What is "Christian money management"?
This document will continue to be revised in response to feedback. Some newly added material is in smaller type. I thank David Mustard, David Stafford, Paul Williams, and Douglas Downing, among others, for useful input.
Copyright 2005—2013 Michael A. Covington. Caching in search engines is explicitly permitted.
What is "Christian money management"?
About Christian money management
How is Christian money management different?
What kinds of financial problems are common?
Money and your spiritual health
What's wrong with some approaches to Christian money management?
Gimmicks and peculiarities
Unclarity about the nature of money
Lack of historical perspective
Counselors can get a distorted view of problems
Counselors may be unaware of normal business practices
"Debt-free" can reflect an un-Christian attitude
Doctrinal issues and questions
Lending at interest
The social safety net (welfare, food stamps, etc.)
The economy and government policy
What else should we beware of?
A few practical notes
Common mistakes in personal finance
As a churchgoer with an active mind, I've been paying some attention to one of the newest major areas of church work, which consists of training people to manage their money better. This is an effective way to reduce misery, save marriages, and prevent spouse abuse and even suicide.
It is also of great spiritual importance because how you use your money is how you express your choices in all areas of life, not just church activities.
Many churches, including mine, now have "financial ministries." I've been working out what I think of them. That's what today's epic-length Notebook entry is going to be about.
I am not a professional economist or financier. Neither are many of the other people who dispense financial advice in a church setting, including those who have set up financial ministries and written books. Even a history of business success does not make a person an expert economist. Use appropriate caution when reading any source of advice.
I should make it clear that I'm strongly in favor of the concept of financial ministry. My quibbles are only with some odd ideas that have crept into it. This web page started out as a critique of some basic errors in popular books from the early days of financial ministry. I am glad to report that the quality of the advice has improved in recent years as experts have joined the movement.
For further insightful criticism of some ideas that have been associated with "Christian money management," see the writings of Gary Moore, including his web site, although he can be criticized for sometimes bending too far in the other direction.
About Christian money management
The idea of financial training at church was vigorously promoted by the late Larry Burkett, whose Crown Financial Ministries is still the leader in the field. Dave Ramsey also has a loyal following; he is more of a financier, and less of a spiritual adviser, than Burkett. Both of these contrast with secular financial advisers such as Clark Howard and Suze Orman, although on many issues, all four give the same advice.
How is Christian money management different?
How is "Christian money management" different from anybody else's money management? To a large extent, it's not. What works, works. But some Christian doctrines loom very large:
What kinds of financial problems are common?
By counseling thousands of couples, advisers such as Burkett and Ramsey have collected some interesting data about the kind of financial problems people commonly have. Here are some recurring themes:
Secular advisers agree entirely with many of these points.
Money and your spiritual health
What does money have to do with spirituality anyway?
Plenty. If you believe in God, you should also believe that God is sovereign over everything, not just a part of your life called "religion."
Further, money is involved in all parts of your life because it is how you express preferences, whatever those preferences might be.
Thus, it makes no sense to keep God and money in separate compartments; if you try, they will just pull you in opposite directions (Matthew 6:24). Instead, just like all other aspects of your life, your use of money needs to take place in submission to God.
(Notice that I said "submission to God," not "submission to your local church." This is not about fundraising, nor about letting church workers make your decisions for you!)
On the more practical side, much of secular culture is contrary to Godly wisdom. People try to use money and possessions as a substitute for a deity, as if wealth could give them perfect security. ("He who dies with the most toys... dies.")
More to the point, we have long lived in a culture of overspending in which people are constantly encouraged to overextend themselves financially. A major theme in Christian money management is therefore debt control (which sometimes overflows into mistaken prohibitions against all use of debt; see the discussion below).
Unless you are close to the poverty line or have suffered a large catastrophe, the amount of stress that you feel about money is probably not related to your income — you can be equally overextended, or equally in control, on a low income as on a high one. Financial peace comes from good management, not from being rich.
Finally, we Christians believe that wisdom comes from God and that the beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge God's ownership of everything, and submit your wishes, talents, and desires to Him, rather than merely trying to build skill and self-discipline by purely human effort.
One last note. It should be obvious — but I still have to say it — that wealth is not necessarily proof of God's approval, and poverty is not divine punishment. There are people who mix the worship of God with the worship of money and material possessions. In the Bible we find both the wealth of Solomon and the poverty of the Apostles. God has uses for people on all different levels of the economic ladder.
What's wrong with Christian money management?
What's wrong with Christian money management as it is presently taught? Often, nothing is wrong; much of the advice given out is good. But some things do go wrong. I see six main weaknesses.
(1) Gimmicks and peculiarities
Among some advisers there is a desire to be peculiar for peculiar's sake. This is not overwhelming, but it's one end of a spectrum. It's easy to start a cult...and on a milder level, this shows up as gimmicks and strange techniques which are trumpeted as being the only legitimate way to do things. They are like fad diets.
Some people feel that in order to be identified as Christians, they need to withdraw from all sorts of innocent secular practices. And the problem is, people with this kind of motive don't listen to criticism. It is associated with a tendency to claim God's endorsement for one's own opinions about economic matters — which, I think, constitutes taking God's name in vain. Some Christian financial books and web sites are peppered with references to Bible verses that are only marginally relevant, the implication being that if something is tied to the Bible, it has to be right.
Many of the gimmicks come from leaders who spread fear as a way to win followers, perhaps not realizing that this is what they're doing.
