Lasting Change

EFF451FD-7D4B-4D9F-A68E-CBD79824288B.png

At the turn or the beginning of a new year, the mere groupthink fascination of a new calendar or a clean slate provides us with all the gumption we need to vow and resolve to

examine our motives
eat more healthful foods
exercise three times a week
engage better in relationships
erase mounting credit card debts

etc.

See, at first, the changes you and I vow to make in our lives require no deep-seated renunciation of old patterns of thinking and behaving. Since everyone is making resolutions, we assume it’s trendy to jump on the bandwagon. However, it is after the newness of the year begins to wane we find ourselves confronted with the fact that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ It is only when February or April or September or December 31 hits you and I will know how we actually fared on these lofty resolutions.

Lasting changes tend to materialize when we come to the end of ourselves, when there’s no other way to turn.

We will examine our motives when we realize person after person tells us how they don’t trust us. We will eat more healthful foods when the physician tells us we will die if we don’t alter our eating habits. We will exercise three or more times a week when our weight threatens to keep us stuck in a chair or in a room. We will engage better in all our relationships when the ones that matter most to us are gone due to our own neglect. We will start paying down debt when bankruptcy is but a few steps away. Scary, huh?

If, as Seneca told us, it is true that “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality,” then I invite you to join me in coming to the end of ourselves daily—taking the time to really assess where our current thoughts/words/actions would eventually lead us lest we change. If we’re not happy with that eventual destination, now is the time to alter the course of our thoughts/words/actions once and for all.

I choose the picture of my hand because I remember vividly the day when I said, “Enough already! No more debt. No more spending out of control. No more wondering what would happen to my family if I die. No more eating in a way that destroys my body. No more trying to pretend being someone I am not.”

Now, I look at my life and see the amazing difference.

That can be you.
That can be all of us.
That can be our country being truly changed for the better.

Do the Math

This is a sensitive topic but one, I feel, needs to be addressed nonetheless. My reflections are inspired by these words furnished by my newsfeed,

“If only our bank accounts could fill up as quickly as our laundry baskets . . .”

A collective sigh of agreement may be the first inclination of responders to the above wish. And to be honest, there have been COUNTLESS times I personally have wished for deeper pockets. Here are a few of them:

  1. The day I received my first statement regarding my doctoral loans for the superb training I received at the prestigious Eastman School of Music
  2. The day I signed papers assuming financial responsibility for colossal costs related to unexpected deaths in the family
  3. The day I heard of the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey on friends and strangers in Houston

Still, I am here to ponder why so many savings accounts in the US are pitifully close to empty and why 64% of US checking accounts are overdrawn while laundry baskets are grossly overflowing.

This is what I am thinking:

Collectively and individually, we put dirty clothes in laundry baskets (and washers + dryers) because we desire to have something clean to wear the next day and the day after that. To me, that shows we’re extremely capable of planning ahead and routinely thinking of future needs.

What if we were to use those very planning skills in financial matters?

As in, today, we may have a job; tomorrow, we may be unemployed. Today, we may be healthy but tomorrow could be a different story. Today, the car may be working just fine but tomorrow it may take $1700 to get it out of the shop. Today, “aunt Mae” may have just announced she’s planning on coming next month to spend Thanksgiving with the family but tomorrow the 6-member family may need plane tickets ($1200 a seat) to travel across the US for her totally out of the blue funeral.

What if atrociously dire circumstances could be reduced or eliminated altogether just because needed funds are already set aside to address emergencies?

Financial experts tell us:

  • give 10% or more
  • save 10-20%
  • invest 10-30%
  • reduce your tax liability
  • and live on the remaining balance

For a family with a gross annual income of $70,000, the math could possibly look like this:

give 10% ($7,000)

save 10-20% ($7,000-14,000)

invest 10-30% ($7,000-21,000)

reduce tax liability (your giving helps; your savings and investments can help significantly if you employ tax-sheltered accounts; see your accountant)

live on the remaining balance (income minus giving, savings, investments, tax liability equals net spendable income)–that means, a family with a $70,000 gross annual income could possibly have a net spendable income of $30,000-32,000

Yet most of us do not do the math. We spend money as it comes. And when it doesn’t come, we borrow anyway. And so, a $70,000-income family often spends more like $100,000 with the assistance of good ole credit until the hole gets so deep bankruptcy is inevitable.

We may say, “If only I could net at least $100K annually then I would be set,” but the truth is if we don’t do the simpler math required for a $30K annual income, we’ll only have a bigger math problem with a higher income.

This is my plea to men and women, young and old, anyone really with ears to hear:

Whether Grandma gives you $20 for your birthday, or you net $200 from a garage sale, or you earn $2000 every two weeks, or you are the lucky winner of 2 million, please listen to the experts and obey the math.

