Terms like “budget” and “financial awareness” have struck dread in my heart for as long as I can remember. I know that the majority of my most pertinent, deeply-embedded sins are made manifest in the way that I’ve approached financial matters for the past decade of my young adult life. Many of the Whys behind my spending habits are linked with some unhealthy, unbiblical philosophy. I buy impulsively because I lack self control, and I let spontaneous emotions and desires enslave me. I buy certain things because they make me look better in others’ eyes – or in my own. I give into the idiotic “upgrade” mentality because I’m not content with what I already have. I fill holes and disappointments in my heart with items and experiences that cannot actually fix my problems.
Even further, most financial terms and concepts have seemed mysterious and incomprehensible to me. It doesn’t help that the entire topic of finance is shrouded in needless complexity, imposed shame, and intense pressure due to the questionable values Western culture is built on. We simultaneously treat money as a taboo subject while wearing the outward manifestations of our financial identities on our sleeves. Money is both a private thing and a public thing. Always show. Never tell. Flaunt your wealth (or your poverty, which is still prideful) but don’t demonstrate real transparency and authenticity. How are we supposed to learn how to manage our resources well in a world like that?
Another factor in my love-hate relationship with finances is the hopelessness and instability that characterizes the future in the eyes of the younger generations. We don’t trust the American dream. We don’t have the opportunities that everyone promised would be there. “Do what you love” turned out to be incredibly impractical. We’ve grown up observing the effects that an ever-changing economy has on people who put their trust in money and luxury.
It is objectively true that my generation’s notoriously bad approach to money has been shaped in part by the negative examples, management, and advice of former generations. But while generations are by nature interconnected – to the extent that we can never fully extract ourselves from the problems surrounding us – it doesn’t mean we are first and foremost victims of others’ wrong decisions. Even if we have been told lies and made false promises, we’re responsible for believing them and for carrying them into our own choices. An essential component of maturity is the acceptance of personal responsibility, regardless of the amount of responsibility we carry relative to someone else. Ultimately, we all inherit some sort of intangible baggage, and the only thing we can do is make the best of it or continue contributing to the problem.
Anyway, this was meant to be a more personal entry, not an essay. So in light of all that . . .
As I look back on the first year and a half of our marriage, I see how my lack of financial proficiency and prudence has hurt both myself and my tiny-but-growing family. Truth be told, it may be my biggest failure as a wife and mother thus far.
Years before meeting Devynn, I listened to everyone who told me (implicitly or explicitly) that it was my duty to step directly into college as soon as possible after high school, though I hadn’t taken much time to learn and consider all my options. Not getting a degree was not an option, it seemed, for someone who lived to conform to people’s expectations. Being a good student had been my favorite way to earn legitimacy in the eyes of family and friends through high school, and college seemed even more rewarding in that respect. So, just before I graduated from the 12th grade, before I had a driver’s license or knew how to write a check, I made an executive decision to enroll in a private university as an English major (the only program that sounded tolerable). I was immature and selfish in my determination that if I had to get a degree, I would at least control the terms and avoid as much misery as possible before I had to succumb to the corporate world. I filled out the FAFSA, set up a payment plan for the fall semester, and accepted the first of several federal loans offered in my award letter to make up the leftover balance.
When Devynn dropped out of college to build his creative portfolio and avoid incurring debt, he probably didn’t consider that he might still be saddled with student loan payments years down the road as his future wife was out making big (and bad) decisions according to her fear, emotional desperation, and plain ignorance.
I feel sick whenever I think about this.
What’s even worse is that instead of making an effort to learn and change in the early months of marriage, I fell into a season where retail therapy became my numbing drug of choice. This is an issue I never foresaw myself dealing with. Outside of my incurred debt, I always considered myself to be at least decent with money, especially compared with other people my age. I thought only wealthy people could spend money compulsively. Only within the past six months have I realized that although I’ve lingered near the poverty line for most of my life, I’ve always been enamored by the idea of owning beautiful things and having beautiful experiences. And appreciating beauty is not sinful, per se, but the reality is that I dealt with the strains that came with moving, marrying, and finishing school by distracting myself by the thrill of things and moments that came with price tags.