Gimmickry is also associated with quackery and conspiracy theories.
After writing numerous Christian money management books, Larry Burkett wrote a novel,
The Illuminati, which he presented as fiction, but many readers took large parts of it to be non-fiction
(somewhat like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, also mistaken for non-fiction by many of its readers).
The Illuminati are supposedly a secret society that controls the economy.
(Several secret societies over the years, and many fictional ones, have used the name Illuminati,
but there is no evidence that they are powerful or that any of them have lasted very long.)
Another common villain of conspiracy theories is the
Trilateral Commission, which is a real organization, but not secret.
Some of these conspiracy theories are reviewed and refuted in
Exploding the Doomsday Money Myths, by Sherman S. Smith, published in the early 1990s.
(2) Unclarity about the nature of money
More substantively, I have yet to see any of the Christian financial advisers come out and say exactly what money is.
Very simply, money, as a medium of exchange, is how people express preferences. Which is better, a newspaper or a candy bar? Any philosopher will tell you the question is unanswerable, but when people make purchases, they have to answer it.
Failure to appreciate that money is a means of communication has led some Christian financial advisers to say strange things about its "mystical power."
When you appreciate that money is how people express preferences, it's perfectly clear why married couples argue about money. People argue over money, using words, because money and words are how preferences are expressed.
I give Dave Ramsey credit for arguing, forcefully and convincingly, against the old notion that "Biblically, money is gold." The fact that people used to use yellow metal as their medium of exchange does not mean that the metal is inherently valuable. You can't eat it or heat your house with it. The Bible describes people for whom gold was the medium of exchange, but it does not say gold has to be the medium of exchange.
(3) Lack of a historical perspective
I have yet to see much of a historical perspective in any of the material currently being taught. Christian financial advisors don't seem to know where they stand on the stage of history. Even inflation, which is the most important historical factor, gets surprisingly little attention.
One reason for the lack of historical perspective may be that in the past, Larry Burkett made some predictions and historical observations that were erroneous. Around 1990, he predicted a severe depression within ten years. Before that, he had been predicting one even earlier. This alarmism was one of the worst attributes of the "Christian money management" movement when it was starting. For more about this, see Charles H. Anderton and David K. W. Chu. "Personal Finance and Economics in the Writings of Larry Burkett: How Should Christian Economists Respond?" Bulletin of the Association of Christian Economists 29 (1997): 12-18, which is available online.
What seems obvious to me — though nobody mentions it — is that a lot of what passes for "Christian money management" is 19th-century money management, and in particular, constantly being prepared for the deflationary cycles that occurred every couple of decades until the 1930s.
During a deflationary cycle, being in debt is perilous because the value of the dollar rises and your debts, in fixed dollar amounts, become larger relative to your earning power. That, I think, is a major factor in the American Christian tradition of hating and fearing debt.
What isn't adequately appreciated is that these cycles are over. We haven't had one for 70 years. After the Great Depression, economic policymakers learned how to adjust the money supply to prevent severe deflation. Nowadays, our recessions are much milder, and even when there is brief deflation (e.g., at the end of 2008), the economy doesn't spiral out of control.
(You can of course still experience a personal cash-flow crisis from a drop in income or a large unexpected expense. Debt makes these crises much harder to endure, and that's a good reason to avoid overextending yourself. But it is not a compelling reason to avoid all borrowing whatsoever.)
Some people complain that, because the money supply is adjustable, our money isn't "real" any more — it isn't convertible into gold — but that's not a bad thing; what's so great about gold? Tying the value of money to a set of commodities might be useful, but there's no reason to assume gold is the ideal commodity for the purpose.
A historical perspective can also help you recognize abnormal situations. For instance, gasoline was abnormally cheap around 2000-2005; I thought this was obvious, but younger people who had not lived through the 1970s didn't realize it, and they happily set themselves up with gas-guzzling vehicles and 75-mile daily commutes.
Another thing history can illuminate is why people don't know how to manage their money. Very simply, times have changed too much. Today's mature adults were children during the "stagflation" of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a strange period during which being in debt was advantageous, and holding cash was not.
In those days, it was common practice to take on a house payment that was a little too big for comfort, then "grow into" it via inflation. Salaries went up, the cost of living went up, but payments on existing mortgages did not go up; the house payment became easier with time. Victims of the "bubble" in 2007 may have been expecting the same thing to happen, but it didn't.
Many of today's younger adults came of age during the "credit card era" of very easy money, which began in the mid-1990s and ended abruptly in 2008. During this period, people would lend you money for almost nothing, and arguments about staying out of debt had little immediate practical force.
And a surprising number of younger adults in the 2008 downturn — including bank executives! — had never seen a substantial recession at all. After all, there hadn't been one since 1982.
Things are going to be different in the coming years. But it's no surprise that today's young adults were not brought up on the thrift of the 1840s or 1890s. Nor can we continue to live as we did in the 1970s. In recent decades, people have had strong incentives to manage their personal finances in ways that are no longer sustainable.
Remember, finally, the Panic of 2008 is in the past, not the future; people seem too motivated to prepare for what has already happened rather than what is going to happen next.
(4) Counselors can get a distorted view of problems
There is also the problem of a skewed data base. If you counsel people with problems, you won't learn much about people who don't have problems. The skewed data base is unfortunately combined with a tendency toward a one-size-fits-all approach. It is all too easy to turn good advice for one person into commandments for everybody.