And for us, Americans, our country cannot continue on its current financial path. We cannot wait for the government—any government, for that matter—to fix our economic crisis when we don’t bother to do the math before spending.

Let’s do the math before buying that 🍨, before leasing that 🚘, before buying that 🏡, before charging that ✈️ or that 🚢.

Can You Save?

Last month, I wrote a post entitled Money Rules and one of the points I made in it was the value of saving diligently. Here’s the short statement I made about saving:

“Always, always set aside a portion of your income. The practice of saving money is the surest pillar in your financial house upon which you can rely. It is the vehicle that will offset future costs, fund big hairy audacious dreams, and allow you to approach your waning years with peace of mind.”

If you’re one of those who, due to myriad circumstances, find it near impossible to save, please read on as I tackle how you might begin saving more of the money God allows you to handle.

Start small.

The first step is always the hardest one to take. Therefore, make it a small and easy one. As Proverbs 11:13 says, “ . . . whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow.”

Why is it so important to start small?

Two passages that contextually have nothing to do with money come to my mind:

1) “Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.” (Exodus‬ ‭23:30‬, NIV‬‬)

When YHWH led the Israelites to Canaan, the Promised Land, He wanted them to realize that country was already occupied. For them to take control of that land meant the previous occupants had to vacate the premises or be removed forcibly.

Takeaway: God is the One who removes obstacles/enemies one by one, little by little, until you increase/grow in power and wisdom to accomplish what He’s charged you to do.

2) “The Lord your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you.” (Deuteronomy‬ ‭7:22‬, ‭NIV‬‬)

Had the Israelites been able to have full access to the whole land right away, they would not have been able to fill it appropriately since they were small in number and had not yet learned all there was to know about the land. Wild animals would have then taken over and destroyed God’s people.

Takeaway: God advocates a gradual process instead of a “one fell swoop” approach because He wants to protect you against potential wild cards that could endanger/hamper your task or destroy you altogether.

By the same token, saving up enough money to fund an elaborate wedding, a luxurious car, a house, an undergraduate and/or graduate education, and retirement can be quite overwhelming. It’s silly to lose sleep over your inability to save as much money as you’d like from the start. Simply begin with an amount so minuscule that it’s barely noticeable; only then should you gradually bump up your saving contributions to a bigger portion as the Lord directs.

Draft a budget.

As starting small opens your eyes, you will learn to see you need a clear budget that will prevent wild spending spree purchases from annihilating your savings potential.

A budget is a concrete and realistic financial plan that calls on you to determine what each dollar from your income does or where each dime goes. Bearing in mind the One who owns it all has called you to manage or steward the money entrusted to you, not knowing what it’s doing or where it’s going is not a sound option. In fact, the less you know about the condition of the money entrusted to you, the more likely you are to think it’s all yours and not God’s.

On that point, Kent Hughes has helped me tremendously with these words, “God can have our money and not have our hearts, but he cannot have our hearts without having our money.” That means, as you draft a budget, be sure to account only for items deemed honoring to the Lord. Ask yourself:

  • am I seeking to cover my true needs or mindlessly indulging my wants and preferences?
  • am I leaving margins to help cover genuine needs of others whom God has placed on my path or am I overspending on unnecessary items to the advancement of God’s Kingdom?

Now, I wish I could just quote a verse that says something like, “Thou shalt allot 13% of your money to this item and 26% to that item . . .” according to 1 Opinions 12 verse 5. Thankfully, I cannot because it isn’t the Father’s intention to prescribe a “one-size fits all” approach to budgeting. However, I can certainly say God calls His children to have a clear understanding of how their resources are faring at any given time because Proverbs 27:23 says, “Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds . . .”

I believe it was Ogden Nash who said, “O money, money, money, I’m not necessarily one who thinks thee holy, but I often stop to wonder how thou canst go out so fast when thou comest in so slowly.” Archaic English aside, that sentiment is likely echoed in your heart and to that I say a budget aptly remedies Nash’s (and your) quandary by:

  • defining income versus expenses
  • identifying unhealthy money habits
  • scheduling the ins and outs of financial resources
  • inviting communication and accountability in the home
  • causing you to think carefully before you make an expenditure
  • providing a written plan for wise earning, saving, and spending

With the above understanding, you can approach your budget with a heart that seeks wisdom from above. You can pray for guidance in setting goals, self-control in spending, and discipline in following the plan.

