Money is always a story. It is a story of where we’ve come from. It is a story about where we’re going. Money is more about plots and character development than bottom lines and black (or red!) ink.
The most positive exercise I encourage friends, family members and congregants to undergo when it comes to money is to write a financial autobiography. I cannot take credit for this idea, as I did not learn to write my own financial autobiography until I attended the CREDO conference.
CREDO is a weeklong conference for pastors that is sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Board of Pensions. Amongst many other facets, a review of one’s financial life and values is included and it was in preparation for attending that I first forced myself to answer questions like:
- What is your earliest memory of money?
- Growing up, did you think of yourself as rich or poor, or neither?
- Where did your money come from? (Did you work, receive an allowance, have your parents buy your things, etc.?)
- Was your family more likely to be on the giving or receiving end of money and gifts? How did that make you feel?
- Who handled the money in your family?
- What did your parents tell you about money?
- What do you remember learning about money at church?
- What are your early memories of family holidays, vacations and shopping trips?
- Did you worry about money when you were a child and/or teenager?
It was after taking the time to write up answers to all these questions – and many more – that I realized I had internalized my mother’s view of money. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. My mother, who raised two kids on a bank teller’s salary, was rational and frugal about money. She taught me that you always pay your obligations first – rent/mortgage, utilities, food, other essentials – before you spend money on anything else. You are then free to use whatever leftover money you have for those things you enjoy. Also, credit debt is just a sign that you’re not being either rational or frugal with your money, so avoid credit debt at all costs.
I appreciate so much about my mom’s tutelage. Having made some college-aged mistakes with consumer debt, I appreciate what she was trying to spare me. Having rebounded and now finding myself in ownership of a decent credit score today, I can appreciate her reminder to only put on credit cards what you can pay off at the end of the month.
However, I also discovered a fatal flaw in all this advice.
In writing my own financial autobiography, I learned that I treated money like a working class, single mother of two treats money. The problem, of course, is that I am not a working class, single mother of two. I am a professional class, DINK (double income, no kids). So what was happening? My wife and I were paying all our obligations up front and were essentially squandering a great deal of money after that.
It wasn’t until I wrote this financial autobiography that I realized my mom’s advice about using whatever excess I have on things that I enjoy is working class advice. For my mom, it took probably 95 percent of her monthly income to meet all her obligations. That meant she had scant leftovers each month. And God forbid both kids got sick, went to the doctor and needed prescriptions! Then that 95 percent ballooned to 98.6 percent. So the “extra” my mom was spending in a given month was enough to buy a pizza and a box of Girl Scout cookies… maybe.
By comparison, my wife and I only use about 60 percent of our income on basic obligations. That means that we were using 40 percent of our income on whatever made us happy. Did we know we had a problem? Not really. Did we have a problem? Yes. Absolutely.
What happened was this: We used a definition of financial faithfulness that did not fit who we were and are. Or, put differently, we were cultivating the character of faithfulness befitting a single, working class mother. But we are not this person and so our character should better match who we are.
What this implies is a clear relativity when it comes to money. And I suspect some Christians may not like this. I’m sure you’ve heard some say, “The Bible says to give a tithe – that’s 10 percent – and that’s true for rich and poor alike.” Maybe that’s right, but probably not.
Instead, I think the Bible tells us to sell everything and give it all to God. I think Scripture tells us that our hearts go wherever our money is spent. I think God reveals that some have one talent, some have two and still others have five talents. Therefore, it’s more about how the talents are used relative to what you have than any concrete, universal rule.
What I suspect God wants us to ask is, “When I spend my money this way, who will I become?” Because, again, money is about a story. It’s a story you’re telling about yourself – where you’ve come from, who you are now and where you’re going. As such, if you want to learn how to be a good Christian steward, you must first answer the questions “Who am I?” and “Who am I being called to be?”
Your money is already telling a story about you. Answer some of those questions above and make sure it’s a story you want to tell. Your budget is already revealing your soul. Review your budget and make sure it is a soul worth having.
JEFFREY A. SCHOOLEY is the teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. In his spare time he binges the best of Netflix, goes to the gym, reads 20th-century dystopian literature and cuddles with his old dog, River.