“Our credit cards are maxed out, and I don’t know what to do!”
“I can’t sleep at night—I just lie there and worry about our finances.”
I’ve been hearing a lot of comments like these lately. Many of our close friends are at the end of their financial ropes, and the cords are fraying. While my husband and I are doing all right—we’re paying all our bills, at least—we too are feeling the effects of a challenging economy and several years of missing income.
I knew when Pete made the switch from commercial consulting to full-time ministry that our financial situation would change. We were used to being somewhat frugal—at least we thought of ourselves that way—but this would be on a whole new level. Sensing God telling me we needed to simplify our finances and learn to live with less, I sought counsel from older (and hopefully more mature) members of our church. And I was astonished that no one had any advice for me. All I heard was, “You’re doing fine!” Really?
Then we moved to Colorado with no more consulting income and only part of our support raised. Talk about crash courses. I learned a whole new way to look at money. I learned that I really didn’t need to buy as much as I thought I did. I learned to make do, and live without. And to be honest, I thought I now understood all there was to understand.
Then our income stopped completely. And once again, I realized that I didn’t know nothin’ yet. When you have no income, you can’t budget. Any expense is subject to scrutiny. No buying decision was so big, or so small, that we didn’t bring it to God and inquire about it. Do I really need a new sponge? How about groceries? Can I splurge on a roast, or will we have eggs again? Do we need a newspaper? How about two cars—or can we survive on one? Should we visit supporters? Should we sell the house?
God led us step by step, and we survived with our credit score intact. We never lacked for anything we really needed. God is faithful.
Over the next few months, I’d like to share a few “tricks” I learned during this time, ways to save money that I don’t see in the popular magazines and websites. It wasn’t a matter of substituting daisies for roses every week, or buying everything at a membership warehouse. We had to change our lifestyle in a number of rather significant ways.
The first thing we did was sit down and divide all our expenses into two categories: “mandatory” (at least for the time being) and “discretionary.” Mandatory expenses are things like food, medical care, and housing. Discretionary expenses include entertainment, vacations, and most clothing. How you divide things is a personal opinion, but be open to what God may be telling you. We have very few actual needs. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Try re-examining your monthly expenses. They may seem small, but they can really add up over time. For example, do you have to have that newspaper or magazine subscription? I loved reading the paper with my breakfast, but we decided to save the $100+ cost per year. Now I read my news online. An unforeseen benefit is that I can scan feeds from a variety of sources, and get a more balanced perspective on what’s actually going on.
We don’t watch much TV, so we don’t have cable or satellite (we do have an antenna on the roof, which gets us local stations). Not much loss there, and it saves us between $600 and $1200 per year. I’ll come back to entertainment in my next post on this topic.
Staying in shape doesn’t have to be expensive. Skip gym fees by walking outside when weather permits. When it’s too hot or cold, my friends and I hit the mall instead… and we go before the stores are open, so there’s no temptation to stop and shop. Pete enjoys lifting weights for his exercise. We did a little homework and came up with a very inexpensive set of elastic bands that accomplish the same muscle-building results, with the added advantage of being easy to pack for trips. Yes, I miss the swim club we enjoyed in California, but sometimes spending less involves a bit of sacrifice.
Since they all have cell phones, none of our kids has a land line any more. We still do, but that’s because we live out of town, and cell coverage is sketchy. We revisit that expense every year, though, as service improves. And speaking of cell phones, they are a huge expense that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. Of course a data plan is nice, but can you survive without it? Don’t just consider the initial costs of the phone and start-up fees. Look at how much that phone plan will cost you over its entire lifetime. Most are well over $1,000!
It pays to shop around for insurance as well. Compare prices. Everyone claims to be the cheapest, but obviously that’s impossible. We have our car insurance through AAA. Even with the added cost of membership, it was significantly less per year than the closest competitor. Bundling your home or renter’s insurance with your auto coverage will usually save you money. Be sure you are receiving any discounts you qualify for.
Your biggest monthly expense is probably your rent or mortgage. Here, one decision can affect you for years. I’ll come back to this in the future, but for now I’ll just suggest that you err on the side of caution. Commit to less than you can currently afford. Most financial advisors recommend budgeting one-fourth to one-third of your monthly income to housing. If you have a spouse or roommate contributing to your expenses, consider that one of you could lose a job, or that your roommate may leave. Be sure you can cover your payments on one income, at least for several months.
We have been getting regular paychecks for a year now. I admit it’s a relief. I can set up automatic payments for our bills and not wonder if the account will have enough money in it when they go through. We’ve caught up on a lot of delayed purchases—new glasses, visits to the dentist, clothes without holes and stains—and we’ve even had a little allocated for discretionary spending. It was wonderful to spend two nights in Gunnison for our anniversary last month.
Still, the basic principles I’ve learned from being stretched continue to hold true. Treat money as a resource we are responsible to God for. Check with Him before spending. He may have another way to meet the need, one that won’t cost anything. Obey His priorities. Realize that He loves us, and will act in our best interest. And finally, be sure to be thankful for all He provides.