Several years ago, I sat in my fancy condominium, with its cathedral ceilings and skylights, and watched my frozen breath. It'd been months since my heat pump had broken—for the third time. Months during which I couldn't find the thousands of dollars I needed to replace it, months of space heaters and warm sweaters that kept the bitter cold at bay, but not the shame.
Today, on paper, my finances look better. I sold the condo and I'm slowly paying off my debts. But the truth is, I've had to work through my love-hate relationship with money. And I know I'm not alone. My friend Robert recently had to take out a second mortgage on his house because he'd "forgotten" to pay estimated taxes on a new home business. Claire runs up huge credit-card charges every month, then struggles to pay the minimum. Betty consistently spends $500 more a month than she brings in, but recently managed to get a loan to buy a new car with a sunroof. "It'll be all right," she tells me. "I'll figure something out."
It's All in Your Head
What's going on here? Popular mainstream author and financial advisor Suze Orman would say money problems are literally in our head. "The road to financial freedom begins not in a bank or even in a financial planner's office," she writes in The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom. "It begins with our thoughts. And those thoughts, more often than not, stem from our seemingly forgotten past with money."
Though I might not endorse everything Orman has to say, I decided to explore my thoughts and feelings about money. As I scanned through my memories of when money first meant something to me, I remembered an instance when, as a preteen, I overheard my grandfather quizzing my father about how much he was making. Was that real or just imagined disapproval in my grandfather's voice—and defensiveness in my father's? I wasn't sure what our family's money situation was. My mother left most of those decisions to my father, and neither thought it right to talk about money with their children.
It dawned on me that perhaps there was part of me that didn't want to know about money matters, who wanted someone else (a husband?) to take care of it—and, by extension, me. I've had to ask myself if I feel my life as a single person is somehow less legitimate than my sisters' lives and homes with husbands and children. If so, the embarrassing fear (hard for many modern women to accept) must be: The real life I desire will never come. I will be alone.
Other memories brought up questions about the value of things. For example, my thrifty mother tutored me well in the fine art of sale shopping. To this day I rarely buy anything at full price. But while I'm not one of the "rich," I've enjoyed pretending to be.
A while ago, I attended an auction, a fundraiser for an organization on whose board I sit. The board members were instructed to keep upping the bidding. So I threw in a couple of bids for the spa weekend and for the bentwood rocking chair. It felt good, making bids along with folks who could actually afford what they were bidding on! I was the first to raise my auction paddle when an antique oak bed came up on the block. I'm just getting the bidding going, I told myself.
Would it surprise you to know I currently own that oak bed? While I like it, I had no business buying it. I think by buying it, I succumbed to another fear: "You'll always be on the outside looking in."
If we want to move beyond our thoughts and fears about money, we need to replace them with God's truth about our finances. One way to do that is to study what the Bible says about wealth and our relationship to it. You'd be surprised at how many times God's Word addresses money issues. I'd read, even studied, many of these passages before, but as I read them again in one sitting, I discovered dozens of passages, from straightforward admonitions—"Owe no one anything" (Romans 13:8, NKJV)—to the philosophical wonderings of Ecclesiastes.
I also discovered the Bible doesn't say what I thought it did about money. For one thing, there's no outright opposition to wealth. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to give all he had to the poor (Matthew 19:16-24), it wasn't because Jesus hated wealth. No, it was that Jesus could see that one thing that got in the way of this young man's devotion to God was his devotion to wealth. That hindrance could have been something else—pride, sloth, envy—but for this man, his greatest fear was that he'd lose the protection money offered him.
Over and over, the Bible warns us against pouring our soul into acquiring wealth. Is that because wealth is bad? No, it's because running after it leads to chronic, spirit-sapping discontent. "Whoever loves money never has money enough," the writer of Ecclesiastes observes, "whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income" (5:10). His antidote for this life of discontent? "When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God" (5:19).
I have this recurring fantasy that I'm head of a small foundation that gives away millions of dollars to promote health and healing through the arts. I even picture myself going on The Today Show to promote my cause and getting a standing ovation.
