April 9, 2015

Show Me the Money: Dealing with Debt

Last week I was watching a BBC documentary looking at an area in Wales where people spent the most money on beautifying themselves. The programme studied men and women spending all they had (and didn’t have) on looking good. They had personal trainers, hair extensions, fake tan, teeth whitening sessions, and one guy even spent £1000 on a tattoo! I couldn’t get my head around it. These people were rinsing their credit cards and borrowing from family members just to make themselves ‘body beautiful’.

Coupled with that, almost every second TV commercial was for pay day loans. ‘Free’ money, with no guarantor needed. We were promised cash within 15 minutes, dropped directly into our bank accounts. Of course, the (extremely) small print informed us of interest rates of 3059%! Why would anyone even consider doing that? But, lots of people do. In fact, more and more people are borrowing more and more money to get themselves out of more and more debt.

Lately, I’ve been really struck by just how much our culture is ruled by money and crippled by debt. I’ve been reading Paul Tripp's book, ‘Sex & Money’ in which he says our culture is ‘insane’ when it comes to sex and money. He discusses a level of functional dilution or self-deception about the way we think and deal with these things in our lives. So many of us are drowning in debt but somehow still manage to keep on spending money.

Of course, money is simply unavoidable. We can’t do without it. The bills always need to be paid. But, are we using it wisely, or are we spending like there is an endless pit of cash? The same TV that promotes easy pay day loans also promotes companies that promise to help us into bankruptcy as the solution to our debt issues! Insane, indeed!

Housing schemes are no different than anywhere else in the Western World. In fact, they are sometimes worse. Many of those on the lowest income can have disproportionate levels of debt. Why do we spend money we don’t have? Are we concerned about how we are perceived? I wouldn’t want anyone thinking badly of my bairns and calling them tramps. Or, I just want it. . . . The latest 70-inch smart TV is a must have. Why? Because, the 36-inch one is just not as good. The latest smartphone is required because the brick we are stuck with is just plain embarrassing. The new designer trainers to go with the 33 pairs at home.

Then there is the drug debt. Hundreds, thousands owed to different dealers spread throughout the city. People will go without food and electricity, surviving on very little just to pay their debts or to stay afloat for the next round of borrowing (chucky). This ‘buy now pay never’ thinking is deeply ingrained in our culture. Little wonder why the schemes are a happy hunting ground for loan sharks charging exorbitant interest rates that they know people cannot afford. It pays to keep people in debt. In fact, it is a very lucrative business. It’s a huge reason why many turn to crime to make quick money. Debt, it turns out, is the newest addiction town.

Ecclesiastes 5:10 “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.”

As Christians, are we any better? Or do we think our money is ours? Are we being good stewards? This has challenged me over the years in different ways. As a young Christian, tithing seemed a mammoth task. I have faced an almost endless battle of fighting between what I regard as my needs over what are my wants. Do we stand out from the world when it comes to how we deal with money? Do we look different? Are we good, godly caretakers of what the Lord gives us? I love the word ‘caretaker’ simply because it reminds me that I’m looking after something that belongs to somebody else. It’s easy to be mistaken that we have earned what is ours instead of remembering that God has given us everything we have, including our wages, our giro, and/or our child benefit.

This is something we have to model to new believers. Over the years, many of our young Christians have had serious debt problems because of their previous bad spending habits. They have been trapped in bad cycles of spending over many years. They come to us crippled by their debt, unable to see any way out. Many of them have borrowed so much money from so many different sources that they are too scare to do a real accounting for fear of how bad their problems really are. A key component of our discipleship is to help them honestly assess their finances and spending habits. We know that if they aren’t brought under control then they will be destined to remain stuck in an endless, depressing cycle. Part of being a Christian in the schemes is to model godly stewardship as best we can.

Of course, we have struggled with different aspects of this as we’ve mentored new believers. For instance, should we loan money to people? Should we run classes looking at what the Bible has to teach? Are we really helping? These are not easy questions to answer and, to be honest, we have bashed them about as a staff team for years. Obviously, we do need to help our young Christians (and many of our older ones also) look at their spending with a gospel perspective in mind.

What is required is a complete mind shift.

Biblical Principle The lie we tell ourselves
God gives us all we have and need I’ve earned it, it’s my due it, it’s mine, I can do what I like with it. . . .
Financial Giving I can’t give God what I don’t have; other things are more important
Live on a budget I’ve got money coming in next week to pay for this now so I’ll just juggle things about a bit
Save (Emergencies) I can’t afford to save so I’m not thinking about tomorrow
Keep out of unnecessary Debt (seek Godly counsel and listen) If I buy three coats in the sale, it’s like I’m getting one free so I’m actually saving money. I can afford the payments and I really can’t wait because. . . .
Be content I feel better if. . . .
Be financially accountable I’m not telling anyone my business

There is help out there if you are serious about getting your debt and spending sorted. YNAB (www.youneedabudget.com), for instance, is a great wee tool. There is also C.A.P (www.capuk.org) as well as The Citizens Advice Bureau (www.citizensadvice.org.uk). They are helpful tools that will aid those starting to deal with their debt and spending problems. But, unless these are combined with real heart change, and there is a total mind shift in line with biblical principles, then it will be hard to achieve any lasting change.

Two small things have made big impacts:

Saying NO! This has been one of the hardest words to say, especially when dealing with someone with whom you have a good relationship. There have been times when people ask me to loan them money, or be a guarantor for a loan, and I’ve said NO! Each time it has been just as difficult to say and for the other to hear. It’s hard to love well when you see someone you care about hurting. But, we need to help wisely, helping them rely on God and taking the opportunity, with compassion, to speak biblical truth into the situation.

Accountability. Really good accountability has been so helpful as we model a biblical perspective of handling money. If someone truly wants to sort their finances out with God’s help, then good accountability will give us the opportunity to ask the hard questions. We must constantly point people back to the Bible.

Matthew 6:21 “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

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