Jesus, Marriage, Personal Finance, Religion

The Supernatural Experience of Giving

In Matthew 26:11, Jesus makes a profound statement: “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” (ESV)

I have been thinking recently about the intent of his statement. Was it a guarantee that no matter what happens and no matter our good intentions, poverty would always exist? Was it simply an invitation to those present to hang out with Jesus instead of poor people? Or was it a description of the way things are and, digging deeper, a subtle invitation to help change it, to live in light of a greater reality?

I am having trouble finding anything written by frugality bloggers on the subject of giving. From a couple brief searches on a few well-read blogs, I found a couple bloggers who wrote about doing a bit of charitable giving during the holiday season. I saw one blog post that mentioned giving around $2,000 over the course of a year. I don’t think it’s that people don’t give … just that there isn’t as much written about making regular giving part of your monthly budget.

I don’t know where everyone stands in terms of faith, but our Christian faith compels us to give generously. The standard is about 10 percent of our income, a principle based on the Old Testament idea of tithing. The 10 percent figure denoted a sense of ownership, a sort of acknowledgement that one’s income (or harvest?) was the result of divine action.

I don’t think there is a hard and fast amount one should give, but I do believe that there is something completely supernatural about giving away that which you earned. I also think 10 percent is a good baseline, though I acknowledge that not everyone will reach it. It’s completely countercultural to not spend every dollar you earn, but to flat out give it away empowers you in a new way. It frees you from the hold money has on you, from the feeling that your funds control you rather than the other way around. Giving also calms the fear that arises when you think about your financial state of being, especially when you are in debt.

When we were first married and more than $30,000 in credit card debt, we still gave regularly to our church and sponsored a child in a less developed country. Some months, we may have neglected our tithing (especially if we didn’t make it to church that first week of the month), but on the whole, it has been a regular part of our financial lives since the beginning of life together.

There are certainly folks out there who feel like every dollar you have beyond the bare minimum you need to survive should be going toward debt or savings to keep you out of debt. Others seem to think that charitable giving should come in if and when you have met your own family’s needs and then that such giving seems to be sort of a logical means to an end (i.e. a tax write-off or perhaps some sort of emotional payoff, almost as if altruism is selfishly motivated).

I can’t speak to anyone else’s motivations, but I can share that for us giving is a necessary act that arises from living in light of a different and truer reality. Christianity is not only about personal redemption from a sinful state of being but also about redeeming a broken world. Generosity is part of living under the reign of Christ.

This year, I want to increase our charitable giving. We currently give 10 percent away. The majority of that money goes to our church, but we also sponsor a child through Compassion International (child sponsorship has a proven track record of effectiveness in changing a person’s life) and we support a friend who is a campus ministry leader at the University of Texas at Dallas where Brandon went to college. Those things are our baseline. Brandon got a raise and he’ll begin seeing that increased income this month, so I want us to adjust the baseline amount accordingly and then increase our monthly giving.

House and Home, Marriage, Personal Finance

Home without a House

The Shmoopy and I recently contemplated entering the complex and exhilarating world of house-ownership. After nearly seven years of renting a condo in our exciting suburb outside of Dallas, we thought we might like a little more space. We dream of a larger kitchen, one that will accommodate both of us at the same time and where Brandon can finally hone his culinary skills. We long for a second bathroom and for unshared walls so that he can play his primary instrument – drum set – without disturbing any neighbors. We yearn for a yard for that dream alpaca herd. Or just for a garden.

Nearly everyone we know has purchased their house. We are friends with exactly one other couple who we know for certain rents. For the most part, our friends and family have dutifully committed to the American Dream of house ownership, and it seems that the people who do rent are single or in some way transient. Something about our culture indicates that buying a house is a rite of passage into adulthood and something you must do (if at all possible) prior to bringing tiny humans into the world.

