By Becky Brodin
Don’t let money be your master.
SCREECH! Every time I stepped on my worn-out brakes, my car let out an awful, metal-on-metal screech. I didn’t have the money to get them fixed, so I kept driving. But when my car developed a lurch to the right, I had to do something. I screeched and lurched my way to a neighborhood garage. The mechanic looked at my brakes and told me he didn’t know how I was going to get home, but I wouldn’t be driving! This wasn’t the first time I had faced a sudden expense. I was scared to death.
A few years later I worked for an orthopedic surgeon who was in deep debt and constantly complained about money. He was especially put out with several banks who refused to extend him credit for a new swimming pool. He netted six times what I earned in one year, yet we had something in common-we were both in financial bondage.
It doesn’t matter whether you earn a little or a lot, whether you spend everything or hoard it all. People in financial bondage are preoccupied with money, anxious about meeting present obligations, or are driven to get more money. The majority of people in the kind of financial bondage I was experiencing are plagued by indebtedness and poor spending habits. They are often behind in paying bills, save very little for the future, and are discontent with God’s provision. People in financial bondage often treat their financial situation like I treated my brakes, by denying the reality of their problem. People without financial freedom are not able to make their own decisions regarding money. Circumstances dictate their decisions.
When I picture the years I spent in financial bondage, I can still feel the weight of frustration that hampered me because of the mess my finances were in. As a Christian, I knew I was a steward of God’s possessions, but I was ashamed of my poor stewardship and yearned to be financially free. I had a long way to go, but I was willing to learn. I began by noticing individuals who were financially free. I watched one friend in particular who was not anxious about money. She understood money matters, had a savings plan, purchased what she wanted, was debt-free, and gave generously. She even bought a new car-with cash! I was impressed.
Over time, as I studied these people and the area of money management, I discovered five biblical principles that characterize people who are financially free. Applying these principles to my own life helped me break out of financial bondage and begin the journey to financial freedom.
The Principle of Understanding Money
People who are financially free understand money. Many of us don’t understand how money works because we were never taught. Money management is not a common dinner-table topic families discuss. How many of us were offered a class in money management in grade school, high school, or college? Who told us about the power of compounding interest when we were young enough to begin a substantial savings program? When credit card companies send their cards, they don’t attach an instruction sheet explaining how 21% interest works for them and against you when you don’t pay off your bill.
“You’re not Dumb, but You May Be Financially Illiterate,” a chapter title from the book Personal Finances for Dummies, pretty much summed up my situation. When I’d hear people talk about investments or interest rates, a thick fog would descend over my brain. For years I didn’t balance my checkbook because I didn’t know how. In fact, when my checking account got messed up enough I’d close out that account and open a new one. I was financially illiterate. I didn’t make wise decisions because I didn’t know what I was doing. My life resembled the quip I saw on a plaque in a gift shop: “Money talks and all mine says is good-bye!”
It’s fascinating that Jesus choose to teach spiritual truths using several parables about money. In Mt. 25:14-30, He recounts the story of a man going on a journey who gave one of his servants $5,000, a second $2,000, and the third, $ 1,000, “depending on their The Message tells it this way:
“Right off, the first servant went right to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.” One aspect of this parable that stands out to me is that the first two servants knew how money worked. Understanding money is the first principle of financial freedom. In a parallel passage in Luke 19, the master left town instructing his servants to “put this money to work.” In both parables, the master rewarded the servants who made money with his money. Look at the exchange in Lk. 19:20-23:
“Master, here’s your money safe and sound. I kept it hidden in the cellar. To tell you the truth, I was a little afraid. I know you have high standards and hate sloppiness, and don’t suffer fools gladly.’ “He said, ‘You’re right that I don’t suffer fools gladly-and you’ve acted the fool! Why didn’t you at least invest the money in securities, so I would have gotten a little interest on it?”‘ (The Message).
Securities, invest, interest…. all inferences about ways that money works. Proverbs 17:16 challenged me to stop being foolish and learn about money: “Of what use is money in the hand of a fool, since he has no desire to get wisdom?” The first wise step I took was to balance my
checkbook. I took three years of canceled checks and three years of bank statements, put them all in chronological order, and worked until
they totally balanced. That step helped me understand how money works and brought me a measure of financial freedom.
The Principle of Design
People who are financially free manage their money by design, not by default. Engage anyone who is financially free in conversation about money management and you will soon hear him talk about his goals for saving, investing, giving, etc. He knows what’s coming in and what’s going out and is making conscious choices all along the way.
A workshop leader teaching money management asked his class, “Have you ever heard people say, ‘I just don’t know where my money goes?”‘ When many in the class smiled and nodded, he added, “We don’t know because we don’t look. We don’t look because we don’t want to know.” Everyone laughed.
Bringing design to our money management requires that we assess how much we have, identify what is coming in, track what we’ve spent it on, and estimate what we will have for the future.
Bringing design to our money management implies having a plan or (here it comes-the “B” word) budget. And that can seem painful-unless you value the freedom that comes with planning. The alternative is to be at the mercy of never knowing where you are financially. C.E. Hoover described the function of a budget as “telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went.” When my financial planner looked over all my finances he remarked, “You don’t operate with a budget, do you?” I was incredulous. But he was right. As long as I avoided a budget, I was vulnerable to impulse spending. Unfortunately, once money is spent, it’s gone.
A design also means sorting out the difference between needs and wants. Design means asking ourselves important questions before we buy anything, questions like, “Do I really need this item?” “In light of my overall plans, will this item help me attain my goals or will spending this money delay reaching my goals?”