Subconsciously, I believed that any disappointments incurred in the major areas of my life would become bearable if I could just craft a better outward image or experience of them. If marriage was difficult or felt lonely, at least I could cry into a new throw pillow rather than an old one. If school was pushing every ounce of patience and mental fortitude I had, at least I could endure it with expensive pens and espresso drinks. I didn’t want to think about my pain or address the depravity within and around me. I wanted to trick myself into happiness, not discipline myself in joy. This reasoning became very automatic, and while I never went out for big shopping sprees and never touched the credit card, it always added up.
Each time Devynn logged into our online banking account and began questioning me about transactions, I’d break out in a cold sweat and pick nervously at my lips and nails. Ask myself, “Why are you the way that you are? Why are you so horrible? Why is this so hard for you?” Vow to do better. Repeat the cycle at the next instance of disappointment or stress.
We all have sin that continues to wreak havoc even after repentance and reconciliation is sought. My past apathy toward finances will continue to have implications on my relationship with Devynn (and many others) in the future, even as I grow and try to right what wrongs I can.
What I find remarkable and encouraging is that I’m not left to myself in this endeavor. On New Years Eve, I sat down to think about my goals and shortcomings. I distinctly remember focusing in on things like my eating habits and social media addiction. Personal reform in budgeting and paying off debt may have passed through my awareness in a few brief flashes, but I didn’t let them linger there for long. The magnitude of even a simple goal – something as nebulous as “grow in financial wisdom” or “learn to use YNAB” – felt too overwhelming to entertain.
I never made it one of my formal goals. I don’t even remember what prompted me to login to our long-untouched-but-still-active budgeting software as I sat at the library in early January. Maybe it was a YouTube vlog? A Reddit thread? The email notification for my first student loan bill? There was no great flash of motivation like what usually accompanies my obsessive self-improvement phases. I imagine someone somewhere was praying for me.
I think I spent four hours scrolling through our account, looking for patterns in bill cycles, familiarizing myself with equations and terms and technology that all seemed foreign. I typed and backspaced. I scrapped the whole thing and started over. I deleted and added categories we had created upon first setting up a budget a year ago, deciding to manipulate the features to fit what my brain needed rather than the other way around. This is what I had been afraid to do in our past failed attempts. It’s why I had abandoned the whole concept after various fits of frustration. What I needed to do all along was decide to do it imperfectly, disjointedly, for as long as it took to get on my feet and see the problems for what they were: temporary manifestations of inward heart problems.
Even since that day a few weeks ago, I’ve made some miscalculations. I’ve wanted to give up again at least once (yesterday, to be exact). I still cringe when I see how much money I’ve spent on fast food and takeout this month already. I’ve made investments now in order to save money later (switching our phone carrier, replacing our broken Moka Pot to reduce the “need” for Starbucks) and stretched things quite thin as a result, sending us both into yet another fleeting panic.
But I don’t need to despair as I once did. Why? Because the heart of these issues are not just habits; they are sins and follies I can trust God to correct in His own way and timing. I don’t need to be crushed by the pressures and false promises of self-help culture and its belief in my (nonexistent) superhuman strength.
I can grow in financial prudence without making financial stability (which is only an illusion) my refuge. We are not sovereign over the things we steward in this world. Any number of factors outside our control can doom investments and savings that seemed rock solid. We are not the authors of our own stories, detached from the realities around us, safe from the effects of living in a broken world. No amount of budgeting, couponing, career developing, meal planning, credit card shredding, or credit card spending will make us the kings and queens of our own lives . . . or give us the peace that is only available in Christ.
Earn, spend, and save to the glory of God alone. And remember this world is not our home.