The bedroom in my first apartment was so small I think it might have actually been a closet at one time. The walls in the kitchen/living room were so thin that I often watched the same programs as my next-door neighbor just so I could sync up the voices I couldn’t help but hear with the lips on the screen. When I cooked on the stove, the smoke alarm went off — every time. And I’m not really sure how the plumbing in that building worked; I only know that the pipe running from floor to ceiling in the middle of my apartment would shake and make noise any time a toilet in the building was flushed.
I lived in that apartment because it was the right apartment for me — and by that, I mean it was the right apartment for my budget. When I graduated college, I decided that I would not be one of those twenty-somethings who accumulates so much debt that he spends his 30s and 40s digging out. But then I got my first job — and my first paycheck — and realized that would be easier said than done. I had student loans, a car payment, and the basic necessities of life to buy. Add to that my commitment to give at least 10 percent of my income to my church, and things were even tighter. But I’m here to tell you: It can be done.
A few years ago, I worked as a writer for a Christian ministry whose founder became well-known for making the Bible’s financial principles easy to understand. People would often stop me and ask me to answer their money questions — what to buy, how much to save, whether or not a certain debt would be okay. What I discovered was that, no matter the situation, most questions could be answered by paying attention to four key financial principles gleaned from the pages of Scripture.
Give to the Lord. The Bible’s most fundamental teaching about money is that everything we have really belongs to God. By giving back to God the first portion of the money we earn — either through our local church or another Gospel-centered ministry — we’re showing with our actions that we really believe that.
The Bible is clear that believers are supposed to give cheerfully, in proportion to their earnings, and regularly (2 Corinthians 9:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). It’s impossible to truly trust God with our finances if we’re not willing to be obedient in this area. When I rented that first apartment years ago, it wasn’t out of love for strange plumbing or claustrophobic sleeping arrangements; it was so I could give my first bit of income to the Lord’s work and still make ends meet at the end of the month. By giving, I was declaring myself to be a manager of God’s money, rather than an owner, and that makes the difference in every other area of life.
Save. Do you remember the Bible story about God providing His people with manna in the wilderness? It’s found in Exodus 16. The rules were simple: God would give food to His people every morning, but they were only supposed to gather enough for one day’s meals (and for two days’ meals the day before the Sabbath). If they kept any extra, it would stink and attract bugs (16:20). God was teaching His people to depend on Him for their needs.
God wants us to trust Him in the same way, but instead of providing for us a day at a time, He allows us to put some money aside. Too often, people wind up in desperate financial straits because of a medical emergency or an unforeseen expense. They wind up in a vicious cycle of debt because they didn’t have anything set aside. Saving is the way to break the cycle. Without it, we’d have nothing for when the car’s transmission fails, when it’s time to buy a house, or for when God prompts us to give generously to a family in need.
If you haven’t gotten into the habit of saving, start with a goal of $500, and then increase to $1000, then one month’s salary. Keep saving until you have three months’ salary set aside.
Avoid debt. The Bible speaks so strongly against debt, it compares borrowing money to slavery (Proverbs 22:7). Debt takes a bite out of a person’s monthly budget and doesn’t release its jaws until it’s been completely satisfied. Having debt, especially for something fleeting like credit card purchases, is like giving yourself a pay cut. The Bible never calls debt a sin, but it is unwise to accumulate debt.
If you’ve made some financial mistakes and find yourself in debt, there’s still hope. God provides for our needs, and with His help, anyone can dig out of even the tallest mountain of debt. The first step is to commit your debt to the Lord. Don’t ignore it, but instead own up to any sin or careless spending on your part. Next, make a plan for paying off the debt. Be systematic, making minimum payments on your other debts while tackling the smallest one first. Once that debt is gone, move on to the next smallest. Finally, commit to saving a portion of income each month to avoid debt in the future.
Spend Wisely. I have a confession to make. My wife, Laurin, and I are coupon geeks. It’s not uncommon for Laurin to text me a picture of her grocery receipt to show me she saved more than she spent. And every time I pull down our electric griddle to make pancakes, I smile at the fact that I paid $0.13 for it during a particularly good clearance sale.
Earning money is the offense in your financial strategy, and spending wisely is the defense. We all have expenses — we need a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear, and transportation — but no one says we need to pay full price for all these things. By spending wisely, we impact every category in our budget. We have more to give, more to save, more with which to pay off debt. Spending wisely isn’t always pretty. (Think of my first apartment.) You’ll have to decide what things you’re picky about and what things you aren’t, but everyone should make it their goal to become a master cheapskate in at least a few areas.
Why It Matters
Along with these four strategies of financial management, much could be said about hard work, wise investing, and thoughtful entrepreneurship, but there’s a danger in merely looking at strategies for financial success. We must have an end goal in mind — besides mere comfort and wealth.
Jesus once told a parable about a dishonest estate manager (Luke 16:1-9). In the story, the manager gets caught wasting his master’s money. He is soon fired, but before he is tossed out into the street, he settles accounts with everyone who owes his master money. He settles those accounts like he’s holding his very own going-out-of-business sale, slashing the amount each person owes — without his master’s permission. But the strangest thing about this parable? Jesus commends the man’s actions!
To His disciples, Jesus says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9 ESV). Jesus’ point is not that we should deal deceitfully with others or that we should scheme to our own advantage. Rather, all of our financial decisions should be made in light of the future —I n light of eternity.
Giving is not merely important because it’s the right thing to do. The end goal of saving is not just to replace the water heater when it inevitably breaks. Similarly, avoiding debt and spending wisely are only important if our money will be used for greater purposes.
When we know that our finances can be fuel used for kingdom work, every financial decision takes on greater weight. Everyone wants financial freedom, but for the follower of Jesus, that should never be the final destination. We are to seek financial freedom because to the degree we are financially free, we are free to serve the Lord. And that makes even a trip to the grocery store an eternally weighty matter.