For the sake of examples, here are two ways two families of a similar income might handle their budget:

Family A

  1. Total Monthly Gross Income — $3500
  2. Giving to local church — $350
  3. Savings (local bank) — $150
  4. Income Taxes — $525
  5. Housing (rent + renter’s insurance) — $1300
  6. Food (eating out & eating in) — $420
  7. Auto (gas, maintenance) — $420
  8. Insurance — $112
  9. Clothing — $100
  10. Entertainment — $65
  11. Miscellaneous — $58

Family B

  1. Total Monthly Gross Income — $3500
  2. Giving (local church, missions) — $650
  3. Savings (local bank, retirement, investments) — $1700
  4. Income Taxes — $175
  5. Housing (mortgage) — $525
  6. Food (eating in) — $215
  7. Auto (gas, maintenance) — $108
  8. Insurance — $97
  9. Clothing — $10
  10. Entertainment — $20
  11. Miscellaneous — $0

By looking at the two above budgets, you can see how different the priorities of the two families are. Family A and Family B both spent money on similar items but their convictions led them to allocate funds in vastly different ways. One spent a lot more money on housing, food, and transportation while the other felt convicted to give and save a lot more. Because of those differences, their tax bills are different as are their levels of preparedness for the future. Your own budget will look different too depending on where your heart is and what your goals are.

Store a portion of your income every single time.

Whether money comes to you from a family member, an employer, a business venture, or another way, always set aside part of it for later use because each time you save, you essentially purchase part of your financial freedom from earthly enticements—waiting on God to show you how to employ that money for Kingdom purposes.

Saving money is stockpiling enough slices eventually leading you to have a whole pie, whether that pie be the freedom to leave American suburbia and purchase a paid-for house in the inner city to minister to people in need or building a retreat center wherein pastors and missionaries can have their strength renewed.

One way to do that is to automate your savings. If you’re a wage earner and your salary comes to you in the form of a direct deposit, also request to have a set percentage of your net income directed to a separate account designated for savings or storage. If you’re not salaried and money comes in at irregular intervals, still determine a specific percentage and get in the habit of saving that amount before impulse buys grab a hold of your heart.

Another way to do that is to determine in advance to save all raises, bonuses, overtime compensation, honoraria, and unexpected gains. The culture-trained tendency is to bump up your lifestyle to meet or surpass your rising income level; do say no to that behavior. Reduce expenses at all costs in order to save and give more.

Review your perspectives constantly.

If you’re like the average person, you may not readily see where you’ll find money to save each month. If you feel your budget is thinly stretched, do take a step back and assess your “big three”—housing, transportation, and food.

The big three tend to cover the bulk of a family’s or person’s budget each month. If you’re single, you might want to consider getting a roommate to split housing costs. If you have a family, you might consider moving to a less expensive neighborhood. If automobile expenses are sky high, you might want to ride a bicycle or take public transportation if that’s an option or even walking if you’re within a mile of your job. You might want to reduce the frequency of your grocery trips and restaurant outings.

Remember just because there’s money in the bank doesn’t mean you have to spend it on your desires as soon as a wish pops up.

Win in the margins.

Take on a side business or gig. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it’s not possible to trim your expenses any more than you’ve already done. If you find this situation to be your case, the best way to save is going to win in the margins by starting a side business.

A side business need not take all of your time but done right it can help you save more money and help meet financial goals you’ve long held. Think of your interests, the demand for your skills, and the marketing strategy required to start your side business. Pray for God’s guidance and start and see where the Lord leads.

I hope at least one of the above ideas will resonate with you and will change your approach to saving. Blessings to you on this journey!

Limiting Beliefs

Limiting beliefs keep you stuck in a rut and only lead you to dead-ends.

“I’ll never get this.”
“I’m always late.”
“I wish.”
“I’m not good with money.”

Well, you can get this. Hunt for a different explanation, a different perspective, a different angle, a different process, a different mindset. Sooner or later, you or someone else will crack that tough nut.

You can be punctual. Commit to plan ahead and obey/follow the plan you’ve devised. Start the night before with a list and timeline of all the items/events/expectations of the following day. If you can see it on paper, rehearse it in your mind, the likelihood of your plan materializing is much higher.

Wishes can come true. You have to move the thought past the wish phase to the action phase. Figure out how many steps exist between a dream and its reality. Begin by tackling the very first step with faithful tenacity. As long as there’s still breath in you, chances are you may live to see your wish come true.

Well, you can be good with money. All it takes is an initial decision to change your money habits beginning today. Do you know what and how long it takes to save $1000?

1 dollar a day for 1000 consecutive days.
10 dollars a day for 100 days.
100 dollars a day for 10 days.
1000 dollars today.

Or a slew of other options and patterns in between.

The point is, it can be done. You can be good with money too. You can learn to give, save, invest, avoid debt, pay bills, build wealth, manage a diversified portfolio, run a successful business. It takes a new belief that in turn transforms behavior.

Whether it be knowledge, punctuality, a wish, money, or what-have-you, say goodbye to your limiting beliefs today. They are to progress as cancer is to healthy cells.7E224CBD-7040-4639-AEEE-FDEAAE05BCC3.jpegThis is a picture I took while visiting the Hearst Castle in California this past summer. It reminds me of the dire necessity we all have to rid ourselves of limiting beliefs.