The reality is, I sometimes think I'm too debt-ridden to give. I'll make up for it someday when I have money, I tell myself. But the apostle Paul tells us, "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7).
"If fear squeezes the generous impulses out of you, then giving away money is a powerful means to counteract the fear," writes Jerrold Mundis in Making Peace with Money. He suggests the best way to get back in touch with the act of giving is to give anonymously. For example, for 30 days in a row, give away 10 percent of all the money that comes in using money orders or bank checks so your church or other charitable organizations won't know who gave. Or for one week, give money to any homeless person who asks. (If you live in a suburb or rural area, get the names of social service agencies in your area and send them a bank check.)
The Old Testament prophet Malachi best sums up what happens to us when we cheerfully and generously give our tithe: "'Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse. … Test me in this,' says the Lord Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it'" (3:10).
As I stood in the checkout line at a bookstore recently, I noticed some magazine-cover come-ons: "You Can Retire Rich," "153 Ideas to Reinvent Yourself," and "It's Time to Shop!"
One of the issues at the core of money problems is often the nagging feeling that wherever you are in life right now isn't good enough. But Ecclesiastes says whatever you have, enjoy it, be satisfied with it.
When I first moved from my condo, I was reluctant to invite people to my new, much smaller apartment. But for my birthday the following year, I invited some friends over for dessert. Imagine my surprise when they oohed and aahed over my simple furnishings. "Your place is beautiful," one friend said. "It reflects your creativity and love of color. It's you!"
As I looked around at the denim slipcover on the ancient, cat-clawed couch, the colorful pillows I made myself, and the sun streaming through the windows, I thought, Yes, in this moment, I get it. I can be content with what I have in life—right now.
Accepting God's Gifts
Living peacefully with money is indeed a gift from God. It's a gift I hope to receive day by day. They say that a journey of a thousand miles be-gins with one step. So to help me along, I've hung on my wall next to my desk a list of the debts I'd like to pay off in the next year. Normally, this would depress me. But surrounding this sheet of paper I've also tacked up the truths I've discovered that help assuage my deepest fears about money: I'm a child of God; I'll enjoy what I have every day; I'm valuable; I'm free to give and to receive.
As I read these affirmations, I breathe a sigh of relief. It feels like a breakthrough—but I know myself, so I whisper a prayer: "Amen, Lord, let these affirmations be so."
Kelsey Menehan, a psychotherapist and freelance writer, lives in Washington, D.C.
7 Steps to Financial Freedom
1 Create a vision for your finances. Set goals, such as "By the end of 2001, I want to have $1,000 invested in a mutual fund," or "I want to be debt-free by year 2002." Then develop a monthly plan to support those goals. You need to have a vision for your finances, regardless of how much you earn.
2 Balance your checkbook regularly. A quick look through your checkbook will show you what your life priorities are. Pay attention to where you spend your money.
3 Pay off all credit-card bills monthly. That way, you'll avoid finance charges and interest fees. Start using your credit card only when you know you have the money to pay the debt you're about to incur.
4 Save and invest regularly. Saving and investing are essential. It's a wonderful feeling to know you have money and don't need it, but rather stressful when you need money and don't have it! Establish a "peace of mind" fund of "set aside" money to allow you to transform financial emergencies into nothing more than planned challenges.
5 Don't live above your means. When you spend less than you earn, you'll have money left at the end of each month! And don't be tempted by your neighbor's lifestyle. Just because your neighbor can afford a certain car or fancy vacation doesn't mean you can, too. Stress, worry, additional maintenance, and higher taxes are the price you pay for a purchase you acquire because you want to keep up with your neighbor!
6 Prepare a will and have adequate life insurance. Decide in advance how you want your assets divided and determine who will receive them. Having sufficient life insurance is your way of saying to your family, "I love you enough to provide my contribution to our family, even after I'm gone."
7 Give back to God. When you tithe, you're returning part of what you have to its rightful owner—God! —Mary Grate-Pyos
Here's a quick peek at some of what God's Word has to say about debt:
"The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty" (Proverbs 21:5). "The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender" (Proverbs 22:7). "if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you" (Proverbs 22:27). "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another" (Romans 13:8).—M.G.P.
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