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Myths That Make Us Less Generous

Some people don’t invest much because it feels complicated.

Some people don’t give much because it feels complicated. How much to give? Where to give? How do I know the money will help the people it’s intended for? And so much more.

My hope is to unlock the generous potential in people by dispelling a few misconceptions that become barriers to charitable giving. Here goes…

  1. Generosity is irresponsible.

Can people give money away to the point of failing to provide for their own family? Yes. Do people sometimes get scammed out of their money, thinking it’s going to a good cause? Yes. Of course this does not mean that all or most charitable giving is irresponsible.

It’s entirely possible to give responsibly and generously, even on a small income or while paying off debt. Don’t confuse “generosity” with “giving away gobs of money.” I find working with percentages helpful here. For example, perhaps while you’re a student you could choose to give away 5% of your income. Once you have full-time employment you could work your way up to 10%.

  1. Generosity is enabling.

Unfortunately, there are “charities” that are completely bogus and just out to steal your money. Usually with a bit of research you can sniff these out. What’s sometimes more confusing are the well-meaning groups who provide types of “help” that are not actually helpful. Hand-outs that protract the poverty cycle, assistance that’s culturally inappropriate, and gifts that don’t uphold people’s dignity all fall under this category. Two thoughts on sifting through these factors:

  1. Do you know what fees you’re paying on your investment accounts? Do you know what rate of return you’re averaging? Good! If we care enough to do a little homework with our investments, it only makes sense to see how our charitable investments can be expected to perform. Ask questions, get personal recommendations, read ratings web sites, and consider volunteering or observing the work if possible in order to get a good read on whether the group is helping or hurting.
  2. Don’t get paralyzed. Finding the “right” organization to give to can easily hold up the practice of generosity. I know it did for us. To get the ball rolling, consider giving to a group that is providing disaster relief, such as the Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse. It’s hard to argue against helping out during a natural disaster.

3. Generosity comes from excess.

Perhaps this is the most pervasive and perilous myth about generosity: I’ll give when I have more. When I get my big-girl job. When I get that next promotion. When I’m comfortable. In the same way that we chase more money for ourselves, we also tend to think we’ll become more generous when we have more. Meanwhile, studies show the poor are more charitable than the wealthy.

When I was in high school and college, I had very little income and gave away a minuscule amount of money. That pittance didn’t change anyone’s life—except mine. This early practice of giving set the course for a lifelong assumption of generosity which has informed all our financial decisions, from which college to attend, to what degree to pursue, to the home we purchased. We’ve made our share of mistakes, but at the end of the day, we’ve always been in a position to give because we made a habit of it before we had much.

Fifteen years later, I’m certainly not giving away a fortune. But the quiet, consistent giving year after year has added up to enough to make a difference in several lives. For us non-millionaires, consistency is the way to go when it comes to philanthropy.

If you want a big impact on a limited budget, consider funding a micro-credit loan (scroll down to find) to help a person in poverty get training and funding to start a small business. They even receive financial training to help them earn a profit and repay. And here’s the cool part—once they pay back their loan, that money goes toward funding another micro-loan. Talk about a ripple effect!

4. Generosity is interchangeable with volunteering.

“Time is money, so giving away time and money are interchangeable.” Sorry, but that’s just bad logic. If your boss offered to pay you in home repairs, that barter might work out for a pay period, should you happen to need repairs. (Who doesn’t?) But by next pay period, you’re going to need money to pay the bills and buy groceries. Same goes for organizations that accept volunteers and financial gifts—and the people or causes they serve. No one can get by on helping hands alone. That’s simply not how life works.

I commonly see people switch the topic from giving money to giving time, as if they’re somehow synonymous. They’re not. We should do both and talk about both, but let’s not excuse ourselves from generosity by volunteering.

  1. Generosity feels good.

We all know generosity isn’t about the giver, yet I write posts like “Get Rich with Generosity” and cite studies showing how people who give away 10% of their income are happier. It’s interesting research, but if we’re giving in order to receive we could be sorely disappointed. Sometimes giving doesn’t feel good. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything. And sometimes it’s better than the best shopping high.

The problem enters when we decide how, where, and when to give based solely on our emotions. I want to keep a compassionate heart that responds to needs in the moment. But if my generosity is limited to random acts of kindness, I’m bound to have less impact on others than if I make a thoughtful choice to partner with a charity for the long haul.

