or linens. But you’ll avoid adding unneeded stuff to make room for more people.

If you’re the minimalist who loves to DIY, you’ll have more tools. If you’re the minimalist with lots of kids, you’ll have more stuff than the minimalist without a large family. Okay, enough examples?

It’s been said plenty of times that minimalism looks different for everyone. But it doesn’t look different randomly. It should be different for a purpose. Linking your choices to your bigger picture will free you to own your choices about what to own and spend.

I largely curtailed recreational shopping when I read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger at age 18. Suddenly browsing clearance racks at the mall for clothes I didn’t need seemed absurd. Helping people in poverty became part of my purpose, which changed my spending and owning habits forever. I’m certainly not the most generous person, but having a deeper motivation helped me change my consumption habits for the long haul.

Once you determine that purpose, start asking if the things in your home fit that purpose. I don’t care whether my possessions bring me joy. I don’t think the point of possessions is to evoke emotions. They are there to serve my purposes. My kitchen’s contents allow me to produce many healthy, homemade meals each week. They also help me to host and feed many guests throughout the week. My dishes hardly enrapture me, but they sure are useful.

I can tell you one possession that does not give me joy: the giant Rubbermaid tub of hand-me-down Legos. There’s stepping on Legos. Seeing my basement covered in Legos. Telling kids to clean up the Legos. Helping the kids clean up the Legos. But I could never get rid of the Legos. They’ve helped make our house a place where kids want to come. They’ve served as a way for me to bond with my son. And they foster my kids’ creativity and development. They may be annoying, but those little pieces of plastic serve my purposes so well.

The framework of purpose helps us use minimalism as a tool for a greater good, rather than falling into materialistic minimalism. After all, it is purpose, not possessions, that truly brings us joy.

How has your purpose influenced your consumption choices?