Managing money by design means being honest and faithful in the details of money management. In Lk. 16:1-15, Jesus once again teaches life principles using money as the context. He tells a story about a manager who “had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses.” When confronted with his dishonesty and threatened with an audit, the manager shrewdly covered his tracks, a strategy praised by his master. Tucked in the middle of this parable is a famous verse that can be applied to money. Luke 16: 1 0 says, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” Jesus put
an emphasis on faithful stewardship. Having a design for our money is a definite act of stewardship.
The Principle of Understanding Debt
People who are financially free work to stay clear of debt. It’s as if they have a built-in sonar system that beeps when they get close to anything that would entrap them in debt. Now that doesn’t mean they never use credit of any kind, purchase large-ticket items, or even spend money frivolously from time to time. It simply means they have chosen not to take the first step down the road to debt.
Indebtedness is a crippling epidemic in our culture. As a nation, we save less than two percent of our income. We write over one million bad checks every day. Consumer debt sits like an invisible elephant in the center of far too many homes, including Christian homes.
Several years ago, I knew a young woman who graduated from college with a school debt of over $20,000. The first thing she purchased was a brand new car, increasing her debt to $30,000. The saddest part of all was that she had a deep desire to go overseas as a missionary. It would take years of careful, disciplined money management before she could even consider it.
Proverbs 22:7 warns, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.” When we are in debt, we give our personal power away to lenders.
The good news is that climbing out of debt can be life -changing. A young single mother I knew was in serious debt. Month by month, she turned over her meager paycheck to a credit counselor who slowly paid off her creditors while teaching her about money management. Three years later she was free of debt and determined to never get caught in debt again. Today, she applies the valuable lessons learned while climbing out and staying out of debt to many other areas of her life. She is financially free and redirects the energy the debt took into being a loving, responsible person.
The Principle of Contentment
People who are financially free are content they simply aren’t obsessed with getting more money. I’m not sure who the fabled Jones’s are or how they got to represent a standard of achievement, but content people aren’t pressured to keep up with them.
Money is, of itself, a neutral medium of exchange, but we have attached a myriad of meanings to it. For some of us, money represents power. For others, it represents prestige or security. The meaning people
attach to money becomes the hook that pulls them toward greed. “How much is enough? just a little more” is how Ron Blue describes greed. The writer of Ecclesiastes penned, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Eccl. 5: 10).
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he sets up the contrast between being content and the trap and potential destruction that people who are “eager to get rich” are susceptible to. The Greek word for content is arkeo and, interestingly, it is related to “raising a barrier,” “to ward off,” “to be satisfactory.” Letting what I have be “enough” is a type of barrier that protects me from unnecessary trouble.
When I was in financial bondage, I was obsessed with money. I thought about it constantly, always trying to figure out how to get more. I had to have “enough”-but what was enough? I resented others who had more. I was angry when bills would come, somehow thinking I shouldn’t have to pay up. I was not content. But as I have climbed out of financial bondage and work to carefully manage my money, I am content. I am not afraid. I have enough.
Contentment doesn’t mean complacency or avoidance. I am willing to take risks, to invest, to learn, and to grow so that my income matches my abilities. I still think about money-but I think about how to use it well, how to make it grow, and how to bless others with it. Paul told Timothy, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (I Tim. 6:6). Contentment is its own form of richness.
The Principle of Generosity
People who are financially free are usually generous. These people are what I call “financially response-able.” They are able to respond to the needs and opportunities around them. Because they are thoughtful with their finances and not strapped by debt, they are in a position to generously respond to the needs of others.
Financially free people have discovered the secret that generosity promotes generosity. A new bestseller, Random Acts of Kindness, is so popular it took its publishers by surprise. Enough people have jammed their phone lines reporting other random acts of kindness that they are ready to release a second volume. What’s intriguing about the heartwarming kindness is that a majority of them involve the exchange of money. Because one person’s financial needs were met, they in turn bless someone else when they can.
I wonder if this is the intent of Prov. 11:24-25, “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; … he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” The King James version uses the word “waters” for “refreshes.” It’s not hard to picture someone spraying water on others in a hot, dry climate and then getting some of the cool spray back. Meeting the real needs of others is a wonderful, life-giving celebration.
The Apostle Paul addressed this principle of generosity in 2 Corinthians 9. He put the matter this way: “Remember: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop” (2 Cor. 9:6, The Message). There’s a story of old, tattered bills being returned to the US treasury. A $1 bill and a $20 in the same sack start talking.
“I went to nice stores, good restaurants, country clubs, and exotic places,” the $20 bill said. “How about you?”
“All I ever did was go to church.”
The implication is the disappointing reality that Christian giving is sometimes the meager leftovers of our budget. Paul reminds us of our basis for being cheerful givers: “This most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant with you. He gives you something you can then give away” (2 Cor. 9:10-11, The Message). The beauty of being financially free is that we can respond with genuine generosity.
Ongoing financial bondage is a heavy burden to bear. But by God’s grace, it is possible to break free and live in financial freedom. Making a concerted effort to become educated about money matters removes the crippling effect of financial illiteracy. Understanding how money works reduces a person’s vulnerability to foolish decisions. Financial knowledge is the basis for managing money by design. Planning, budgeting, and sorting out the difference between needs and wants gives a person the inner resolve to make wise financial decisions. Having a thoughtful design for money management protects a person from choices that result in indebtedness. And when a person is not in debt, knows the status of his or her financial situation, and makes wise decisions, the fear and anger about money can give way to contentment with God’s provision. A content person can overflow with generosity, cheerfully responding to the needs of others in their world.
God in His generosity has invited us to be stewards of His riches. People who live by the principles of financial freedom are faithful stewards, content and blessed.
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