It was a huge undertaking to build a castle on a huge hill where tons of materials had to be flown in and transported up steep and sinuous roads. It took years upon years. But now so many decades later it stands as a monumental reminder of what can happen when a person says no to limiting beliefs.

What’s keeping you enslaved today?

Don’t Miss Out: Giving is a Party

6EA00507-AF6E-4BD0-A527-C707E8FA4911This is a picture of my dad—the most generous person I have ever known.

My parents are no longer alive but they are constantly with me because they taught me so much. One important lesson I learned from them is the concept of not missing out on what is truly important.

They taught me not to miss out on every day opportunities to salute a veteran, to pay for their meal, to thank them for their service one way or another. They instilled in me the desire and willingness to relinquish my seat on a bus or train should a woman, an elderly person, or an individual with limited movement were to get on board. They inculcated in me the philosophy of seizing every opportunity to develop keen and compassionate eyes in order to spot needs and meet them if I had access to the right resources. They taught me missing out on any opportunity to walk humbly, to love mercy, and to do justly would do nothing but add hardness to my heart, and a succession of missed opportunities would surely atrophy my heart irreparably.

Giving away money was seen by them as a party not to miss out on, an opportunity far too important to let pass by. They’d say, “You don’t have to have a lot of money to practice giving; if you learn to be grateful for what little money you have, you’ll find an honest reason to give at least 10% of it away.”

Even though through the typical Westerner’s eye my Haitian parents were not wealthy people, I never saw them as such because our real needs were always met and they were so incredibly generous until the day they died. In fact, one of my earliest memories of my dad (who was a minister) was seeing him with pencil and paper at the dining room table seeking to determine how much God would have him give far above the tithe. He did it so often every child of his will now tell you the first rule of giving in our family is this:

Give to God first.

Our priority giving is seeing the importance of not missing out on the best party known to a Christ-follower—relinquishing the first fruits of our earnings to the benefit of advancing God’s Kingdom as the LORD deems best. Giving above and beyond what I think I can afford tells God, “Father, I believe in Your power to provide for me and I surrender to You the control of my finances. I trust You to direct my eyes toward needs that will in turn stir my heart to love God and neighbor increasingly and wholeheartedly.”

Hoarding, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. Simply stated, it tells God we aren’t grateful for His provision and we don’t trust Him to handle things right. So, believing we can’t afford to do it, we don’t give. Sadly, missing out on the opportunity to give feeds a spirit of miserly stinginess no matter how much money one has in the bank. That spirit has a hard time finding any love for God . . . let alone neighbor.

So, why not give?

I believe there’s a natural impulse inside of us to worship; we are designed to adore God. However, when we don’t worship God, that same natural impulse replaces God with an idol, enslaving our hearts to ingratitude and idolatry—that is, unbelief.

It is a vast understatement and no laughing matter to say money is our number 1 idol. It competes with God for the throne of our hearts.

When we don’t give any of the money entrusted to us at all, we make it clear to God and a watching world money easily dethrones the Creator in our hearts. When we delay in giving, we readily imply God and His Kingdom should only be given the leftovers of our resources. When we choose to give but a meager percentage of our income, it says we are more devoted to a high consumption lifestyle than faithful generosity.

My friend explains the above condition in these terms, “People don’t give more because they overestimate their ‘needs’ and their ‘generosity’.”

Do you find yourself in the “I can’t afford to give” camp? Now might be a good time to inventory your needs and generosity:

  • Do you need a brand new car or do you need safe transportation from point A to point B?
  • Do you need a McMansion in a gated community or do you need shelter?
  • Do you need a vacation in Maui, eating caviar and staying in luxury hotels or do you need rest?
  • Are you really as generous as you think?

There was a time in grad school, I was between a rock and a hard place. I felt as if I had nowhere to turn. I submitted myself to the above inventory and realized I had not been giving regularly. That’s when I found some incredible teaching at Northridge Church in Rochester NY. Following are my biggest takeaways in relation to  giving:

  1. All Christ-followers are called and expected to give (rich and poor, young and old, married and single, etc.) No one is excluded.
  2. When giving is scheduled and systematic, generosity is more likely to happen consistently. Giving is statistically more.
  3. The top financial priority of a Christ-follower is to set money aside first for Kingdom work before personal spending. Although giving to God from leftovers may be a grateful act, it is not a respectful/faithful act.
  4. Although the Old Testament tithe is not a New Testament requirement, to say giving money period is optional is a serious practical stretch that misreads God’s Word.
  5. Giving, therefore, should be based on a percentage not an amount. So, Christians would do well to inventory actual giving and assess current percentages, asking, “Is this sacrificial? How can I grow my giving percentage?
  6. Although tax-deductibility is nice, giving shouldn’t be guided by self-benefit potential; it should primarily be for the benefit of others.
  7. Giving is to be a faithful, regular, continual practice instead of just seasonal and occasional (end-of-year giving, for example).

