Debt is one of the most popular topics in financial courses primarily because it’s the pain that so many people are currently dealing with. However, focusing on debt is like a sick person focusing on their symptoms and ignoring the illness. We would consider it foolish to give a person an aspirin to treat the headache they get from constantly banging their head against a wall. Similarly, debt is usually just the consequence of an unsustainable lifestyle and until we deal with the real problem, we’ll never truly eradicate the side-effects.
Lifestyle can be defined as a person’s way of living, or in financial terms, the spending habits a person has become accustomed to. These decisions could include everything from where we live, what we eat, or how we vacation to what we drive and the clothes we wear. Each of these decisions will bring with it a set of obligations that make up the cost of our particular lifestyle. We may even refer to these expenses as our “needs”. For example, when we buy a house, we need to pay the mortgage payment, tax bill and insurance premium that come with that house. Suddenly, a single decision has created a lifestyle with multiple obligations that must be paid.
Proverbs 30:8-9 is a good verse to give us a godly perspective on the desired lifestyle. It says, “…give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”
Some of us will barely have our needs met, while others will have surplus after providing for the needs of their family. Regardless of how much God entrusts to us, we all have the same goal, which is to glorify God with every opportunity.
The amount we spend on ourselves is largely dependent on the lifestyle we choose. There are two key dangers that threaten a godly lifestyle.
1. Our lifestyle costs more than our income. Unfortunately, living beyond our means has become a real problem in America. Not that many years ago it wasn’t even a possibility, but with easy access to credit, it has become a common lifestyle choice today. Here are some principles to keep in mind as we battle this danger:
· Outside of a temporary situation, such as a job loss, you can feel confident that God is not calling you to a lifestyle that costs more than your income. Philippians 4:19 says, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” We often need to step back and evaluate what we really need versus what we think we need.
· Don’t buy stuff you cannot afford. This classic Saturday Night Live skit pokes fun at what seems like common sense, but is an all-too-real struggle for so many.
· Our social circles have a big impact on our lifestyle. We often hear about people trying to keep up with the Joneses. It can manifest itself in materialistic ways where we try to buy all the same things our friends have, but it can also be simply trying to hang with them socially. The social struggles can range from eating out together to gift exchanges. Yes, I do see families struggling to keep up with the Christmas and birthday practices of their friends and family. Just remember that even if you start with the same income as your friend, but they choose to live by accumulating debt and not giving anything to their church, you will have a really tough time matching their lifestyle and may find yourself unable to do a lot of the same things.
If you find yourself struggling with a lifestyle that exceeds your income, seek counsel from a Christian friend that will help guide you. Sometimes we all need a good friend that can help ground us on the more important things in life.
2. Our lifestyle costs rise with our income. This temptation is inevitable and will trap most of us if we don’t deliberately take action to avoid it. I often talk to people nearing retirement that look back and wonder what happened to all the money they made through the years. This regret comes when they realize how much more they’re making now than they did in their early working years and yet have nothing worthwhile to show for it. Despite accumulating a lot of stuff, they aren’t any happier now and their current lifestyle requires a much greater income to support it.
John Piper says in Desiring God that “The issue is not how much a person makes. Big industry and big salaries are a fact of our times and they are not necessarily evil. The evil is in being deceived into thinking a $100,000 salary must be accompanied by a $100,000 lifestyle. God has made us to be conduits of his grace.”
I’ve worked with clients that have netted more than $100,000 every two weeks and still struggle to live paycheck to paycheck. It doesn’t matter how much you make, there will always be something else to buy. Solomon is the only person I know that pursued the fulfillment of every pleasure and ran out of desires before he ran out of money. His conclusion is found in Ecclesiastes 5:10 where he writes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income…”
If we’re not satisfied with our current lifestyle, we’ll never be content with a more expensive one either. We need to start by finding our contentment now and use our current lifestyle as a benchmark. We should then hold onto that lifestyle regardless of how much our income may go up in the future. If we can recognize that money won’t bring happiness, we will be free to use any additional income for better purposes than spending it on things that in the end won’t be a blessing anyway.
There is great freedom for those who can find their identity in Christ, but an endless yearning for those who seek it in material possessions. As Tertullian said, “Can a man be poor if he is free from want, if he does not covet the belongings of others, if he is rich in the possession of God? Rather, he is poor who possesses much but still craves for more.”
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.