 

If you’ve read this far, you probably care about being a generous person. There’s no one right way to be generous, and there’s so much more to generosity than what we’ve touched on here. But the greatest danger isn’t that people won’t give anything at all, but that they’ll come short of how generous they could be. This is always my concern for myself in this area. I’ll leave you with a verse that has motivated me not to neglect this important area:

You do well in everything else. You do well in faith and in speaking. You do well in knowledge and in complete commitment. And you do well in the love we have helped to start in you. So make sure that you also do well in the grace of giving to others.” (2 Corinthians 8:7, emphasis mine.)

What other misconceptions about generosity have you heard? What did you have to wrestle through in order to start giving away money?

Counting the Cost of Generosity

Perhaps you’ve heard that Warren Buffet calculates the cost of purchases in terms of what that money could yield in the stock market over many years. It’s a different way of thinking that can turn that daily lunch out into a $150,000 proposition. Last we looked at the art of the alternative—the idea that we can often find similar, less expensive options that allow us to have our financial cake and eat it, too.

But this week, let’s count the cost of a different type of spending: giving away money. Most people agree it’s good to be generous. People have widely different approaches to how, where, and what amount to give. But one thing we all ought to do is count the cost of our generosity.

For example, if you give away 10% of your income, how does that deflate your lifestyle? What kind of car could you be driving? What kind of upgrade could you have in your home, what you eat, or your vacation plans?

What might your investments look like after 30 years of an extra 10% monthly contribution? How might your net worth change if channeled that “extra” money into debt payoff? How different might your kids’ college funds looks?

This exercise isn’t meant to be self-congratulatory. Instead, it’s a great way to give wholeheartedly, with eyes and “pocketbooks” wide open. It’s valuable to fully understand what the trade-off is and deem it completely worthwhile to give instead of keeping it all for yourself. Without counting the cost, it’s easy to give rotely, perhaps because it’s the “right” thing to do–which is good, but might fall short of giving cheerfully and enthusiastically.

We’ve counted the cost of our generosity. We know what our giving means in terms of net worth growth or what kind of car we could drive. And our conclusion isn’t to give ourselves a pat on the back, but to affirm what a good investment we are making through giving. It’s a way of resolutely calculating that the potential lifestyle or net worth inflation is garbage compared with sharing what God has given us.

I encourage you to count the cost of your generosity. Perhaps you’ll even find yourself wanting to give more as you face the alternative destinations for your money and realize they pale in comparison. I share this because it hasn’t made us feel deprived, greedy, or self-righteous, but only more determined, excited, and blessed.

The Cost of Keeping

While you’re already calculating, why not consider the cost of keeping it all for yourself? Sure, you’d save more, invest more, or live larger. But what would you miss out on?

You won’t get to inflate the lifestyle of those who actually need it.

You won’t get to increase your real worth.

You’d miss out on the well-documented psychological benefits that come from giving, particularly those who give at least 10% of their income.

You’ll never see the surprising ripple effect a gift can set in motion.

You won’t get to partner with organizations and causes you care about.

You’ll miss out on an important and much-needed way to be an agent of change in the world.

You won’t get to experience the joy of entrusting your resources back to their Source.

You’ll likely leave the most important factor in your finances—your heart—untouched.

You won’t learn the financial discipline that consistent generosity can teach.

You leave your heart vulnerable to greed.

You could reinforce entitlement in yourself and your children.

Counting the cost of giving vs. keeping is a powerful way to make informed decisions about your money. Maybe the exercise will even motivate more generosity. We won’t know the full impact of our gifts in this life, but we can be confident that when we give wisely, both the giver and receiver will benefit:

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)

What do you think of counting the cost of generosity? What other benefits might we miss out on if we don’t practice generousity?

Life is Not About Your Preferences

crying kid

Not my kid, but close enough.

My 3-year-old regularly has a melt-down if I give him the wrong color of plastic plate. “Pink is not my favorite, I need a blue one!” he’ll cry. It doesn’t matter that no blue plates are clean. He thinks he’s entitled exclusively to his favorites, all the time. He wants only his favorite foods, clothes, and TV shows. Of course we are trying to teach him “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit,” i.e., not everything has to be your favorite. Life is not about your preferences.

Unfortunately, even as adults we fall prey to the “favorite” fallacy, or thinking that life is largely about discovering and securing our preferences. I’ve talked to countless people who explain that they can’t save money because they don’t prefer to bag their own groceries, or don’t want to work with bone-in chicken, or don’t like driving an older car that might require inconvenient repairs. They prefer to wear clothes that are in style. They don’t prefer eating beans over steak. They don’t like buying used furniture. They don’t enjoy shopping at thrift stores. Actually I’ve never met anyone who said they don’t like thrift stores, because thrift stores are awesome.