We originally held off on purchasing a house (and delayed the tiny humans) because Brandon has been in graduate school for the past 5+ years. We probably could have handled a mortgage payment because I have had a decent income, and he was fully funded during grad school (another topic for discussion another time…). Over the past seven years, several properties in our neighborhood and in our condo complex have popped up that I wished we could jump on. In particular, a three-bedroom condo came on the market about three years ago as a foreclosure, and it would have been a good real estate investment at the listed price. However, an academic’s life is uncertain. B-Seitz went to graduate school because he wanted to mold young minds. He received a scholarship and a stipend while in school. But, there was never any guarantee that he would find steady academic employment post-doctorate, and we had no clue where he would find an academic job if he found one at all. We fully expected that when Brandon graduated, we would be looking for an assistant professor position and would need to be open to moving anywhere a job came available. We decided that purchasing a house or a condo or town home as investment property with no long-term plan to stay in the Dallas area would have been a fool’s errand. We truly had no idea where we would end up. There was no way to predict that.

Today, happily, we know that we are staying in Dallas. B-Seitz secured a position with a small liberal arts college this past fall, and we are thrilled to be able to stay near our church, friends and family for the time-being. This spring, we began the conversation about purchasing a house, and that conversation was (finally!) based in reality.

Headily, we contacted a Realtor to help us. We set up an MLS search and began perusing properties (some lovely, some not so lovely). We contacted several lenders and got pre-approved for a mortgage. We even went out and looked at a few houses in specific neighborhoods we like. We heard and continue to hear the message that we should buy now to take advantage of historically low interest rates. Our specific area of Dallas stands to grow substantially over the next few years as several high-profile corporations bring thousands of jobs to the area. We are very well-qualified to purchase a house and have zero unsecured debt, so this seemed like reasonable thinking to us. At first.

Here is why we have decided (for the moment) to fore-go the purchase of a house. Please note that we are not saying that our decision is the right one for everybody, but I would encourage anyone and everyone to carefully evaluate such decisions. Much of the advice one hears about the advantages of buying also comes from people who stand to gain from purchases.

1. We do not actually need more space.

One of the reasons we contemplated buying a house right now is that we have reached that critical juncture in marriage at which many duets decide to become trios. We are not expecting a child, but we think we would like to grow our family within the next year or so. At first, we reasoned that it would be next to impossible – or at least highly undesirable – to care for a baby in our two-bedroom, one-bathroom, fully-equipped condo.

I’ll let the absurdity of that statement sink in for a moment. How would we possibly raise a child without a yard? There was much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. We took leave of our senses for a few days.

And then we took a giant step back from our emotions and from what American middle-class culture tells us about what child-rearing and family life should look like. We realized that if we got pregnant right now, the soonest our child would be even remotely close to independently mobile would be in approximately 18 months, give or take a few weeks depending on our child’s impending advanced genius. Would-be Tiny Human could not reasonably enjoy outdoor living space such as a yard for almost two whole years. Even at that point, said outdoor living space would be a luxury rather than a necessity. And luxurious amenities for humans who don’t even pull their own weight around here seems slightly ridiculous to us (<–sarcasm). We live in a relatively safe suburb of Dallas with abundant parks and several nature preserves nearby. We have access to limited green space right outside our front door and a local elementary school playground within half a mile. Private yards and spare bedrooms, we now realize, are luxuries. If luxuries is too strong a statement, they are at the very least preferences. They are not needs upon which survival depends.

Also, while children do require some stuff, we believe parents make choices about what tools to bring into their child-rearing process. Did you know babyhood is a $23 billion a year industry? Every time I head out (<–birthing joke) to purchase a gift for an expectant friend, I am shocked by the strange and interesting array of single-purpose gadgets that fill the aisles of our local big box stores. When the Big Shmoopy and I got married, we steered clear of single-purpose gadgets like avocado slicers and garlic presses in favor of high quality, multi-purpose tools such as stainless steel and cast iron cookware and high quality cutlery. We fully anticipate doing the same thing when preparing for a baby.

2. Cash is king.

Over the past several years while the Big Shmoopy has been in graduate school, we have worked to save in our emergency fund. We set and achieved a goal of saving enough to cover six months of expenses. Since we are now a solidly dual-income couple, we have been adding to our stash and contemplating what our next goal should be.