I think the reason people like Dave Ramsey are so dead-set against credit cards is that they've seen lots of people get into trouble, but they haven't seen people who don't get into trouble. They are urging extreme measures that ordinary people may not need.
Another way in which the data base is skewed is that personal finance advisors, secular and Christian, often don't understand that risk is inevitable in starting any business venture and even in running a household. People shouldn't take unreasonable risks, of course, but there's no way to be risk-free, and it would be bad for all of us if everyone tried to be free of financial risk all the time. No matter what you do, there's always some chance it won't go the way you expect, and failure to guess the future is not a sin.
(5) Counselors may be unaware of normal business practices
Some Christian financial advisors are ignorant of normal business procedures. This aloofness from business may reflect a certain amount of what Michael Novak calls "aristocratic prejudice" (summary here). Clergymen and theologians are not businessmen and often tend to look down on ordinary business activities, as well as not understanding how they work.
Some advisors even seem to be unaware of the difference between debt and bankruptcy. Borrowing money does not mean you're broke; in my opinion, it is as legitimate to rent a block of money as to rent a piece of equipment, provided of course you're sure you can give it back intact when you no longer need it.
At the same time, I want to sound a cautionary note. Borrowing money can greatly add to the risk of a business venture. It is much better to grow a business gradually with little debt, rather than take out a huge loan and stake everything on it. Risking your whole financial life on one venture is not a healthy sign that you "believe in it" — it's a foolhardy move. Some kinds of business habitually use much more borrowed money than they ought to. Think for yourself rather than just imitating your competitors.
Another problem is that churchgoers are often recruited into very dubious business ventures which they themselves don't understand. Please don't go into business unless you know how. In particular, don't buy a package deal from a mail-order or Internet-based company that promises to set you up for great profit. Instead, get some real-world experience working for a business similar to the one you want to start. Your town's successful entrepreneurs didn't buy packages on the Internet; they went to work in conventional businesses, and you can, too.
Be wary of multi-level marketing, especially if it asks you to either engage in a pyramid scheme or make a quasi-religious emotional commitment to the organization, or both. (Do they expect you to recruit people by raising false expectations?) And don't invest borrowed money speculatively. Remember that you have to survive the worst case, not just the best case.
(6) "Debt-free" can reflect an un-Christian attitude
Smug testimonies about "debt-free living" ring hollow if they come from people who inherited money or had other unusual good fortune. Borrowing money prudently has long been a valuable part of the American path to prosperity, and if you require people to be "debt-free" all the time, you burden them unduly. Would I deprive my children of a proper education or a safe environment in order to be "debt-free"? No; that would be bad stewardship. My legacy to my children is not primarily money; it is upbringing and education.
In the worst case, rich people have un-Christian attitudes such as "What's mine is mine and I don't owe anybody anything for it" and "Everybody should have to work as hard as I did." Neither of these is Biblically defensible. What's ours is God's and we owe Him everything for it.
And "Thou shalt not covet" commands us not to hold it against people if they have an easier time than we have had. This includes people who chose to borrow money when we would not have done so, if they have done worthwhile things with it.
I cannot endorse the new fad for compelling people to be "debt-free" regardless of their circumstances. Reducing your exposure to economic risk is a good thing, but it is not the only good thing. It must be balanced against others. How many people will have inadequate education, inadequate business opportunities, or even inadequate medical care because they feel they must be "debt-free," and will therefore fail to fulfill their God-given calling?
Being miserly does not glorify God. As you pay down your debts and build savings, remember that saving money will not save your soul. It is possible to be too motivated to save.
Nor should you assume that Christian money management will make you rich. Why do you want to be rich? Are you sure that is God's will for your life? It may be, or it may not be. Don't make it your main goal.
Doctrinal issues and questions
And then there are a few doctrinal issues.
(1) What does the Bible really say about debt?
A quick look at the context shows that "Owe no man anything" (Rom. 13:8) doesn't mean "Don't borrow anything" — it means "Don't refuse to pay your bills."
How about "The borrower is slave to the lender" (Proverbs 22:7)? If this means, "It's wrong to borrow money," then the first part of the verse, "The rich rules over the poor," must mean, "It's wrong to be poor." That, of course, is nonsense. This verse is reporting an economic fact — that debt reduces freedom, because you are obligated to work to pay the debt, regardless of what else you might want to do — but does not forbid borrowing.
Larry Burkett deserves credit for rebutting the older notion,
popular with reactionary Christians, that nobody should ever borrow money for
any reason. When financial ministry falls into the hands of less sophisticated teachers,
this old-fashioned error often reasserts itself.
I take it for granted that all borrowing must clear at least two hurdles.
The moral hurdle is that you must have a reasonable (not perfect)
certainty of being able to pay the money back. (Perfect certainty never exists
in this world.) The economic hurdle is that you must be getting
value for your money; that is, the extra cost of borrowing
(not only the interest charges, but intangible costs such as inconvenience
and loss of flexibility) must be justified
by some benefit. Apart from these two hurdles, I don't see anything in Christian
doctrine that puts absolute limits on borrowing.
Taken seriously, though, these two hurdles are enough.
I take it for granted that all borrowing must clear at least two hurdles. The moral hurdle is that you must have a reasonable (not perfect) certainty of being able to pay the money back. (Perfect certainty never exists in this world.) The economic hurdle is that you must be getting value for your money; that is, the extra cost of borrowing (not only the interest charges, but intangible costs such as inconvenience and loss of flexibility) must be justified by some benefit. Apart from these two hurdles, I don't see anything in Christian doctrine that puts absolute limits on borrowing. Taken seriously, though, these two hurdles are enough.
