A Few Thoughts on Debt Reduction


I have a little debt. Actually, depending on how you look at it, I have a LOT of debt. The past decade of my life (literally) has entailed me taking college classes, usually at ACU. So…I’ve got a nice little student loan debt sitting there staring at me. Of course someone once said that a college education is the only thing you can take a loan out for that cannot be repossessed.

We’re paying on the minivan (my wonderful little pickup is paid off!!!) and thanks to 9 months between my last church job and this one, plus plenty of doctor bills (2.75 kids), the credit card has a considerable balance as well. Thankfully, neither Rachel nor I really struggle with compulsive spending habits or expensive hobbies. We don’t eat out much and rarely go to a movie. So the credit card balance isn’t due to shoes, steaks, paintball guns or electronics…just kids, school and life’s little surprise expenses.

Why am I writing about this? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about debt lately. I’ve got some, and I don’t think it’s going to disappear this year or next. But I’m okay with that.

I have some friends who are completely opposed to debt – and I’m very glad that they’ve stayed out of it to whatever degree that they’ve been able. I hope that they continue to be blessed with the discipline and life circumstances to keep it up.

I also know several folks who, either due to unavoidable and unforeseen situations or perhaps due to poor decisions and self-control, have accrued lots of debt – and each month they’re getting further behind. And for both of these groups (those who vehemently oppose debt and those up to their eyeballs), there are some ministries that are very helpful, such as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and Crown Financial Ministries.

I’ve included the links to these ministries because I don’t want the following comments to give the impression that I’m completely against them. They’ve really helped a lot of folks escape the evil prison of debt, an oppressive and controlling beast that the Bible continually warns against.

But…

I’ve gone through both these programs and honestly I’ve not been overly pleased. Those who know me best will likely already know the most obvious problem I have. I’m not a fan of the way they develop a “Biblical model” of debt reduction or money management by taking lists of Scriptures out of context, giving little or no consideration to the cultural and economic implications to the original readers/hearers.

One thing that you’ll hear over and over in these ministries is that the Bible talks more about money than just about anything else – however, read the verses around those scripture references and you begin to see that much of the time, money isn’t really even the point.

Again, I affirm that the Bible indeed warns us against being controlled by money and debt – over and again. And many of the stories that do provide warnings where money is concerned are so much more rich and valuable than the one line, “debt is bad” object lesson gleaned through these studies.

The use of sentence fragments to develop a “Biblical” model of something is troublesome. Partly because it affirms our disconnected and self-centered use of the Holy Scriptures – we no longer approach these words with awe and mystery, meditating on and eating the words which have shaped the people of God for so many centuries. Instead we turn to our self-help book, trivia almanac or handy-dandy-problem-solver to meet our immediate need and then return it to its rightful place on the shelf.

I certainly don’t blame the folks with Dave Ramsey or Crown for creating this problem, we’ve been doing it for a long time and it is encouraged in many different areas of religious life. But while I don’t hold them responsible for causing this way of thinking, I do think that these programs encourage the continuation of an unhealthy trend where the Bible is concerned.

In addition to the contextless reading of Scripture, I have another problem with these ministries.

I don’t like to wear ties. So I don’t. Honestly, I’d much rather wear jeans and a t-shirt on Sunday morning, but I don’t do that either. Ties make me uncomfortable and I spend too much time thinking about what I’m wearing…not helpful. If I were to dress down too much at our congregation, other people would likely spend too much time thinking about what I was wearing…also not helpful.

Some folks, in an attempt to reach out to the younger generation want to transition the church dress code from suit and tie to cargo shorts and Goodwill t-shirts. But this isn’t progress. I certainly would love to see our congregations move away from the “Sunday best” fashion show, but to insist on casual clothing is just jumping out of one ditch and into another.

To me, the better goal is to see our congregations begin to move the focus off the clothes we are wearing and onto the Glory that clothes our Lord. I don’t really care if you want to wear a suit or a Dr. Pepper t-shirt; wing tips or crocs; pearls and high heels or combat boots and metal studs – as long as your goodies aren’t showing, it makes me no difference. Okay, that was actually a tangent with a purpose…

It seems that in the desire to get people out of debt now, some financial ministries are focusing on saving up wealth for retirement. (Since these programs often refer to themselves as “Biblical models,” we could go into the question of whether or not the American concept of retirement is itself a very “Biblical” concept, but I’m not going to do that here.) I am, however, wondering, if in taking this approach to financial management, we have really accomplished a release from bondage to money. It seems that our new focus is simply on having more of it – be it now or 30 years from now.

We may have changed what we’re wearing, but our focus is still on the dress code.

I’ve heard the phrase “live like no one else today and you can live like no one else tomorrow.” That’s an interesting and catchy mantra – but how appropriate is it when we’re talking about godly use of money? Is the goal to be wealthy at retirement really all that laudable? I’m not going to say it is ungodly, but let’s consider the implications.

First of all, at one of these seminars while we were still living in Dallas I heard the speaker say that he never wastes money on Chili’s. He’d rather have money to travel the country when he retires…

So during the years when my children are at home I say “no” so that I can say “yes” to my own desires after retirement? During the years that my wife is the most tired and stressed out because of the aforementioned children at home, I should say “no” to dinner out or trips to see her mom? Interesting.

