In a society that hands out debt like candy at a parade, it’s easy to fall into the trap of snatching up everything we want and then going in search of more. Let’s face it, we all have wants and are constantly bombarded by messages telling us to “treat yo self”, which may even remind you of an old Parks and Recreation episode.
What’s a person to do? Buying stuff is clearly the path to happiness and we can’t let something like a lack of money stop us from being happy, can we? The part that’s missing from this story is where we have to deal with the debt and pay it back. You might even say it’s missing the reality. By the time common sense kicks in, it’s too late to undo the damage we’ve already done. The stuff we bought is likely either already gone or has been used and is now only worth a fraction of the amount we still owe on it.
Overcoming Emotional Spending
Emotions are an enemy to rational thought. I could digress here and make my point with illustrations of terrible spending decisions tied to weddings, funerals and new babies, but I’ll leave those situations alone for today. However, these emotional decisions are precisely why we need to protect ourselves by developing a process before we find ourselves at the checkout counter ready to throw down a credit card. Here’s a list of three critical questions you need to be able to answer before taking on debt for a purchase:
1. Why do I need it? Be honest with yourself. Is the reason God glorifying or is it selfish? We all have sinful hearts and need to be aware of our propensity to rationalize our materialistic desires.
2. Can I afford it? This is where we have to realize that God isn’t calling us to live a lifestyle that’s beyond our income. If we’re spending money on things we can’t afford, we’re denying reality and essentially living a lie. When our normal lifestyle depends on debt to fund it, we can be pretty sure there is a sinful motive behind our spending.
As we explore whether or not we can afford to buy something, we need to also make sure we count all the costs involved. For instance, when we decide to buy a car, the costs don’t end with the price written on the windshield. We still have to pay sales tax, buy license plates, insure it, and factor in ongoing maintenance and the price of gas it will take to drive it.
3. Have I sought counsel? Proverbs 15:22 tells us that “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed”. If we’re taking debt as seriously as we should, this step is a no-brainer for any Christian. It’s so easy to get swept up in our materialistic desires, which makes it especially tough to be objective when we consider whether or not to buy something we want. We need to surround ourselves with like-minded people that understand the dangers of debt and are willing to tell us when we’re making a bad decision. Most of us don’t take this step though because we’re afraid we’ll get an answer we don’t want to hear. There is no reason to fear getting wise counsel because the advice we get will likely be what’s better for us in the end. They may even see other alternatives that we haven’t considered.
Alternatives to Debt
As we pause before taking on debt, we also need to explore what other alternatives might exist. Here are a few possible ways to consider avoiding debt.
· Cut back on other spending – Start by looking at your discretionary spending and cutting back on the things you can do without in order to save up for your need.
· Earn additional income – Adding additional income will reduce the need for debt. Just make sure you’re not sacrificing too much valuable family time. It should only be for a short season.
· Sell something – Most of us have something of value that we wouldn’t miss too much. Consider turning that item into cash.
· Do it cheaper – A few years ago, I purchased a truck for thousands less than it was really worth because of a dent in the rear panel. Just over $300 later, you couldn’t even tell where it had been and I had the truck I wanted for much less than I would’ve had to pay for one in good condition.
· Wait – Save up the money to make the purchase with cash in a few months or even years. Proverbs 19:11 says “a person’s wisdom yields patience”. Patience protects us from making spontaneous, impulsive decisions that we may later regret. It gives us time to do research, pray and seek counsel. Waiting also gives us the opportunity to save up and either avoid debt or come up with a larger down payment. In the end, patience gives God the opportunity to act and provide us with the things we really need.
We need to be both wise and careful as we navigate this world. We are constantly bombarded by messages that are trying to sell us something. The people behind those messages are wise as serpents and know exactly what buttons to push to move us to action. That’s why it’s essential to have a process in place that will protect us when that emotional and tempting moment strikes. By doing nothing more than stepping back and answering these questions, you will give yourself enough time to settle emotions and evaluate the wisdom of the debt decision.
Brad Graber, CFP® has been working with clients on personal financial planning and investment issues since 1996. He invests his time mentoring and educating individuals on ways to be better stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them.