More than a budget

Every. Month.

Every month I sit down with my budget, my bank account statements and my credit card statements. I’m into my fifth year of this practice, filling out my Excel spreadsheet with all the different numbers. Every month it’s the same: copy, paste, add, subtract – and hope.

Did we do okay this month? Did we overspend again? Why is this account balance so low? Why is this credit card or loan balance so high? Where did all of this money go?

The budgeting is supposed to help me make sense of it all and answer that all-important question: Where did the money go? I’m pretty proud of the spreadsheet I came up with, too (that’s just the kind of nerd I am). Each month lays out the planned budget, and I put in the numbers to show what actually happened. The difference between the plan and reality is automatically calculated, with little green cells showing where we did well, yellow ones where we were right on track and red ones where we overspent. Once I track all these numbers and see all these little color-coded cells light up, I can make some decisions: move money around, cancel that gym membership or commit to avoiding restaurants for a month.

This is, obviously, a lot of effort. I probably spend way too much time obsessing over every little number, trying to find spare dollars and cents here and there. And what are we hoping to accomplish with all this effort? The holy grail of nearly all college graduates: paying off student loan debt while still managing to enjoy life.

According to the Transamerica Retirement Survey from 2016, paying off student loan debt is an important financial goal for 12 percent of all American workers, regardless of age. Other priorities on that list include saving for retirement (57 percent of respondents), paying off credit cards (39 percent), paying off a mortgage (36 percent), paying for healthcare (26 percent), paying for a child’s education (16 percent) and simply being able to pay for living expenses (44 percent).

These are all fantastic reasons to save and budget money. I, too, would like to not only pay off our student loan debt, but also to save for retirement, pay off the car and have a little extra cash on hand to cover emergencies. If we could do all of that, we might have true financial security – and maybe our monthly budgeting process wouldn’t cause me so much stress.

But then what?

Let’s assume that we make it. We budget well, and eventually we pay off all our debt, fill up our retirement accounts, and have enough cash lying around to cover expenses. We’ll have financial security – but not necessarily anything more. And this is why any time I think about money, this parable is floating in the back of my mind:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

With this parable, Jesus suggests (among other things) that true security doesn’t come from finances, but from God. Notice that nowhere in the Transamerica Retirement Survey did anyone mention that they prioritized giving money to their church – or even philanthropy in any form. Cynically, I could guess that this is because we’re secretly all incredibly selfish when it comes down to it. We’re all like that rich man who just wanted treasures for himself and didn’t care what God wanted. But maybe there’s something more to it than that.

I’ll admit, I don’t tithe 10 percent. I’m not proud of it, but it’s a fact. My hope is that we’ll be able to increase that giving once we’re able to pay down our debt enough. A couple years ago we gave it a shot, and we were able to sustain 10 percent for a couple months, making only minimum loan payments, before we overran our budget too much. We had no emergency fund, and so when emergency costs came up we had to find money from some place. Our donation budget line was one of those places. We learned from our mistake and we’re establishing an emergency fund and paying off a high interest student loan. Maybe once we do that we can give tithing another shot, but for now we have to take care of ourselves before we’re able to give much to others (though we’re still giving what we can).

I believe this is different than “storing up treasurers for ourselves” because there’s not much getting stored: we’re just paying back the people we borrowed money from. Our goal in doing this isn’t just to balance a spreadsheet, it’s to move on from giving our money to loan servicing companies to giving our money for something greater.

Most churches stand on the shoulders of faithful people who saw their money as a tool to be used for purposes greater than themselves. They saw that putting money into mission work, spiritual formation, Christian education and artful acts of worship were actually sound investments and worthy financial priorities. Without the generosity, hard work, faith and trust of these people, we would have no churches and our faith heritage would be impoverished. But we have our faith heritage, in part, because they had faith and were willing to put that faith to work.

I believe that my nerdy budgeting process has a point beyond simply reaching financial goals. I want my budget to reflect who I am and who God is asking me to be. Maybe these things are possible: Maybe I can, in fact, do my budgeting as an act of worship, and not an act of self-interest. (With God anything is possible, right?) And maybe the end result of this process will be something greater than financial security. Maybe I, like the faithful people who came before me, will be able to contribute to a heritage of faith lasting long into the future.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.