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.

Personal Finance

July Spending Report

This month was one of the most extravagant in the history of our marriage not to mention since we started giving a crap about saving money. We went on a vacation to New York City and New England all by ourselves. We didn’t stay with friends. We didn’t sleep in a tent. We didn’t buy groceries and cook over an open fire. We flew direct. We rented a car for the week. We stayed in several hotels. We ate out every single meal. And we enjoyed the hell out of it.

Truth be told, we have never embarked on a trip like this before. Beginning with our honeymoon when we flew for free thanks to a relative who is a pilot and gave us passes, we typically focus on spending as little as we can to still have an enjoyable trip. That’s not to say that this trip we threw caution to the wind and traveled like Trumps – just that we veered from our typical travel M.O.

The past few months have been a combination of highs and lows. We really wanted a chance to get away, so we booked a weeklong vacation in July.

High: Brandon finished writing and defending his dissertation and is officially done with his PhD.

Low: My mother was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and died two weeks later.

Obviously we were thrilled that Brandon finished his doctorate, and we had planned for the past several years that we would take a bigger trip to celebrate, but my mother’s illness and death really took its emotional toll as well. We wanted to go to the east coast, and we found the best deal on airfare by flying to New York City. It has been a lifelong dream of mine to see the fireworks in NYC on July 4th, so we decided to make the city our base of the trip. We spent two nights in NYC (July 3-5), then hit the road in a rental car. We spent four nights in New England (in Maine and Massachusetts) before returning for a final night in NYC and our flight out the next morning. We were gone for seven nights, longer than we have ever been gone on vacation.

For the sake of really seeing where our money went, I broke down the vacation costs and the household spending separately.

July Spending Report

Car Parts: $848

We bought new tires and hydraulic shock absorbers for the Xterra, and I got my car washed. We don’t have an outside faucet at our condo, so we pay to wash our cars.

Car Payment: $331.48

Cell Phones: $137.46

Dining Out: $214

Electricity: $139.44

Entertainment/Amusement: $29.95

Netflix subscription, icloud storage and a Redbox rental

Gas: $181

Giving: $657

This includes our monthly church and charitable giving as well as two gifts purchased for loved ones. I make gifts on occasion for things like housewarmings or hostess gifts, but I also like to give generously for bigger occasions (like birthdays!) for those I love. Not to say one can’t give generously out of their homemade or free offerings, but I know my own heart and I know when I’m being stingy. So, I usually buy gifts.

Groceries: $506

Before we left on vacation, we ate everything we could in the house so it wouldn’t go to waste. When we returned, we were pretty low on some of our staples. Ergo, mammoth Costco trip upon our return.

Home Supplies: $17

Dish detergent, laundry detergent, A/C filter, etc.

Home Décor: $161

When my mom was sick, I borrowed an Aerobed for our houseguests (my sister and brother-in-law) while they were in town. It somehow sprang a leak during its use, so we bought one to replace the one we borrowed. We also bought a patch to fix the broken one. We didn’t feel we could return a broken item to our friends, so we now own an Aerobed that needs to be patched.

Health/Fitness: $1,048

We finished outfitting our garage with gym equipment. We have had the best time in our Crossfit box downstairs. We will never pay for gym memberships again, and we are really enjoying this free activity together. This was a significant investment in our health that doubles as free entertainment and quality time together.

Internet: $75.30

I attempted to renegotiate our monthly cost with our provider, but so far have been unsuccessful. Time Warner Cable tells me they are upgrading the technology in our neighborhood and that my current service will decrease in price sometime in the next month.

Personal Care: $28.30

Toiletries from Costco and a haircut for Brandon.

Total: $4,773.93

Vacation Expenses

Car rental: $395.34

Entertainment: $164

This includes our entrance fee to Acadia National Park, sea kayak rental in Bar Harbor and jazz club cover charges in NYC. Some of the best experiences of my life!

Food: $433.51

Fuel: $72

Flights: $552.40

Gifts/Souvenirs: $68.54

We buy a Christmas ornament and some sort of art print each place we travel. We also bought lobster paraphernalia for Brandon’s mom and sister who watered our plants for us while we were gone. And Brandon bought some souvenir lobster socks because a pair of his mildewed.

Hotels: $628

MTA Fare: $84

This includes two seven-day subway passes and transport to and from JFK airport via the Air Train. We rented our car from JFK because it was half the price of renting in Manhattan and we could take the subway and train rather than a cab.

Parking in Dallas: $104.88

Tolls in New England: $27

Uber to/from La Guardia Airport: $105

Other: $16.03

Sunscreen and a couple health related items

Vacation Total: $2,866.58

Total Spent: $7,640.51

House and Home, Personal Finance

Perfectionism: The Thief of Joy

I have this slight obsessive compulsive tendency that rears its ugly head at the most inopportune times. Anyone else have that problem?

They say that in job interviews, the quintessential “weakness” one should present when asked is a perfectionist tendency. How could it possibly be a bad thing to strive for excellence … and dare for perfection?

I’m here to debunk that myth and replace it with a truth. Perfectionism is the thief of joy. It has ceased to be a virtue for me. In fact, it makes me a little more miserable.