If our goal is to escape the downward spiral of debt and the continual calls from collection agencies, the never ending fear of bankruptcy – by all means listen to the very practical strategies that these ministries (and others) have developed.

But if the goal is to live frugally today so that you’ll have money to spend later then I encourage you to read Luke 12:13-31 and think about the implications of simply storing our stuff so we can spend it later.

If the goal is to shake off the shackles of debt, then these ministries can certainly be of assistance. However, be careful that you don’t shake off one form of servitude to money only to take on another financial task-master. Budgets are good, but when the budget makes all your decisions for you, tell me this, has anything substantially changed?

Make no mistake, Rachel and I have a budget that we stick to as carefully as possible. We do our best not to spend beyond what we can manage – we may have to pay things off over time and that may mean that we pay a little more due to interest. But I would rather make a monthly payment on a car than worry if the thing I can afford to buy with cash is going to leave my wife and children stranded. If the issue is money paid in interest on a loan, what about money paid for parts and repair on an older vehicle? How much is safety and dependability worth?

Don’t get me wrong, we buy used cars (my truck had 40K miles when I bought it and Rachel’s van had 20K) and we do our best not to get upside down or in over our head. But I will not put my family in something cheap and unreliable now just so that I’ll be able to afford something fancy for myself when the kids are grown. (Again this is different from choosing to buy less car than you would like in order to maintain a budget – something which I strongly support.)

I drive a Ford Ranger…I don’t really want to drive a Ford Ranger, and someday I’ll have a nicer truck, I hope. If I had more money I would likely drive something less Hotwheels-ish now. But I don’t have more money, and it would be foolish of me to take on a huge car payment just so I could drive an ego-booster. So I’m certainly not making a case for young folks rushing off to buy a brand new something shiny. We should all live within our means at whatever stage of life we find ourselves. But I don’t think that the choice to avoid purchases when you’re young simply so that you can make them when you’re old can, on the basis of debt management itself, be defended as a “Biblical model.”

I want very much to pay off my debt, and God willing I will do so…eventually. We manage our spending so that we are not continually falling farther and farther behind. But when it comes to the debt we have incurred, I thank God for the blessing of credit and even credit cards. We consistently make our monthly payments on time and do our best to make considerably more than the minimum payment. Because of this we have a tremendous credit score for a young couple and a very low interest rate on our credit card.**

But more than that, I have learned a lot in my college studies…which I never would have been able to afford without loans (I know, I tried it). I enjoy our minivan which allows us to bring our kids with us when we pick up grandparents from the airport. I am glad that I didn’t have to say, “Rachel, we aren’t going to do prenatal care with this child, sorry.” Or “Micah, we are going to go home from the hospital before you are over your pneumonia because this place is too expensive.” And I especially enjoy being able to decide that regardless of whether or not we can “afford it” it is important for the boys to see their grandparents and for Rachel to get a break, so we should go to Texas for a few days every now and then. What kind of person would I be if I refused my family these trips now so that I could afford to travel when the kids moved out?

I’ve had a hard time deciding whether or not to post this. I don’t want to give people the impression that they should just spend like crazy now or that it isn’t good to stay out of debt. That isn’t the case at all. However, as usual I believe that there is wisdom to be found in avoiding extremes. Let’s do more than trade in bondage to debt for bondage to budget. Let’s avoid both immediate and delayed selfishness.

We spent some Christmas money taking the boys to the Aquarium in New Orleans today…that was so much fun. I guess we could have sent that money to the credit cards. But the memory of watching Conner feed a sting ray from his hand is worth more to me than what I would have gained otherwise. I can pay bills later, Conner is only 4 for a few more months.

A couple years ago I wrote a post about developing a theology of youth trips. Some people read that and assumed that I was attacking them personally. I want to say up front that just as I had no such intention in that post, neither do I now. I know that there are people who really love the ministries I mentioned in this post and who even teach the material. Good, great, super, I am very glad that this material has been helpful to you. I’m not calling for a boycott of the material or threatening to raise a stink. I’m simply pointing out what I believe to be a hole in the theology and implications – which we should be able to do with love and compassion for one another. May God bless us with wisdom and discernment and grace in all our dealings be they financial, relational or anything else.

**It seems that at least a few people view credit cards as a zero sum game – assuming that if you have credit card debt then you must not be able to manage your finances and are constantly missing payments, etc. I think credit cards are very helpful (mine helped me get a better interest rate on my car loan because of the credit I’ve built up.) However, that does not mean that I support or condone missing payments or being in so much debt that even making the minimum payment is difficult. If this is your situation, please get whatever credit counseling or budget strategy assistance you can. I believe that we should take very seriously the responsibility of fulfilling contractual obligations, this to me is a spiritual matter. There is a significant difference in my mind between having debt and not paying bills on time, which is where you get in trouble with credit cards.

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Posted on January 2, 2008, in debt, faith, finances, spiritual formation. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Enjoyed taking a few minutes to peruse your blog; can’t promise to be a regular; I’m already way behind on lots of other blogs I thought I could keep up with. So far, I’ve managed to stay out of debt, but I thought your ideas were good. I’m going to print this out to share with our class that is looking at a Dave Ramsey book and have already noticed some of his contradictions. In the last chapter he seemed to imply that you should aim at acquiring $10 million (he wasn’t kidding), but in the same chapter he spoke with admiration of his missionary friends who live on $10,000 / yr. So which is it?

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