I have plenty of preferences myself, and I’m sure I don’t even realize how much I cater to them. But when it comes to saving money, I try to set aside my favorites and be content with less expensive options. Why? Because I prefer financial flexibility to debt. I prefer investing money to spending it on new clothes and iThings. I prefer to give away money instead of spending it all on things I don’t need. I prefer being able to take [expensive] opportunities that come along, like traveling on mission trips when we’re invited. I love staying home with my young children, even though that means having less income.

It’s okay to have preferences, and it’s okay to spend money on some of those preferences. But when you have a reason why you can’t save money in ten different ways because you don’t like this or that, maybe it’s time to think about the big picture. Do you prefer to shop at the Big Store more than you want to get out of debt? Do you prefer to drive a new car more than you prefer to save for the future? Do you want to eat at restaurants more than you want to give to church or charity? Maybe the opportunity cost of your preferences is something as big as retiring 5-10 years sooner, pursuing your dream career, or being really generous. People tend to think these “little” expenses don’t make a difference on their overall financial situation. But money cut from “little” costs, if invested, will grow exponentially, and that’s a power we underestimate while our money is enslaved to our preferences.

I’m sure the iStuff culture and foodie trends aren’t helping the preference obsession. My son thinks he should be able to request each individual song he wants rather than listening to the radio or an entire album. When you’re two it’s kind of cute that you want everything to be your favorite. But by age three the preference-obsession is decidedly not cute anymore, as any parent will testify. So if you’re reading this blog you have officially timed out of being allowed to live according to the favorite mentality. To be honest, I have preference problems, too, which become embarrassingly evident when SuperWalmart doesn’t have the exact version of an item I want. In times like those, I remind myself that the last thing I need is to procure a gourmet food taste or fancy product habit. Surely something less specific will suffice.

To set aside our favorites, we are fighting our underlying assumptions and attitudes we’ve absorbed from marketing messages and the 3-year-old inside us all. It’s tough for my son to just take the pink plate, and it’s tough for me to cook homemade food every night instead of getting take-out or frozen meals. But if cooking at home can contribute to saving, giving, and gaining flexibility, then it’s worth it.

The take-away? You don’t have to give up all your preferences, but decide what’s really worth it. I still don’t like ranch dressing and feel compelled to say this anytime that disgusting substance is mentioned. No one is saying you have to start listening to country music or that I have to start eating ranch. Just stop using your preferences as an excuse for not saving money.  We tend to think getting what we want will make us happy. Newsflash: it doesn’t! If I let my son have the blue plate, then he’ll start whining that the peanut butter sandwich on the blue plate isn’t his favorite. It’s an endless cycle if we give in, and the same applies to your finances. More convenience, comfort, and consumer goods won’t make you happier.

Instead of feeling deprived when you stop catering to a preference, focus on your favorite financial outcome that your small sacrifice will help you achieve. Is your goal to get out of debt? To give or save more? To travel or volunteer?  Letting go of preferences will help you become more flexible in every way—from daily situations to your finances. Remember the big picture of what you prefer your life to be about and let this control your spending, rather than letting your spending control your life options. That’s what financial flexibility is all about.

What money saving strategy have you avoided because of your preferences? What is your favorite financial goal?

10 Personal Finance Commandments You Don’t Need to Follow

Image result for commandments

Do you ever find yourself trying to follow advice you don’t really believe in? Here are 10 popular personal finance-related “commandments” and why you don’t necessarily need to follow them.