Incidentally, the phrases "Debt creates bondage" and "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" do not occur in the Bible. The first is a loose paraphrase of the verse in Proverbs already quoted; the second is from Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Christian financier Gary Moore has tough criticism for those who would burden all Christians by requiring them to be "debt-free." He points out that we already have everything on loan from God. Pride in being, or trying to be, "debt-free" can spring from a kind of selfishness that is altogether contrary to Christian values.
Further, lending can be a way to help people prosper. Requiring them to be "debt-free" can be a way of keeping the poor poor. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey.
Finally, if it were really wrong to borrow money, it would also be wrong to deposit it in savings and money market accounts, where the bank will lend it out, collect interest, and pay some of the interest to you. Yet no Christian advisor tells you not to put your money in the bank.
Using half-Bible-verses as catchphrases does not make for good economics. But the Bible does contain some practical economic advice, some of it timeless and some of it tied to particular situations. For example, Proverbs 22:26-27 cautions against co-signing for loans made to others. Nowadays the U.S. Federal Trade Commission says the same thing: don't co-sign a loan unless you plan to pay it off yourself! The only reason the lender asks you to co-sign is that they don't trust the original borrower. Co-signers often don't realize they're promising to pay, not just serving as a character reference, and that 3/4 of them actually do end up paying. More advice here.
(2) Is it wrong to lend money at interest?
Everyone remembers that the Israelites were forbidden to charge each other interest on loans during the Exodus (Ex. 22:25). But charging interest to outsiders was permitted (Deut. 23:20). "Usury" (charging interest) is at least discouraged, if not actually forbidden, in Psalm 15:5 and Proverbs 28:8. But in the Parable of the Talents, Jesus approves of profiting by investment (Matthew 25).
I think several issues need disentangling here. First, the medieval Church objected to interest, not mainly because of the Bible, but because of Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who supplied what little they knew about economics. Aristotle believed, erroneously, that when you collect interest, you're collecting money for nothing at all. In fact, however, we now understand that interest compensates you for inflation and for giving up the opportunity to profit from your money in other ways.
Second, from the beginning, Israelites were permitted to charge interest to outsiders. In the absence of any further clarification, I take this to mean that charging interest is not inherently wrong; what is wrong is taking advantage of your neighbor in difficulty.
That is also apparently what the writers of Psalms and Proverbs have in mind. Charging interest to profit by someone else's misfortune is wrong; lending at interest to help someone else prosper is fine.
By this standard, modern banking is generally legitimate, but loan sharks are not, and there is legitimate concern (from economists and regulators, not just Christian moralists) that credit-card issuers and some other lenders have crossed the line. This does not mean banking is evil, only that it needs to be watched closely and regulated.
Larry Burkett's organization still maintains that Christians are forbidden (by Old Testament law) to charge interest when they lend to each other. This has curious consequences — if a Christian runs a bank, is he forbidden to have Christian customers? Is a Christian forbidden to deposit money in a savings account where it will be lent to Christians? I think it is reasonable to refrain from charging interest when helping a neighbor in difficulty — in that situation you should not even insist on repayment (Luke 6:34). But that is different from normal banking.
A few Christian sects, and most Muslims, use a banking system in which interest is completely forbidden. Instead, houses are bought through a rent-to-own arrangement, and instead of getting interest on savings, you buy stock in the bank. This makes surprisingly little difference, and most economists feel that little has changed except the names of the transactions. What's the moral difference between renting a house and renting a block of money to invest in a house? There may, however, be useful practical differences as to what happens if the buyer can't keep up the payments.
(3) Is it wrong to declare bankruptcy?
Some Christian advisors say, bluntly, "yes, because a debt is a promise and you have no right to break a promise."
I think that's an oversimplification.
The purpose of bankruptcy laws is threefold: (a) to keep you productive even if you've run out of money; (b) to keep one of your creditors from seizing all your assets to the exclusion of the other creditors; and (c) to ensure that the lender takes some risk when lending you money (so they will have an incentive not to lend irresponsibly). All of these provisions are good for the people to whom you owe money, and for society as a whole, not just the borrower.
Many bankruptcies result from medical crises, job losses, or honest failures to predict how things will go. There are, of course, people who abuse the bankruptcy laws as a way of cheating their creditors. (Spend like mad, then go bankrupt.) That is a dishonest practice, but it is not the normal or usual form of bankruptcy. It is also appreciably harder to do nowadays than it was in the past.
To a Christian who finds himself honestly bankrupt — that is, unable to pay his debts — I would say three things:
(4) Is it wrong to settle a debt for less than the amount owed?
If you listen to the radio, you've heard that credit card companies will "settle for pennies on the dollar" and there are companies that will take your money and promise to make this happen.
It is true that if a credit card company thinks you are never going to pay the debt in full, they will often accept a small amount of the balance as settlement (even as little as 25%). You can arrange this with them yourself. Financial advisors always give two warnings: (a) never pay anyone else to do this for you; (b) never give the credit card company electronic access to your checking account, because if they withdraw more money than you agreed to, they can keep it on the ground that it was legally owed to them.
Settling a debt in this way ruins your credit rating. If you are already in severe difficulty, that may not matter.
