Saturday, January 28, 2012

Breaking the Cycle of Debt

Lately I have been thinking a lot about money, particularly my poor stewardship over the past thirty years which has resulted in a mountain (can you say "Everest"?) of debt.  Most days, the shovel I use to dig myself out of the financial hole I'm in is about as effective as a plastic spoon that too easily snaps under pressure.  I told my eighteen-year-old son that "debt is like a life sentence without the possibility of parole."  Really, doesn't it feel that way sometimes?

I grew up in a home where money wasn't really discussed much.  Dad's work was seasonal and he traveled a lot.  When he worked, there was money to cover the expenses of a large family.  When his work ran out, Mom did the best she could to make ends meet without showing the worry that she surely felt.  I never really saw how money was managed in our household; I just knew we had all we needed and were never without the things that truly mattered.  There wasn't an emphasis on financial education in those days -- everyone simply did the best they could with what they had, and that was that.

Unfortunately, I grew up without the benefit of a Dave Ramsey or Larry Burkett to teach me prudent financial management or the spiritual maturity to understand the concepts of God's provision and our responsibilities as stewards of that provision.  The only real understanding I had of money was that we were supposed to give an offering in church and use the rest of our money to get things we needed and wanted.

Upon graduating from college, I landed my first full-time job while living at home, which meant I could spend freely on anything my heart desired.  I had no concept of saving nor the responsibility of paying rent or buying groceries, since my basic living expenses were met by my parents.  In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I began tithing, which I am convinced was our only saving grace, and buying on credit the things our parents had taken years to save for and acquire.  As newlyweds without children, we both had full-time careers and relatively few responsibilities, so we were prone to spend freely, even borrowing for things we could not afford.  We easily justified the purchase of new cars and dining out as things we deserved because we were working so hard, never realizing the future impact and consequences of those foolish decisions.  Now, twenty-five years and two children later, we have learned, just a little too late, how money is supposed to be used.   Although we have become better stewards of what God has provided, we are reaping the consequences of the financial mistakes we made early in our marriage.  But, we have hope!  God has promised His provision in His Word and we continue to see His faithfulness in this area of our lives.

By placing possessions ahead of our relationship with God and acquiring things we did not need and could not afford at the time, we have only added misery, not quality, to our lives, and have become slaves to debt. The deteriorating economy in which we find ourselves only makes matters worse. Sadly, we are not alone in this prison.  Many people, even Christians, struggle in this area of life, always looking for hope and anticipating the day when their debt will be paid in full.    So, what is the solution?

First of all, we must break the cycle of debt in our families by openly admitting our failures rather than covering up our shame.  We need to educate our children and encourage and enable them to make better choices.  Part of this requires us saying "no" to some of their wants and ours.  We must also teach them how to create and stick to a budget so they will have a sense of what it costs to live.  We need to help them understand the pain of paying for things that have long since been forgotten, discarded, or given away because we were unwilling to wait or do without them in the first place.

We also need to prayerfully consider what constitutes a need versus a want, then reprogram our thinking accordingly so we do not become so obsessed with "getting stuff" that we "forget the pain."  The tablet pc I have my heart set on, which would make a great tool for my business and ministry, is really just a convenience, not a necessity.  With a laptop and smartphone, I already have everything I need.  Every time a desire to purchase something arises, I must shake off the impulse to buy it and simply walk away giving the desire time to dissipate.  With God's help, we can all do that.

Following the advice of proven financial managers like Dave Ramsey and Larry Burkett, we need to plan a budget (tell our money where to go) and implement the practice of "giving, saving, spending."   All of this is possible if we pray, budget for our needs and plan out a strategy for eradicating debt, then stick to the plan.  As Dave says, we need to get mad -- so mad about our past failures and all the debt collectors' calls -- that we actually do something positive to turn the boat around!  A positive step in that direction is to enroll in a class like Financial Peace University or seek counseling from a certified financial planner or credit counseling agency.  Larry Burkett's Debt Free Living and Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace are excellent and inspiring resources for helping us break the cycle of debt.

God doesn't want His children to live like paupers.  After all, we are royalty -- children of the King of Kings!  It is time we stop worshipping our idols, keeping up with the Joneses, and listening to the lies of the enemy, who capitalizes on our weakness by tempting us to spend what we don't have for things we don't need.  We must remember that "you (we) are of God and have overcome them, because He who is in you (us) is greater than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4, NKJV).  "And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work" (2 Corinthians 9:8, NKJV).

Make this the day that you start depending on God rather than Mastercard to provide what you need. Stop buying into the lies of the enemy (the costliest mistake any of us can make!), and decide to commit this area of your life to the Lord.  Begin looking to God's Word and seek godly counsel from those who can help you learn to be a better steward of all that God has loaned you in this life (yes, He really does own it all). 

God is not in the bailout business. You will have to pay back all that you owe and will likely suffer the unpleasant consequences of your past mistakes.  But, if you will give, save, and spend as God's Word teaches, before long you will begin making progress and find the hope you need to eventually walk out of debtor's prison for good.

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