  1. Be frugal. I enjoy the many benefits classic frugality brings. It allows us to be more flexible, generous, and prepared for the future.  However, frugality has its limits. Frugality in itself is not truly a value, a purpose, or even a goal. There are many situations in which frugality as a controlling value would lead you astray. It’s just a tool to give yourself options. Please don’t make all your choices, including non-financial ones, based on frugality alone.
  2. Earn more. There are so many messages out there about how and why you should be increasing your income. I believe in increasing your income and growing your career in an ongoing fashion, to a point. But killing yourself to make more when you have a solid career, or basing all your major life decisions on income alone is also misguided.
  3. Go minimalist. Just because empty space is in, doesn’t mean you have to revolve your life around having less stuff. I appreciate the practical benefits of not being up to your eyeballs in useless junk. Totally get it. But when you are trying to make your house look like the cover of a Crate & Barrel ad, or causing marital division over how many shoes your spouse is allowed, it might be time to reign in the “minimalism.”
  4. Be normal a.k.a. Keep up with the Joneses. Cliché as it may be, it’s tempting to feel like the weirdo when you’re the only one in the neighborhood without an addition, kids who are in all the “enrichment” activities possible, or with mix-matched furniture. If we’re honest, we all conform to culture to some degree, and that’s not always a bad thing. But other people’s lifestyle choices shouldn’t be the main factor in yours. Whether that’s being fancy or frugal.
  5. Side hustle. Did you know you can make more money if you keep working after you get home from your day job? Would you like to read 1000 listicles about this fascinating and innovative concept? Just because side hustling is all the rage, just because so-and-so is making so much money this way, doesn’t mean you should be, too. It all depends on your goals and situation. If you have available time and actually need more cash, hustle away. If you’re short on time and not on money, I don’t see why you would. Unless you love money.
  6. Buy a home/Rent forever. Just because home ownership is the traditional path, doesn’t mean you have to. If you don’t want to deal with it, don’t. And just because it’s in vogue to question home ownership, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it. Owning a home can allow for options that renting doesn’t, and that’s hard to quantify.
  7. Retire early. Why not declare an end date and race toward the finish line? Because we never want not doing something to define us, and early retirement at its simplest is just that. Instead of just inflating our lifestyle or our bank accounts, we also want to inflate our usefulness to others. And even inflate the lifestyles of those in need. If you’ve got better things to do with your time than work, start doing some of that now and see where it takes you. Stay flexible, and be responsible with your money, but also with your heart.
  8. Be more productive. Did you know that if you sleep one hour less per night AND give up caffeine and sugar AND exercise and read more, you could be BETTER!!!? Better at what, I’m not sure. Perhaps better at yawning? Or crying? In all seriousness, the productivity stuff appeals to me a lot and of course wasting less time on Facebook is a good idea. But when my value as a human is defined solely by what I do—what I produce—I might as well be a machine.
  9. Slow down/simplify. In response to all the DO MORE! productivity hype comes a very welcome call to slow down and simplify life. And as much as this reminder is needed, it also falls short. Because life isn’t simple, or slow. Life with kids gets hectic. Having friends is messy. Living with purpose means you have big stuff on your plate, and that isn’t something we should avoid in an effort to make life easier.
  10. Curate your life. Life is meant to be lived, not curated. For example, my closet is not an art gallery, nor does it exist for the sole purpose of self-expression. Clothes are for not being nakey. My home is for living in, not admiring (though I believe in frugal aesthetics). The pressure of trying to get my possessions or my schedule “right” is too much for me. I’ll gladly be sloppy, tacky, and busy if I don’t have to think about my life as a museum.

Which of these tools match your values, and which don’t? Have you noticed any other “commandments” that don’t fit your life?

How Do You Uncube? A Philosophy of Hobbies

Bees are abuzz in the back corner of our yard. Chickens roam, nestling among plants in the garden. Peas are making their way up their trellis. It’s spring time on the burbstead.

Do we want to “live off the land”? Not exactly. We just want to “un-cube.” You know, decompress from the daily grind. And we want to do so in ways that are low-cost, productive, and family-friendly. We also prefer hobbies that are flexible and can involve other people, rather than taking us away from time with friends and family.

In a parenting podcast the speaker said something that really resonated with me. He was talking about the transition people experience if they become a one-income family. “Maybe you can’t afford golf anymore,” he said. “You might need to find some different hobbies. Like running and reading library books.” I hate running, but I get his point.

Poor golf. It gets such a bad name. I’ve never golfed in my life so I can’t comment. All I know is, we’ve made it a point to choose hobbies we can do at home, with the kids, in the margins of life rather than demanding huge chunks of time, and that generally produce rather than consume. We also prefer hobbies that get us outside, moving around, naturally incorporating exercise into our lives.

While Neil loves raising food, building and fixing things, and playing sports with friends, I like blogging (obviously) and dancing. I play more of supportive role in the burbstead activities—feeding the chickens rather than slaughtering them; harvesting, cooking, and cleaning produce rather than planting; cleaning up tools rather than building bee hives. I’m just not very good at keeping things alive, except children.

Family, friends, and ministry come first and we fit our outlets in between these, rather than placing them at the top of the priority list. For the most part, our hobbies don’t have to be scheduled ahead of time on a calendar.