To purchase a house, we originally planned to take some of that cash and use it as a down payment. But then we started running some numbers. Using this online calculator, we figured out the true cost of a house financed over 30 years with PMI, taxes and insurance. And OUCH. Right now, we do not have enough in savings to keep 3-6 months of expenses liquid AND to pay 20 percent down on a mortgage AND make an extra payment on the principal each month in order to save tens of thousands on our ultimate true home price. In order for us to buy a house now, we would need completely empty our savings or throw away more than $100 a month on private mortgage insurance. Unlike taxes – which in theory go towards things like local and state infrastructure from which we do benefit – PMI is money we would truly never see again. One could argue that funds paid toward property taxes could also be viewed as money you’ll never see again, but taxes are also inevitable. I know some would reason that paying rent is just as much a throw-away as PMI. However, in our estimation, at least for the time being, there will be a cost associated with living anywhere. We also have a unique rental situation which I’ll address below.

We have chosen to let the current low interest rates pass us by knowing that cash is king. When we actually need to buy a house (i.e. our family has reached its tolerable capacity in its current space), we plan to have enough saved for a down payment so that our monthly payment will not overly stretch our budget and we will not throw money away on PMI. Who knows? By that point, our goals may have completely changed. It’s completely possible that by the time we reach our initial down payment, savings and investment nest egg goals, we won’t want to buy a traditional house at all. It’s entirely possible that we might want to buy a few acres in the country and build a tiny house. The possibilities are endless!

3. Reasonable rent. No deadlines.

Here is our special rental circumstance. We rent from a family member who owns the condo free and clear. We pay reasonable rent and are not locked into a lease. As such, there is no looming date on the calendar when we need to consider moving out. We don’t face an annual deadline when we have to decide whether we want to sign another yearlong lease, which also takes the pressure off of us to buy a house. If I had to guess, I would estimate we would have paid 40 percent more in rent over the past six years had we rented from a traditional apartment complex not to mention the fact that we would have been locked into a yearly lease. We fully recognize that this living situation is an incredible privilege that not everyone can access, and we do not take that lightly.

To be good stewards of our family member’s property and generosity in renting it to us at such a reasonable cost, we do some handy work around the house when needed. For example, the kitchen faucet recently cracked. Our family member paid for the faucet, but we took care of the labor. This saved the cost of a plumber, which could potentially have been more than $150. Another example: last year, we scraped all the wallpaper off the bathroom walls, re-textured, repainted and hung new all new fixtures. The work badly needed to be done, and it was something we could do to help increase the value of the property for our family member. As a bonus, the freshly painted bathroom is a vast improvement over the old painted wallpaper and weird built-in light fixture. Sure, we were improving someone else’s property. Technically. But, we also got to choose the color we wanted, purchase the fixtures we wanted and generally have a more pleasant place to live for not much money. And we learned valuable skills for improving future Shmoopy abodes. Our next project will be to scrape the popcorn off the bathroom ceiling. Doesn’t that sounds like a good time?

4. Fear and loathing in Shmoopy Land.

Ultimately, our decision to not buy a house at this moment in American history came right down to fear. We are not afraid to buy a house. But we WERE afraid that if we didn’t buy right now yes please, we would be left behind by all these excellent mortgage rates and get priced right out of some future housing market. Everywhere we turned, we felt bombarded with the dire consequences of failing to lock in a mortgage today.

“Home-prices are only going to rise, and you need to get into the market now while you still can!”

“Renting is for fools, and you don’t want to be a fool, do you?!”

We like to joke that we both have acute cases of paralysis by analysis. It comes and goes, but the gist is that when faced with significant or potentially life-altering decisions, we freeze. We analyze and process from every angle. It takes a very long time for us to make decisions. Big Shmoopy’s paralysis by analysis is more pronounced than mine and spills into smaller decisions which I find too tedious for such shenanigans. But, generally, we face most major life choices – especially purchases – with this level of intentionality.

It is not such a bad thing.

When it came to our potential house-buying decision, we realized we were potentially biting off much more than we could chew. We stood to increase our monthly housing cost by almost 50 percent (by the time we added taxes, insurance and PMI), and we knew that with a Baby Shmoopy potentially joining us in the next year or so, the last thing we wanted was to be bogged down by an emotionally charged expensive choice we made with much less information and data than we will have at that point.

