(Disclaimer: Sorry, guys – it’s another long one! Just saying what I need to say… You just read what you need to read!)
I – we – haven’t got a lot of money. We don’t own a lot of stuff. We live just within our means, but there’s not a lot left over.
Of course, the truth of all those statements is relative.
We haven’t got a lot of money.
Relative. Compared with someone in the third world, or even in a poorer area of the first world, we’re RICH. Someone else’s ‘not a lot of money’ might mean using food stamps, or clipping coupons in order to afford essentials. Another person might feel that they haven’t got a lot because they’re mortgaged to the brink and wondering how they’re going to scrimp and save to keep affording the payments. Still another might be a middle-income earner in a higher-income area. How much money we think we have is very relative.
We don’t own a lot of stuff.
Again, totally relative. I don’t think we own a lot of things because we haven’t ever bought a lot of those things that our peers in this city have bought – I’ve never gone out and chosen a living-room set, for instance. We’ve almost never bought furniture – in almost thirteen years of marriage we have only bought our bed, a few nursery pieces, a couple of bookcases, and a TV console. But we’ve been so richly and generously blessed by our friends and family each time we’ve moved that we haven’t had to buy things. We’ve happily made do with hand-me-downs, and we’ve never been left sitting or sleeping on the bare floor – but plenty, plenty of people in the world do live in unfurnished surroundings, and plenty do sleep on the floor. Even those whose furnishings and possessions would seem extremely meagre to us might look pityingly on those who have nothing, who have to pick over the garbage heaps for food and sustenance. And even those whose furnishings would seem opulent to us might look over at their neighbours’ pool/boat/car/TV/jewellery and feel like their own circumstances were sparse.
We live just within our means, but there’s not a lot left over.
Well, this is a great one, isn’t it?! I mean, any of us could say that – it just means that we’re as good at spending as we are at earning. Not a terribly complicated equation, that one. What matters, really, is whether true essentials are within our means. And that, of course, depends on how you distinguish between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’.
West and I realized early on that our life together would be complicated; it always is when you come from beloved families who live on separate continents. We realized that we were always going to have to channel some of our resources into a travel fund, so that we could visit regularly with the family furthest from us. We also realized that this would mean sacrifices, and it has. Had we not been committed to this travelling, we’d undoubtedly have been able to save a good down payment for a house. But neither West nor I can imagine having to sacrifice that personal contact with family that we hold so dear in order to afford a house of our own. And neither of us was willing to sacrifice our relationship, even in those early stages, to avoid facing these complications.
Money is such a complicated issue. Many of us can recount stories of how financial issues have brought out the worst in people: arguments over wills; jealousy over other people having more; miserly behaviour in those who are too careful, too concerned, too covetous of ‘financial security’; the devastation of stock crashes leading to substance abuse and the destruction of families…
I might feel that we don’t have a lot of money, but we’ve never had a big debt hovering over our heads. We’ve always paid our credit cards on time. We’ve always had enough – even if sometimes only just enough (during some scary lean times) – to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. We might not have always been able to afford the neighbourhood we’d have liked to live in (this lovely spot we’re living in by the grace of my parents’ generosity; we rent the upstairs of their house for far lower than its market value – otherwise we’d be a lot further from family and friends), but we’ve lived within our means and managed to save enough for a visit overseas every other year.
I might feel that we don’t have a lot of stuff, but actually we have more stuff than we have room for, and it’s driving me crazy! All the clothes – the in-between sizes and out-of-season things – pile up with nowhere to go; the art supplies and papers and books and toys are everywhere… We’ve got a LOT of stuff. Maybe not precious stuff – or only sentimentally precious – but stuff, nonetheless. And stuff can really weigh you down; so how many things do we really want around us? How many possessions can we stuff into our houses, into our lives, without ending up suffocated by them?
I might not feel like we have a lot left over at the end of each month, but what is really important is how we make room in our budget to do good. I’m not talking about ‘I’m doing good, real good…’ (I don’t talk like that) – I’m talking about helping others. Looking to the needs of other people. Using our resources to affect change, no matter how small. It’s not important how much we have; it’s what we do with it that counts.
So perhaps it’s time to dig a little deeper. Maybe it’s time to ask some questions, and see whether we’re comfortable with our answers.
Do we use our money to look after the comfort of others, or only ourselves?
How can we lighten someone else’s load? What’s someone struggling with that we could alleviate? We often don’t have to look far, although most of us are aware of the grinding poverty in which much of the rest of the world languishes. What matters is that we do look, and do act to provide comfort and sustenance to others. We shouldn’t be so worried about storing up money for a rainy day that we forget that others live under a cloud their whole lives.
Do we use our money to manipulate others?
This is a tough one, I know. Do we offer or withhold assistance to friends or family based on whether or not we feel they’re doing what we want them to do? If it’s within our means to send our kids to tertiary education, for instance, but we’re only willing to do so if it’s the field of study we want them to pursue. Are we only willing to extend a hand to those whose faith or values mirror our own, or are we gracious and open-handed in giving of our resources and ourselves without discrimination?
Do we master our money or does it master us?
If money always dictates what we do and how we do it, the money has become our master. Too many of us say, “I’d love to give more…” or “I wish I could help…” and do nothing. But our spending is often tremendously discretionary. If there’s no room left for stewardship – protecting the environment, caring for the world’s people – then we need to shift our priorities, and our resources. People have told me that they’d have loved another child, but they didn’t think they could afford it. We live in an area where many people have a huge mortgage, two cars, and regular vacations – chances are, they could afford it but they don’t want to give anything up to do so. Life is all about give and take. If we allow financial concerns to dictate all our choices, then we are serving money instead of allowing it to serve us and our needs.
Does our money bring us peace and a sense of freedom, or does it bring us stress and a sense of constraint?
This one’s fairly self-explanatory; if we’re constantly worrying about money, we don’t have much energy left over for other things. This means that hopes, dreams, creativity, and generosity are crowded out. It means that we’re more likely to be tight-fisted and less likely to look to the needs of others. Worrying too much about our money makes us its prisoner and takes captive those we might otherwise have helped as well.
Knowing that money can have a strangle-hold on us means that we should be aware that many of the people we might envy for their ‘plenty’ might be wanting in other areas; they might be spiritually bereft or emotionally depleted. When we look to the needs of others, we shouldn’t dismiss the rich out of hand just because they have some advantages; there are disadvantages, too, that go part and parcel with wealth.
Are we living within, or beyond, our means?
Being free and generous with our money doesn’t mean that we’re not responsible with it. Financing our lifestyle with the bank’s money is an easy road to ruin. No matter how much or how little money we have, we are accountable for its use and answerable for its waste.
How does our money situation change our perspective on life and what matters?
How do we view those who have lots of money and those who have none? It can be easy to mistake ‘net worth’ for true worth. And it’s equally easy to assume that true contentment or happiness are within reach if we just get that raise or we just win that lottery… But money isn’t the answer, clearly. Poor people can still be happy, and (as I mentioned above), the rich can still be miserable.
Money shouldn’t matter too much. Our concern for financial security and our possessions shouldn’t supersede our concern for other people. Work shouldn’t be higher in importance than our family. Time together and other intangible joys found in relationship should not be sacrificed at the altars of ambition and acquisition.
‘Enough is a feast’
This is one of my favourite sayings. It is a reminder to constantly re-adjust my perspective on money and success. It’s so easy to have a warped understanding of both – constant adjustment is necessary to align myself again with the Truth:
– Matthew 6:21
What do you treasure most in your life? Is the way you use your money an accurate reflection of these values?