Our hobbies have changed or evolved over the years. I used to take Zumba classes at the fancy-schmancy gym. Then I had kids and going there got too expensive. Neil used to do photography as a hobby-come-side-hustle until that became a bit too time-consuming. Now instead of traveling overseas, traveling looks like camping, road trips, or scoring free flights. I’m sure as our kids age what types of recreation we choose will continue to change. But we never want hobbies to become all-consuming money-pits. That hardly fits the purpose of un-cubing, relaxing, and decompressing after work.

Integrating hobbies into your life, rather than needing to dedicate tons of time, energy, and money to them, is another great suggestion for those with kids. We can feed the chickens together. Neil took a beekeeping class with a friend, and brought our son with him and his friend to pick up the bees. The kids and I have dance parties while I work out the choreo for my next pseudo-flash mob. We read them chapter or nonfiction books that are interesting to us as well (in addition to lots of picture books of their choosing). We ride bikes to the playground together. Neil works in the yard while they play on the swing set.

When it comes to hobbies, sharing is caring. Whether that’s gifting pickled peppers to friends, having people over for meals featuring our homegrown veggies, chickens, or syrup; inviting our playgroup to interact with baby chicks; teaching a dance class, or hanging out with the other softball families at the games.

Some people get into similar hobbies with the dream of self-sufficiency. We don’t believe we’re made to be self-sufficient. We need God. We need people. We need ALDI. And sometimes even Target. We’re not about to make our hobbies our life’s purpose. They’re just there for a fun outlet. We all need a way to un-cube, and we’ve found some interests that fit the bill for us.

Have you ever thought about your philosophy of hobbies? Do your hobbies fit your lifestyle, or do you struggle to fit life around your hobbies?

What are your hobbies? How do they fit in with your bigger picture?

Why Do You Hate Money?

Why does she hate money?

What if someone asked, “Why do you hate money?” every time they saw you with a frivolous purchase? Better yet, what if someone asked you this before you bought that $5 daily coffee drink, or gorgeous new shoes, or that fancy new phone? Would that change your spending at all?

What if you asked yourself, “Why do I hate money?” when making spending choices.

What if someone asked, “Why do you love money?” every time you thought about money? Better yet, what if someone asked you this before you checked the stocks for the third time that day, or search for deals or coupons, or took on more side gigs? Would that change your savings at all?

What if you asked yourself, “Why do I love money?” when making financial choices.

Of course, none of the actions I’ve mentioned—from buying a mocha to a car, to checking stocks or side hustling—are wrong. What matters is why we do them, and what we’re ultimately trusting in to bring satisfaction. The casual spender who frequents Starbucks could have a much better relationship with money than the frugal, committed net worth tracker. Or vice versa.

Three Attitudes Toward Money

The Bible has something to say about our attitude toward money: “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” The love of money tends to manifest itself in one of the two ways described above. Either you love having money, or you love spending money (what I call “hating” money). Each of us has a natural tendency to save or spend; to love or hate money; to hold onto money too tightly or too loosely.

The Bible also suggests a different perspective on money: it is simply a resource to be managed. If “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1) and there’s nothing we’ve been given “which you have not received” (1 Corinthians 4:7), then it all ultimately belongs to God. The parable of the talents, found in Matthew 25:14-30, illustrates the principle that we are managers, not owners. This view actually motivates me to manage money better than if it were mine to do with as I pleased.

It’s important to note that if money is a resource for us to manage, it isn’t inherently good or evil. In fact, the Bible says wealth can become “filthy riches” or a “blessing” from the Lord. It all depends on the manager’s attitude toward it and use of it.

Breaking Free From Loving or “Hating” Money

Money is neutral, and therefore doesn’t deserve our love or hate. Don’t waste your passion on pieces of paper your government has assigned some value to. Money itself is cold, detached, indifferent. And these should be our feelings toward money.

We manage money well by harnessing it as a tool. A tool isn’t good or bad on its own. Think of a knife. It’s amoral. I can use it for good—to cook a meal for my family. Or I could use it violently, to harm an innocent person. In either case, the knife isn’t right or wrong. The person wielding it is the one we pass judgment on.

We will wield money one way or another. What good can you do with money? The possibilities are endless. Charitable giving, freeing yourself up to volunteer, providing for your family, practicing hospitality, and being available for family and friends come to mind.

So you can go through life prioritizing how to have more money—loving money. You can go through life prioritizing your next purchase that will make life better—“hating” money. Or you can manage well the money that’s been entrusted to you, motivated to please the good and gracious Giver.

Are you naturally a saver or a spender? How does viewing money as a resource to be managed free you up to make better financial choices?

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?