Basically, we were considering buying a house because we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to do so because of hypothetical future economic situations which no one – not Realtors, not lenders and not investment bankers – can realistically predict.

Jesus, Marriage

For richer or poorer

Today, Brandon called me at work to remind me of something that happened shortly before we were married. He was listening to the radio in the car this afternoon and there was a story on about Panera Bread Company. It brought back a memory of us going to eat dinner one night when we were newly engaged. Looking back, it’s hilarious and really it just warms my heart to think of how far the Lord has brought us in our marriage, but at the time, it was so stressful!

Since we didn’t live together or live that close to one another, we continued to date all through our engagement. We had to get creative with how we spent our time. Most of our dates consisted of Taco Bell, but for Christmas, Brandon received a Panera gift card. Since we didn’t have much money, we saved gift cards for nice dates. We still do, in fact. So, we went to Panera for dinner one night. We figured out that soup in a bread bowl was the cheapest thing we could each get that would still suffice for dinner and be almost completely covered by the $10 gift card we had. Brandon ordered potato soup, and I ordered vegetable. Sadly, when our dinner arrived at the table, the broth from the vegetable soup had soaked into the bread rendering it inedible. I had about half the soup that Brandon received. He felt so sorry for me that he insisted on ordering me something else, but I said no because I knew we couldn’t afford it.

So, shortly after Brandon and I got together, we had a conversation about debt. We were already on a path toward marriage. We discussed getting married after a month. We were engaged in two months and 23 days. Sometime between discussing marriage and actually getting engaged, I asked Brandon a really uncomfortable question. I noticed that when we went out, he made a lot of charges on his American Express card. I come from a family that has struggled financially, and I had watched my parents use consumer credit in a negative way for many years. It didn’t sit well with me that he used his credit card so often unless he paid it off each month. So, I asked.

It was a really painful conversation. I wasn’t without fault; I also misused credit cards. However, Brandon really did not want to admit to me the level of consumer debt he had. It took a full 24 hours for the truth to come out and for both of us to admit how much credit card debt we had between the two of us. Together, we had accumulated around $30,000 in consumer debt prior to marriage. That’s why our tragic dinner date at Panera was so sad. We wanted to go on a date but we couldn’t afford anything fancy. We were being so careful to save gift cards for date nights and to use coupons when we could to save on dates (remember, we weren’t married yet), but watching me eat a half a soggy bread bowl full of mushy vegetables was more than Brandon could handle. He was wracked with guilt because I was still kind of hungry and because he had so much debt. Today, he reminded me of that dinner.

Looking back, I see so clearly how the Lord has worked in our marriage to bring us closer to one another. I told my Bible study group last week that when I look back on the first year of our marriage and how the Lord helped us pay off our consumer debt, the math doesn’t even make sense to me. Our fated date at Panera was sometime in February or March of 2008, just a few weeks after we got engaged. We got married in October. I lost my job in November and was unemployed for a month. But, by our first anniversary in October 2009, we had paid off all our debt. I’m still not sure how it happened and have no explanation for it other than Jesus. It was also around this time that we heard Matt Chandler preach a sermon from Luke 10 that included our verse, Luke 10:42. Again and again, the Lord reminded us that he is our good portion.

I guess I don’t have too much reflection on this topic. Just the sweetness of the memory. It’s sweet to me that we were so saddened by a lousy bowl of soup. That bowl of soup made us feel so poor, but it also gave us another small opportunity to lean into each other and into the Lord’s provision to care for us. It’s hilarious now that we were so sad about the soup and about the debt because of how far we’ve come and how much closer we are today than we were then.

If you have ever struggled with financial sin, you know it is not easy to fully rely on God to care for you. You begin to see security in the amount of money you have in your bank account. There is a fine line to walk between hoarding and being a good steward of the resources God has given you. We still walk that line, occasionally worrying about finances even though he has given us so much and helped us overcome our financial sin. It’s difficult to not take pride in the fact that we paid off all that debt or to find a sense of security in the bank account balance. God continues to remind us that HE is taking care of us rather than the other way around.  If this is your issue, know that God is glorified when we are satisfied in his provision and care.

I am so grateful. Thanks be to God.