But the moral issue is, is this right or wrong? My opinion is that settling a debt for less than the original amount owed is justifiable in two situations:
Caution: Do not pay a company to settle your debts for you; many of them are dishonest and will simply take the money and vanish. Deal with credit-card issuers yourself and be honest with them. Do not believe false advertisements saying that President Obama has "bailed out" credit-card companies and "you have a right to settle" for pennies on the dollar; that is complete hogwash. Settlement is not a right and there has been no special government action to encourage it.
(5) Is it wrong to use credit cards?
No. Misuse does not preclude legitimate use. Some people get sick from eating too many potato chips, but that doesn't mean it's always wrong to eat potato chips.
Many Christian counselors oppose credit cards because they've seen too many people who can't handle them. I certainly don't advocate borrowing for everyday expenses, which is what you're doing if you don't pay your credit cards off monthly. But plenty of people, myself included, do pay them off monthly. Modern shopping, especially online shopping, is much easier with credit cards than with the alternatives.
(Note that even good money managers are likely to spend more money with credit cards than with cash, unless they train themselves to be price-conscious and keep track of all expenditures carefully. This is one reason some advisors forbid the use of credit cards, but it is not a moral objection to using them. I keep a register for my credit cards as if they were a checkbook, and I recommend that everyone do so.)
Don't let alarmism about "identity theft" scare you off. You have more legal protection when you use a credit card than when you use a debit card, a checking account, or cash. In some cases you even get an automatic warranty on things purchased.
Admittedly, the ethics of the credit card industry often warrant criticism. But although I have favored more regulation of the credit card industry, I see nothing wrong with using credit cards. The catch is that I set my own limits, and my standards are higher than theirs. Similarly, I have favored tighter regulation of mortgage lenders, but I see nothing wrong with having a mortgage.
Gary Moore points out that, for all its other ethical problems, the credit card industry does practice a considerable amount of debt forgiveness (debt cancellation), a Biblical practice that is otherwise very rare in the business world. One could counter-argue that this practice makes prices higher for everyone, and that it would be better for the industry to refrain from risky lending.
(6) Is there such a thing as good debt?
Yes, despite the fact that some people say there isn't. As noted already, prudent borrowing enables people to have better housing, better education, and successful businesses.
Good debt is not defined by what the borrowed money is spent on; we can't make blanket pronouncements that mortgages are good and vacations are bad, or anything like that. Rather, good debt is debt that is overwhelmingly likely to be beneficial in the long run, given the benefits, the costs, and your ability to pay.(7) Should we ignore economics and just trust God?
The Bible cautions us against undue worry (Matthew 6:34) but also urges us to manage our affairs intelligently (the entire book of Proverbs).
It is certainly true that there is no perfect security in this world, and if you try too hard to achieve security, you'll neglect other, greater goods.
But foolishness does not become wisdom just because it comes out of the mouth of someone in a church setting, and God has never told us we're exempt from the laws of economics and arithmetic.
I have heard people give bad economic advice and, confronted with the likelihood that it will turn out badly, they just smile and say, "Don't trust the ways of man; trust God." That quickly becomes a universal excuse to ignore facts. It is silly and in my opinion violates Matthew 4:7 ("Do not put the Lord your God to the test").
And I have cringed while someone, giving a "testimony" in church, said she didn't have any money in her checking account, but she "trusted God" and wrote a check anyway. I wanted to stand up and say: You told a lie and committed a crime, and as far as I know, God still objects to both of those things! Writing a bad check is as wrong as any other form of fraud.
(8) Should Christians buy insurance, or should they just trust God and help their neighbors?
If you believe in helping your neighbor, you should want this to be done efficiently, and forming insurance companies is the most efficient way to do it. By forming insurance companies, people can help their neighbors in an orderly way, with advance knowledge of the expected costs, which can be spread over a large enough number of people to smooth out inequalities.
In my opinion, you do not glorify God by refusing to buy insurance. If you refuse to buy insurance, then basically, you are constantly threatening to burden your family and neighbors. They would much rather take care of you by paying their insurance premiums than by rescuing you after you fall into hardship unprepared.
I thank Douglas Downing for this insight.
(9) Is it wrong for Christians to use the "social safety net" (unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, etc.)?
Let's distinguish two issues: should the government provide social services the way it does now? And given that these services exist, can Christians use them? I think the answer to the second question is "yes" and the first question is where the debate should be.
Some Christians argue that there should be no "social safety net," no public assistance for people facing financial or medical crises — that all of this should be done through private charity. They argue that public assistance is not mentioned in the Bible.
I reply that life insurance and fire insurance also are not mentioned in the Bible, but we don't tell Christians to do without them. Like insurance, the social safety net is a modern invention that does genuine good. The very phrase "social safety net" was introduced by Ronald Reagan. Anyhow, there was organized assistance for the poor in ancient Israel (Deut. 26:12-15).
We rely on government to protect us from invading armies, burglars, and house fires. Few people would say that for those things, you should do without government and "just take care of yourself and your neighbors." We agree that the government should protect us from calamities — the only question is what kinds of calamities, and to what extent.
Government social programs can be interpreted as people banding together to help each other. The government is, after all, the representative of the people. An advantage of government programs is that, unlike personal charity, they offer assistance fairly to any citizen in need, not just those who happen to have generous friends. Like an insurance company, a government program can pool together many different instances of need, make costs predictable, and guard against abuse. On the other hand, the higher cost of government-run programs and the higher risk of misuse is well known.