I hope you and I will continue to be challenged by God’s Word to give regularly, joyfully, sacrificially, and generously. Would you and I commit to make intentional steps in that direction and excel in giving (2 Cor 8:7)?

When Giving Fulfills

What if I told you the most fun you can ever extract from money is the art of giving it away? What if I told you no financial transaction fulfills the human heart quite like using your hard-earned money to boost and enrich the lives of other folks who are in true need?

If you’re like most, you may find it hard to believe me.

To be fair, I wouldn’t blame you since there was a time in my life when I would’ve thought the above statements couldn’t be more untrue. It was a season when I sought joy in buying shoes:

  • brown shoes
  • black shoes
  • dress shoes
  • tennis shoes
  • white shoes
  • beige shoes
  • flip flops
  • crocs
  • beach sandals
  • expensive shoes
  • shoes on clearance
  • shoes, shoes, shoes ad nauseum

At one point in college, my family counted 32 pairs of shoes in my closet. My organization notwithstanding, there was never enough room to display them neatly in a college dorm. For a guy, I was frankly going overboard but it didn’t sink in until a blond surfer type told me, “Dude, you have more shoes to wear than there are days in a month.”

Ouch. Touché!

I was actually super embarrassed to realize what I suffered from wasn’t just an obsession with shoes, it was a much deeper issue. I was seeking to medicate my depressed heart with compulsive shopping—excess shoes, excess toiletries, excess clothes, excess hair products, more and more books, and more and more Knick Knacks than I could ever consume.

Where getting failed to cure the insatiable appetite I had for more, giving slid right in showing me how much joy could be found in seeing others first. When marketing ploys trumpeted fulfillment comes from buying goods and gadgets, giving assured me how much better it would be to give than to receive.

So, I capitulated. And in doing so, I learned some important lessons:

  1. Giving makes room in your heart for what is deemed most important. I chose to rid myself of all but three pairs of shoes and I felt so much lighter. I found room in my heart to focus on others because I also quit my incessant shoe shopping habit. And consequently, I found I had surplus money to contribute toward meeting true needs in my community. And, more importantly, I learned people should always be more valuable than shoes.
  2. Giving releases your heart from the tight grip of stuff. Freedom is hard to come by when there’s too much stuff vying for your attention. This is not to say a minimalistic lifestyle is the only way to achieve freedom; I am merely saying stuff has a way of crowding one’s heart and occupying so much space/time not much is left. It might be helpful to jumpstart your freedom from stuff by choosing a shirt you really like, a book you truly enjoy, a specialty item you dearly prize and gifting them to people who could use them.
  3. Giving is a two-way street especially when you expect nothing in return. I am always astounded by what happens when I give. Far from being deprived, the more I give the more rewards return to me. Sometimes the reward is a sense of peace. Other times the reward is contentment and joy. Yet other times the rewards are respect, gratitude, loyalty, and acts of service on the part of those who receive from you. And more often than not, the reward is more earnings and acquisitions.

So, my friend, giving is not at all about depriving you of items you own outright; it is about providing you with better things you need for your freedom, joy, and contentment.CA53216B-5CD2-4ACD-90CD-2B2C993A8096.jpeg

Money Rules

2815737D-29E8-4018-9F7E-DFF224839A17.jpeg

Talking about ways to handle money can strike many folks as too forward and unbecoming. Yet money is no less crucial a topic to address in times like these when rates of homelessness, divorce, and indebtedness are still incredibly high.

As of June 2016, an estimated 564,708 US residents were homeless. In 2018, researchers estimate far too many marriages end in divorce—41% of first marriages, 60% of second marriages, and 73% of all third marriages. As far as debt goes, it is hair raising to hear “the total pool of consumer debt [in America] has surpassed $1.3 trillion,” according to a recent NerdWallet report—no need to further drive the point by including student loans and other forms of debt enslaving Americans.

True, factors beyond the scope of this blogpost contribute to the woes of homelessness, divorce, and debt. All the same, I would be remiss to forgo connecting disproportionate money usage to the ills befalling humanity.

In my own marriage, I can honestly say (and regrettably so) the hardest and most heart wrenching seasons have been due to my poor handling of our money. When time-tested rules of money are ignored, it is only by divine grace one can escape homelessness, divorce, and so much more.

Helping me improve in the area of finance, money tutors (the Bible, individuals, classes, books, articles, and podcasts) have supplied me with fireproof money rules to keep my financial house and marriage in order. And I cannot keep such good news to myself.

So, below are some simple money rules that continue to change my life, my marriage, and my family. Trust me, they will do the same for you.

Here goes:

1) Give generously. By far, the best way to find enjoyment and fulfillment in/with money is to prioritize generosity. Decide to always start by giving away a portion of the money that comes your way. (Spoiler alert: my very next post will cover giving in depth)

2) Save diligently. Always, always set aside a portion of your income. The practice of saving money is the surest pillar in your financial house upon which you can rely. It is the vehicle that will offset future costs, fund big hairy audacious dreams, and allow you to approach your waning years with peace of mind.