I came to this realization over a seemingly insignificant event: baking a batch of chocolate cupcakes for a friend’s surprise birthday party. My sweet friend’s birthday was actually the day my mother passed away a couple months ago, so I didn’t get to celebrate with her at all. She and her husband recently bought a house, and between moving, house updates and spring work chaos, her birthday came and went with nary an acknowledgement let alone a decent celebration – quite unacceptable for a 30th birthday.

Enter the three-months-later surprise party. My friend’s husband checked with us to be sure we were available and then planned a killer surprise for his wife. I volunteered to make these chocolate cupcakes that we are all obsessed with because they taste the way all birthday cake should taste. Little morsels of heaven, I tell you! The birthday party was on a Saturday, so on Friday night, I assembled my ingredients and began to bake.

And now about that OCD. In recent years, I’ve learned how absolutely terrible partially hydrogenated oils are for your health, so I’ve sought to avoid them as much as possible in my cooking. Occasionally, I do have to use plain old vegetable oil, but I usually only do this if a substitute would detract from the taste or quality. Let me just tell you: these particular chocolate cupcakes must be made with vegetable oil. But I didn’t know that on Friday. Or at least, I had conveniently forgotten my past experience. Plus, I was out of vegetable oil at the time.

A trusted cookbook explained that butter may be substituted for vegetable oil in cake recipes with perhaps a slight change to the texture of the cake. Truly light and fluffy cakes are made with vegetable oil, while butter yields a slightly denser texture and less height. Allegedly. The French prefer butter in their cakes, so I reasoned that butter would be just fine.

It could have been the humidity or something amiss with the cupcake liners (which were foil), but I was fairly certain the butter was the culprit for the batter sort of leaking over the tops of the liners and dribbling sadly across the cupcake pan. They tasted … off. So disappointing. By this point, it was after 11 p.m., so I trudged off to bed resolving to try again in the morning, this time with classic vegetable oil.

In the morning, I got up and dashed to the grocery store for oil and more cupcake wrappers. Came home and whipped up another batch of cupcakes, this time with the vegetable oil. And this time … they were still so imperfect! They failed to rise adequately, and upon taste test, had a weird aftertaste.

I fretted about the imperfection of the first batch reasoning that I couldn’t present such an imperfect product at the birthday party of my friend. After baking batch number two, I became more than frustrated. I was tempted to throw them all away.

At this point, I just have to tell you that I am not usually a total failure in the kitchen. I usually do pretty well with cooking, though I am not a frequent baker. It’s difficult to know if I should blame the butter, oil, cupcake wrappers, terribly humid summer weather or any other of myriad untested variables.

Anyway, I was ready to toss out the whole lot. But the husband put a stop to that. I also remembered my mother.

My mother once sent my father to multiple stores in search of an 8-inch square cake pan for a recipe. Why? Because she only owned a 9-inch square cake pan. And she was that crazy. No level of improvisation was acceptable to her. And yet, even by following each and every recipe to the letter, she still had failures. Because that’s what happens when you cook! If you only bake or prepare food once a year, your chances for failure are far less than when you cook almost every day. You are simply going to have some failures. And sadly, my mother’s kitchen failures (when they occurred) usually turned into a fit of frustration followed by writing off the whole effort as a lost cause. And throwing it all in the trash.

I struggle with the same sense of frustration when a project goes awry, but it is only recently that I’ve begun to see this not as a virtue to be celebrated but a weird self-critical obsession that verges on psychological dysfunction. And I’m going to war against it.

Here are the lessons I learned from baking those cupcakes.

The middle makes no sense. The cupcakes tasted weird soon after coming out of the oven. I waited for them to cool, hesitantly made chocolate icing and decorated the tops with sprinkles. On the way to the party, we began to worry that there weren’t enough for all who would be attending. On a whim, we stopped at a bakery and bought 15 more cupcakes for $30, an extravagance likely fueled equally by my fear over the homemade cupcakes tasting absolutely terrible as much as by worry that more people might show up than had responded to the invitation. I was certain that everyone who tasted them would spit them right back out. Instead, once iced and decorated, they looked rather charming, and my husband and I agreed that we actually preferred the homemade to the store-bought product. Someone even commented that they tasted like they had a bit of espresso in them. The finished product always makes more sense than the partially completed.

No one thinks that much about other people. I spent so much time worrying that I would be perceived a failure by others and that my friend would be disappointed. I failed to remember until later that, shockingly, I am not the center of the universe. My friend did not know or care that the cupcakes had been expected to be a dismal failure. No one was the wiser! Based upon my own experience and how much time I spent worrying about what other people thought of my efforts, I now realize how little time other people likely spend thinking about me. Most people are thinking about themselves and just as worried as I was about how they are perceived. If we’re all so worried about how we are perceived, you can bet we aren’t doing that much actual perceiving.

Perfectionism is the thief of joy. The bottom line is that my friend was touched that I went to some effort on her behalf because I care about her. She didn’t notice or care that the end result wasn’t bakery perfection. But I spent so much time worrying that I robbed myself of the positive experience and pure enjoyment of making something for someone I care about. I was so worried about what other people might think and so terrified of failure that I didn’t even enjoy the process or think that much about my friend in the first place. Perfection does not exist, and the more experiences we have, the more likely we are to both fail and succeed. Some of our experiences will arrive at near perfection, and when they do we may bask in the achievement knowing that the experience itself – not the result – is the goal.