The purpose of the safety net is not to make people lazy. Its purpose is to rescue able-bodied people from situations that would otherwise lead to a downward spiral into poverty, and to keep disabled people from impoverishing their families and neighbors.
Many people think everybody on welfare is a lazy drunkard, but only because they've heard of one or two unconfirmed examples. The reality is that public assistance programs do a great deal of good. There will always be some abusers — just as every bank sometimes gets robbed — but that's no reason to abolish banks. Plenty of people are still unaware of the "workfare" reforms that were made more than 15 years ago. The risk of a "welfare trap" is a continuing subject of economic research, and there is room for further reform.
All of that is not a concern for a Christian who finds himself or herself genuinely in need. The social safety net is like an insurance policy for which you pay taxes. Bear in mind that other people have decided to set these programs up and make you and your neighbors pay for them. It is not wrong to file a claim on an insurance policy even if you think the insurance company is run by idiots. Likewise, it is not wrong to collect public assistance, even if you disagree with how the program is run. Your neighbors have already paid for it in taxes, and you should use what they've already paid for before you ask them for further help.
Naturally, you must be completely honest in your dealings with the government; do not hide income, conceal a person's death, or use the benefits for an impermissible purpose.
On the political level, we have a duty to favor government policies that actually help people, rather than handouts that trap people in poverty, and to judge the effects of public assistance by gathering actual facts rather than just believing unconfirmed anecdotes.
(10) Is insurance or the stock market the same thing as gambling?
No. The essence of gambling is artificial risk — risk that did not exist until people created it for entertainment. If the gambling were done away with, the risk would not be there.
Insurance is created to help you manage risks that already exist, such as the risk that your house will burn down. The essence of an insurance policy is that you'd rather have a certainty of a small expense than a chance of a huge one. It follows that you should only buy insurance for risks that would create hardship if left unmanaged.
The stock market is based on the trading of things that have real value. Stock shares consist of partial ownership of companies. They have value because the companies produce something of value.
Crucially, if there were no stock market, the risk of starting and running businesses would still exist, but only very rich people would be able to undertake it. The stock market lets small investors participate in the risks and rewards of business ownership.
Speculating in commodities can perform a useful service by bringing part of tomorrow's shortage or surplus into today, and thus smoothing it out. That is what Joseph did with grain in Egypt (Genesis 41) — during a period of abundance he bought up lots of grain and then resold it during a famine, stabilizing prices that would otherwise have skyrocketed, and preventing mass starvation. Of course, there is ordinarily no guarantee that speculators will predict the future adequately, but if they guess wrong, they lose money, so they have a powerful incentive to learn as much as possible about developing conditions.
In the case of day trading, futures and options markets, etc., the gap between investing and gambling grows narrower, because the investor's mindset can turn into mere betting on numbers, but investors are still providing services of value to others (such as selling what other people want to buy, or buying what other people want to sell), not merely betting on artificial or imaginary events.
I am indebted to Douglas Downing for several insights and examples here.
(11) Can a Christian accept a scholarship funded by a state lottery?
Many Christians, including me, believe that state lotteries are a very bad idea. They encourage people to pin their future prosperity on false hopes, and they collect an unduly large amount of money from the people who can least afford it. It seems hypocritical for governments to forbid other forms of gambling but promote this one.
Having said that, as an educator I have had no qualms about participating in programs for which the lottery provided funding, including scholarships for my children. The reason is that once the state has collected the money, I want the money to be spent on good things. It's not as if "lottery money" is a different currency than tax money. Rather, the lottery is a spectacularly bad form of taxation that I loudly advocate replacing with something else. Refusing to accept a lottery-funded scholarship (as Dave Ramsey does) would not, in my opinion, do anyone any good.
(12) What caused the credit market collapse of late 2008? Was it caused by people overusing credit cards or mortgages?
As far as I can tell, the collapse was caused mainly by years of bad decisions made by lenders (banks), together with unusually lax government regulation. The single biggest factor was the failure of lenders to verify borrowers' ability to pay. This mistake was made pervasively with credit cards, mortgages, and other types of loans.
Using a new method, banks were able to bundle their loans and resell them to investors, and this produced a steady stream of lendable money until, in late 2008, the investing community suddenly lost confidence in this type of investment, and the supply dried up.
Bad decisions by borrowers and lenders also played a role. People were caught up in a "bubble" of rising real-estate prices. Many people bought houses they couldn't afford, expecting to re-sell them at a large profit within just a couple of years. Lenders expected this to work, so they pushed adjustable-rate mortgages whose payments were scheduled to rise to unaffordable levels.
Some are now claiming that the 2008 credit crunch is the "depression" which, around 1990, Larry Burkett said would occur by 2000. I don't agree. Burkett surely noticed some cultural trends that eventually led to the overlending of 2005-2007, and he was correct in pointing out that people who are deeply in debt are more vulnerable to economic difficulties, but I don't think he can be credited with having made a successful prediction of a specific event. If you say, "Hard times are coming," you will eventually be right, but unless you can be specific about times and circumstances, you haven't really made a prediction.
(13) Is the federal budget deficit going to cause an economic collapse?
Because we control our own currency, we are not going to wake up one morning to a government that suddenly can't pay its bills. Rather, if the deficit continues to grow out of control, what will happen is a gradual decline in the value of the dollar, experienced as inflation, rising interest rates, or a combination of the two. One reason the deficit has grown so insidiously is that, being in control of our own currency, we Americans are never facing a sudden crisis — instead, the risk takes the form of gradual deterioration.