3) Invest regularly. If you merely save, your money will not keep pace with nor stay ahead of inflation. So, make it a goal as soon as your savings reach two digits (literally $10) to invest half of it and make it grow until you double your money. Keep multiplying (investing) until your money reaches 3 digits. Rinse and repeat until it reaches 4, 5, 6 digits ad infinitum. (You’re welcome!)

4) Mind Uncle Sam always. Taxes are as sure as death. Just as the Grimm Reaper wants his share, the IRS will tax your income. Stay informed and act accordingly in order to contribute well to the welfare of the country without unnecessarily emptying your nest every single time you’re paid.

5) Differentiate needs from wants and preferences. Money has wings and is free spirited; it likes to move around. That’s a good thing in investing but when it comes to actual living expenses, you need to realize some things are needs and others are merely wants and preferences. Spend money on legitimate needs (water, food, shelter, clothing, transportation, etc.) but keep a tight rein on your wallet when wants/preferences come knocking (especially when you had not already saved for that purpose).

Examples:

  • tap water versus Evian water bottle
  • a nice generic pair of jeans versus a high end designer brand to impress your friends
  • bringing home prepared sandwiches to work versus going out to lunch every single day
  • a 2008 Toyota Camry versus a 2019 luxury model
  • buying a home within your true price range instead of getting a mortgage that is way more than twice your total annual realized (net) income

6) Avoid debt. People think it’s impossible to function without debt; I say it’s difficult to exercise self-control over desires that are much bigger and much more convincing than our funds. If you desire to bid financial slavery adieu, avoid debt like the plague. Otherwise, it would be like a leaky boat trying to cross the Atlantic. Don’t buy on credit if the money is not in your account to cover it in full.

7) Know your SO’s financial orientation. If you’re in a lifelong relationship (marriage), talk to your spouse about the money that goes through both of your hands. Be sure to discuss each other’s tendencies and make big financial decisions together. That will strengthen both your marriage and your impact on potential/actual children you have.

8) Accumulate surplus funds to help others. I began the list with giving and I am closing it with giving as well. The point of having any amount of money is to meet your own needs and the needs of others. Take the time to research, befriend, and know the people in your circle of influence. Find a need and meet it. Don’t encourage lazy opportunists who prey on givers but lend a helping hand to hard workers in true need.

I have found immense joy this past year in particular as I have sought to obey the above rules. It will take a lifetime to optimize each one but I look forward to embracing the future with a smile on my face.

What’s Dave Got To Do With It?

The name Dave Ramsey first entered my consciousness when my family and I were still living in Rochester NY. Our amazing family of Christ-followers, Northridge Church, was offering a class called Financial Peace University prepared by Dave and his team. Sadly, not one of the offered times worked with my weird schedule as a doctoral student/TA/adjunct instructor/etc. I don’t think anything really would’ve convinced me to take the class at the time because I was too ashamed of having built the bulk of my life as a doctoral student on credit. So, I conveniently ignored the name Dave Ramsey.

A few years later, I was appointed Assistant Professor of Voice—my first and only full-time appointment to date—at Oklahoma Baptist University. One day, I remember driving my family on I-40 when I spotted Dave’s name and face on a billboard ad with the quote, “Act Your Wage.” Talk about thought-provoking! At the time, I was still not ready to engage fully with Dave’s message but that quote stuck with me.

Unfortunately, that was to be the extent of my interaction with all things Dave. Debt repayment season had just begun post grad school and I assumed the only thing I could do was simply paying the bills as they came. And that’s pretty much what I did for a much-too-long season of swimming in limiting beliefs.

In August 2017, a financial awakening took place in me. Days of looking, reading, searching, digging, asking, listening led me to a YouTube channel featuring Dave’s 7 Baby Steps to achieve a total money makeover:

  1. Save and keep $1000 in an emergency fund. The idea is to do this step as quickly as possible (about a month) no matter what it takes.
  2. Pay off all consumer debts, except the mortgage on the primary home. Dave recommends a belt-tightening budget that would curtail spending to the absolute bare minimum, would halt all other savings and/or investments, and would unbridle cash to help reduce consumer debt as quickly as possible. Additionally, side jobs, garage sales, overtime pay and bonuses, anything and everything extra would continue building further momentum to eradicate debt.
  3. Build a bona fide emergency fund worth 3-6 months of total expenses. The idea is to apply the same intensity and philosophy used in the debt repayment phase to establish this fund. This fund will then act as insurance against debt when (not if) emergencies come knocking.
  4. Begin investing 15% of gross income into retirement funds. With the consumer debt gone and the bona fide emergency fund in place, Dave feels it is then time to begin the process of securing a person’s financial future. An individual with a W-2 job would deduct 15% of their pre-taxed income and allocate those dollars to a 401k (corporate), 403b (private or non-profit), 457 (government, public service, etc.) A self-employed person can have other options like a SEP IRA. In addition, anyone can contribute annually a maximum of $5500 to a Roth IRA.
  5. Save for children’s college expenses. At this point, one can begin saving/investing specifically for education expenses on behalf of their children.
  6. Pay off mortgage and be completely debt free. Reduce the mortgage balance all the way down to zero.
  7. Build wealth and give. After all that hard work, your dollars are finally free to build significant wealth through investments and create a strong legacy through generous donations.

I am grateful for the above 7 Baby Steps and I am thankful to Dave Ramsey. He was used as a formidable instrument to open my eyes and to help me receive the grace of seeing my credit card finally reaching a zero balance. I was truly elated when that day came. I will always be indebted to Dave for getting me started on a more solid path toward financial freedom.

But Dave only got me started. The more I listened to him, the more convinced I became the Bible has a lot to say about money management. The more I watched and followed Dave, the more I realized his message is most effective for getting people out of debt completely with a consistent, safe, yet predictable message:

  • stay out of debt
  • save for later spending
  • work hard and retire rich
  • build a legacy through giving

Something finally clicked:

I wanted more than getting out of debt and building wealth. I wanted more than what Dave calls “live like no one else now (frugality) so you can live like no one else later (debt-free yet lavish consumption).” His message has helped thousands (perhaps inching toward millions) reach debt-free and wealthy status. But for me, more than consumer debt-free, what the Father has done for me through Dave is providing the realization that the money consistently going through my hands is not mine at all; it all belongs to the Giver of good gifts. It is also made clear to me how important it is for me to rely upon the Spirit to convict my heart of financial priorities and not just what someone else (no matter how devout and conscientious they seem) says.

Therefore, financial freedom can only be achieved when I look beyond what money can do for me (needs, wants, preferences—whether now or later) and as I daily learn what the Father chooses to do with the money entrusted to me for the advancement of His Kingdom.

I will continue to learn and grow as I go to the Word extended freely to me. I will continue to choose freedom as a steward of His resources.

6285CA6B-29DB-4A20-AEF2-D8B732932077.jpeg

Music and the Wallet

4051B8F6-6DD6-492F-A868-9224EBBE58D7For as long as I can remember, people would tell me music is a dead-end profession and I would likely never be able to support myself, let alone a family. So, in high school, I naturally began thinking about a lucrative career like medicine. I delved into the hard sciences with discipline and did quite well but music was lodged so deep inside of me I simply couldn’t shush its bellowing call. It was so decidedly a part of me I endeavored to pursue classical voice and piano as my profession.

To this day, if I could turn back the clock, I still would have chosen music over any other pursuit. Yet my path in the world as an artist/musician has certainly given me ample opportunities to ponder the cautionary tales of the naysayers warning me my wallet would be empty all too often . . .

  • lazy summers or harsh winters wondering about the next potential gig
  • finishing one contract and realizing how many hands await a portion of the hard earned honorarium
  • bumping into the reality of self-employment and the ever-changing tax laws and its accompanying costs
  • revolving costs of keeping performing chops and personal appearances at an optimum level at all times
  • rates of inflation intrinsic to the wanderlust bohemian lifestyle not always keeping up with earned income

Having had the privilege of studying and performing with top-tiered teachers/artists in the profession, I acknowledge music is indeed costly. Running the numbers daily, I used to  tell my peers at the Eastman School of Music our education was literally costing us $400 an hour (between 2004 and 2008). At $6.67 a minute, I certainly took my education seriously (practicing 5-6 hours a day) with the hope of securing professional engagements post-graduation.

It worked.

Engagements came and money exchanged hands . . . but my wallet must have had a huge leak because no money was staying in. I am sure some months the money was out before it was even in.

You see, in order to fund my highly prized education, I had to rely on loans which aunt Sallie Mae (now Navient) was more than happy to furnish with terrible interest rates, I might add. Every month, saddled with an astronomical payment, I had no choice but to part with the money that should have been allotted to my freedom and abundance.

Such is the plight of far too many individuals in this country.

Insult added to injury, embezzlement on the part of a publisher robbed me of significant royalties from two of my published books. And soaring costs related to the unexpected deaths of five family members between 2012-2016 further drove my funds to plummet. Talk about emptying the wallet . . .

But hope came.

My extended family had a reunion in Montreal in July 2017. One morning I woke up and there was this sense of purpose and renewed energy in me. It was like having an out of body experience and I could see plainly several  financial “sins” I had committed:

  1. I had no real financial foundation.
  2. I had no plan for the money I earned.
  3. I had very little reserve, little savings.
  4. I had been paying back my loans but not aggressively.
  5. I hadn’t been intentional with investment vehicles to help fund my later years.
  6. I was very intentional with providing for the needs of others to the detriment of my own family.