As of 2013, we have a problem, but not an unprecedented problem. The size of the national debt should be compared to the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which measures ability to pay and takes inflation into account. By that criterion, if there were going to be a collapse, it would have happened in 1943 or 1944, when the debt was larger than the annual GDP. Instead, we recovered nicely.
(Note by the way that the GDP measures one year's productivity, but we do not have to pay off the entire national debt in one year, or even in twenty years. Thus there is nothing special about the debt matching the GDP — it does not mean we're broke.)
There is a risk of reaching 1944 levels again due to the severe recession (the worst since the 1930s) and the massive spending that was done to stimulate recovery. On the other hand, if recovery is successful, tax revenues will rise and the problem will diminish. It appears that this has started to happen.
The national debt should normally go up in wartime and in severe recessions, and down in peacetime and in times of prosperity. I strongly favor a balanced budget under normal conditions, but not necessarily every year. If the government could not borrow money, it would have to curtail operations and lay off employees every time there was an unexpected downturn in revenue, just when its services are needed most. State governments (e.g., Georgia) actually have to do this. Further, we don't want the government to ward off debt by building up savings (as a private individual should) because then the government would have to tax us more than necessary, in advance of any definite need.
The long-term effect of excessive debt will most likely be inflation due to a decrease in the value of the dollar. Inflation makes it easier to repay mortgages and student loans because salaries go up but fixed monthly payments don't. As a result, I expect the public to welcome some inflation in the period 2015-2020. This is just my opinion, not a point of Christian doctrine. Indeed, there are moral objections to using inflation in this way, because unexpected inflation can be construed as theft from people who are holding dollars. Expected inflation, of course, is built into interest rates.
A related concern is that the Treasury "borrows money from China." Actually, the Treasury borrows money mostly from Americans, by selling us bonds, and these bonds can be owned by people anywhere in the world. Bear in mind that bonds are not stocks and do not confer ownership or voting rights, and that if foreign governments or banks buy them, they do so freely, on the open market. This then gives them a powerful incentive not to disrupt our economy and thus promotes international stability.
The fact that the Chinese and other foreigners are willing to lend so much to the U.S. should be viewed as an opportunity. It means the U.S. can invest more than it would otherwise be able to do if it were limited to domestic savings. To the extent that we are using this opportunity to finance current expenses rather than investment, it means that we will have missed the chance to build up future productivity. In any case, the foreign willingness to lend will not continue forever, so at some point the future will hold some combination of higher interest rates and inflation.
One good reason to balance the federal budget is that it would lead to better political decision-making by maintaining the connection between income and spending. Another good reason is that excessive government borrowing distorts the market for other investments.
I thank Douglas Downing for several insights here.
(14) Why do I have to bother with all this? Why can't I just keep things simple?
Stewardship is a responsibility. Do the job that God gave you. If you are sure God has not given you any talent for financial stewardship, then you should get advice from reliable people (several, not just one!) and live very frugally and cautiously.
What else should we beware of?
First, beware of emotional vulnerability and manipulation in any kind of personal finance group, whether inside or outside the church. It is easy for a group leader to maneuver people into a position of vulnerability by getting them to reveal financial information that ought to be kept private.
In particular, don't let people make you feel guilty for using the tools of the modern economy in the normal way.
Second, remember that financial missteps and misfortunes are not sins. When you regret that you handled your money a particular way because it didn't work out well under the circumstances, that doesn't mean you're guilty of a sin. Even the most saintly people are not economic geniuses.
Third, put your real responsibilities first. Feeding and educating your children, even at some financial risk, is more important than following somebody's financial system. Secular advisor Suze Orman gets this right, with her motto, "People first, then money, then things." Christian financial pundits often neglect this point.
Fourth, be very careful when you try to help other people, especially family members. Be generous, but don't give what you don't have — that is, don't go into debt in an attempt to help someone whose finances are out of control. Indeed, be aware that giving money to a person who can't manage it is not necessarily helping, and may impede that person's own ability to settle with creditors. Just as when rescuing a drowning person, you have to be careful not to get pulled under.
A recurrent theme in Christian financial counseling is that well-meaning individuals suffer heavy loss or ruin while the person they were trying to help gets little or no benefit, and indeed expects endless bailouts and comes to blame the benefactor for his or her problems!
Fifth, remember that economics is a matter of diverse opinions. No human being deserves your complete loyalty. It is much better to get the opinions of many knowledgeable people. Then you'll know what points are widely agreed on and what points are a particular person's opinion.
Sixth, remember that, simply because it is an open market in a well-governed country, the American economy generally has high standards of ethics. You should always think critically, but ordinary methods of doing business are not, in general, immoral. On the contrary, a free market imposes high standards of honesty and diligence on everyone by making it hard to prosper without them.
If you think that business per se is inherently corrupt, you may have been influenced more by Marx than by Christ. If, on the other hand, you think free-market economics means you need not think about the effects of your actions, you may be following not Jesus but Ayn Rand (who was vehemently anti-Christian). And if you will only do business with financial advisers who put Christian symbols on their ads, you may be easy prey for charlatans.
Above all, beware of the compartmentalized mind. Business is not a game separate from real-life ethics. Far too many sincere Christians have done great harm by failing to bring their Christian values with them into the business world. Many more have made bad decisions because, either on their own or following compartmentalized leaders, they failed to bring together information from diverse sources to understand a problem.
And you should especially be wary of what I call "outsmarters" — people who think they've outsmarted the system (whatever the system is) and can get away with something that isn't a commonly accepted practice. Those are the ones who often get into big trouble doing something unethical and/or illegal.
A few practical notes
A penny saved is 1.42 pennies earned: The actual number depends on your tax bracket, but remember there are taxes on income but no taxes on refraining from spending. So if you cut your outgo, you come out someting like 40% better than if you increase your earnings by the same amount!
The income tax fallacy: A remarkable number of people imagine that a tax-deductible expense saves you money. It doesn't. It is always better not to have the expense at all. The only reason to care whether an expense is tax-deductible is when you are definitely going to have the expense and want to get a "discount" on it.
In the 30% tax bracket, a $100 expense costs you $100 if it's not deductible and $70 if it is. No expense ever makes you money, net. (Your tax rate would have to be over 100% for that to happen.)
This is also true of mortgage interest. You don't "need a mortgage so you can have the tax deduction." The tax deduction reduces the cost, but it doesn't turn cost into income!
Financial management in a nutshell:
The financial condition of any household, business, or organization can be summarized with two quantities, net worth and cash flow.
Net worth is how much money you'd have if you sold all your assets and paid all your debts. In general, it should be positive and growing. (But be wary of the "value" of your house, which is unrealized; your house isn't really worth money unless you're willing to sell it, and you can never be sure in advance exactly how much it would sell for. Lots of people have seen the estimated value of their houses shoot up and fall back down without any real change in their wealth. It may be better to think of your mortgage as an obligation not unlike rent.)
Cash flow is what you have coming in every month, minus what you have to pay out. This, too, should be positive, if you're living within your means. Traditionally, personal finance is organized around cash flow (paychecks vs. "easy monthly payments") with the assumption that net worth will take care of itself. That is not an assumption that should be made blindly.
Another interesting measurement is the proportion of your income that goes to pay interest. If high (over, say, 15%), it means you're overextended and/or tied to bad deals.
Your FICO credit score is not an overall measure of financial condition. It measures whether you have made a lot of loan payments on time, and very little else.
Common mistakes in personal finance:
(1) Failing to provide for retirement. Unless your employer has a defined-benefit retirement plan,
you should start saving for retirement as soon as possible (even in your teens), using a suitable tax-sheltered
retirement account. Social Security will not support you in your old age, and by then it may not even exist.
(2) Buying too much house or too much car. Don't assume you will "grow into" a house payment that is initially too big, nor that you have to have a big, fancy, new car. It is better to have a smaller house, a more modest car, and some money left over for things you really want.
Nowadays, "too much car" is a major cause of severe financial difficulty. For some reason, the people with the lowest incomes seem to be buying the most expensive vehicles! Minimum-wage workers can't buy $40,000 cars or trucks, not even on "easy monthly payments." This isn't 1950, and a vehicle doesn't have to be new to be reliable. I can remember when some people considered a car "worn out" at 25,000 miles; today most cars are quite reliable well past 100,000 miles. A good rule of thumb is that the total value of your cars should not total more than half a year's income. It is almost always cheaper to fix a car than to replace it, given that you know the history of the car you're fixing.
(3) Spending too much on activities for your children. It's easy to get wrapped up in expensive after-school programs — gymnastics, football, soccer, music lessons — and end up with a child who expects all his time to be pre-scheduled, doesn't know himself, and can't do anything creative on his own. Be realistic. Especially beware of sales pitches that say, "This child could be a world-class performer if only you'll keep paying thousands per year for the lessons..." The key word is could. Some people have better uses for their time and money than just pursuing a one-in-a-million chance of being a superstar. Meanwhile, look for community organizations that provide valuable experiences for young people at much lower cost.
(4) Borrowing too much for college. By 2015, America will be full of people with $100,000 student loan debts and $30,000 salaries. Borrowing for college can be a good investment, but do it wisely. Spend the money on a type of education that is sure to make you employable (rather than going into a field in which only a few superstars make it), and choose a college that gives you good value for money, where you are sure to actually finish the degree. A newly established or newly upgraded mid-size state college is often a very good choice. In my opinion, your total student loans should not be more than one year's expected salary.
(One more college-related note: Don't try to trick a college into admitting you if you're only barely qualified. If you succeed, you'll get in and then flunk out! College admissions committees are not vetting you for an exclusive club — they're trying to predict whether you will pass your courses. You don't want to be the weakest student they let in. I have seen bad things happen when a student gets lots of help with his admissions essay, gets admitted to a prestigious graduate program, arrives, and can't actually do the work. Such a student has to leave with substantial student loan debt, but without a degree.)
(5) Assuming your salary will rise substantially from year to year. This is what happened during the inflationary 1970s, and it lifted people out of debt by making fixed-dollar monthly payments easier with each passing year. People thought they were really advancing in their careers, when in fact they were merely getting inflationary pay raises. Don't assume that this will continue (even if it starts up again around 2015, as some people predict).
(6) Enslaving yourself to status symbols or expensive tastes such as new cars, giant TVs, lavish vacations, etc., so that you have to overwork yourself to pay the bills. Buy only what you actually want and need, and remember that paying too much is just stupid — clearance sales, used cars, and even used clothing can give you a high standard of living for pennies on the dollar.