And the list went on for miles . . .

An amazing revelation occurred. Not one of those financial “sins” had something to do with music, per se. They all had to do with financial ignorance and financial stupidity. If there’s one thing I learned about ignorance and stupidity  in all my years in academia it is this:

Ignorance can be cured but stupidity is terminal.

Stupidity is knowing what’s right but doing the opposite regardless. Ignorance is simply not knowing.

Well, I did know what to do; I had just stopped practicing what I preached. In fact, as a hypocrite, I had conducted several sessions in camps and churches and many families turned their financial situations around through what I had taught them. I just didn’t apply it to myself and my own nuclear family.

I came home from the family reunion and admitted my failures to my wife. And we decided together to start afresh. I had always heard of Dave Ramsey but decided to listen to his show for the first time and apply the principles he teaches. That was a year ago.

Today, our financial map to freedom is completely different. I am still in music (loving it even more) but my wallet is no longer empty—no siree, no ma’am—because I am using money how it was intended.

 

Learning Money

Summer 2002

On a warm and humid Pennsylvania summer afternoon, I was alone in the living room when my eyes fell on a book entitled Debt-Proof Living written by award-winning author Mary Hunt. I was puzzled by its presence on our bookshelf since most of our books cover topics like music, literature, theology, or fiction. Seeking desperately to understand the why behind the presence of a financial book in our home, it finally dawned on me it was a book we had acquired by pure negligence.

Three years prior, I had been a member of a book club that used to ship four to five books monthly to its members for a small fee of $1.99 per package. “Wow. What a bargain!”, you say. Well, yours truly didn’t pay close attention to the fine print stipulating the club would automatically charge full market value to the member’s account unless the whole package was returned in its entirety within four weeks. As it turns out, Debt-Proof Living was one of far too many books I had failed to return during the financially ignorant stage of my life.

Curiosity may have killed the cat but it did quite the opposite to my fiscal life. It led me to pick up the book and read what I was sure was going to be the epitome of dryness and boredom. I could not have been more mistaken! For the next several hours, I parked myself on our celadon futon and devoured this page-turner of a book until the wee hours. Upon finishing the book, I kept counting the hours until it was a decent enough time to call my pregnant wife (visiting her folks in SoCal) and share my news. My excitement about and newness to fiscal responsibility didn’t translate well at first but she and I quickly admitted we were in serious need of a money makeover. We just then and there decided  we’d give some of Mary Hunt’s concepts a try:

1. Pay first; Play later.

That means, focus on helping others, then focus on securing your future, only then can you “play” with the money at your disposal. With this idea, Mary Hunt champions the 10-10-80 budgeting formula representing three main categories of money usage:

  • Give 10% to charities
  • Save 10% for the future
  • Live on the remaining 80%

I have since learned the 10-10-80 formula is not a solid enough foundation for how we need to interact with money. However, as a newbie in the world of money management, I gratefully learned the importance and necessity to give away a percentage of my money, to save a portion of anything that comes in, and to WAIT until I have accumulated enough money before making purchases or going on trips in order to avoid debt.

2. Keep a detailed record.

I began actually balancing a checkbook the day after reading the book. For the first time, my eyes were open to scrutinize every expense and every financial decision—big or small, life-altering or mundane. A daily, detailed record, far from turning me into a miserly bean counter, brought me instead a clear picture of our financial position.

There are numerous resources available (software, online programs, apps, etc) to help track financial activities. Yet, there’s something to be said for an old yet excellent way to do it: using a pencil, a calculator, and a regular notebook that can be used as a journal, and entering what comes in (income and miscellaneous monetary gifts) and what goes out (expenses, including bills and purchases).

Some takeaways:

  1. Humans make mistakes (as in the case of my having forgotten to return the books to the club) but often, if you live long enough you’ll see how those very mistakes can take you to a place of freedom and abundance if you truly learn the lessons embedded in them.
  2. As long as there’s breath in your lungs and nostrils, it’s never too late to acquire new skills and to reject enslaving habits. Be it food, money, sex, career, and relationships, take the time to learn to say no to the habits that hamper  your fruitfulness and life energy.
  3. “Pay first, play later” calls us to count the cost before any decision we make. Most decisions made in life are emotional in nature and motivation but, get this: every decision we make has a financial impact.
  4. Keeping a detailed record is akin to feeding ourselves daily. Just like the body is nourished by food, our financial IQ grows as we learn to monitor bank statements, insurance papers, investment decisions with “freedom” eyes. A detailed record provides financial accountability for every member of every household, 76735457-997E-4EF4-92A0-03A30EA831DEalerts us to potential disasters, curtails any inclination to overspend, nips in the bud impending conflicts between spouses, saves time when documentation is needed for tax purposes and budget planning, and much much more.